J.P. Morgan was recently socked in the wallet by financial regulators who levied yet another multi-billion-dollar fine against the Wall Street baron for massive illegalities.
Well, not a fine against John Pierpont Morgan, the man. This 19th-century robber baron was born to a great banking fortune and, by hook and crook, leveraged it to become the “King of American Finance.” During the Gilded Age, Morgan cornered the U.S. financial markets, gained monopoly ownership of railroads, amassed a vast supply of the nation’s gold and used his investment power to create U.S. Steel and take control of that market.
From his earliest days in high finance, Morgan was a hustler who often traded on the shady side. In the Civil War, for example, his family bought his way out of military duty, but he saw another way to serve. Himself, that is. Morgan bought defective rifles for $3.50 each and sold them to a Union general for $22 each. The rifles blew off soldiers’ thumbs, but Morgan pleaded ignorance, and government investigators graciously absolved the young, wealthy, well-connected financier of any fault.
That seems to have set a pattern for his lifetime of antitrust violations, union busting and other over-the-edge profiteering practices. He drew numerous official charges — but of course, he never did any jail time.
Moving the clock forward, we come to JPMorgan Chase, today’s financial powerhouse bearing J.P.’s name. The bank also inherited his pattern of committing multiple illegalities — and walking away scot-free.
Oh, sure, the bank was hit with big fines, but not a single one of the top bankers who committed gross wrongdoings were charged or even fired — much less sent to jail.
With this long history of crime-does-pay for America’s largest Wall Street empire, you have to wonder why Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan’s CEO, is so P.O.’d. He’s fed up to the tippy-top of his $100 haircut with all of this populist attitude that’s sweeping the country, and he’s not going to take it anymore!
Dimon recently bleated to reporters that “banks are under assault.” Well, he really doesn’t mean or care about most banks — just his bank. Government regulators, snarls Jamie, are pandering to grassroots populist anger at Wall Street excesses by squeezing the life out of the JP Morgan casino.
But wait — didn’t JPMorgan score a $22 billion profit last year, a 20 percent increase over 2013 and the highest in its history? And didn’t those Big Bad Oppressive Government Regulators provide a $25 billion taxpayer bailout in 2008 to save Jamie’s conglomerate from its own reckless excess? And isn’t his Wall Street Highness raking in some $20 million in personal pay to suffer the indignity of this “assault” on his bank. Yes, yes and yes.
Still, Jamie says that regulators and bank industry analysts are piling on JPMorgan Chase: “In the old days,” he whined, “you dealt with one regulator when you had an issue. Now it’s five or six. You should all ask the question about how American that is,” the $20-million-a-year man lectured reporters, “how fair that is.”
Well, golly, one reason Chase has half a dozen regulators on its case is because it doesn’t have “an issue” of illegality, but beaucoup illegalities, including deceiving its own investors, cheating more than two million of its credit card customers, gaming the rules to overcharge electricity users in California and the Midwest, overcharging active-duty military families on their mortgages, illegally foreclosing on troubled homeowners and… well, so much more.
So Jamie, you should ask yourself the question about “how fair” is all of the above. Then you should shut up, count your millions and be grateful you’re not in jail.
From John Pierpont Morgan to Jamie Dimon, the legacy continues. Banks don’t commit crimes. Bankers do. And they won’t ever stop if they don’t have to pay for their crimes.
By: Jim Hightower, The National Memo, January 28, 2015
This is unlikely to prompt anyone to break out the bubbly in the Oval Office, but last week’s poll numbers are nevertheless good news for President Obama. Since Democrats were thrashed in November’s midterm elections, the president’s approval ratings have been on the upswing.
As he prepares to deliver his sixth State of the Union address on Jan. 20, Obama’s approval has crept up to 47 percent, according to a new survey from Pew Research. That’s up 5 points since December.
Most analysts believe Obama’s recovering fortunes are the result of a much-improved economy — the one gauge that’s reliably important to voters. It’s taken a few years, but average workers are finally beginning to put the Great Recession behind them.
Take note of this now. Keep it in a spare file in your memory bank. Remember that the economy has been advancing for the six years of Obama’s tenure — a frustratingly slow process that is finally bearing fruit. The unemployment rate is now at 5.6 percent, the lowest since 2008. Foreclosures are down to pre-recession levels. The stock market is in historically high territory.
Why do I want you to remember this? In a stunning show of chutzpah, the president’s harshest critics, the hyper-conservatives who’ve done everything they could to wreck his presidency, want to take credit for the recovery they tried to sabotage.
Just take a look at the speech Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell gave on the day he took the helm of the Senate as the new majority leader.
“After so many years of sluggish growth, we’re finally starting to see some economic data that can provide a glimmer of hope. The uptick appears to coincide with the biggest political change of the Obama administration’s long tenure in Washington: the expectation of a new Republican Congress,” he said.
According to his logic, consumers spent more money and businesses hired more workers starting back in the summer because they expected Republicans to win a majority in Congress. That’s nonsense.
Obama inherited a mess from George W. Bush — a financial crisis brought on by the excesses of Wall Street. President Bush started the bailout, but most of the work was left for the Obama administration. Obama continued the Wall Street bailout, passed a massive stimulus package and rescued the auto industry. Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, fought him every step of the way. That the economy has bounced back anyway is testament to its underlying resiliency.
Perhaps the greatest driver of consumers’ new optimism is the free-fall in gas prices, which haven’t been this low since the Great Recession drove down demand worldwide. Obama didn’t spur the investment in domestic oil drilling, but he has encouraged it, noting that it would help to free us from a dependence on foreign oil.
None of these hard-won gains have come a moment too soon. And, yes, there’s still much work to be done to revive the American middle class. The growing gap between the comfortable and everybody else remains one of the biggest threats to domestic tranquility. Wages are still stagnant.
Obama is well aware of that. In his State of the Union speech, he is expected to announce an ambitious new proposal to provide free access to the nation’s two-year community colleges. It’s an excellent plan.
Education experts say there are about 8 million community college students, and their average annual tuition is around $3,800. To the comfortable classes, that might not seem like much. But it presents a barrier to many working-class students trying to change their circumstances. It’s an investment that the nation can afford to make — and should make.
But like the other proposals the president has made to boost the economy, this one is likely to meet resistance from the Republicans in Congress. They want to take credit when things go well, but they’re only too willing to block a good idea if it comes from Obama.
By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, January 17, 2015
“Betraying His Ignorance”: Mitch McConnell Blames The Slow Recovery On Regulation Because He Doesn’t Understand How The Economy Works
On CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that Republicans in the 114th Congress will focus on blocking environmental and healthcare regulations: “We need to do everything we can to try to rein in the regulatory onslaught, which is the principal reason that we haven’t had the kind of bounce-back after the 2008 recession that you would expect.” But that is exactly the wrong lesson to take from the slow recovery. Rather than laying the foundation for the GOP’s agenda, McConnell is betraying his ignorance on economic issues.
After the financial crisis struck, consumers cut back on their spending and businesses stopped investing. This created a shortfall in aggregate demand—people weren’t buying enough stuff. As consumers stopped buying goods and services, businesses were forced to fire workers, who then cut back their purchases—a vicious cycle. The government’s role is to fill the shortfall in demand, which it can do either through fiscal or monetary stimulus. We’ve done both in the past few years. The stimulus pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy through targeted tax cuts and spending programs. The Federal Reserve cut short-term interest rates to zero to spur investment and used unconventional monetary policy tools like large-scale asset purchases to lower long-term rates. All of this helped avoid a second Great Depression. In fact, as Paul Krugman explained in Rolling Stone in October, the current recovery is actually above average compared to recoveries from past financial crises.
It’s understandable that McConnell would think that this recovery has undershot expectations. Economic growth has been slow and wages haven’t rebounded for the majority of Americans. In fact, only recently—more than six years after the Great Recession—have Americans become more upbeat about the recovery. In other words, this recovery may be above average, but that doesn’t mean it’s been good.
McConnell’s real sin Sunday was his belief that “regulatory onslaught” has been the “principal reason” for the slow recovery. Republicans have made this argument throughout the Obama presidency. If we would only cut government spending, eliminate red tape, and cut taxes for the rich, they say, the economy would thrive. The problem is that these are all supply-side solutions intended to increase productivity and prevent government from crowding out investment. Yet, the economy has faced a demand problem. The GOP’s job agenda, or what they call a jobs agenda anyway, does little to address it.
That doesn’t mean that their agenda will always be unresponsive to the economy’s issues. As the recovery continues and the economy nears full employment, the demand problems will be much less of an issue. Then, Republican supply-side proposals will look more like a legitimate plan to boost growth. Those ideas still may not make sense for other reasons, but at least they could be considered an actual economic platform. Throughout the Obama presidency, though, they have failed to offer such a platform. By suggesting that excessive regulations are the primary driver of the weak recovery, McConnell is only revealing that the GOP hasn’t learned anything during that time either.
By: Danny Vinik, The New Republic, January 10, 2015
A government shutdown once again loomed, and familiar deadlines and ultimatums flew around Washington. And Congress just used the threat to loosen the rules created in the wake of the financial crisis, a victory for Wall Street banks in their constant and well-funded campaign against reform.
The rules they have targeted are designed to reduce the risk of another financial meltdown, like the one that drove us into the Great Recession and could have been much worse. Though the repeal has been styled by some as a technical amendment, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Think about the best way to decide legislative policy in the devilishly complex and risk-laden area of derivatives. These are the financial contracts that brought down AIG, the event that triggered the crisis. You might imagine careful deliberation and debate, leading to a thoughtful vote in Congress in which elected representatives must stand up and be counted so that they could be held responsible for a difficult decision.
Of course, that is not how the House of Representatives works, especially not the current lame duck version. A 1,600 page Omnibus Spending Bill appeared Tuesday night and passed the House late on Thursday night. We have become familiar with these spending bills that have replaced reasoned budgeting and serially risk shutdowns just so the administration can be bullied every few months.
This time around, House sponsors attached a provision amending the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. They did this in the dead of night and at the last minute. Lobbyists, who are paid to make certain that the banks can continue to do as much risky business as possible despite the new regulatory regime, pushed to have a provision repealing the “swaps push-out” section of Dodd-Frank slipped into the spending bill so that any resistance to the repeal would risk another shutdown. Citigroup lobbyists wrote 70 out of 85 lines of the original bill.
That’s Washington style representative democracy for you.
The swaps push-out provision requires banks to transact their swaps business in separate subsidiaries. The concept is that any bank swaps business should be done outside the bank itself, which is backed by FDIC deposit insurance and the many supports provided by the Federal Reserve.
Swaps are complex derivatives contracts requiring payments in the future that change as markets prices for stocks, bonds, oil and many other traded assets change. Thus, they create large and volatile financial obligations going back and forth between a bank and its contract “counterparty,” either a company (like AIG), a government or another bank.
Counterparties to the banks who rely on the banks’ performance of its obligations can rely on these federal supports and can assume that the government will step in if a problem occurs. This can embroil the government in any bank default making a bailout more likely, good news for bank creditors like the swap counterparties. To avoid this, the swaps push-out requires a separate corporation, not entitled to the federal supports, to create a firewall, insulating taxpayers from the riskiest trading.
Though swaps were regulated in Dodd-Frank, there were plenty of loopholes, so a great deal of that business will go forward just as before. The swaps push-out section now under threat was already watered down in the original Dodd-Frank deliberations. Nonetheless, it still provides important protection. With swaps push-out, there’s some possibility that the federal government wouldn’t be dragged into a bank default because of the bank safety net.
But members of Congress, urged on by big money from Wall Street, decided that this sensible buffer between casino-like derivatives trading and the American taxpayer was such a bad idea that it had to be discarded through surreptitious and disguised means.
The banks have been out to kill the swaps push-out from the beginning. That makes sense for them since the capital needed to back a subsidiary would cost them more than their basic capital. Banks can raise general capital cheaply since investors have learned that failure is not a concern for banks that are too-big-to-fail. Capital funding for a subsidiary that is separated from this safety net is more costly because a bail out is less likely.
The banks also got some of their customers who often enter into swaps with the banks to urge repeal. The customers complained that their swaps would cost more. Of course they would, since the bank subsidiary’s capital backing the swaps would cost more. But the customers, as contract counterparties, have been relying on the too-big-to-fail safety net. Like investors in the banks, these customers simply should not benefit from a pipeline to the American taxpayers. Any additional cost is an element of elimination of that benefit, nothing more.
In Washington, banks have been allowed to set the terms of the regulatory debate. The financial crisis provides many lessons, but one of its central was that allowing banks free reign leads to disastrous results for all Americans. Six years after the onset of the financial crisis, it’s too soon to forget that lesson and revive too-big-to-fail.
By: Wallace Turbeville, The American Prospect, December 12, 2014
Six years ago the Federal Reserve hit rock bottom. It had been cutting the federal funds rate, the interest rate it uses to steer the economy, more or less frantically in an unsuccessful attempt to get ahead of the recession and financial crisis. But it eventually reached the point where it could cut no more, because interest rates can’t go below zero. On Dec. 16, 2008, the Fed set its interest target between 0 and 0.25 percent, where it remains to this day.
The fact that we’ve spent six years at the so-called zero lower bound is amazing and depressing. What’s even more amazing and depressing, if you ask me, is how slow our economic discourse has been to catch up with the new reality. Everything changes when the economy is at rock bottom — or, to use the term of art, in a liquidity trap (don’t ask). But for the longest time, nobody with the power to shape policy would believe it.
What do I mean by saying that everything changes? As I wrote way back when, in a rock-bottom economy “the usual rules of economic policy no longer apply: virtue becomes vice, caution is risky and prudence is folly.” Government spending doesn’t compete with private investment — it actually promotes business spending. Central bankers, who normally cultivate an image as stern inflation-fighters, need to do the exact opposite, convincing markets and investors that they will push inflation up. “Structural reform,” which usually means making it easier to cut wages, is more likely to destroy jobs than create them.
This may all sound wild and radical, but it isn’t. In fact, it’s what mainstream economic analysis says will happen once interest rates hit zero. And it’s also what history tells us. If you paid attention to the lessons of post-bubble Japan, or for that matter the U.S. economy in the 1930s, you were more or less ready for the looking-glass world of economic policy we’ve lived in since 2008.
But as I said, nobody would believe it. By and large, policy makers and Very Serious People in general went with gut feelings rather than careful economic analysis. Yes, they sometimes found credentialed economists to back their positions, but they used these economists the way a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support, not for illumination. And what the guts of these serious people have told them, year after year, is to fear — and do — exactly the wrong things.
Thus we were told again and again that budget deficits were our most pressing economic problem, that interest rates would soar any day now unless we imposed harsh fiscal austerity. I could have told you that this was foolish, and in fact I did, and sure enough, the predicted interest rate spike never happened — but demands that we cut government spending now, now, now have cost millions of jobs and deeply damaged our infrastructure.
We were also told repeatedly that printing money — not what the Fed was actually doing, but never mind — would lead to “currency debasement and inflation.” The Fed, to its credit, stood up to this pressure, but other central banks didn’t. The European Central Bank, in particular, raised rates in 2011 to head off a nonexistent inflationary threat. It eventually reversed course but has never gotten things back on track. At this point European inflation is far below the official target of 2 percent, and the Continent is flirting with outright deflation.
But are these bad calls just water under the bridge? Isn’t the era of rock-bottom economics just about over? Don’t count on it.
It’s true that with the U.S. unemployment rate dropping, most analysts expect the Fed to raise interest rates sometime next year. But inflation is low, wages are weak, and the Fed seems to realize that raising rates too soon would be disastrous. Meanwhile, Europe looks further than ever from economic liftoff, while Japan is still struggling to escape from deflation. Oh, and China, which is starting to remind some of us of Japan in the late 1980s, could join the rock-bottom club sooner than you think.
So the counterintuitive realities of economic policy at the zero lower bound are likely to remain relevant for a long time to come, which makes it crucial that influential people understand those realities. Unfortunately, too many still don’t; one of the most striking aspects of economic debate in recent years has been the extent to which those whose economic doctrines have failed the reality test refuse to admit error, let alone learn from it. The intellectual leaders of the new majority in Congress still insist that we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel; German officials still insist that the problem is that debtors haven’t suffered enough.
This bodes ill for the future. What people in power don’t know, or worse what they think they know but isn’t so, can very definitely hurt us.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, November 23, 2014