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“The Wall Street That Cried Wolf”: Banks Complain About Onerous New Regulations While Reaping Record Profits

The headlines have been nothing short of dazzling: “Bank of America profits soar“; “Citigroup’s profits surge“;  “Bank boom continues: Goldman Sachs profit doubles.” In fact, the six biggest Wall Street banks – Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Morgan Stanley  – all beat their profit expectations in the most recent quarter, according to results announced over the last week. JP Morgan Chase is even on pace to make $25 billion (yes, billion with a b) this year.

If you’re thinking that these numbers don’t at all square with the ominous warnings of bank executives and lobbyists, who have been saying non-stop that new regulations meant to safeguard the financial system and prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis are going to irreparably harm their ability to do business, you’re right. But that hasn’t stopped the banks’ griping.

The latest iteration of this argument played out after regulators recently announced new rules regarding bank capital – the financial cushion banks must keep on hand to guard against a downturn. Failed presidential candidate turned bank lobbyist Tim Pawlenty, for instance, said that the new rules “will make it harder for banks to lend and keep the economic recovery going.” JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who has been scaremongering for years about various regulations, warned that the new rules would put U.S. banks at a competitive disadvantage with foreign lenders.

But this same dynamic has been playing out since the Dodd-Frank financial reform law was signed by President Obama in 2010. Banks and their allies complain about onerous new regulations, while at the same time reaping record profits.

And as the New Yorker’s John Cassidy explained, those profits are due to many of the same practices that helped cause the 2008 debacle in the first place: “an emphasis on trading rather than lending, a high degree of leverage, and implicit subsidies from the taxpayer.” That would seem to make the case that new regulations, rather than going too far, have not gone far enough.

Perhaps that’s why banks haven’t been crowing about their new avalanche of profits, and Dimon is even warning about an upcoming profit squeeze. As the Financial Times’ U.S. banking editor Tom Braithwaite explains:

In the next 12 months the Fed will hit the banks with a new flurry of measures. … Those are coming, they are serious and the banks fear them. There is an outside chance that lawmakers will go even further, such as by restoring the split between investment banking and commercial banking known as Glass-Steagall. There is still plenty to play for in deciding how painful the next round of regulations will be.

But, with every earnings season, warnings of calamity look more and more hollow.

One of the major knocks against Dodd-Frank – beyond the obvious one that it left the biggest banks even bigger than they were before the financial crisis – is that it left too much discretion to regulators to write new rules. Corporations and trade organizations familiar with how the agency rule-writing process works are almost inevitably going to have the upper hand in such a system.  And there are still so many rules left to be written – some 60 percent, according to the law firm Davis Polk – that Wall Street will have ample opportunity to water the law down to meaninglessness.

But it’s hard to keep saying with a straight face that new regulations will spell doom for the industry when the new rules that are in place so far, which were accompanied by similarly dire warnings, have done nothing to even dent Wall Street’s bottom line. In fact, the huge pile of profits may be the best thing that could have happened for those trying to bring a modicum of sanity back to Wall Street regulation.

 

By: Pat Garofalo, U. S. News and World Report, July 18, 2013

July 19, 2013 Posted by | Big Banks, Financial Institutions | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Why We Regulate”: The Arrogance Of Wall Street And The Lessons Of History

One of the characters in the classic 1939 film “Stagecoach” is a banker named Gatewood who lectures his captive audience on the evils of big government, especially bank regulation — “As if we bankers don’t know how to run our own banks!” he exclaims. As the film progresses, we learn that Gatewood is in fact skipping town with a satchel full of embezzled cash.

As far as we know, Jamie Dimon, the chairman and C.E.O. of JPMorgan Chase, isn’t planning anything similar. He has, however, been fond of giving Gatewood-like speeches about how he and his colleagues know what they’re doing, and don’t need the government looking over their shoulders. So there’s a large heap of poetic justice — and a major policy lesson — in JPMorgan’s shock announcement that it somehow managed to lose $2 billion in a failed bit of financial wheeling-dealing.

Just to be clear, businessmen are human — although the lords of finance have a tendency to forget that — and they make money-losing mistakes all the time. That in itself is no reason for the government to get involved. But banks are special, because the risks they take are borne, in large part, by taxpayers and the economy as a whole. And what JPMorgan has just demonstrated is that even supposedly smart bankers must be sharply limited in the kinds of risk they’re allowed to take on.

Why, exactly, are banks special? Because history tells us that banking is and always has been subject to occasional destructive “panics,” which can wreak havoc with the economy as a whole. Current right-wing mythology has it that bad banking is always the result of government intervention, whether from the Federal Reserve or meddling liberals in Congress. In fact, however, Gilded Age America — a land with minimal government and no Fed — was subject to panics roughly once every six years. And some of these panics inflicted major economic losses.

So what can be done? In the 1930s, after the mother of all banking panics, we arrived at a workable solution, involving both guarantees and oversight. On one side, the scope for panic was limited via government-backed deposit insurance; on the other, banks were subject to regulations intended to keep them from abusing the privileged status they derived from deposit insurance, which is in effect a government guarantee of their debts. Most notably, banks with government-guaranteed deposits weren’t allowed to engage in the often risky speculation characteristic of investment banks like Lehman Brothers.

This system gave us half a century of relative financial stability. Eventually, however, the lessons of history were forgotten. New forms of banking without government guarantees proliferated, while both conventional and newfangled banks were allowed to take on ever-greater risks. Sure enough, we eventually suffered the 21st-century version of a Gilded Age banking panic, with terrible consequences.

It’s clear, then, that we need to restore the sorts of safeguards that gave us a couple of generations without major banking panics. It’s clear, that is, to everyone except bankers and the politicians they bankroll — for now that they have been bailed out, the bankers would of course like to go back to business as usual. Did I mention that Wall Street is giving vast sums to Mitt Romney, who has promised to repeal recent financial reforms?

Enter Mr. Dimon. JPMorgan, to its — and his — credit, managed to avoid many of the bad investments that brought other banks to their knees. This apparent demonstration of prudence has made Mr. Dimon the point man in Wall Street’s fight to delay, water down and/or repeal financial reform. He has been particularly vocal in his opposition to the so-called Volcker Rule, which would prevent banks with government-guaranteed deposits from engaging in “proprietary trading,” basically speculating with depositors’ money. Just trust us, the JPMorgan chief has in effect been saying; everything’s under control.

Apparently not.

What did JPMorgan actually do? As far as we can tell, it used the market for derivatives — complex financial instruments — to make a huge bet on the safety of corporate debt, something like the bets that the insurer A.I.G. made on housing debt a few years ago. The key point is not that the bet went bad; it is that institutions playing a key role in the financial system have no business making such bets, least of all when those institutions are backed by taxpayer guarantees.

For the moment Mr. Dimon seems chastened, even admitting that maybe the proponents of stronger regulation have a point. It probably won’t last; I expect Wall Street to be back to its usual arrogance within weeks if not days.

But the truth is that we’ve just seen an object demonstration of why Wall Street does, in fact, need to be regulated. Thank you, Mr. Dimon.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 13, 2012

May 16, 2012 Posted by | Financial Crisis | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Exceptions, Exemptions And Loopholes”: How J.P. Morgan Chase Has Made The Case For Breaking Up The Big Banks

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., the nation’s largest bank, whose chief executive, Jamie Dimon, has lead Wall Street’s war against regulation, announced Thursday it had lost $2 billion in trades over the past six weeks and could face an additional $1 billion of losses, due to excessively risky bets.

The bets were “poorly executed” and “poorly monitored,” said Dimon, a result of “many errors, “sloppiness,” and “bad judgment.” But not to worry. “We will admit it, we will fix it and move on.”

Move on? Word on the Street is that J.P. Morgan’s exposure is so large that it can’t dump these bad bets without affecting the market and losing even more money. And given its mammoth size and interlinked connections with every other financial institution, anything that shakes J.P. Morgan is likely to rock the rest of the Street.

Ever since the start of the banking crisis in 2008, Dimon has been arguing that more government regulation of Wall Street is unnecessary. Last year he vehemently and loudly opposed the so-called Volcker rule, itself a watered-down version of the old Glass-Steagall Act that used to separate commercial from investment banking before it was repealed in 1999, saying it would unnecessarily impinge on derivative trading (the lucrative practice of making bets on bets) and hedging (using some bets to offset the risks of other bets).

Dimon argued that the financial system could be trusted; that the near-meltdown of 2008 was a perfect storm that would never happen again.

Since then, J.P. Morgan’s lobbyists and lawyers have done everything in their power to eviscerate the Volcker rule — creating exceptions, exemptions, and loopholes that effectively allow any big bank to go on doing most of the derivative trading it was doing before the near-meltdown.

And now — only a few years after the banking crisis that forced American taxpayers to bail out the Street, caused home values to plunge by more than 30 percent and pushed millions of homeowners underwater, threaten or diminish the savings of millions more, and send the entire American economy hurtling into the worst downturn since the Great Depression — J.P. Morgan Chase recapitulates the whole debacle with the same kind of errors, sloppiness, bad judgment, excessively risky trades poorly-executed and poorly-monitored, that caused the crisis in the first place.

In light of all this, Jamie Dimon’s promise that J.P. Morgan will “fix it and move on” is not reassuring.

The losses here had been mounting for at least six weeks, according to Morgan. Where was the new transparency that’s supposed to allow regulators to catch these things before they get out of hand?

Several weeks ago there were rumors about a London-based Morgan trader making huge high-stakes bets, causing excessive volatility in derivatives markets. When asked about it then, Dimon called it “a complete tempest in a teapot.” Using the same argument he has used to fend off regulation of derivatives, he told investors that “every bank has a major portfolio” and “in those portfolios you make investments that you think are wise to offset your exposures.”

Let’s hope Morgan’s losses don’t turn into another crisis of confidence and they don’t spread to the rest of the financial sector.

But let’s also stop hoping Wall Street will mend itself. What just happened at J.P. Morgan – along with its leader’s cavalier dismissal followed by lame reassurance – reveals how fragile and opaque the banking system continues to be, why Glass-Steagall must be resurrected, and why the Dallas Fed’s recent recommendation that Wall Street’s giant banks be broken up should be heeded.

 

By: Robert Reich, Robert Reich Blog, May 10, 2012

May 11, 2012 Posted by | Banks | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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