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Call Him The Dimon Dog

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November 16, 2009

It seems as though once an individual rises to a significant level of influence and authority, that person becomes “too big for straight talk”.  We’ve seen it happen with politicians, prominent business people and others caught-up in the “leadership” racket.  Influential people are well aware of the unforeseen consequences resulting from a candid, direct response to a simple question.  Mindful of those hazards, a rhetorical technique employing equivocation, qualification and obfuscation is cultivated in order to avoid responsibility for what could eventually become exposed as a brain fart.

Since last year’s financial crisis began, we have heard plenty of debate over the concept of “too big to fail” —  the idea that a bank is so large and interconnected with other important financial institutions that its failure could pose a threat to the entire financial system.  Recent efforts at financial reform have targeted the “too big to fail” (TBTF) concept, with differing approaches toward downsizing or breaking up those institutions with “systemic risk” potential.  Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner was the first to use doublespeak as a weapon against those attempting to eliminate TBTF status.  When he testified before the House Financial Services Committee on September 23 to explain his planned financial reform agenda, Geithner attempted to create the illusion that his plan would resolve the “too big to fail” problem:

First, we cannot allow firms to reap the benefits of explicit or implicit government subsidies without very strong government oversight.  We must substantially reduce the moral hazard created by the perception that these subsidies exist; address their corrosive effects on market discipline; and minimize their encouragement of risk-taking.

So, in other words … the government subsidies to those institutions will continue, but only if the recipients get “very strong government oversight”.  In his next sentence, Geithner expressed his belief that the moral hazard was created “by the perception that these subsidies exist” rather than the FACT that they exist.  At a subsequent House Financial Services Committee hearing on October 29, Geithner again tried to trick his audience into believing that the administration’s latest reform plan was opposed to TBTF status.  As Jim Kuhnhenn and Anne Flaherty reported for The Huffington Post, representatives from both sides of the isle saw right through Geithner’s smokescreen:

Others argue that by singling out financial firms important to the economy, the government could inevitably set itself up to bail them out, and that even dismantling rather than rescuing them would take taxpayer money.

“Apparently, the ‘too big to fail’ model is too hard to kill,” quipped Republican Rep. Ed Royce of California.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., called the bill “TARP on steroids,” referring to the government’s $700 billion Wall Street rescue fund.

On Friday the 13th, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, stole the spotlight in this debate with an opinion piece published by The Washington Post.  Dimon pretended to be opposed to the TBTF concept and quoted from his fellow double-talker, Turbo Tim.  Dimon then made this assertion:  “The term ‘too big to fail’ must be excised from our vocabulary.”  He followed with the qualification that ending TBTF “does not mean that we must somehow cap the size of financial-services firms.”  Dimon proceeded to argue against the creation of “artificial limits” on the size of financial institutions.  In other words:  Dimon would like to see Congress enact a law that could never be applied because it would contain no metric for its own applicability.

Criticism of Dimon’s Washington Post piece was immediate and widespread, especially considering the fact that his own JP Morgan is a TBTF All Star.  David Weidner explained it for MarketWatch this way:

In other words, Dimon favors a regulatory system for unwinding failing institutions — he believes no bank should be too big to fail — but doesn’t seem to like the global effort, endorsed by the G-20, to encourage smaller, less-connected institutions.  He wants to let big institutions be big.

The best criticism of Dimon’s article came from my blogging buddy, Adrienne Gonzalez, a/k/a  Jr Deputy Accountant.  She pointed out that the report for the first quarter of 2009 by the Office of the Currency Comptroller revealed that JP Morgan Chase holds 81 trillion dollars’ worth of derivatives contracts, putting it in first place on the OCC list of what she called “derivatives offenders”.  After quoting the passage in Dimon’s piece concerning the procedure for winding-down “a large financial institution”, Adrienne made this point:

Interesting and a great read but useless in practical application.  Does Dimon really believe this?  With $81 TRILLION in notional derivatives exposure, I don’t see how an FDIC for investment banks could possibly unwind such a tangled mess in an orderly fashion.  He’s joking, right?

For an interesting portrayal of The Dimon Dog, you might want to take a look at an article by Paul Barrett, entitled “I, Banker”.   It was actually a book review Barrett wrote for The New York Times concerning a biography of Dimon by Duff McDonald, entitled The Last Man Standing.  I haven’t read the book and after reading Barrett’s review, I have no intention of doing so — since Barrett made the book appear to be the work of a fawning sycophant in awe of Dimon.  In criticizing the book, Paul Barrett gave us some of his own useful insights about Dimon:

The Dimon of  “Last Man Standing” emerges as a brilliant but flawed winner, one whose long and psychologically tangled apprenticeship to another legendary money man, Sanford Weill, helped lay the groundwork for the crisis of 2008.  In recent days, Dimon’s conduct suggests he is someone who puts the interests of his company ahead of those of society at large, which will be surprising only to those who naively look to modern Wall Street for statesmanship.

*   *   *

JPMorgan under Dimon’s leadership allowed home buyers to borrow without having to prove their income.  The bank did business with sleazy mortgage brokers who would lend to anyone with a heartbeat.  These habits ended only in 2008, when it was too late.  McDonald lauds Dimon for cleverly unloading huge volumes of the toxic subprime mortgages JPMorgan originated.  But that’s like praising a corporate polluter for trucking his poisonous sludge into the next state.  It doesn’t solve the problem; it merely moves it elsewhere.

Paul Barrett’s book review gave us a useful perspective on The Dimon Dog’s support of the administration’s financial reform agenda:

McDonald notes that the C.E.O. publicly endorses certain financial regulatory changes proposed by the Obama administration.  But critics point out that lobbyists employed by “Dimon and his team are actually stonewalling derivatives reform in order to protect the outsize margins the business generates” for JPMorgan.  The derivatives in question include “credit default swaps,” transactions akin to insurance policies that lenders can buy to buffer against loans that go bad.  In the wrong hands, credit derivatives become a form of gambling that can lead to ruin.  They need to be checked, and Dimon’s self-interested resistance isn’t helping matters.

Dimon may be the best of his breed, but when it comes to public-spirited leaders, today’s Wall Street isn’t a promising recruiting ground.

Well said!



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