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Dumping On The Dimon Dog

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The Dimon Dog has been eating crow for the past few days, following a very public humiliation.  The outspoken critic of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act found himself explaining a $2 billion loss sustained by his firm, JPMorgan Chase, as a result of involvement in the very type of activity the Act’s “Volcker Rule” was intended to prevent.  Financial industry lobbyists have been busy, frustrating regulatory attempts to implement Dodd-Frank’s provisions which call for stricter regulation of securities trading and transactions involving derivatives.  Appropriately enough, it was an irresponsible derivatives trading strategy which put Jamie Dimon on the hot seat.  The widespread criticism resulting from this episode was best described by Lizzie O’Leary (@lizzieohreally) with a single-word tweet:  Dimonfreude.

The incident in question involved a risky bet made by a London-based trader named Bruno Iksil – nicknamed “The London Whale” – who works in JP Morgan’s Chief Investment Office, or CIO.  An easy-to-understand explanation of this trade was provided by Heidi Moore, who emphasized that Iksil’s risky position was no secret before it went south:

Everyone knew.  Thousands of people.  Iksil’s bets have been well known ever since Bloomberg’s Stephanie Ruhle broke the news in early April.  A trader at rival bank, Bank of America Merrill Lynch wrote to clients back then, saying that Iksil’s huge bet was attracting attention and hedge funds believed him to be too optimistic and were betting against him, waiting for Iksil to crash.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the Merrill Lynch trader wrote, “Fast money has smelt blood.

When the media, analysts and other traders raised concerns on JP Morgan’s earnings conference call last month, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon dismissed their worries as “a tempest in a teapot.”

Dimon’s smug attitude about the trade (prior to its demise) was consistent with the hubris he exhibited while maligning Dodd-Frank, thus explaining why so many commentators took delight in Dimon’s embarrassment.  On May 11, Kevin Roose of DealBook offered a preliminary round-up of the criticism resulting from this episode:

In a research note, a RBC analyst, Gerard Cassidy, called the incident a “hit to credibility” at the bank, while the Huffington Post’s Mark Gongloff said, “Funny thing:  Some of the constraints of the very Dodd-Frank financial reform act Dimon hates could have prevented it.”  Slate’s Matthew Yglesias pointed back to statements Mr. Dimon made in opposition to the Volcker Rule and other proposed regulations, and quipped, “Indeed, if only JPMorgan were allowed to run a thinner capital buffer and riskier trades.  Then we’d all feel safe.”

Janet Tavakoli pointed out that this event is simply the most recent chapter in Dimon’s history of allowing the firm to follow risky trading strategies:

At issue is corporate governance at JPMorgan and the ability of its CEO, Jamie Dimon, to manage its risk.  It’s reasonable to ask whether any CEO can manage the risks of a bank this size, but the questions surrounding Jamie Dimon’s management are more targeted than that.  The problem Jamie Dimon has is that JPMorgan lost control in multiple areas.  Each time a new problem becomes public, it is revealed that management controls weren’t adequate in the first place.

*   *   *

Jamie Dimon’s problem as Chairman and CEO–his dual role raises further questions about JPMorgan’s corporate governance—is that just two years ago derivatives trades were out of control in his commodities division.  JPMorgan’s short coal position was over sized relative to the global coal market.  JPMorgan put this position on while the U.S. is at war.  It was not a customer trade; the purpose was to make money for JPMorgan.  Although coal isn’t a strategic commodity, one should question why the bank was so reckless.

After trading hours on Thursday of this week, Jamie Dimon held a conference call about $2 billion in mark-to-market losses in credit derivatives (so far) generated by the Chief Investment Office, the bank’s “investment” book.  He admitted:

“In hindsight, the new strategy was flawed, complex, poorly reviewed, poorly executed, and poorly monitored.”

At The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson focused on the karmic significance of Dimon’s making such an admission after having belittled Paul Volcker and Dallas FedHead Richard Fisher at a party in Dallas last month:

During the party, Mr. Dimon took questions from the crowd, according to an attendee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of alienating the bank. One guest asked about the problem of too-big-to-fail banks and the arguments made by Mr. Volcker and Mr. Fisher.

Mr. Dimon responded that he had just two words to describe them:  “infantile” and “nonfactual.”  He went on to lambaste Mr. Fisher further, according to the attendee.  Some in the room were taken aback by the comments.

*   *   *

The hypocrisy is that our nation’s big financial institutions, protected by implied taxpayer guarantees, oppose regulation on the grounds that it would increase their costs and reduce their profit.  Such rules are unfair, they contend.  But in discussing fairness, they never talk about how fair it is to require taxpayers to bail out reckless institutions when their trades imperil them.  That’s a question for another day.

AND the fact that large institutions arguing against transparency in derivatives trading won’t acknowledge that such rules could also save them from themselves is quite the paradox.

Dimon’s rant at the Dallas party was triggered by a fantastic document released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas on March 21:  its 2011 Annual Report, featuring an essay entitled, “Choosing the Road to Prosperity – Why We Must End Too Big to Fail – Now”.  The essay was written by Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s Research Department and the former president of the National Association for Business Economics.  Rosenblum’s essay provided an historical analysis of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the regulatory efforts which resulted from that catastrophe – particularly the Dodd-Frank Act.

With his own criticism of Dimon’s attitude, Robert Reich invoked the position asserted by the Dallas Fed:

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, pushed millions of homeowners underwater, threatened or diminished the savings of millions more, and sent 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, and poorly-executed and excessively risky trades 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?

*   *   *

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.

At Salon, Andrew Leonard focused on the embarrassment this episode could bring to Mitt Romney:

Because if anyone is going to come out of this mess looking even stupider than Jamie Dimon, it’s got to be Mitt Romney – the presidential candidate actively campaigning on a pledge to repeal Dodd-Frank.

Perhaps Mr. Romney might want to consider strapping The Dimon Dog to the roof of his car for a little ride to Canada.


 

Too Important To Ignore

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On March 21, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas released a fantastic document:  its 2011 Annual Report, featuring an essay entitled, “Choosing the Road to Prosperity – Why We Must End Too Big to Fail – Now”.  The essay was written by Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s Research Department and the former president of the National Association for Business Economics.  Rosenblum’s essay provided an historical analysis of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the regulatory efforts which resulted from that catastrophe – particularly the Dodd-Frank Act.

While reading Harvey Rosenblum’s essay, I was constantly reminded of the creepy “JOBS Act” which is on its way to President Obama’s desk.  Simon Johnson (former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund) recently explained why the JOBS Act poses the same threat as the deregulatory measures which helped cause the financial crisis:

With the so-called JOBS bill, on which the Senate is due to vote Tuesday, Congress is about to make the same kind of mistake again – this time abandoning much of the 1930s-era securities legislation that both served investors well and helped make the US one of the best places in the world to raise capital.  We find ourselves again on a bipartisan route to disaster.

*   *   *

The idea behind the JOBS bill is that our existing securities laws – requiring a great deal of disclosure – are significantly holding back the economy.

The bill, HR3606, received bipartisan support in the House (only 23  Democrats voted against).  The bill’s title is JumpStart Our Business Startup Act, a clever slogan – but also a complete misrepresentation.

The bill’s proponents point out that Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) of stock are way down.  That is true – but that is also exactly what you should expect when the economy teeters on the brink of an economic depression and then struggles to recover because households’ still have a great deal of debt.

*   *   *

Professor John Coates hit the nail on the head:

“While the various proposals being considered have been characterized as promoting jobs and economic growth by reducing regulatory burdens and costs, it is better to understand them as changing, in similar ways, the balance that existing securities laws and regulations have struck between the transaction costs of raising capital, on the one hand, and the combined costs of fraud risk and asymmetric and unverifiable information, on the other hand.” (See p.3 of this December 2011 testimony.)

In other words, you will be ripped off more.  Knowing this, any smart investor will want to be better compensated for investing in a particular firm – this raises, not lowers, the cost of capital.  The effect on job creation is likely to be negative, not positive.

Simon Johnson’s last paragraph reminded me of a passage from Harvey Rosenblum’s Dallas Fed essay, wherein he was discussing why the economic recovery from the financial crisis has been so sluggish:

Similarly, the contributions to recovery from securities markets and asset prices and wealth have been weaker than expected.  A prime reason is that burned investors demand higher-than-normal compensation for investing in private-sector projects. They remain uncertain about whether the financial system has been fixed and whether an economic recovery is sustainable.

To repeat what Simon Johnson said, combined with the above-quoted paragraph:  the demand by “burned investors” for “higher-than-normal compensation for investing in private-sector projects” raises, not lowers, the cost of capital.  How quickly we forget the lessons of the financial crisis!

The Dallas Fed’s Annual Report began with an introductory letter from its president, Richard W. Fisher.  Fisher noted that while “memory fades with the passage of time” it is important to recall the position in which the “too-big-to fail” banks placed our economy, thus leading Congress to pass into law the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd–Frank).  Although Harvey Rosenblum’s essay was primarily focused on the Dodd-Frank Act’s efforts to address the systemic risk posed by the existence of those “too-big-to-fail” (TBTF) banks, other measures from Dodd-Frank were mentioned.  More important is the fact that the TBTFs have actually grown since the enactment of Dodd-Frank.  Beyond that, Rosenblum emphasized why this has happened:

The TBTF survivors of the financial crisis look a lot like they did in 2008.  They maintain corporate cultures based on the short-term incentives of fees and bonuses derived from increased oligopoly power.  They remain difficult to control because they have the lawyers and the money to resist the pressures of federal regulation.  Just as important, their significant presence in dozens of states confers enormous political clout in their quest to refocus banking statutes and regulatory enforcement to their advantage.

The ability of the financial sector “to resist the pressures of federal regulation” also happens to be the primary reason for the perverse effort toward de-regulation, known as the JOBS Act.  At the Seeking Alpha website, Felix Salmon reflected on the venality which is driving this bill through the legislative process:

There’s no good reason at all for this:  it’s basically a way for unpopular incumbent lawmakers who voted for Dodd-Frank to try to weasel their way back into the big banks’ good graces and thereby open a campaign-finance spigot they desperately need.

I don’t fully understand the political dynamics here.  A bill which was essentially drafted by a small group of bankers and financiers has managed to get itself widespread bipartisan support, even as it rolls back decades of investor protections.  That wouldn’t have been possible a couple of years ago, and I’m unclear (about) what has changed.  But one thing is coming through loud and clear:  anybody looking to Congress to be helpful in the fight to have effective regulation of financial institutions, is going to be very disappointed.  Much more likely is that Congress will be actively unhelpful, and will do whatever the financial industry wants in terms of hobbling regulators and deregulating as much activity as it possibly can.  Dodd-Frank, it seems, was a brief aberration.  Now, we’re back to business as usual, and a captured Congress.

The next financial crisis can’t be too far down the road   .   .   .


Failed Financial Reform And Failed Justice

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April 26, 2010

As the long-awaited financial reform legislation finally seems to be headed toward enactment, the groans of disappointment are loud and clear.  My favorite reporter at The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, did a fine job of exposing the shortcomings destined for inclusion in this lame bill:

Unfortunately, the leading proposals would do little to cure the epidemic unleashed on American taxpayers by the lords of finance and their bailout partners.  The central problem is that neither the Senate nor House bills would chop down big banks to a more manageable and less threatening size.  The bills also don’t eliminate the prospect of future bailouts of interconnected and powerful companies.

Too big to fail is alive and well, alas.  Indeed, several aspects of the legislative proposals sanction and codify the special status conferred on institutions that are seen as systemically important.  Instead of reducing the number of behemoth firms assigned this special status, the bills would encourage smaller companies to grow large and dangerous so that they, too, could have a seat at the bailout buffet.

*   *   *

It is disappointing that none of the current proposals call for breaking up institutions that are now too big or on their way there.  Such is the view of Richard W. Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

“The social costs associated with these big financial institutions are much greater than any benefits they may provide,” Mr. Fisher said in an interview last week.  “We need to find some international convention to limit their size.”

*   *   *

Edward Kane, a finance professor at Boston College and an authority on financial institutions and regulators, said that it was not surprising that substantive changes for both groups are not on the table.  After all, powerful banks want to maintain their ability to privatize gains and socialize losses.

“To understand why defects in in solvency detection and resolution persist, analysts must acknowledge that large financial institutions invest in building and exercising political clout,” Mr.Kane writes in an article, titled “Defining and Controlling Systemic Risk,” that he is scheduled to present next month at a Federal Reserve conference.

But regulators, eager to avoid being blamed for missteps in oversight, also have an interest in the status quo, Mr. Kane argues.  “As in a long-running poker game in which one player (here, the taxpayer) is a perennial and relatively clueless loser,” he writes, “other players see little reason to disturb the equilibrium.”

At Forbes, Robert Lenzner focused on the human failings responsible for the bad behavior of the big banks with his emphasis on the notion that “a fish stinks from the head”:

No well-intentioned reform bill that will pass Congress can prevent the mind-blowing stupidity, hubris and denial utilized by the big fish of Wall Street from stinking from the head.

*   *   *

Transparency won’t help if the Obama plan does not absolutely require all derivatives to be registered at the Securities and Exchange Commission.  It’s an invitation for abuse as five major market making banks like JPMorgan Chase account for 95% of all derivatives transactions and a very large share of their profits.  We haven’t seen evidence that they police themselves satisfactorily.

Derivatives expert Janet Tavakoli recently expressed her disgust over the disingenuousness of the current version of this legislation:

Our proposed “financial reform” bill is a sham, and the health of our society and our economy is at stake.

Ms. Tavakoli referred to the recent Huffington Post article by Dan Froomkin, which highlighted the criticism of the financial reform legislation provided by Professor William Black (the former prosecutor from the Savings and Loan crisis, whose execution was called for by Charles Keating).  Froomkin embraced the logic of economist James Galbraith, who emphasized that rather than relying on the expertise of economists to shape financial reform, we should be looking to the assistance of criminologists.  William Black reinforced this idea:

Criminologists, Black said, are trained to identify the environments that produce epidemics of fraud — and in the case of the financial crisis, the culprit is obvious.

“We’re looking at incentive structures,” he told HuffPost.  “Not people suddenly becoming evil.  Not people suddenly becoming crazy.  But people reacting to perverse incentive structures.”

CEOs can’t send out a memo telling their front-line professionals to commit fraud, “but you can send the same message with your compensations system, and you can do it without going to jail,” Black said.

Criminologists ask “fundamentally different types of question” than the ones being asked.

Back at The New York Times, Frank Rich provided us with a rare example of mainstream media outrage over the lack of interest in prosecuting the fraudsters responsible for the financial disaster that put eight million people out of work:

That no one at Lehman Brothers has yet been held liable for its Enronesque bookkeeping deceit is appalling.  That we still haven’t seen the e-mail and documents that would illuminate A.I.G.’s machinations with Goldman and the rest of its counterparties amounts to a cover-up.  That investigative journalists have consistently been way ahead of the authorities, the S.E.C. included, in uncovering Wall Street’s foul play is a scandal.  If this culture remains in place, the whole crisis will have gone to waste.

Unfortunately, the likelihood that any significant financial reform will be enacted as a result of the financial crisis is about the same as the likelihood that we will see anyone doing a “perp walk” for the fraudulent behavior that caused the meltdown.  Don’t expect serious reform and don’t expect justice.