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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

Topic: banking

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September 20, 2013 at 10:28 AM

Vote: Was justice done with JPMorgan?

So the federal government has imposed a $920 million fine on JPMorgan Chase in connection with the fraud known as the “London Whale,” which led to $6 billion in losses to this institution which is ultimately backed by American taxpayers. The event is noteworthy for several reasons. First, the settlement required the bank to admit wrongdoing, a significant departure from the usual “neither admitting nor denying” guilt. Unfortunately, the Securities and Exchange Commission failed to name a single senior individual as being responsible. As a result, as Michael Santoro wrote in the New Yorker, “the S.E.C. will be supporting the bank’s own narrative about the Whale missteps.” As for the size of the fine, it represents about 13 days of profits.

The London Whale episode is remarkable, too, because it happened in 2012, not in 2007. It’s disheartening enough to know that every executive that built the house of cards that brought on the Great Recession — and personally profited handsomely doing so — got away with it. None went to prison or even on trial. None was forced to return even some of the compensation they received for engaging in risk hustles and derivative grifting. It was left to American taxpayers, most of whom are making less than they did in 1989, to pay the bill. The poor kid who gets caught knocking over a convenience store should be so lucky. No, the Whale came in 2012, a reminder that not only did the Too Big to Fail banks get bigger in the crisis, but their dangerous gambling continues. And remember, Jamie Dimon was considered the statesman of finance (still is) and the House of Morgan (buyer of Washington Mutual) the most prudent institution.

What do you think about the settlement?

Read on for some of the best business and economic stories of the week, and the haiku:

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Comments | More in Banking | Topics: banking, JPMorgan Chase

September 13, 2013 at 10:27 AM

Vote: Is the financial system fixed?

Five years ago this weekend, the giant investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, ushering in a financial crisis and economic contraction the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Great Depression. Less than two weeks later, but before regulators decided to back every big financial institution, Seattle’s Washington Mutual was allowed to become the biggest bank failure in American history. Some would say it was pushed, but that’s another story.

Most of the causes of the catastrophe are well-known: Deregulation, “innovations” such as exotic derivatives, shadow banking, securitization of massive numbers of subprime loans, high executive compensation rewarding excessive risk-taking, too much leverage, regulators captured by the industry and a massive bubble enabled by the Federal Reserve. The costs went well beyond those to the financial system. A Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas report estimates that the Panic of 2008 and resulting downturn cost each household between $50,000 and $120,000. Unemployment remains high. Inequality is worse. Beyond the money, trust in institutions and the equal application of the rule of law has been shredded.

In its typical inviting way, Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog offers 13 charts showing what’s fixed and what isn’t five years later. On the Atlantic’s site, James Kwak argues that policymakers have learned little if nothing from the crash. So it’s time for your say:

Read on for some of the best business and economic stories of the week and the haiku…

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Comments | More in Banking, Federal Reserve, Great Recession | Topics: banking, Great Recession

July 12, 2013 at 10:25 AM

A new Glass-Steagall: A good start

A bi-partisan group of senators wants to bring back Glass-Steagall. Good on Elizabeth Warren, John McCain, Maria Cantwell and Angus King. The proposed legislation would separate federally insured banks that offer checking accounts, loans, etc. from institutions that want to do risky investment banking, as well as hedge funds, private equity, swaps and insurance. It won’t solve the too big to fail problem, but it’s a good start. At the least, it would cut back moral hazard, where bankers know their profits will be privatized but losses socialized, that another crisis will bring another bailout.

The old Glass-Steagall was passed in 1933 after risky bank practices, especially selling stocks and gambling in the market, helped bring on the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. The bill established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., putting an end to the runs on banks that had characterized the frightening period from 1929 to 1933. But as importantly, it prohibited federally insured banks from risky investment banking. Thus, a firm such as Goldman Sachs couldn’t count on taxpayers bailing out their bad bets. Glass-Steagall prevented another major banking crisis through the rest of its existence. Slowly eroded, it was finally repealed entirely in 1999 by legislation not only pushed by Republicans Phil Gramm and Jim Leach but Democratic President Bill Clinton and his Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, a former investment banker. This was a generation of leaders that had no memory of the Depression, but had received plenty of money from the banks and Wall Street.

This deregulation provided no protection against a return to the dangerous practices that helped detonate the Depression. Indeed, the rise of risky derivatives trading, although highly profitable, was barely regulated at all. Regulators were co-opted by the lobbying might of the “financial services industry.” It took only seven years to create another massive crisis that brought the world financial system to the edge of collapse. Had Glass-Steagall remained in place, we’d still have Washington Mutual.

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Comments | More in Banking | Topics: banking, Elizabeth Warren, Glass-Steagall

July 8, 2013 at 11:17 AM

Happy birthday, Dodd-Frank, toothless reform

Remember when AIG was saved by the government during the Panic of 2008, receiving a $180 billion bailout and essentially becoming nationalized? The insurer that enabled so much fraud by the banksters turned around and gave its top executives hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses and retention pay. The public outrage, further stoked by revelations of how the Wall Street Boyz received outrageous compensation packages as a reward for taking risks that would tank the economy and cost taxpayers, caused a provision to be inserted into the Dodd-Frank bill. It required companies to disclose how much their chief executives made compared with other employees.

Like most of this giant “reform” bill, it remains to be enforced. It’s one of the simplest portions of the legislation, but the Securities and Exchange Commission still hasn’t brought it into force, as we mark the third anniversary of Dodd-Frank’s passage.

The problem, as the Washington Post reports, is a vast and successful pushback by corporate power. “What the agency did not count on was the resistance mounted by big business. A lobbying campaign waged by business executives and the nation’s most prominent corporate associations undercut the momentum and effectively brought the agency’s work on the rule to a standstill.”

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Comments | More in Banking | Topics: AIG, banking, CEO compensation