House of Morgan

Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Manage

A little over one hundred years ago J. Pierpont Morgan ran much of the world’s business from an elegant office at 23 Wall Street in New York. The investment and commercial banking operations that J.P. oversaw financed railroads, mining, energy, steel and insurance companies. Morgan was big, so big that when the U.S. economy was on the verge of tanking in 1907, Morgan put a wad of money on the table and saved the day.

In the days before “too big to fail” became part of the national dialogue, the House of Morgan literally was too big and too powerful to fail. Morgan was the banker to the robber barons of the Gilded Age and as such earned the scorn of many a progressive politician. By the early 1930′s, with the old man, J.Pierpont dead since 1913, the House of Morgan finally got its comeuppance. The Glass-Steagall Act, also known as The Banking Act of 1933, passed the Congress, was signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the big banks, particularly The House of Morgan, had to separate investment and commercial banking. Glass-Steagall was a clear cut response to The Great Depression and the widespread belief that reckless speculation by some bankers had played a contributing role in the international economic crisis that began in 1929.

It’s worth noting that the Glass in Glass-Steagall was Sen. Carter Glass of Virginia one of the old-style southern conservative Democrats who dominated Congress during much of the New Deal period. Glass, a newspaper editor by profession, served in the U.S. House of Representatives, helped write the Federal Reserve Act and then served as Treasury Secretary under Woodrow Wilson. Franklin Roosevelt wanted the tough, no nonsense, very conservative Sen. Glass to come back to the Treasury in 1933, but Glass preferred to stay in the Senate and devote his attention to improving banking regulation and modernizing the Fed. In short, Carter Glass was an expert legislator in these areas who applied decades of experience to sorting out how the federal government – and this guy was no big government liberal – ought to regulate banking.

American banking was governed by Glass-Steagall until 1999 when the Clinton Administration led the charge to eliminate the last visage of the New Deal-era regulation that separated traditional banking activity – loans, credit cards, deposits – from the substantially more speculative and riskier investment banking that centers on underwriting securities. Then-Treasury Sec. Lawrence Summers called the elimination of the 1930′s law an “update” of old rules, which would create a banking system for the 21st Century. Just how is that “update” working out so far you’d be smart to ask.

Enter Jamie Dimon the man who now presides over the 21st Century firm that J.P. Morgan invented in the 19th Century. Dimon, whose bank lost at least $2 billion recently by speculating in what are not incorrectly called financial “bets,” will testify before the Senate Banking Committee on June 7th to provide, as chairman Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) said, “a better understanding of this massive trading loss so we can take the implications into account as we continue to conduct our robust oversight over the full implementation of Wall Street reform.”

Sounds like Congress is finally set to get to the bottom of all this risk taking by Wall Street banks, but wait, don’t bet the house payment just yet.

So far Dimon’s explanation for the big losses his firm suffered has been what we might call the “we were stupid” defense. This from the guy universally regarded as the smartest operator on The Street. Dimon has called the trading – bets more precisely – on extraordinarily complex corporate-bond derivatives – hope Sen. Johnson knows what those are – a “terrible, egregious mistake” and he’s humbly admitted JPMorgan Chase has “egg on our face.”

Dimon is displaying excellent crisis management skills by admitting the obvious, his bank screwed up, but he is also the guy who has repeatedly condemned the Wall Street reforms contained in the Dodd-Frank legislation. That legislation, passed in the wake of the most recent economic collapse, stopped well short of re-imposing the kind of controls that once existed with Glass-Steagall, but Dodd-Frank nevertheless earns the widespread scorn of most Wall Streeters as well as conservative politicians beginning with Mitt Romney. Romney has condemned the JPMorgan risk taking, but also says he’ll work to repeal Dodd-Frank.

Here’s a guess – call it a policy bet – the Dimon appearance before the Senate committee will involve a great many speeches both chastising big bankers and federal regulators, but nothing much will change. Dimon will gracefully sidestep any real responsibility for the betting errors, in part, because everyone knows that even the smartest guy on Wall Street can’t possibly keep track of all the esoteric trading his minions are engaged in across the globe. Many commentators will again bemoan the reckless greed that drives the kind of speculation JPMorgan and its competitors engage in but, when all is said and done, legislators will not be able to tighten the regulatory screws on the excesses of Dimon’s firm and other banking houses, because they too have placed a bet. The Congress – both parties – are gambling that continuing to woo the campaign financial largess of Wall Street, while not engaging in real regulatory reform won’t continue to imperil the American economy. I hope they win the bet, but I wouldn’t put money on it.

Two things to know from the messy details of this new Gilded Age: vast amounts of money is being made by what can only be called the wildest, most uncontrolled speculation since J.P. Morgan reigned on Wall Street and, through all the months of anguish and pain that followed the financial meltdown in 2008, not a single Wall Street player has had to face the legal, let alone the moral, consequences of the kind of reckless behavior that Jamie Dimon says put egg on his face.

The New York Times reports that the fellow who made a bundle while JPMorgan was losing a bundle is Boaz Weinstein, an aggressive hedge fund manager – he made $90 million last year – who was smart enough and gutsy enough to understand that JPMorgan’s “egregious mistake” was another gambler’s opportunity. The Times says of Weinstein: “In the hedge fund game, a business in which ruthlessness is prized and money is the ultimate measure, Mr. Weinstein is what is known as a “monster” — an aggressive trader with a preternatural appetite for risk and a take-no-prisoners style. He is a chess master, as well as a high-roller on the velvet-topped tables of Las Vegas. He has been banned from the Bellagio for counting cards.”

If you believe modern capitalism is a zero-sum game where someone wins and someone loses, little of value is produced, few jobs are created, and vast amounts of money are at stake for a handful of gamblers, then the capitalism of Dimon-Weinstein is just what the regulator ordered. If, on the other hand, if you believe in what I’ll call old fashion capitalism where money is borrowed and invested in real enterprises that employ people and make things, then you might think that Washington, D.C., with its unwillingness to confront Wall Street gambling, is continuing to whistle past the next economic meltdown graveyard.

How else to explain that no one – not a person – has suffered even mild public rebuke, let alone jail time, for the series of decisions in housing and finance that brought much of the American middle class to its knees in 2008 and since. Not only has no one been held accountable, fundamentally – as the JPMorgan bets confirm – nothing has changed with the big banks. In fact, as David Rohde explained recently in The Atlantic, “The country’s biggest banks are getting bigger.”

“Five U.S. banks – JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs – held $8.5 trillion in assets at the end of 2011,” writes Rohde, “equal to 56 percent of the country’s economy, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Five years earlier, before the financial crisis, the biggest banks’ holdings amounted to 43 percent of U.S. output. Today, they are roughly twice as large as they were a decade ago relative to the economy.”

Using World Bank numbers, JPMorgan Chase’s market capitalization is greater than the GDP of 130 of the world’s countries, including New Zealand, Iraq and Vietnam. Given such size and scope, it’s little wonder the big banks behave like sovereign nations.

So, the biggest get bigger and ensure their position as “too big to fail” and even alleged smart guys like Jamie Dimon admit that banks too big to fail are, by definition, too big to manage. The big winners in this modern capitalism are guys like Boaz Weinstein who is a good enough gambler to get himself banned from Las Vegas, a place that really knows how to manage risk, but is, as the Times article says, “practically a featured attraction on Wall Street. [Weinstein] attends galas and charity events, and is sought out to speak at big events. Pictures of him clasping a drink at last night’s party appear with regularity on business Web sites.”

By comparison old J.P. seems like a genuine piker.

 

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