Nobody Should Shed a Tear for JP Morgan Chase
|November 1, 2013||Posted by Staff under Corruption, Financial|
This $13 billion settlement, which is actually a $9 billion settlement, came very close to never happening. In fact, this deal is actually quite a gift to Chase. It sounds like a lot of money, but there are myriad deceptions behind the sensational headline.
First of all, the settlement, may wipe out between $100 billion and $200 billion in potential liability – meaning that the bank might just have settled “for ten cents or so on the dollar.” The Federal Housing Finance Agency alone was suing Chase and its affiliates for $33 billion. The trustee in the ongoing Bernie Madoff Ponzi scandal was suing Chase for upwards of $19 billion.
Obviously, those plaintiffs may never have gotten that kind of money out of Chase. But just settling the mere potential of so much liability has huge value for the bank. It’s part of the reason the company’s share price hasn’t exactly cratered since the settlement was announced.
Moreover, the settlement is only $9 billion in cash, with $4 billion earmarked for “mortgage relief.” We’ve seen settlements with orders of mortgage relief before, and banks seem to have many canny ways of getting out of the spirit of these requirements.
There’s also the matter of the remaining $9 billion in fines being tax deductible (meaning we’re subsidizing the settlement), and the fact that Chase is reportedly trying to get the FDIC to assume some of Washington Mutual’s liability.
But overall, the key to this whole thing is that the punishment is just money, and not a crippling amount, and not from any individual’s pocket, either. People who committed essentially the same crimes as Bernie Madoff will walk away without paying any individual penalty.
Madoff’s operational fiction was his own personality. He used his charm and his lifestyle and his social status to con rich individuals into ponying up money into an essentially nonexistent investment scheme.
In the cases of both WaMu and especially Bear (both acquired by Chase), the operating fictions were broad, carefully-crafted infrastructures of bogus guarantees, flatlined due diligence mechanisms, corrupted ratings agencies, and other types of legal chicanery. These fake guarantees and assurances misled investors about what they were buying. Most thought they were investing in home mortgages. What they were actually investing in was a flow of cash from new investors that banks like Bear and WaMu were pushing into a rapidly-overheating speculative bubble.
Bernie Madoff ultimately caused about $18 billion in losses. When he got caught, the state threw the book at him, giving him a 150-year jail sentence. Meanwhile, just the subset of Bear Stearns defendants, according to a complaint against Chase filed last year by Eric Schneiderman, caused $22.5 billion in losses in just two years, 2006 and 2007.
And while it is true that the federal government in this latest $13 billion settlement is ostensibly reserving the right to continue to pursue criminal charges, don’t hold your breath. The arc of this story suggests that the whole purpose of this agreement has been to find the highest price Chase is willing to pay to a) stay in business b) keep employees out of jail.
So again, $13 billion sounds like a lot of money. But Bernie Madoff is doing 150 years, and nobody in this cast of characters will personally pay a dollar in fines. Nobody will do one day in jail. That’s a huge, huge discrepancy.
Of course, Bernie Madoff today is reviled on Wall Street, even by papers like the Wall Street Journal. This is mainly because he ripped off other finance-sector hotshots, but also because he gave Wall Street a bad name.
Post-2009 coverage of Madoff from the financial press has focused intently on the failure of the government (and in particular the SEC) to aggressively investigate the scandal in a timely fashion. This has followed a rhetorical line that frequently emanates from the finance sector, in which white-collar crime is somehow less the fault of criminals than of the police who failed to stop it.
These “Where were the regulators?” cries generally never show up in financial-press coverage of Wall Street scandals until those same pundits have first exhausted all attempts to argue that no crime was ever committed by the bank/broker/hedge fund in question.
Only then do they blast the financial cops of the world for failing to protect Madoff’s investors and the good name of honest Wall Street business.
Ten years from now, they will be denouncing everyone from Eric Holder to Lanny Breuer to the SEC and DOJ officials in the Bush administration for failing to protect investors from predatory companies like Bear Stearns, Washington Mutual, and their parent, JP Morgan Chase.
A few more notes on the deal. This latest settlement reportedly came about when CEO Jamie Dimon picked up the phone and called a high-ranking lieutenant of Attorney General Holder, who was about to hold a press conference announcing civil charges against the bank. The Justice Department meekly took the call, canceled the presser, and worked out this hideous deal, instead of doing the right thing and blowing off the self-important Wall Street hotshot long used to resolving meddlesome issues with the gift of his personal attention.
Only on Wall Street does the target of a massive federal investigation pick up the telephone and call up the prosecutor expecting to make the thing go away – and only in recent American history would such a tactic actually work.
Considering the scale of the offenses, the state could have taken the hardest of hard lines. Instead, they once again took a big fat check to walk away.
Papers like the Journal have particularly complained that Chase should not be held responsible for the offenses committed by companies long before Chase acquired them. What they forget is that Chase has made a fortune off its acquisitions of Bear and Washington Mutual, two purchases which were massively subsidized by the state. Nobody complained about potential liability back when all those two deals were doing for Chase was helping its executives buy overpriced art and summer homes.
And remember, this sort of liability was basically the only risk Chase took in these deals. The government took on most of the rest, in order to make the acquisitions happen.
Chase got to buy Bear Stearns with $29 billion in Fed guarantees, with the state setting up a special bailout facility, Maiden Lane, to unwind all of the phony-baloney loans created through Bear’s Ponzi-mortgage-mechanism described above. So Chase got to acquire one of the world’s biggest investment banks for pennies on the dollar, and then got the Fed to buy up all the toxic parts of the bank’s portfolio, essentially making the public the involuntary customer of Bear’s criminal inventory.
Later on, Chase took $25 billion in TARP money, bought Washington Mutual and its $33 billion in assets for the fire-sale price of $1.9 billion, and then repeated the Bear scenario, getting another Maiden Lane facility to take on the deadliest parts of Washington Mutual’s portfolio (including, for instance, a pool of mortgages in which 94 percent of the loans had limited documentation).
Incidentally, the notion that Chase was somehow dragged kicking and screaming by the government and forced to buy these two massive companies essentially for free is almost as laughable and ridiculous as the oft-cited explanation for the financial crisis, that the government forced banks to lend to the poor.
Chase, as has been reported by multiple outlets, had already tried on its own to buy both companies before the state arranged its infamous shotgun weddings. Only after both firms collapsed, the economy was in crisis, and Chase was able to get the Fed to eat the toxic portfolios of both companies did these already-longed-for acquisitions take place.
Chase was too big to fail before the crash, but it’s even Too-Bigger-To-Failier now, thanks to the expanded market share afforded by these two Fed-sterilized acquisitions. Bloomberg reported that Bear’s book value has soared by $36 billion since it swallowed up those two firms with the public’s help. Its retail banking earnings have soared nearly 1000 percent. It has more than doubled the size of its banking deposits. Chase didn’t have a single branch in Florida or California before this deal: It’s now a top-5 banking presence in both states.
So nobody should be crying for poor Chase now, just because it’s no longer able to simply sit back and collect gobs and gobs of essentially free cash from the ill-gotten market share “won” by its two crooked acquisitions.
Now they’ll have to write a big check, which sucks for them, but what about the victims? Shouldn’t Chase merely be required to pay back every dollar to those investors wiped out by these schemes? That would be a hell of a lot more than $13 billion.
No-jail, no-individual-penalty settlements, just companies using shareholder money to pay fines at huge discounts relative to the actual damage they caused.