Is JPMorgan Chase, the imperious mega-bank, a hapless victim of what a Post editorial dubbed “political persecution”? Is it the innocent target of a Justice Department “shakedown,” as the Wall Street Journal’s editors charged, with Justice “confiscating” JPMorgan’s earnings “for no other reason than because they can and because they want to appease their left-wing populist allies”?
The announcement that JPMorgan’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, personally negotiated the announced $13 billion settlement with the Justice Department has set off howls in the press. The Post suggested that JPMorgan only made the same errors about housing prices that everyone else made. The government was charged with acting in bad faith, holding JPMorgan accountable for misdeeds committed by Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual before Dimon agreed to acquire them at the behest of the government. All in all, we’re supposed to see this deal as a miscarriage of justice.
Give me a break.
Thirteen billion dollars is a lot of money — the biggest fine for one company in U.S. history. But it only represents about five months of JPMorgan’s operating income in 2013, and it’s barely more than a third of what JPMorgan is spending on lawyers to defend itself.
It is hard to be sympathetic when reading JPMorgan’s recent rap sheet. In the last three years alone, it has paid billions to settle charges that it (1) manipulated the market in the infamous “London Whale” trading debacle; (2) rigged energy prices in California and the Midwest; (3) improperly foreclosed on homeowners; (4) bilked credit card holders by fixing prices and interest rates; (5) rigged municipal bond operations in 31 states; (6) gouged approximately 6,000 active-duty service members on mortgages and much more.
Much garment rending has gone into how unfair it is to hold JPMorgan liable for the actions of Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual before JPMorgan took them over. But Dimon got Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual — both firms he had previously pursued — at fire-sale prices with full knowledge of the potential liabilities. And JPMorgan has profited immensely from the deals.
The settlement itself occurs only because of the courageous persistence of New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. Schneiderman, along with allies such as Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, resisted the low-ball settlement that state attorneys general were urged to make on the banks’ “robo-signing” frauds (which trampled centuries of property law and the rights of mortgage holders across the country). Schneiderman insisted on creating a federal task force and kept pushing even as the Justice Department and White House resisted any serious investigation of the Wall Street wilding that brought down the economy. If not for his persistence, JPMorgan — and other banks that remain under investigation — would have gotten off scot-free for fraudulently peddling mortgage-backed securities that they knew were garbage.
In the current settlement, JPMorgan is paying nickels on the dollar of its potential liability for fraudulently marketing mortgage-backed securities that were known to be garbage. That’s one reason why the bank’s share prices have held steady. The Wall Street Journal editors apparently neither trust nor understand the wisdom of the markets. Instead, the Journal, aroused in defense of the wealthy, argued that JPMorgan is paying the price for a “left” that “wants perp walks, if not heads on pikes.”
Well, no one is calling for heads on pikes in these civilized times. But Americans ought to be demanding perp walks. The reality, sadly, is that to date, not one single top Wall Street executive at a top bank has been convicted of criminal charges related to what the FBI called an “epidemic of fraud” in the financial excesses that blew up the economy.
In this settlement, Jamie Dimon will pay the fines with other people’s money — that of his shareholders. Neither he nor his officers who made out like bandits from their fraudulent practices are asked to chip in a dime. In fact, the $13 billion is itself something of a put-on. Only $9 billion is in cash, and much of that may well be tax-deductible, meaning taxpayers will get part of the bill. Four billion dollars is in “mortgage relief,” which the banks have been notoriously successful in gaming, providing “relief” by discarding underwater mortgages, “allowing” homeowners to do a short-sale that costs them their homes.
The need for perp walks and for individual liability isn’t about envy or marauding peasants. It is about simple justice — and the imperative of holding people accountable for their crimes if we want them to go straight. As former senator Ted Kaufman put it, “People know that if they rob a bank they will go to jail. Bankers should know that if they rob people, they will go to jail, too.” Kaufman, now retired, fears the reality that Jamie Dimon and others got a pass: “I’m genuinely concerned there are a lot of guys walking around Wall Street, the bad apples, saying, ‘Hey, man, we got away with it. We’re going to do it again.’”
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