Sunday, May 20, 2012
The Need For An Independent Investigation Into JP Morgan Chase by Simon Johnson
JPMorgan Chase is too big to fail. As the largest bank-holding company in the United States, with assets approaching $2.5 trillion as reported under standard American accounting principles, it is inconceivable that JPMorgan Chase would be allowed to collapse now or in the near future. The damage to the American economy and to the world would be too great.
The company’s recent trading losses therefore call for greater public scrutiny than would be case for most private enterprise – and demand an independent investigation into exactly what happened. (Dennis Kelleher of Better Markets has already called for exactly this.) The investigation begun by the F.B.I. is unlikely to be sufficiently public. Given the strong political connections between JP Morgan and the Obama administration, it would also be better to have an investigation led by a completely independent counsel.
Hopefully, too-big-to-fail is not forever. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is working on a mechanism that could conceivably allow that agency to handle the “failure” of a bank-holding company while protecting the creditors of operating subsidiaries – limiting the potential contagion effect.
But this mechanism is not yet in place, it does not currently apply to cross-border banking (remember that JPMorgan Chase’s losses are in London), and even the F.D.I.C.’s acting chairman, Martin J. Gruenberg, was careful in describing its likely efficacy in a speech last week.
(Disclosure: I’m on the F.D.I.C.’s Systemic Resolution Advisory Committee, and I’ve helped the F.D.I.C. with some outreach activities, designed to help them receive constructive feedback on resolution. I am not paid by the F.D.I.C.)
In effect, JPMorgan Chase operates with the implicit backing of the United States government – primarily in the form of actual and potential access to borrowing from the Federal Reserve, with the implication that the Treasury could also provide support. Being effectively backed by the full faith and credit of the government is a great help; it lowers a bank’s funding costs because it reduces the risk to creditors. JPMorgan Chase and the other big banks in the American economy are effectively government-sponsored (and subsidized) enterprises.
There is no kind of market involved in determining the franchise value of mega-banks; this is a government subsidy scheme, pure and simple. People on the right of the political spectrum understand this, as do people on the left; see my blog post last week on the extent of cross-partisan agreement on this issue.
Posted by Michele Kearney at 1:57 PM