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What the Mainstream Media Still Doesn't Get About Big Banks

JPMorgan Chase losing $2 billion on a risky trade has many pundits calling for more regulation. But they're still missing so much of the story.

Reading over the coverage of JPMorgan Chase’s $2 billion fiasco, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the heady early days of the Lesser Depression. Not because the scale or risk is equivalent, but because the naked hubris, incompetence and greed on display have once again stirred up a regulatory fervor among large swaths of the media. All of a sudden pundits and editorial boards are sounding less like Paul Ryan and more like Paul Krugman. There are also the predictable right-wing hacks who claim this episode somehow makes the case against the Volcker Rule, the part of Dodd-Frank that bans commercial banks from engaging in speculative bets to increase their own profits, known as “proprietary trading.”

But unfortunately that’s usually where it ends. The issue remains framed through a partisan lens: you can either be in favor of implementing existing regulation or against it, but few voices move beyond those narrow confines. As a result, regulation gets discussed as an important but isolated issue, largely removed from more fundamental problems like income inequality and the power corporations exert over both parties.

A central theme among those in favor of less regulation is the fear that JPMorgan’s loss will strengthen the argument for a robust Volcker Rule. Editors at The Corner posted a piece with the headline:  JPMorgan’s Loss: New Ammo for Regulators? Investor’s Business Daily echoed,  arguing, “[i]t's a one-off financial loss that will very quickly be forgotten — except by Washington, which is eager to put all of Wall Street under its thumb.” The Wall Street Journal surprised your media critic by issuing the following conclusion:

“One tragedy of J.P. Morgan's trading loss is that it will become an excuse to give regulators even more power, when what taxpayers really want is a system that ends too-big-to-fail banks, not a plan to revive them.”

Turns out WSJ is totally into the  Break Up BofA campaign! It isn't, of course, but this rhetorical tool is common among those desperate to continue with the status quo. The WSJ is absolutely in favor of reform, it tells its readers, just not this kind of reform . As evidence against the Volcker Rule, they argue it's, “becoming murkier by the day as regulators take years to define it.” What they don't say is that banking lobbyists are the ones muddying the waters, attempting to find ways around any restrictions whatsoever. So while it's popular this week to pretend to want reform, the WSJ's deregulatory bent is well documented.

Similarly, the editorial board at the Chicago Tribune recognizes that “[t]he Volcker Rule tries to solve [a] genuine problem,” but concludes,

“We hope that cool heads prevail so that industry and regulators can work together to provide a level of oversight that ensures America's financial future — and no more.”   

Beyond the obvious conclusion -- that these pro-corporate outlets are perfectly happy to let Wall Street greed run rampant -- there’s another point to be made. Other than the typical “taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook” cliches, there is no recognition of the human suffering created by the financial-political corporatocracy of which JPMC is a huge part. In the eyes of the anti-regulation crowd, this is a partisan game they don’t want to lose and a get-rich-quick scheme they don’t want to see vanish.

On the other hand, there was no shortage of voices calling for increased regulation, which is as unsurprising as neighbors watching a house burn and wishing they had invested in a fire department, or residents of River City calling for a moratorium on band instrument  sales. Much of the analysis was quite good, from Paul Krugman’s op-ed on the historical context of regulation, to the Financial Times’ editorial board, which  argued, “[u]ntil banks become more like utilities – predictable businesses with low, stable returns – regular wipeouts of profits will be the rule.” Particularly good were the few pieces which acknowledged the existence of Occupy Wall Street. Felix Salmon  gave props to Occupy the SEC, which has been demanding a stronger (much stronger) Volcker rule for  months. Eliot Spitzer  suggested persuasively that Occupy should hold protests calling for Jamie Dimon’s removal from the board of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, which is tasked with overseeing banks like JPMC. Spitzer writes,

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