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Are JPMorgan’s Losses A Canary in a Coal Mine?

Bill Moyers talks to Simon Johnson, once chief economist of the International Monetary Fund and now MIT professor, about the (possible) fall of Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan.

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Moyers: He told shareholders at their annual meeting Tuesday — they were meeting in Tampa, Florida — that these were “self-inflicted mistakes” that “should never have happened.” Does that seem reasonable to you?

Johnson: Well, it’s all very odd, Bill, and I’ve talked to as many experts as I can find who are at all informed about what JPMorgan was doing and how they were doing it and nobody really understands the true picture. That’s why we need an independent investigation to establish — was this an isolated incident or, more likely, the breakdown of a system of controlling and managing risks. Keep in mind that JPMorgan is widely regarded to be the best in the business at risk management, as it is called on Wall Street. And if they can’t do this in a relatively benign moment when things are not so very bad around the world, what is going to happen to them and to other banks when something really dramatic happens, for example, in Europe in the eurozone?

Moyers: Some of his supporters are claiming that only the bank has lost on this and that there’s absolutely no chance that the loss could have threatened the stability of the banking system as happened in 2008. What do you say again to that?

Johnson: I say this is the canary in the coal mine. This tells you that something is fundamentally wrong with the way banks measure, manage and control their risks. They don’t have enough equity funding in their business. They like to have a little bit of equity and a lot of debt. They get paid based on return on equity, unadjusted for risk. If things go well, they get the upside. If things go badly, the downside is someone else’s problem. And that someone else is you and me, Bill. It goes to the Federal Reserve, but not only, it goes to the Treasury, it goes to the debt.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the increase in debt relative to GDP due to the last crisis will end up being 50 percent of GDP, call that $7 trillion dollars, $7.5 trillion dollars in today’s money. That extraordinary. It’s an enormous shock to our fiscal accounts and to our ability to pay pensions and keep the healthcare system running in the future. For what? What did we get from that? Absolutely nothing. The bankers got some billions in extra pay, we get trillions in extra debt. It’s unfair, it’s inefficient, it’s unconscionable, and it needs to stop.

Moyers: Wasn’t part of the risk that Dimon took with taxpayer guaranteed deposits? I mean, if I had money at JPMorgan Chase, wouldn’t some of my money have been used to take this risk?

Johnson: Again, we don’t know the exact details, but news reports do suggest that yes, they were gambling with federally insured deposits, which just really puts the icing on the cake here.

Moyers: Do we know yet what is Dimon’s culpability? Is it conceivable to you that a risk this big would have been incurred without his approval?

Johnson: It seems very strange and quite a stretch. And he did tell investors, when he reported on first quarter earnings in April, that he was aware of the situation, aware of the trade — he called it a “tempest in a teapot,” and therefore, not something to worry about.

Moyers: He’s been Wall Street’s point man in their campaign against tighter regulation of derivatives and proprietary trading. Were derivatives at the heart of this gamble?