Are JPMorgan’s Losses A Canary in a Coal Mine?
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That sound of shattered glass you’ve been hearing is the iconic portrait of Jamie Dimon splintering as it hits the floor of JPMorgan Chase. As the Good Book says, “Pride goeth before a fall,” and the sleek silver-haired, too-smart-for-his-own-good CEO of America’s largest bank has been turning every television show within reach into a confessional booth. Barack Obama’s favorite banker faces losses of $2 billion and possibly more – all because of the complex, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t trading in exotic financial instruments that he has so ardently lobbied Congress not to regulate.
Once again, doing God’s work — that is, betting huge sums of money with depositor funds knowing that you are too big to fail and can count on taxpayers riding to your rescue if your avarice threatens to take the country down — has lost some of its luster. The jewels in Dimon’s crown sparkle with a little less grandiosity than a few days ago, when he ridiculed Paul Volcker’s ideas for keeping Wall Street honest as “ infantile.”
To find out more about what this all means, I turned to Simon Johnson, once chief economist of the International Monetary Fund and now a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He and his colleague James Kwak founded the now-indispensable website baselinescenario.com. They co-authored the bestselling book 13 Bankers and the most recent book, White House Burning, an account every citizen should read to understand how the national deficit affects our future.
Bill Moyers: If Chase began to collapse because of risky betting, would the government be forced to step in again?
Simon Johnson: Absolutely, Bill. JPMorgan Chase is too big to fail. Hopefully in the future we can move away from this system, but right now it is too big. It’s about a $2.5 trillion dollar bank in terms of total assets. That’s roughly 20 percent of the U.S. economy, comparing their assets to our GDP. That’s huge. If that bank were to collapse — I’m not saying it will — but if it were to collapse, it would be a shock to the economy bigger than that of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and as a result, they would be protected by the government, by the Federal Reserve. They are exactly what’s known as too big to fail.
Moyers: I was just looking at an interview I did with you in February of 2009, soon after the collapse of 2008 and you said, and I’m quoting, “The signs that I see, the body language, the words, the op-eds, the testimony, the way these bankers are treated by certain congressional committees, it makes me feel very worried. I have a feeling in my stomach that is what I had in other countries, much poorer countries, countries that were headed into really difficult economic situations. When there’s a small group of people who got you into a disaster and who are still powerful, you know you need to come in and break that power and you can’t. You’re stuck.” How do you feel about that insight now?
Johnson: I’m still nervous, and I think that the losses that JPMorgan reported — the CEO Jamie Dimon reported — and the way in which they’re presented, the fact that they’re surprised by it and the fact that they didn’t know they were taking these kinds of risks, the fact that they lost so much money in a relatively benign moment compared to what we’ve seen in the past and what we’re likely to see in the future — all of this suggests that we are absolutely on the path towards another financial crisis of the same order of magnitude as the last one.