Matt Taibbi and Yves Smith: How the Wall Street Mafia Holds America -- and the World -- Hostage
Bill Moyers: Welcome. This past week, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, was back on Capitol Hill, testifying before the House Financial Services Committee, as he had earlier done before the Senate Banking Committee. He was being questioned on how his bank had lost two billion dollars -- or more -- on risky trading. His reception in the House was less fawning than what he got from the senators. Although many of them also are beneficiaries of JP Morgan largesse, House members were more combative.
Barney Frank: You said you have a fortress balance sheet. That assumes there's something special about the way you are that made us have to worry less. But we can't assume that's going to be the case for every financial institution.
Jamie Dimon: But I also said that we'd be solidly profitable this quarter. So relative to earnings–
Barney Frank: That's not the question. Mr. Dimon, please don't filibuster.
Sean Duffy: You didn't know about these trades. You didn't know about these losses. How do you come forward today and say the regulators should have known that -- what one of the best CEOs in the industry didn't know and couldn't have known?
Michael Capuano: With the regulatory regime that we have today -- we both agree that it's not what we want, but it's what we have. Do you really think it's a smart idea to be cutting the legs out of one of those major regulators? Do you think that's good for America?
Jamie Dimon: I have enough problems. I'm going to leave that to you.
Michael Capuano: Well, Mr. Dimon, the only reason I ask is because you have had no hesitancy whatsoever in expressing opinions on other matters. I thought you might want to take an opportunity to express one today.
Bill Moyers: Coincidentally, just before Dimon's House testimony, Bloomberg News published data indicating that JP Morgan Chase receives a government subsidy worth about 14 billion dollars a year in taxpayer money.
Money, said Bloomberg editors, that "helps the bank pay big salaries and bonuses, and more important, distorts markets, fueling crises such as the recent subprime-lending disaster and the sovereign-debt debacle that is now threatening to destroy the euro and sink the global economy."
With me are two guests who can guide us through the thicket of testimony and beyond. Matt Taibbi, contributing editor at "Rolling Stone" magazine, has investigated the folly and corruption of banks and government with scathing, often profane wit and perception. His book, Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America, described the events leading up to the financial meltdown in 2008. His newest piece for Rolling Stone is a chilling expose called "The Scam Wall Street Learned From the Mafia."
Yves Smith created and runs Naked Capitalism, the popular blog on finance and economics. She once worked for Goldman Sachs, McKinsey & Company, and Sumitomo Bank, and now heads a management consulting firm. You'll want to read her book, ECONned: How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism.
Welcome to both of you.
Yves Smith: Thanks so much.
Matt Taibbi: Thank you.
Bill Moyers: So in this particular case, what is JPMorgan's sin? That's the question Representative David Schweikert raised on the day of the hearing. He asked, "What sin has JPMorgan committed other than being big enough to lose billions of their own money in a quarter and still turn a $4 billion profit?" Want to take a stab at answering?
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, sure. Their sin wasn't the loss. The sin was in being a too-big-to-fail company where we can't afford to have them go under. Why are we there in the first place? If this was a company that, if it went out of business, it wouldn't affect our lives personally and wouldn't have major ramification for the economy, we wouldn't be holding hearings in the Senate and the Congress.
We would say, fine, they lost so much, a bunch of money. Too bad for them. But that's not the case. As we saw in 2008, when these companies go down, we all end up paying for it. You know, we ended up financing of, what, five, six, seven trillion dollar bailout in 2008. And if a company like JPMorgan Chase goes under, there will certainly be some sort of federal action, which is why we have to know about it. We have to know what goes on when they have unexpected two, three billion dollar losses that affects all of us.
Yves Smith: They were guilty of gaming the system. And the way that they've done it is this unit was using depositor money and yet taking very large bets.
And in this unit, all the other banks similarly have similar units in their treasury department, and the purpose of these portfolios is supposed to be to have liquid assets in case there's a run on the bank.
And Bloomberg News had a story where they actually reported that all the other banks take less risk in these portfolios. And that's before we get to the credit default-- that's before we get to the blow-up part, just in the, even the simpler part of the portfolios. They have, they keep more in treasuries. And they have less in corporate bonds. So Dimon is already taking more risk in this unit than he should have.
And this is something which is frustrating about the testimony. There's a sort of, you know, one of the, again, stories that Dimon was promoting was, oh, well, we didn't find out about it. And then when we found out about it, we jumped on it and now it's all fine. And, therefore, the regulators shouldn't have been able, you know, how could the regulators have found about it?
And, therefore, since the regulators couldn't found out, you know, more regulation is futile. And, in fact, you could have found this information from the outside. You could have seen that prices were moving in this instrument in a really weird way.
Bill Moyers: Was everybody looking the other way? Have we forgotten so quickly?
Matt Taibbi: Well, the entire derivatives market is essentially a gigantic black box. It's not like the regulators have access to all this information.
Yves Smith: I think they're not used to looking for the information.
Matt Taibbi: Right.
Yves Smith: I think it's been acculturated that they're used to having tea and cookies with the banks and reviewing their internal reports and not doing any type of external validation and this kind of basic external checking they could do that they're not habituated to doing.
Bill Moyers: A very curious thing happened when the House hearings opened. Some members of that committee felt that Dimon should be sworn in. But the chairman of the committee, a Republican from Alabama, Spencer Bachus, said, no, that wasn't necessary. Am I making too much out of that?
Matt Taibbi: I thought that was an incredible moment for a couple of reasons. Obviously, the reason there was a hullabaloo over that was because of what happened when Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, came and testified before the Senate a couple of years ago. There later was a controversy over whether or not he had perjured himself in those hearings.
So the question was if, you know, Jamie Dimon is going to be sworn in, whether he would have to tell the truth, would be obligated, or whether it would just be a friendly conversation. But what was amazing about that, was that it Spencer Bachus who came to Jamie Dimon's defense. Spencer Bachus is the congressman for the Birmingham, Alabama, region which has been decimated by the Jefferson County swap disaster, which was caused by Chase, which was fined $700 million by the SEC.
So here's a guy who represents the county that has been most affected by Chase's bad behavior, and he comes to Chase's defense in the hearing, which I thought was-- it set the tone for the whole thing.
Yves Smith: Matt mentioned the toxic swaps. Jefferson County isn't the only example.
There have been a whole series of, you know, since Jefferson County and other municipalities blew up by deals they did before the crisis, there have been a series of swaps done after the crisis with transit authorities, where they are losing a tremendous amount of money. You can look at the way JPMorgan has serviced mortgage loans.
You know, they had to get up and admit that they had been basically breaking the law, and there were criminal penalties associated with this law, by foreclosing on servicemen in Iraq and not giving them rate breaks that they were entitled to. And there are some egregious cases.
Matt Taibbi: There's $228 million fine that they paid last year for municipal bond bid rigging. There was another $153 million fine that they paid for failure to, for fraud in CDO trades. I mean, there are case after case after case that involve these criminal charges. And what I thought was amazing about these hearings is that nobody brought any of those things up.
Bill Moyers: Both of you have mentioned the Jefferson County story. Give me a quick summary of what JPMorgan did in Jefferson County, Alabama.
Matt Taibbi: Well, Jefferson County had to build a new sewer system. And they had to borrow a bunch of money to do that. And it was originally a $300 million project. But they got into a series of swap deals with JPMorgan Chase to basically push their financing into the future. But the deals were heavily mispriced in Chase's favor. And Chase actually bribed another bank to stay away from Chase because they wanted that business. They wanted to give the--
Bill Moyers: Bribed them?
Matt Taibbi: They bribed them.
Bill Moyers: That's against the law, isn't it?
Matt Taibbi: Yes, yes.
Yves Smith: Yeah.
Matt Taibbi: And they were caught for it. A couple of their executives were caught for it, and they were heavily fined by the SEC for doing it. And this resulted in this disaster where Jefferson County's going to be bankrupt for a generation. It ended up costing them $3 billion out of what was originally, what, $300 million?
Yves Smith: Million dollar, yeah, yeah, yeah. What got to be $2.9 billion deal in the end. And on top of that, my mother happens to live in Jefferson County.
Bill Moyers: Oh, I didn't know that.
Yves Smith: You have the average person in-- basically you cannot have access to the sewage system and not pay more than-- and not pay less than 50 bucks a month. So there are people in the poor areas who are deciding what they're going to have: electricity, water, or sewer. I mean, you can't-- they can't afford all three.
Bill Moyers: Why is that JPMorgan's fault that they have to make that choice?
Matt Taibbi: They basically got them into these onerous toxic swap deals that were poorly understood by the local politicians. And they bribed the local politicians to accept the swap deals. They did it through middleman companies that bribed the--
Yves Smith: The consultant on the deal is in jail. The former mayor was involved in other improprieties, too. But the former mayor's in prison. You know, this is--
Matt Taibbi: For signing off on these deals.
Bill Moyers: Is there a question you would have asked Dimon if you had been on either of those committees that was not asked?
Matt Taibbi: The question I wanted to ask is, was, really more about the criminality. I mean, none of the members in either the House or the Senate really got into the issue of all the different offenses that these banks have committed in the last few years. You know, or, an ordinary person, if he commits welfare fraud, never gets a food stamp again in his life.
So given that these banks have systematically and repeatedly committed fraud, repeatedly been caught, you know, in situations like Jefferson County, municipal bid rigging, why should we still give them billions and billions of dollars in emergency lending from the Fed, bailouts, all of this aid from the government? How come there's no consequences for them and there are consequences for ordinary people?
Yves Smith: I would have asked questions more having to do with what's the justification for complex banking at all? That why do we need, why shouldn't banks be run on the utility basis? Why should we have people like Dimon and his, the members of the CIO unit, most of which he's fired, what the justification for literally that hundreds of millions of bonuses were paid collectively to those people.
And now he says they didn't know what they were doing. There's no justification for this, the sort of level of compensation that we generally have on Wall Street. And I would like to see that myth starting to be punctured in more public places.
Bill Moyers: What do you mean when you say banks should be more like a utility?
Yves Smith: Banks, more than any other business, more than military contractors, live off the government. They depend on government backstopping. They exist only by way of government issued licenses, which if you had open entry you'd see much lower fees. And they get some confidence from the public from the fact that they are regulated. Oh, and the most important thing is they have access to--
Matt Taibbi: The Federal Reserve.
Yves Smith: --the Federal Reserve.
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