The insolvent United States banking system: lessons from J.P. Morgan Chase
Why the banks must be nationalized
2012-05-17, Issue 585
This reality was brought home last Thursday, May 10, when it was revealed the J. P Morgan Chase, the largest bank in the United States had been involved in the most risky type of speculative trading that was not supposed to be undertaken by a federally insured depository institution. The nature of the speculative trading is still covered up by the media but from what has been coming out there were bets placed by a derivative trader who was placing US$100billion bets that the US economy would recover. One report called the operation ’trades in the synthetic derivatives hedging business.’
Whether this is the real cause of the attention to JP Morgan Chase will only come to light when the media and the representatives of the people call for the removal of Jamie Dimon, the CEO of this bank and takes over the bank. While the information on the $3 billion loss is as opaque as the business world of the financial system, the nature of the risk that was being undertaken is reserved exclusively for the big banks and offers multi- million dollar profits in this ether world that is called financial capitalism.
JPMorgan Chase is currently one of the biggest banks in the world supposedly with $2.1 trillion in assets and more than 239,000 employees. I used the word ‘supposedly’ because JP Morgan Chase was one of the recipients of more than$26 billion of Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the American International Group (AIG) in September 2008. Troubled Assets was the term coined by the US government to hide from the world the state of the insolvency of the US banking system where the big banks had overextended themselves in the housing bubble issuing what was then called mortgage backed securities. These banks are still mired in the toxic mess from the orgy of speculation of that era and JP Morgan compounded its own risky position by taking over the bad bank, Washington Mutual.
The Bank JP Morgan Chase grew bigger and riskier after absorbing two of the failed banks at the center of the MBS debacle. JPS acquired Bears Stearns and Washington Mutual. Hence on top of its own involvement in the casino economy, JP Morgan Chase had taken on two failed banks in an attempt to save the US financial system.
The Tarp instrument was the means through which the US government had ‘bailed out the banks and investment houses in 2008. JP Morgan Chase was involved in the same credit default swaps (CDS) that was at the core of the gambling that brought down the system in 2008. The speculative activities of the Banks have increased since 2008 and now the press is seeking to lay the blame on one derivatives trader in London. According to the media, speculation by a derivatives trader in London has produced a $2 billion trading loss for JP Morgan Chase. It is still not clear the extent of the loss but we know that it is in the same category as the losses at MF Global last year. These losses add to the scandal after scandal and are supposed to be on par with the other debacles of 2008 when two major Wall Street institutions, Bear Stearns and then Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. This year the progressive forces must renew the call for the nationalization of the big banks which are supposed to be too big to fail.
THE ARROGANCE OF THE BIG BANKS
The rise and impending collapse of J P Morgan Chase is a cautionary tale about the fortunes (or currently misfortunes ) of the US banking system. Older readers will remember the name Chase Manhattan Bank and the era when David Rockefeller and this bank stood at the apex of US capitalism. Today Chase Manhattan no longer exists and has been absorbed through the mergers and acquisitions of the years of neo-liberal capitalism. Then there was the other major US capitalist whose fortunes were made when there were the most brutal forms of exploitation of workers. This was the banker and industrialist, John Pierpont Morgan. The career of JP Morgan was symbolic of the merger of industrial and bank capital to create financial capitalism at the turn of the twentieth century. Today at the start of the 21st century JP Morgan Chase is the result of the combination of several large U.S. banking companies over the last decade including Chase Manhattan Bank, J.P. Morgan & Co., Bank One, Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual. Going back further, the predecessors of the current banking behemoth include major banking firms among which are Chemical Bank, Manufacturers Hanover, First Chicago Bank, National Bank of Detroit, Texas Commerce Bank, Providian Financial and Great Western Bank.
JP Morgan Chase is a textbook case of what happened to US banks during the era of neo-liberalism when the Glass Steagall Act was repealed separating investment banking from federally insured deposit banks. Much attention has been paid to the two poster children of the new casino type operators who claim to be bankers, Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs. These two are just at the top of the massive political structure that squeezes the mass of the citizens of the world for the top 1 per cent. In the book ‘13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown’, the authors Simon Johnson and James Kwak have detailed the evolution of the neo-liberal world that was spun by these bankers. According to Johnson and Kwak, the bankers created new money machines with new schemes such as securitization, high yield debt, arbitrage trading and derivatives. On top of these serial innovations we now have a new one called value at risk. Later we will be told what is synthetic derivatives hedging business. These “serial innovations created the new money machines that fueled the rapid, massive growth in the size, profitability and wealth of the financial sector over the last three decades.”
It is the accrued power of these bankers that now threatens the global system of capitalism. After the tremors of the financial markets in 2008 these same banks that called for deregulation called for bail outs because they were too big to fail. For a while, there had been word of the depth of the hole in other banks and we are still waiting for the information on Bank of America which is still under wraps with Wikileaks. Only two months ago, the Federal Reserve completed a “stress test” of the 19 largest US banks, which gave all of them a green light in terms of solvency and approved increased dividends or stock buybacks for 15 of the 19 banks. This exposure of JP Morgan exposes the fraud of the so called stress tests.
Although the banking system was propped up and we are informed in the media that these banks recently passed ‘stress tests,’ the news about the risky bets of JP Morgan is a stark reminder that the time bomb is ticking. Since that fateful week in September 2008, far from resolving the crisis of the US financial system, the bailout of Wall Street that had been orchestrated by the Federal government has resulted in a further centralization of financial assets in a handful of giant institutions that dominate American society. The further centralization now means that five of the 13 banks—JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs — held $8.5 trillion in assets at the end of 2011. The big five have increased their viselike grip on the US economy over the past five years: in 2006, their financial holdings amounted to 43 percent of US gross domestic product. By the end of 2011, that figure had risen to 56 percent.
JP MORGAN AT THE FOREFRONT OF OPPOSING REGULATION
JP Dimon is the CEO of JP Morgan Chase. He has been the most active among the bankers in manipulating the system playing both sides of the political game and arguing against the regulation of the banks. Jamie Dimon was paid over US $23 million last year and now it is coming out that it is the accounting scams that produced the paper profits that enabled the big bonuses for Dimon and the traders who were urged to make riskier bets. Dimon has been the most active in the press and in his visits to the Obama White House. He has argued for the ‘markets’ to take their course when his bank has been in operation in a world that is beyond the reach of markets. While the world of these bankers is beyond the ‘market’ these are the financiers who promote the myth that the development of a generalized market (the least regulated possible) and democracy are complimentary to one another. The same bankers who argue that the economic sphere and the political sphere are separate and that the market does not need the state are the same bankers who are expending billions to lobby so that the limited regulations proposed by the Dodd-Frank legislation of 2010 are not affected. The Dodd-Frank legislation included one particular clause called the Volcker rule that was supposed to ban proprietary trading by the lords of the universe.
Jamie Dimon has been described by Barack Obama as one of the smartest bankers in the United States. Obama was simply exposing the subservience of the federal government to the bankers who are the same group pouring millions into both campaigns. The bankers are ensuring that whichever party wins in November, the US banking system will be protected. Barack Obama timidly called for regulating JP Morgan while actively engaging the soliciting of funds from one of the most notorious ‘private equity’ firms in New York. The close relationship between the private equity firms and the bankers constitute the power of the top one per cent and the US government acts to serve this one per cent. After the big scare of 2008 there was fear internationally that there would be a run on the dollar. It was this fear that induced the members of the US government to pass the Dodd-Frank Legislation to prevent the obscene conflict of interest of the banks and investment houses. The expedient which was supposed to prevent the conflict of interest was the Volcker rule, named after the former Treasury Secretary of an era before financialization. The rule placed trading restrictions on financial institutions. In the 2010 legislation, the Volcker rule separates investment banking, private equity and proprietary trading (hedge fund) sections of financial institutions from their consumer lending arms. Banks are not allowed to simultaneously enter into an advisory and creditor role with clients, such as with private equity firms. The Volcker rule aims to minimize conflicts of interest between banks and their clients through separating the various types of business practices financial institutions engage in.
JP Dimon has been the leader in opposing the Volcker rule because his organization has been at the forefront of the practice where a hedge fund is operating inside a commercial bank. Commercial banks are federally insured and are different from investment banks. Under the rules of the so called market, bankers are not supposed to take deposits from customers and then use the same deposits to make speculative bets. This was not supposed to happen but when the banks became huge money machines, they operated above the law. This is how a bank such as JP Morgan controls assets that are worth 20 per cent of the GDP of the USA.
BANKS MUST BE NATIONALIZED
Jamie Dimon sits on the Board of the Federal Reserve of New York. This is the most important position of the US financial system because this is the reserve system that holds the foreign reserves of 60 per cent of the economies of the world. JP Morgan Chase is a particularly critical financial institution, since in addition to its vast holdings; it serves as one of the two main clearing banks in New York City, along with Bank of New York Mellon, handling financial transactions for all other banks. Any challenge to its solvency immediately puts a question mark over the whole financial system. Central bankers all over the world are following with interest the call for Jamie Dimon to be removed from the Board of the Federal Reserve of New York because of conflicts of interest. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York carries out foreign exchange-related activities on behalf of the Federal Reserve System and the U.S. Treasury. In this capacity, the bank monitors and analyzes global financial market developments, manages the U.S. foreign currency reserves, and from time to time intervenes in the foreign exchange market. The bank also executes foreign exchange transactions on behalf of customers.
Tim Geithner now Treasury Secretary was the former President of the Federal Reserve Board of New York. It was under Geithner when billions were handed over to the bankers after 2008. Then Geithner was trying to save the US financial system so that foreigners will not pull their reserves out of the dollar. As Treasury Secretary, Geithner was reported to have had secret meetings with Jamie Dimon in March this year when news first surfaced of the synthetic trades.
Elizabeth Warren, now running for a Senate seat in Massachusetts, has called for the resignation of Jamie Dimon from the Federal Reserve Board of New York. Every citizen will understand that there is a conflict of interest between sitting on a board that is supposed to regulate the operations of JP Morgan Chase. But conflict of interest has never been a problem for the US capitalists. They changed the rules to suit themselves. However, this was before the era when other societies had alternatives. From China to Venezuela and from Argentina to Japan, central bankers are seeking ways to exit from the contagion of the speculative trading of US bankers.
Last year the world was exposed to the realities of the insolvency of the US financial system when there was the debate on the debt ceiling. Now it has been revealed that the debt ceiling will have to be raised again. This is sending shudders down the spine of financial institutions around the world.
The political struggles over the future of the US financial system are maturing. In order to pre-empt utter disaster the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas has called for the big banks to be broken up. The big banks continue to act on the assumption that the US dollar will be the reserve currency of international trade, especially now that the Euro is in disarray. These big banks are of the view that the US government will continue the devaluation of the US dollar without a response from the rest of the world. It is this understanding which has influenced the bankers to believe that the US government will intervene to bail them out when they make speculative bets that the US economy will improve. Many refuse to accept that this is a depression.
Sober elements understand that the banks must be broken up and this was stated explicitly in the annual report of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. The letter from the head of the Dallas Federal Reserve is entitled, Choosing the Road to Prosperity Why We Must End Too Big to Fail—Now. In this letter, Richard Fisher from the Dallas Federal Reserve argues that the situation of the bf banks is a disaster in waiting. Fisher would force the big banks to reorganize and get much smaller. And he would require “harsh and non-negotiable consequences” for any bank that ends in trouble and seeks government aid, including removal of its leaders, replacement of its board, voiding all compensation and bonus contracts and clawing back any bonus compensation for the two previous years.
It is now understood by these sober elements in the USA that the Big Banks may be not only too big to fail, but also too big to save.
The politicians in the USA are compromised and refuse to see the reality. It is the task of the progressive forces to keep the discussions on the JP Morgan losses on the table in order to educate the people on the nature of the depression. The major media houses such as the New York Times are attempting to manage this story saying that this $3-4 billion loss is a drop in the bucket. From the financial papers there is the buzz that one’s loss is another person’s gain. This is cold comfort to the poor all over the world who are suffering in the midst of this depression. In 2008 the government socialized the losses while the profits were privatized. The bailout was one of the biggest transfers of wealth from the poor of the world to the rich. These bankers now need another bail out and the US government will have to increase the debt ceiling.
For the moment the Occupy Wall Street Movement has made it impossible for the government to bail out the banks again. However, far from bailing out the bankers, speculators such as Corzine of MF Global and Jamie Dimon should be prosecuted. It is not enough to say that what JP Morgan was doing was inappropriate from a federally insured depository institution. It is time for the people to call for these banks to be taken over and the big bankers removed.
It is now time for audacity and more audacity. Nationalization and political education at the moment is more important than the elections. Bankers like JP Morgan profit from war and these forces want another big war so that the capitalists can recover. The peace and justice forces must be more vigilant. The JP Morgan Chase debacle heightens the desperation of the top one per cent in the USA.
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* Horace Campbell is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University.