Everything Built on Myth Eventually Fails

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Editor’s Comment:

The good news is that the myth of Jamie Dimon’s infallaibility is at least called into question. Perhaps better news is that, as pointed out by Simon Johnson’s article below, the mega banks are not only Too Big to Fail, they are Too Big to Manage, which leads to the question, of why it has taken this long for Congress and the Obama administration to conclude that these Banks are Too Big to Regulate. So the answer, now introduced by Senator Brown, is to make the banks smaller and  put caps on them as to what they can and cannot do with their risk management.

But the real question that will come to fore is whether lawmakers in Dimon’s pocket will start feeling a bit squeamish about doing whatever Dimon asks. He is now becoming a political and financial liability. The $2.3 billion loss (and still counting) that has been reported seems to be traced to the improper trading in credit default swaps, an old enemy of ours from the mortgage battle that continues to rage throughout the land.  The problem is that the JPM people came to believe in their own myth which is sometimes referred to as sucking on your own exhaust. They obviously felt that their “risk management” was impregnable because in the end Jamie would save the day.

This time, Jamie can’t turn to investors to dump the loss on, thus drying up liquidity all over the world. This time he can’t go to government for a bailout, and this time the traction to bring the mega banks under control is getting larger. The last vote received only 33 votes from the Senate floor, indicating that Dimon and the wall Street lobby had control of 2/3 of the senate. So let ius bask in the possibility that this is the the beginning of the end for the mega banks, whose balance sheets, business practices and public announcements have all been based upon lies and half truths.

This time the regulators are being forced by public opinion to actually peak under the hood and see what is going on there. And what they will find is that the assets booked on the balance sheet of Dimon’s monolith are largely fictitious. This time the regulators must look at what assets were presented to the Federal Reserve window in exchange for interest free loans. The narrative is shifting from the “free house” myth to the reality of free money. And that will lead to the question of who is the creditor in each of the transactions in which a mortgage loan is said to exist.

Those mortgage loans are thought to exist because of a number of incorrect presumptions. One of them is that the obligation remains unpaid and is secured. Neither is true. Some loans might still have a balance due but even they have had their balances reduced by the receipt of insurance proceeds and the payoff from credit default swaps and other credit enhancements, not to speak of the taxpayer bailout.

This money was diverted from investor lenders who were entitled to that money because their contracts and the representations inducing them to purchase bogus mortgage bonds, stated that the investment was investment grade (Triple A) and because they thought they were insured several times over. It is true that the insurance was several layers thick and it is equally true that the insurance payoff covered most if not all the balances of all the mortgages that were funded between 1996 and the present. The investor lenders should have received at least enough of that money to make them whole — i.e., all principal and interest as promissed.

Instead the Banks did the unthinkable and that is what is about to come to light. They kept the money for themselves and then claimed the loss of investors on the toxic loans and tranches that were created in pools of money and mortgages — pools that in fact never came into existence, leaving the investors with a loose partnership with other investors, no manager, and no accounting. Every creditor is entitled to payment in full — ONCE, not multiple times unless they have separate contracts (bets) with parties other than the borrower. In this case, with the money received by the investment banks diverted from the investors, the creditors thought they had a loss when in fact they had a claim against deep pocket mega banks to receive their share of the proceeds of insurance, CDS payoffs and taxpayer bailouts.

What the banks were banking on was the stupidity of government regulators and the stupidity of the American public. But it wasn’t stupidity. it was ignorance of the intentional flipping of mortgage lending onto its head, resulting in loan portfolios whose main characteristic was that they would fail. And fail they did because the investment banks “declared” through the Master servicer that they had failed regardless of whether people were making payments on their mortgage loans or not. But the only parties with an actual receivable wherein they were expecting to be paid in real money were the investor lenders.

Had the investor lenders received the money that was taken by their agents, they would have been required to reduce the balances due from borrowers. Any other position would negate their claim to status as a REMIC. But the banks and servicers take the position that there exists an entitlement to get paid in full on the loan AND to take the house because the payment didn’t come from the borrower.

This reduction in the balance owed from borrowers would in and of itself have resulted in the equivalent of “principal reduction” which in many cases was to zero and quite possibly resulting in a claim against the participants in the securitization chain for all of the ill-gotten gains. remember that the Truth In Lending Law states unequivocally that the undisclosed profits and compensation of ANYONE involved in the origination of the loan must be paid, with interest to the borrower. Crazy you say? Is it any crazier than the banks getting $15 million for a $300,000 loan. Somebody needs to win here and I see no reason why it should be the megabanks who created, incited, encouraged and covered up outright fraud on investor lenders and homeowner borrowers.

Making Banks Small Enough And Simple Enough To Fail

By Simon Johnson

Almost exactly two years ago, at the height of the Senate debate on financial reform, a serious attempt was made to impose a binding size constraint on our largest banks. That effort – sometimes referred to as the Brown-Kaufman amendment – received the support of 33 senators and failed on the floor of the Senate. (Here is some of my Economix coverage from the time.)

On Wednesday, Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, introduced the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Efficient Banking Act, or SAFE, which would force the largest four banks in the country to shrink. (Details of this proposal, similar in name to the original Brown-Kaufman plan, are in this briefing memo for a Senate banking subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, available through Politico; see also these press release materials).

His proposal, while not likely to immediately become law, is garnering support from across the political spectrum – and more support than essentially the same ideas received two years ago.  This week’s debacle at JP Morgan only strengthens the case for this kind of legislative action in the near future.

The proposition is simple: Too-big-to-fail banks should be made smaller, and preferably small enough to fail without causing global panic. This idea had been gathering momentum since the fall of 2008 and, while the Brown-Kaufman amendment originated on the Democratic side, support was beginning to appear across the aisle. But big banks and the Treasury Department both opposed it, parliamentary maneuvers ensured there was little real debate. (For a compelling account of how the financial lobby works, both in general and in this instance, look for an upcoming book by Jeff Connaughton, former chief of staff to former Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware.)

The issue has not gone away. And while the financial sector has pushed back with some success against various components of the Dodd-Frank reform legislation, the idea of breaking up very large banks has gained momentum.

In particular, informed sentiment has shifted against continuing to allow very large banks to operate in their current highly leveraged form, with a great deal of debt and very little equity.  There is increasing recognition of the massive and unfair costs that these structures impose on the rest of the economy.  The implicit subsidies provided to “too big to fail” companies allow them to boost compensation over the cycle by hundreds of millions of dollars.  But the costs imposed on the rest of us are in the trillions of dollars.  This is a monstrously unfair and inefficient system – and sensible public figures are increasingly pointing this out (including Jamie Dimon, however inadvertently).

American Banker, a leading trade publication, recently posted a slide show, “Who Wants to Break Up the Big Banks?” Its gallery included people from across the political spectrum, with a great deal of financial sector and public policy experience, along with quotations that appear to support either Senator Brown’s approach or a similar shift in philosophy with regard to big banks in the United States. (The slide show is available only to subscribers.)

According to American Banker, we now have in the “break up the banks” corner (in order of appearance in that feature): Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas; Sheila Bair, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; Tom Hoenig, a board member of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City; Jon Huntsman, former Republican presidential candidate and former governor of Utah; Senator Brown; Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England; Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont; and Camden Fine, president of the Independent Community Bankers of America. (I am also on the American Banker list).

Anat Admati of Stanford and her colleagues have led the push for much higher capital requirements – emphasizing the particular dangers around allowing our largest banks to operate in their current highly leveraged fashion. This position has also been gaining support in the policy and media mainstream, most recently in the form of a powerful Bloomberg View editorial.

(You can follow her work and related discussion on this Web site; on twitter she is @anatadmati.)

Senator Brown’s legislation reflects also the idea that banks should fund themselves more with equity and less with debt. Professor Admati and I submitted a letter of support, together with 11 colleagues whose expertise spans almost all dimensions of how the financial sector really operates.

We particularly stress the appeal of having a binding “leverage ratio” for the largest banks. This would require them to have at least 10 percent equity relative to their total assets, using a simple measure of assets not adjusted for any of the complicated “risk weights” that banks can game.

We also agree with the SAFE Banking Act that to limit the risk and potential cost to taxpayers, caps on the size of an individual bank’s liabilities relative to the economy can also serve a useful role (and the same kind of rule should apply to non-bank financial institutions).

Under the proposed law, no bank-holding company could have more than $1.3 trillion in total liabilities (i.e., that would be the maximum size). This would affect our largest banks, which are $2 trillion or more in total size, but in no way undermine their global competitiveness. This is a moderate and entirely reasonable proposal.

No one is suggesting that making JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo smaller would be sufficient to ensure financial stability.

But this idea continues to gain traction, as a measure complementary to further strengthening and simplifying capital requirements and generally in support of other efforts to make it easier to handle the failure of financial institutions.

Watch for the SAFE Banking Act to gain further support over time.

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