Our Biggest Export JPMorgan Chase Is Socially Harmful and Too Big to Fail in Japan Too

Richard Eskow

Jamie’s going to Japan. Dealbreaker has a memo from JPMorgan Chase’s senior executive in Japan which says CEO Jamie Dimon is on his way: “Colleagues from around the globe are heading here to pitch in. In addition to Jamie, we will be seeing … others who are now booking their trips. In addition to keeping them very busy in the office and with clients let’s make sure to show them our great city.”

My first reaction to Dimon’s possible trip was negative. If I were a major shareholder, wouldn’t I want him to stop all these high-profile appearances and stay in his office for a while? Shouldn’t he be working on business fundamentals? But after some thought, I realized it made sense for the CEO to fly to an important base of operations and reassure the organization’s key clients and staff there.

Besides, Dimon can’t be all bad. His head of Japan operations also wrote that Dimon and his wife sent one hundred pizzas to staff in Tokyo. “Thanks to Jamie and Judy Dimon for the longest-distance pizza delivery in history,” writes Christopher Harvey. (Note to senior Chase executives: We accept free pizza at our office, too. No anchovies, please, Jamie.)

It’s not me. It’s you.

The real problem with JPMorgan Chase’s Japan operation isn’t the fact that the CEO’s taking a trip there with a large group of people. The real problem with JPMorgan Chase’s Japan operation is … JPMorgan Chase.

Where other companies have had difficulty exporting their business models to Japan, Chase has been too successful: Japanese regulators recently concluded that the bank is “too big to fail” in their country, too. In fact, Chase ranks number three among “too big to fail” institutions, say regulators there, exceeded only by Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs. Chase’s very existence in Japan is dangerous, endangering its economy at a time when its own recovery isn’t complete (after two decades of struggle) and as the nation reels of its recent catastrophes.

They’re not playing it safe, either. A couple of years ago the bank announced that it was getting into “inflation swaps” on the Japanese yen, for example, a type of derivative that’s essentially a bet on a currency’s future inflation rates. Inflation swaps are often criticized because they’re not considered “liquid” – they’re hard to sell if cash is needed. They’re not as volatile or dangerous as some other derivatives, and most of the investors betting on the yen are from outside the country, but it still makes us uncomfortable. It could be a problem if there’s a sudden and dramatic change in inflation rates.

Maybe it’s the fact that the credit default swaps which nearly brought down the economy were invented at Chase’s predecessor organization, JPMorgan, that has us edgy. Or maybe it’s the fact that in yen inflation rates, as in so many other areas, Chase isn’t above letting its executives manipulate the market as well as manage it.

Shorting austerity

It’s true that some analysts worry about a Japanese inflationary “death spiral” and the risk of hyperinflation (we’re not conviced), even though things have been stable on the inflation front for a while. These fears are usually based on some of the same issues we hear raised in domestic debates: An aging population that isn’t saving enough, too much debt, etc. Dimon himself expressed fears about the same issue at Davos recently, saying “governments have to express that we have the will to get this under control.”

You’d think that Chase would keep a low profile in Japan if Dimon really believes that. The government’s debt is high and there’s such a growing population of older people. But three years ago Chase was announcing aggressive expansion plans there,although the overall economic picture was essentially the same then as it is today. And Chase had a bullish position on Japanese stocks less than three months ago, when a senior Chase executive was aggressively touting them.

Of course, banks are notorious for taking one position publicly and betting against it privately, so there’s always the possibility that’s what’s happening here.

I bank with Mr. Bubble. And you?

Chase isn’t above fueling a new bubble or two, either, just to keep the revenue flowing. “Here comes the dumb money!” said Ben Popper at the New York Observer after Chase set up a $1.2 billion tech investment fund and started chasing after investments in over-valued companies like Facebook and Twitter.

Here’s a rule of thumb: If a company’s so famous they’ve made a hit movie about its founder, and it still hasn’t figured out make money, it’s overvalued.

The bank seems to be following Goldman’s lead in another way, too. It seems to be emulating Goldman’s Facebook offering by doing an end-run around SEC rules. It looks like Chase will be creating “private share” investments in these companies. That’s a trick that allows them to sell something that looks and seems very much like stocks – but isn’t regulated like stocks. Goldman got so much heat from the SEC for its Facebook deal that it backed down and made the offer available only to customers outside the United States. Hmmm … tech offerings … not street-legal in the US … but can be sold to foreigners …

Will a new technology bubble be Chase’s next export to Japan?

We make money the old-fashioned way. We overcharge.

If that doesn’t work, maybe the bank can see how the Japanese like the new $5 ATM fees Chase is now laying on its Illinois customers. The bank’s looking to expand its retail operations in the US by adding up to 2,000 retail branches in the next five years,supposedly to replace $1.3 billion in debit card transaction revenue it claims to be losing annually because of the Dodd/Frank bill.

(Really? $1.3 billion? On total annual revenue of $102 billion? That means they make a penny on every dollar from what’s really nothing more than a cashier service. Dimon has everyone convinced they’re in a glamorous business. Now we learn that he’s running a vending machine company.)

Charging five bucks to make use an ATM? There’s no risk in doing that – unless people start making withdrawals with crowbars instead.

Danger Man

At least retail banking isn’t dangerous. JPMorgan Chase has 40% of the derivatives market in the US, which makes it very dangerous indeed. Dimon’s attack on financial reform has essentially centered around the idea that he’s a great banker who knows how to avoid risk.

Dimon doesn’t seem to realize that his self-promotion defeats his own argument. If Chase is only safe because Dimon’s “TBTF” – “too brilliant to fail” – then it will become a great danger whenever Dimon retires. (And for the record, nobody’s that smart.)

When your bank poses a systemic threat to both the world’s largest economy and its third-largest, something’s seriously wrong. (A Chase executive might say “That’s right! We’re not big enough in China!”)

We used to export cars, and steel, and consumer products. Now we export danger.

Easy Money

It must be a comfort the Chase and its shareholders to know that whatever they export to Japan next, they’ll still be able to do the same thing there that they’re doing here: Take cheap money from the central bank and use it to make money in unproductive or socially harmful ways. The Chase approach couldn’t have been laid out any more plainly than this:

Masamichi Adachi, an economist at JPMorgan in Tokyo, said that established companies “lacked imagination” to take advantage of the easy money by proactively expanding overseas, for example, or taking other risks to bolster their businesses. (emphasis mine)

Thank you, central bank! We’ll take your money and use it to drain jobs and capital out of the country. We’ll encourage people to gamble with it, too. They may lose, but we won’t, because we’ll be taking a fee for every bet they place. Sure, we’ll gamble too, but we’re not worried because we know you’ll bail us out.

If you’ve just been transferred from Wall Street to Tokyo, don’t worry. I know it seems different to you now, but after you’ve been here a while you’ll be surprised how much it reminds you of home.

This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project.