Forgive us if we begin our discussion of the Senate Subcommittee for Investigation’s JPMorgan Chase hearing with a small victory lap, but as they say down South, “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.” We’ve been saying for years that JPMorgan Chase is fundamentally a criminal enterprise, that “Obama’s favorite banker” Jamie Dimon is a fraud, and that “America’s best bank” is a nest of venality and criminality. Although we value civility as much as the next guy, we’ve been forced to suggest that this bank is the “Scandal of Our Time,” a leading contender for “Worst Corporate Outlaw of the Year.”
We were also forced, civility or no, to suggest that JPM’s relationship with Syracuse University is corrupting our young people, and that the most generous interpretation of Dimon’s own tenure is that he is so profoundly incompetent as an executive that “Jamie Didn’t Know.” We also noted that Jamie did know that the London Whale scheme had cost his bank billions, even as he told investors on a phone call that it was just a “tempest in a teapot.”
If that’s not prima facie evidence of criminal stock fraud, conducted by The Man himself, it’s hard to know what is.
JPMorgan Chase was deeply involved in the Facebook IPO fiasco, which reeks of ethical lapses (and possibly worse). According to a whistleblower, it also had evidence regarding Bernie Madoff’s shenanigans, but kept on serving as his bank. Three years ago we ran the numbers and found that JPM had 44 percent of the derivatives market. Today’s it’s undoubtedly more.
Turns out we didn’t know the half of it.
We noted that Dimon showed up at Davos a few weeks back wearing FBI cufflinks, which seemed like his way of saying he had Federal investigators in his pocket. That was not an unreasonable assumption for Dimon to make, given that the FBI works for Attorney General Holder and that Holder’s past and future career includes doing a lot of work for the likes of Jamie Dimon.
Of course, in Dimon’s case “FBI” could also stand for “F*** Bank Investigators,” since the OCC and other agencies responsible for monitoring his bank have given it a free pass to carry on in its own lawless way. Old-fashioned hucksters, con men, and corrupters like Diamond Jim Brady had nothing on Diamond Jamie.
Dimon himself did not attend today’s hearing, which is intriguing: Why wasn’t he there? Did he refuse a subpoena, negotiate his way out of it, fly to a “secure undisclosed location” with Dick Cheney?
Inquiring minds want to know. But with or without JPM’s capo in the hot seat, this was one heck of a show. It seems clear: Something’s changed for Jamie D.
It’s true that some recent reports on Dimon’s bank were, even for jaded observers like yours truly, downright shocking. They were even, at the risk of revealing that I’m roughly Dimon’s age with my slang usage, mind-blowing. Still, having seen the free pass Dimon received a few weeks ago at a Senate Banking Committee hearing, as Senators skipped the most important questions for Dimon, we didn’t expect the bank and its executives to receive a bipartisan grilling on the Hill today.
Jamie’s crew got mugged, more than anyone saw coming.
The Worm Turns
Sure, Carl Levin’s been a hero in the banking scandal. But John McCain? Who knew he had it in him, either to be so tough on a corporation or to be so sharp in his questioning? Was it all those Democratic Party donations that did the trick?
What's more, today’s Senate hearing isn’t the only move against JPM. The Fed unexpectly rejected the bank’s “stress test” results and demanded that it (along with Goldman Sachs) submit new capital plans “to address weaknesses in their capital planning processes.” True, their plans are inadequate, but since when has that raised any red flags? The winds seem to have shifted.
The Fed’s move is particularly surprising since the committee which decides how much its employees earn is chaired by none other than … Jamie Dimon. (If you want evidence that ethically dubious Wall Streeters and the nation’s central bank are too cozy, look no further.)
All of these moves against JPM raise the question, When did Dimon’s “buy-partisan” Get Out of Jail Free card expire, and why? Did he forget to pay his protection money?
The best interpretation of this shift, and the one I deeply hope to be true, is that the political climate and the preponderance of evidence is making it politically impossible to keep providing cover for dirty executives at Too Big To Fail banks.
We don’t know the answer yet. But the Senate hearing has crackled with electric comments so far (we can’t wait for the upcoming appearance of negligent regulators from the OCC), and the Committee’s report is even more striking.
The report’s contents inspired the Committee’s chairs to give this hearing the name “JPMorgan Chase Whale Trades: A Case History of Derivatives Risks and Abuses,” if that gives you any idea.
The Case Against Chase
The Senate report directly implicates Dimon in a plan to hide the bank’s London Whale losses, as we first suspected in April of last year. As the Times of London pithily put it, “The head of JPMorgan Chase was accused last night of lying to the US Senate and conspiring to hide from regulators trading losses that ballooned to $6.2 billion.”
That might have something to do with the Senate’s change in attitude: Dimon made monkeys of them. John McCain doesn’t like looking foolish, which may partially explain this comment: “JPMorgan dodged federal regulators and misled the public by hiding losses, by mismarking credit derivatives’ values.”
Another report, from investment analyst Joshua Rosner, is at least as devastating as the Subcommittee’s. The extremely well-researched report, “JPMorgan Chase – Out of Control,” slams the bank for its incompetent risk management – supposedly a Dimon specialty, according to the mythology created by his PR department.
Rosner observes that JPM’s “balance sheet is almost one-ninth the size of the United States economy,” and concludes that “JPMorgan's financial filings, its 'Task Force' investigation of losses in the CIO's office and its recent history of significant regulatory failures demonstrate that shareholders are continuing to be called upon to pay for the firm's inability to ensure an acceptable control environment.”(Emphasis is Rosner’s.)
The implication of that comment? There should be no more free rides for people who buy JPM stock, thereby enriching Dimon and Company, because they're counting on future government bailouts and a continued lack of regulatory oversight or prosecutions for criminal acts at the bank.
The Rap Sheet
Dave Dayen did a yeoman’s job of culling Rosner's report for its depictions of possible criminal acts, and the list is beyond the imagining of even the bank’s worst critics. We knew about some of them, but even without the bank’s “Burger King kids” forgery and other mortgage crimes, the full scope of the bank's potential rap sheet is mind-boggling.
The list of possible offenses includes “Bank Secrecy Act violations; Money laundering for drug cartels; Violations of sanction orders against Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and former Liberian strongman Charles Taylor; Failure to segregate customer funds (Paul Volcker to the emergency room, stat!); Fraudulent sale of unregistered securities; Auto-finance ripoffs; Illegal increases of overdraft penalties …"
There’s plenty more where that came from.
It’s going to be interesting to see what comes of the SEC investigation into the London Whale now that this evidence has become public – and now that Mary Jo White, Obama’s nominee to head the SEC, has skated through her confirmation hearing. (She said she’d avoid her former Wall Street clients “for a year.” A year? Then what happens?)
The End … or the Beginning?
I don’t mean to suggest I was the only Dimon skeptic out there. Yves Smith, who observes that the “Senate report reveals JPM was a lying, scheming rogue trader,” was all over the bank. I agree with her, however, when she says that “the failings described in the report are even worse than we imagined.” Michael Crimmins did invaluable work on the bank’s record, and did so fearlessly. (One entry from last July was entitled “Why the Cops Should Be Knocking On Jamie Dimon’s Door Soon.”)
“This fiasco is beginning to look a lot like accounting control fraud,” Crimmins wroteback then. (We’ve noted that major accounting firms who work with big banks – and my former employer AIG – should be investigated for a variety of professional and criminal violations.)
I’ll have to check with other Dimon-bashers to see if they feel the same way I do, but I have to say I appreciate the “validation.” I feel like Kevin McCarthy when the military finally believes him in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But that doesn't mean that a twist in the conclusion to this horror story is out of the question. That movie's original ending had McCarthy escaping his town only to find the entire nation contaminated by aliens. The original ending to Hitchcock's The Birds had the survivors reaching San Francisco only to find the entire city devastated by avian attacks.
But those endings did poorly with focus groups. They would have been nearly as disastrous for those films as a trick ending to this saga would be for the American economy.
It's true that well-connected hucksters like Dimon have a way of slipping away at the last second. The ending to this story is still unwritten, and Dimon's still likely to come out on top - or, at the very least, to avoid legal scrutiny - as long as the current team stays in charge at the Justice Department and other agencies. We'll keep reviewing the reports and the testimonty. But we can already say that this is the brightest day for justice and economic common sense that we’ve seen in a long time.