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The J.P. Morgan CEO is not a diplomat and does not perform kowtows to the political powers that be.
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Losing money is embarrassing. And an embarrassed Jamie Dimon publicly admitted that J.P. Morgan Chase goofed. Three senior executives lost their jobs as a result. But politicians and regulators in Washington are rushing to leverage the bank’s misfortune for their own gain.
First, consider the relative magnitude of the company’s trading loss: $2 billion on a $200 billion portfolio. A 1% trading loss is hardly the stuff that should make news, particularly in Washington.
Consider two other recent episodes. The Obama administration guaranteed a $535 million loan to Solyndra, then lost everything on its bet when the solar-energy company went bankrupt last September.
Then there is the auto-industry bailout. According to the TARP inspector general’s April 25 report, taxpayers have been paid cash and securities worth $50.9 billion on the $79.7 billion extended to General Motors, General Motors Acceptance Corp. (now Ally Financial) and Chrysler. That is a $28.8 billion loss.
Nevertheless, the president’s re-election campaign is running an ad bragging about the bailout’s success. Meanwhile, J.P. Morgan’s much smaller loss is the subject of speeches and hearings and a howling chorus in the media.
A second problem is the cry within the Beltway that J.P. Morgan lost “our” money. But the company did not lose money last quarter: It made a $5.4 billion profit. J.P. Morgan also did not lose taxpayer money. While the company did take a loan from TARP at Washington’s insistence—so as not to “tarnish” the reputation of competitors that really needed the money—the loan was fully repaid in 2009. So there was no “we” involved. But that didn’t stop Washington from trying to claim otherwise.
Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) asserted last week that “This was a major bet on the direction of the economy, and when those kind of bets are lost we all pay the price.” Besides the fact that “we” didn’t pay any price, banks that lend money to businesses and consumers are making a major bet on the direction of the economy. While poorly executed, J.P. Morgan’s losing position was a hedge against the bank’s book of loans. Does Mr. Levin think that risk declines when the loan book is unhedged?
So why is Congress holding hearings? The answer is the bank’s CEO: Jamie Dimon.
He is a lifelong Democrat and big contributor to Democratic candidates. This is not a way to get Republicans to like you.
Since 2008 Mr. Dimon has also become increasingly critical and vocal about Mr. Obama’s mishandling of the economy, and financial regulation in particular. Not a way to get Democrats to like you.
Mr. Dimon has been a vocal critic of regulatory excess—pushing back forcefully against schemes that he believes will strangle American finance and with it the economy. This is a sure way to make everyone in power-mad Washington mad at you.
Mr. Dimon is not a diplomat, does not suffer fools gladly, and does not perform ritualistic kowtows to the political powers that be. So ordinarily the whole spectacle—including the media coverage and hearings—could be shrugged off as the humbling of someone the mob believes has grown too big for his britches.
But Mr. Dimon’s personal ordeal has profound implications for regulatory action and for the behavior of large financial institutions. The clear lesson to anyone participating in the market is to become more risk averse.
J.P. Morgan takes risks. Some paid off, some didn’t, and in the end they made billions in profit. But Washington demagogues want to convey a different message. If you are politically incorrect and lose a sizable sum in any of your divisions, you will pay a terrible and very public price.
In the marketplace, the natural response will be to take fewer risks even if that means a lower profit. It also means fewer loans, which means fewer small businesses, which means fewer jobs. And lower profits mean less tax revenue.
The most direct impact of a political climate hostile to risk-taking will be on liquidity. Washington is undermining the institutions that comprise the greatest capital market in history.
While a less-liquid capital market is an abstraction for the simple-minded in our nation’s capital, an inexorable decline in asset prices, including equity prices, is not. J.P. Morgan’s trading loss led to a belief that even more regulation was on the way. Thus the market value of the company initially fell by $15 billion, far greater than its $2 billion trading loss—and it has fallen more since.
The Federal Reserve can do all the quantitative easing it wants in a desperate effort to inflate asset prices and household wealth. But if risk-taking and corporate profitability are diminished, this will all come to naught. Washington’s demagogues are hard-wiring the next downturn.
One can only hope that during the hearings Mr. Dimon can expose his tormentors for what they truly are. But the game is stacked against him and the knifing has already taken place in the media, making the hearings a bit like the final scene in the movie “Gladiator.”
The lesson Washington intends for all is clear: Cross us and we will make you pay. Unfortunately the media and most of the spectators in the galleries are still cheering.
Mr. Lindsey, a former Federal Reserve governor and assistant to President George W. Bush for economic policy, is president and CEO of the Lindsey Group.
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