By Simon Johnson
While the financial reform negotiation process grinds to its meaningless conclusion, the real action lies elsewhere – in Jamie Dimon’s executive suite.
Dimon, the head of JP Morgan Chase, is apparently seeking to (a) become more global, (b) move further into emerging markets, and (c) become more like Citigroup.
This is terrific corporate strategy – and very dangerous for the rest of us.
Jamie Dimon clearly wants to become too big to fail, too interconnected to fail, and – above all – too global to fail.
He knows that the reform package will, among other (very small) things, create a resolution authority that will give the government more power – in principle – vis-à-vis failing financial institutions in the future. This is a central part of Tim Geithner’s vision for financial stability.
But Mr. Dimon also knows – as a board member of the NY Fed and sometime White House/Treasury confidante – that a US resolution authority will do precisely nothing to make it easier to handle the failure of a large global bank, e.g., Citigroup, doing business in over 100 countries.
The reason global megabanks will get bailouts in the future is simple – policymakers will fear the chaos that would ensue when competing bankruptcy claims swarm over a defaulted institution, much as happened for Lehman (e.g., in London) in September 2008.
Mr. Dimon and his colleagues – who include some top former global regulators – are also well aware that the G20 (and everyone else) will not make any serious push towards creating a cross-border resolution mechanism.
The best way to signal to creditors that they will be protected in all potential future crises is to make JP Morgan bigger and more global. This will lower the funding costs for the organization and in turn make this global expansion more profitable when times are good – and when times are bad, there will be government support.
In effect, Mr. Dimon is constructing a “poison pill” against takeover by the government. This is so simple, so brilliant, and so dangerous that it should take your breath away.
If you press serious administration officials, in private, on how they will use the new resolution authority for Citigroup or (now) JP Morgan Chase, they are quite candid: they would create a conservatorship, as with AIG or Fannie/Freddie. But there is a huge difference between conservatorship and resolution. Resolution is about winding down the company, typically involves firing, and should imply losses for unsecured creditors. Conservatorship is about managing the company as a going concern – and would almost certainly in this context involve full creditor protection.
It is perhaps ironic that Jamie Dimon argued strongly, early in the reform process, for a heavy weight to be placed on a resolution authority as a way to prevent future bailouts. His actions now to undermine the effectiveness of such an authority further suggest that this administration was unwise and naïve to rely on his advise in the early formative phases of reform.