Tag Archives: banks

The Conspiracy Behind the B of A “Mistake”

By James Kwak

Some very clever people deep in the bowels of Bank of America’s accounting and regulatory compliance departments came up with a clever strategy to show, once and for all, that their bank is too big to manage. On Monday, the bank admitted that it had misplaced $4 billion in regulatory capital because of an error in accounting for changes in the value of its own debts. Coming less than two months after Citigroup misplaced $400 million in cold, hard cash in its Mexican subsidiary, this latest mixup is clearly part of a concerted campaign by employees of the big banks to definitively prove that their top executives have no idea what is going on.

This shadow lobbying campaign can be traced back to its origins in the LIBOR scandal (“Let’s rig the world’s largest market and see if Vikram Pandit notices.”) and the London Whale trade (“Let’s make a colossal bet on the relative values of different corporate bond indexes and see if Jamie Dimon notices.”). The only possible explanation for this seemingly never-ending stream of embarrassing disclosures is the existence of a conspiracy, orchestrated by some of the smartest bankers in the world, designed to broadcast to the world the message that regulators and politicians somehow failed to take from the financial crisis: the Masters of the Universe can’t even figure out what’s going on four floors down in their own buildings. The Bank of America accomplices even managed to miscalculate the bank’s regulatory capital for five full years before tipping off their bosses, showing the premeditation behind their scheme.

Or, the other possibility is that the banks are both incompetent and unmanageable. But that can’t be true, can it?

Oblivious

By James Kwak

Benjamin Lawsky’s unilateral action against Standard Chartered has apparently upset the “bigger” regulators in Washington and London. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Officials at the U. K. Financial Services Authority complained . . . that the sudden move could have damaged the stability of the bank and that the lack of advance notice breached long-standing protocol among bank regulators.”

Wait. Now how is that supposed to compared with the fact that Standard Chartered almost certainly conspired to evade U. S. sanctions?*  Why are they mad at Benjamin Lawsky instead of at Standard Chartered? And when you think a violation of inter-regulator “protocol” is worse than a systematic plan to defraud the U. S. government and break sanctions against Iran, of all countries—it’s hard to imagine how you could be more captured, without knowing it.

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$3 Billion Banks

By James Kwak

Jon Macey is no friend of regulation. In 1994, he wrote a paper titled “Administrative Agency Obsolescence and Interest Group Formation: A Case Study of the SEC at Sixty” arguing, in no uncertain terms, that the SEC was obsolete: “the market forces and exogenous technological changes catalogued in this Article* have obviated any public interest justification for the SEC that may have existed” (p. 949). This diagnosis was not confined to the SEC, either.

“The behavior of regulators in [the financial services] industry is due to exogenous economic pressures that, left alone, would result both in major changes in the structure of the financial services industry and in the need for regulation. However, these economic pressures threaten the interests of bureaucrats in administrative agencies and other interest groups by causing a diminution in demand for their services and products. In response to these threats, pressure is brought to bear for ‘reforms’ that will eliminate the ‘disruption’ caused by these market forces.

“The net result of this dynamic is as clear as it is depressing. One observes continued government intervention in the financial markets long after the need for such intervention has ceased. Such intervention stifles the incentives of entrepreneurs to devote the resources and human capital necessary to develop new financial products and to de- velop strategies that assist the capital formation process by helping markets operate more efficiently.”

So what does Jon Macey think of big banks?

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Who Needs Big Banks?

At a panel discussion at the Pew Charitable Trusts (captured for posterity by Planet Money), Alice Rivlin floated the idea of breaking up big banks. Luckily for us, Scott Talbott of the Financial Services Roundtable (a lobbying group for big banks) was there to slap that idea down.

Talbott: “We need big companies, and they can be managed, and they are being managed …”

Alex Blumberg (Planet Money): “But why, why do we need big companies?”

Talbott: “They provide a number of benefits across the globe. We have a global economy, and these institutions can handle the finances of the world. They can also handle the finances of large, non-bank institutions like General Electric or Johnson & Johnson. They need these institutions [that] can handle the complex transactions. Simply breaking them up … then you’re discouraging a company from achieving the American Dream, working hard, earning money, producing products, and getting bigger.”

There are two things I object to strongly. The second is easy. The American Dream is for people, not companies. And people dream of working hard, being successful, making money, and having an impact on the world. The American Dream does not imply any particular company size. There are situations in which your products are just so much better than anyone else’s that your company becomes big as a result; Google comes to mind. But Citigroup is the product of no one’s American Dream. When Talbott says “American Dream,” what he really means is “American Bank CEO’s Dream” — because, as we all know, CEO compensation in the financial sector is extremely correlated with assets.

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Soaking Customers as a Form of Prudential Regulation

Good for Deputy Treasury Secretary (and YLS alumnus) Neal Wolin for wading into the American Bankers Association to defend the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. According to FinReg21’s article:

Wolin firmly rejected the argument made by American Bankers Association chief executive Ed Yingling in recent congressional testimony that responsibility for consumer protection should not be separated from the responsibility for safety and soundness. . . .

The industry has argued that prudential regulators are careful to preserve a profit margin on financial products, to keep financial institutions sound.

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Recently Bailed-Out Banks Refuse to Take California IOUs

The Wall Street Journal (via Calculated Risk) reports that a group of large banks has announced that it will not accept IOUs issued by the state of California. The group includes the four horsemen of the financial crisis: Citigroup, Bank of America/Merrill/Countrywide, JPMorgan Chase/Bear Stearns/WaMu, and Wells Fargo/Wachovia.

Write your own ironic commentary.

By James Kwak

The Missed Opportunity

For a snapshot of what’s wrong with our banking policy, look at the front page of the business section of today’s New York Times. On the left side: “U.S. in Standoff with Banks over Chrysler.” On the right side: “Banks Show Clout on Legislation to Help Consumers.”

On the left side, a consortium of banks holding Chrysler debt is refusing to agree to the current restructuring plan, which involves bondholders holding $6.9 billion in secured debt getting about 15 cents on the dollar – roughly where the bonds are currently trading, according to the Times.* The banks are playing the ongoing game of chicken with the government, betting that the government will cave and give them a better deal rather than take a risk on a bankruptcy.

On the right side, the banks are using their lobbying clout to block the administration’s proposals to help consumers and households, including the mortgage cram-down provision (which would allow bankruptcy courts to modify mortgages on first homes) and added consumer protections for credit card customers. They currently have all 41 Republican votes in the Senate tied up, which means nothing can pass.

The banks leading the charge over Chrysler: JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup. The banks opposed to cram-downs: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. The banks blocking credit card protections: American Express, Bank of America, Capital One Financial, Citigroup, Discover Financial Services, and JPMorgan Chase. All or almost all are bailout beneficiaries. But don’t blame them: they’re just doing what they can to maximize their profits at the expense of the taxpayer, which is perfectly legal (and even ethical, depending on your conception of shareholder rights). Instead, you should be wondering why they are in a position to be maximizing profits at the taxpayer’s expense.

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