(This op-ed appeared first in the New York Daily News.) The federal government’s $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan Chase is being widely touted as a major step towards Wall Street redemption. But like so many settlements before it, this deal has much more bark than bite.
A bit of opening perspective: The $9 billion cash fine component represents just three-tenths of 1% of JPM’s $2.44 trillion of assets (assets that, by the way, rose substantially due to its government-aided acquisitions in the midst of the financial crisis the bank helped to cause).
Of that $9 billion chunk, $4 billion goes to settle disputes with the Federal Housing Finance Agency. This, the settlement states unequivocally, “does not constitute an admission by any of the JPMorgan Defendants of any liability or wrongdoing, whatsoever.” (Just so we’re clear.)
Separately, the application of another $4 billion within the settlement is slotted for helping customers wronged by noxious mortgages. The catch? JPM gets to decide how to administer that help, which it hasn’t done well from the get-go.
There are some other clever word games embedded in the agreement. In the DOJ press release, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California Benjamin Wagner notes, “JPMorgan sold securities knowing that many of the loans backing those certificates were toxic.” “Toxic” is apparently the government’s way of not having to say “fraudulent.”
On one side of this semantic divide is the DOJ and JPM, and on the other is the American population.
No wonder: From the very title of the settlement on down, it is geared towards investors who bought securities containing “toxic” mortgages, not the people whose mortgages were fodder for those securities.
And though the deal is being advertised as the largest levy against one company in American history, it isn’t really if you consider proportion. Example: In 1988, Drexel Burnham Lambert reached a $650 million settlement. This included the company pleading guilty to six counts of fraud — and paying an amount equivalent to a comparatively whopping 2.2% of its assets.
But it’s not just about the money. The intent of the settlement relates to something in which JPM has a vested interest, as does the Federal Reserve: keeping the prices of mortgage-backed securities from imploding yet again.
The Fed has purchased nearly $1.4 trillion of such securities as part of its bond-buying program, largely from the big banks that manufactured them, a game of shuffle that can be construed as effectively helping to fund related settlements such as these.
That’s at the expense of helping the mortgagees screwed by faulty agreements, foreclosures or otherwise artificially inflated, then massively deflated, home values.
What’s more, the settlement solves no systemic problems, passing on the opportunity — or, in my opinion, the obligation — to transform banking in such a manner as to reduce the possibility of future frauds in the manner of the Glass-Steagall Act.
Ten years ago, after a spate of frauds emanating from Enron and WorldCom and others, the largest banks negotiated a $1.5 billion settlement with federal regulators in which they admitted no criminal guilt for their role. Then also, banks manufactured and sold bum securities that inflated and then crushed the broader market, crippling pensions and citizens’ savings in the process.
Then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer was dubbed “The Enforcer” for his attempts to push that settlement, which entailed some minor fines. But as we saw from the 2008 crisis, it didn’t take long for banks to regroup and find other ways to part the public from its money.
As long as JPMorgan and other megabanks can create and purchase mortgage loans, then concoct related securities associated with them, and sell these to investors under the same roof — all while enjoying support from the taxpayers through federal deposit insurance and federal bailouts for their troubles — nothing fundamental has changed.