Economic Outlook: Tempest in a teapot

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International  |  June 13, 2012 at 11:15 AM
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The headline is predictable: "JPMorgan Knew of Risks," and under that, the subhead is familiar: "Concerning $2 billion loss."

Paragraph two is predetermined: "Losses could go as high as $5 billion."

So, now, in Washington, someone is saying, "There ought to be a law!"

That would be any fan of the so-called Volcker rule that limits banks' proprietary bets in the market or Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who has pounced on JPMorgan's losses to push the SAFE Banking Act, which would prevent any one institution from growing past 10 percent of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's ability to back up retail accounts.

The law would also prevent banks from borrowing more than $10 for every $1 of shareholder equity, which Brown says would limit its affect to the six largest Wall Street banks.

A law for six banks? Really?

Some perspective is needed here. Since the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul took care of every manner of mistakes at major banks, it is difficult to figure out what will earn a politician a snappy sound byte out of all of this. There is Brown, of course, but also Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, who is calling for JPMorgan Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon to resign from the board of directors of the Federal Reserve of New York, where Dimon is serving his second term.

Never mind, this is a board that does not tell the Fed how to do its business, but instead only monitors the economic health of the district. Never mind, the Dodd-Frank bill has already eliminated the second of the board's two chores -- the one in which the board helps choose the New York Fed's president, when the occasion arises.

Never mind federal law specifies that bankers sit on the board. And never mind it is, by tradition, a two-term appointment and Dimon is expected to step down in September.

When Dimon testifies in Washington Wednesday in a hearing to review the bank's big loss, it is likely someone will repeat the phrase, "JPMorgan is the poster child for the Volcker rule."

But here is some perspective on that topic.

One: Making investments is what banks do.

Two: The Chief Investment Office in London that incurred the loss, is in charge of investing JPMorgan's "excess cash."

Three: In these troubled times, JPMorgan's "excess cash" in round figures amounts to $370 billion, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

Dimon, of course, is being assailed this week for his previous comments on the Volcker rule, especially his regrettable statement that former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker "doesn't understand capital markets."

Neither, apparently, does Dimon whose understanding of capital markets did not stop his bank from losing massive amounts of money.

Not making headlines, however, are the well-intended regulators who managed to explode the modest 11 pages of the Volcker rule in the Dodd-Frank bill into a 298-page proposal that The Economist reports can be broken down into 1,420 sub-questions that are expected to cost banks hundreds of thousands of dollars to fill out the first time and about $40,000 in subsequent years.

That, frankly, is an extremely modest investment for preventing losses of $5 billion and more, but the trouble is, the Volcker rule is too big to succeed.

Further, in an election year, Brown's shot at passing a SAFE Banking Act is as slim as a coat of paint.

Banks at the moment are safe from the threat of more regulations, leaving Wednesday's hearings as "a tempest in a teapot," to borrow Dimon's April description of the losses he knew the bank was about to incur.

In international markets Wednesday, the Nikkei 225 index in Japan added 0.6 percent, while the Shanghai composite index in China gained 1.27 percent. The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong rose 0.82 percent, while the Sensex in India climbed 0.11 percent.

The S&P/ASX 200 in Australia fell 0.22 percent.

In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 index in Britain was flat, off 0.09 percent, while the DAX 30 in Germany shed 0.18 percent. The CAC 40 in France slipped 0.36 percent, while the Stoxx Europe 600 fell 0.44 percent.

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