J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., the nation’s largest bank, whose chief executive, Jamie Dimon, has lead Wall Street’s war against regulation, announced Thursday it had lost $2 billion in trades over the past six weeks and could face an additional $1 billion of losses, due to excessively risky bets.
The bets were “poorly executed” and “poorly monitored,” said Dimon, a result of “many errors, “sloppiness,” and “bad judgment.” But not to worry. “We will admit it, we will fix it and move on.”
Move on? Word on the Street is that J.P. Morgan’s exposure is so large that it can’t dump these bad bets without affecting the market and losing even more money. And given its mammoth size and interlinked connections with every other financial institution, anything that shakes J.P. Morgan is likely to rock the rest of the Street.
Ever since the start of the banking crisis in 2008, Dimon has been arguing that more government regulation of Wall Street is unnecessary. Last year he vehemently and loudly opposed the so-called Volcker rule, itself a watered-down version of the old Glass-Steagall Act that used to separate commercial from investment banking before it was repealed in 1999, saying it would unnecessarily impinge on derivative trading (the lucrative practice of making bets on bets) and hedging (using some bets to offset the risks of other bets).
Dimon argued that the financial system could be trusted; that the near-meltdown of 2008 was a perfect storm that would never happen again.
Since then, J.P. Morgan’s lobbyists and lawyers have done everything in their power to eviscerate the Volcker rule — creating exceptions, exemptions, and loopholes that effectively allow any big bank to go on doing most of the derivative trading it was doing before the near-meltdown.
And now — only a few years after the banking crisis that forced American taxpayers to bail out the Street, caused home values to plunge by more than 30 percent and pushed millions of homeowners underwater, threatened or diminished the savings of millions more, and sent the entire American economy hurtling into the worst downturn since the Great Depression — J.P. Morgan Chase recapitulates the whole debacle with the same kind of errors, sloppiness, bad judgment, excessively risky trades poorly-executed and poorly-monitored, that caused the crisis in the first place.
In light of all this, Jamie Dimon’s promise that J.P. Morgan will “fix it and move on” is not reassuring.
The losses here had been mounting for at least six weeks, according to Morgan. Where was the new transparency that’s supposed to allow regulators to catch these things before they get out of hand?
Several weeks ago there were rumors about a London-based Morgan trader making huge high-stakes bets, causing excessive volatility in derivatives markets. When asked about it then, Dimon called it “a complete tempest in a teapot.” Using the same argument he has used to fend off regulation of derivatives, he told investors that “every bank has a major portfolio” and “in those portfolios you make investments that you think are wise to offset your exposures.”
Let’s hope Morgan’s losses don’t turn into another crisis of confidence and they don’t spread to the rest of the financial sector.
But let’s also stop hoping Wall Street will mend itself. What just happened at J.P. Morgan – along with its leader’s cavalier dismissal followed by lame reassurance – reveals how fragile and opaque the banking system continues to be, why Glass-Steagall must be resurrected, and why the Dallas Fed’s recent recommendation that Wall Street’s giant banks be broken up should be heeded.
The 2012 election should be about what’s going on in America’s boardrooms, but Republicans would rather it be about America’s bedrooms.
Mitt Romney says he’s against same-sex marriage; President Obama just announced his support. North Carolina voters have approved a Republican-proposed amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage. Minnesota voters will be considering a similar amendment in November. Republicans in Maryland and Washington State are seeking to overturn legislative approval of same-sex marriage there.
Meanwhile, Republicans have introduced over four hundred bills in state legislatures aimed at limiting womens’ reproductive rights – banning abortions, requiring women seeking abortions to have invasive ultra-sound tests beforehand, and limiting the use of contraceptives.
The Republican bedroom crowd doesn’t want to talk about the nation’s boardrooms because that’s where most of their campaign money comes from. And their candidate for president has made a fortune playing board rooms like checkers.
Yet America’s real problems have nothing to do with what we do in our bedrooms and everything to do with what top executives do in their boardrooms and executive suites.
We’re not in trouble because gays want to marry or women want to have some control over when they have babies. We’re in trouble because CEOs are collecting exorbitant pay while slicing the pay of average workers, because the titans of Wall Street demand short-term results over long-term jobs, and because of a boardroom culture that tolerates financial conflicts of interest, insider trading, and the outright bribery of public officials through unlimited campaign “donations.”
Our crisis has nothing to do with private morality. It’s a crisis of public morality – of abuses of public trust that undermine the integrity of our economy and democracy and have led millions of Americans to conclude the game is rigged.
What’s truly immoral is not what adults choose to do with other consenting adults. It’s what those with great power have chosen to do to the rest of us.
It is immoral that top executives are richly rewarded no matter how badly they screw up while most Americans are screwed no matter how hard they work.
Regressive Republicans have no problem intruding on the most personal and most intimate decisions any of us makes while railing against government intrusions on big business.
They don’t hesitate to hurl the epithets “shameful,” “disgraceful,” and “contemptible” at private moral decisions they disagree with, while staying stone silent in the face of the most contemptible violations of public trust at the highest reaches of the economy.
We must protect and advance private rights of individuals over intimate bedroom decisions. We must also stop the abuses of economic power and privilege that are characterizing so many decisions in the nation’s boardrooms and executive suites.
The economy has stalled.
Friday’s jobs report for April was even more disappointing than March. Employers added only 115,000 new jobs, down from March’s number (the Bureau of Labor Statistics revised the March number upward to 154,000, but that’s still abysmal relative to what’s needed). We need well over 250,000 new jobs per month in order to begin to whittle down the vast number of jobs lost in the Great Recession. At least 125,000 new jobs are necessary each month just to keep up with an expanding population of working-age people.
With only 115,000 jobs in April, the hole is getting even deeper.
Most observers pay attention to the official rate of unemployment, which edged down to 8.1 percent in April from 8.2 percent in March. That may sound like progress, but it’s not. The unemployment rate dropped because more people dropped out of the labor force, too discouraged to look for work. The household survey, from which the rate is calculated, counts as “unemployed” only people who are actively looking for work. If you stop looking because the job scene looks hopeless for you, you’re no longer counted.
In the winter months — December, January, and February – hiring had seemed to pick up, averaging over 250,000 new jobs per month. Then the mini-surge stopped. The simplest explanation is that the mild winter across much of the United States gave an unusual boost to hiring then, leading to a correction by the spring.
Most of the job gains in April were in lower-wage industries – retail stores, restaurants, and temporary-help. That means average wages continue to drop, adjusted for inflation – continuing their long-term decline. Most of the new jobs that have been added to the U.S. economy during this recovery have paid less than the jobs that were lost during the downturn.
What does all this mean? Together with other recent data showing slower economic growth during the first quarter of this year, it’s safe to say the economy has stalled.
This is bad news for millions of Americans.
It’s also bad news for Obama and the Democrats. Voters don’t pay much attention to the economy in an election year until after Labor Day, so it’s not necessarily a huge help to Romney and the Republicans. But it’s a bad political omen nonetheless.
No set of policies between now and Election Day are likely to expand the economy. To the contrary, government at all levels continues to contract, acting as a fiscal drag when government needs to be doing the exact reverse – boosting the economy through additional spending. In 2013, when spending major cuts are scheduled, we’ll fall off a fiscal cliff.
Obama needs to push back loudly and clearly, saying he won’t support additional spending cuts until the economy is showing clear signs of improvement.
But widening inequality is the underlying culprit here. As long as almost all the gains from economic growth continue to go to the top, the vast middle class doesn’t have the purchasing power to boost the economy on its own. And rich Americans spend a much smaller portion of their incomes than does the vast middle class. Their marginal satisfaction from additional spending falls off. The second yacht isn’t nearly as much fun as the first.
Get it? We’ve still got a terrible cyclical problem – we can’t get out of the gravitational pull of the Great Recession.
Yet the underlying problem is structural, and it’s been growing for decades. The structural problem of stagnant or declining real incomes for most people, and soaring income and wealth at the top, was masked during the boom years when the middle class could turn their homes into piggy banks and extract home-equity loans or refinance. But the mask came off in 2008 as home values plummeted.
There’s no way to put the mask back on. We’ve got to face the truth. Obama and the Democrats have to explain to the American people why inequality isn’t just unfair; it’s also economically unsustainable.
President Obama’s electoral strategy can best be summed up as: “We’re on the right track, my economic policies are working, we still have a long way to go but stick with me and you’ll be fine.”
That’s not good enough. This recovery is too anemic, and the chance of an economic stall between now and Election Day far too high.
Even now, Mitt Romney’s empty “I’ll to it better” refrain is attracting as many voters as Obama’s “we’re on the right track.” Each man is gathering 46 percent of voter support, according to the latest New York Times/CBS poll. Only 33 percent of the public thinks the economy is improving while 40 percent say they’re still falling behind financially — an 11 point increase from 2008. Nearly two-thirds are concerned about paying for housing, and one in five with mortgages say they’re underwater.
If the economy stalls, Romney’s empty promise will look even better. And I’d put the odds of a stall at 50-50. That puts the odds of a Romney presidency far too high for comfort. Need I remind you that Romney enthusiastically supports Paul Ryan’s wildly regressive budget, and as president would be able to make at least one or possibly two Supreme Court appointments, and control the EPA and every other federal agency and department?
The Obama White House should face it: “We’re on the right track” isn’t sufficient. The President has to offer the nation a clear, bold strategy for boosting the economy. It should be the economic mandate for his second term.
It should consist of four points:
First, Obama should demand that the nation’s banks modify mortgages of homeowners still struggling in the wake of Wall Street’s housing bubble — threatening that if the banks fail to do so he’ll fight to resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act and break up Wall Street’s biggest banks (as the Dallas Fed recently recommended).
Second, he should condemn oil speculators for keeping gas prices high — demanding that the oil companies allow the Commodity Futures Trading Corporation to set limits on such speculation and instructing the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute oil price manipulation.
Third, he should stand ready to make further job-creating investments in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and renew his call for an infastructure bank. And while he understands the need to reduce the nation’s long-term budget deficit, he won’t allow austerity economics to take precedence over job creation. He’ll veto budget cuts until unemployment is down to 5 percent.
Finally, he should make clear the underlying problem is widening inequality. With so much of the nation’s disposable income and wealth going to the top, the vast middle class doesn’t have the purchasing power it needs to fire up the economy. That’s why the Buffett rule, setting a minimum tax rate for millionaires, is just a first step for ensuring that the gains from growth are widely shared.
The President can still say we’re on the right track. But he should also say he’s not content with the pace of the recovery and will do everything in his power to quicken it. And he should ask the American people for a mandate in his second term to make the economy work for everyone, not just those at the top.
Such a mandate can be put into effect only with a Congress that’s committed to better jobs and wages for all Americans. He should remind voters that congressional Republicans prevented him from doing all that was needed in the first term, and they must not be allowed to do so again.
The shareholders of Wall Street giant Citigroup are out to prove that corporate democracy isn’t an oxymoron. They’ve said no to the exorbitant $15 million pay package of Citi’s CEO Vikram Pandit, as well as to the giant pay packages of Citi’s four other top executives.
The vote, at Citigroup’s annual meeting in Dallas Tuesday, isn’t binding on Citigroup. But it’s a warning shot across the bow of every corporate boardroom in America.
Shareholders aren’t happy about executive pay.
And why should they be? CEO pay at large publicly-held corporations is now typically 300 times the pay of the average American worker. It was 40 times average worker pay in the 1960s and has steadily crept upward since then as corporations have morphed into “winner-take-all” contraptions that reward their top executives with boundless beneficence and perks while slicing the jobs, wages, and benefits of almost everyone else.
Meanwhile, too many of these same corporations have failed to deliver for their shareholders. Citigroup, for example, has delivered the worst stock performance mong all large banks for the last decade but ranked among the highest in executive pay.
The real news here is new-found activism among institutional investors – especially the managers of pension funds and mutual funds. They’re the ones who fired the warning shot Tuesday.
Institutional investors are catching on to a truth they should have understood years ago: When executive pay goes through the roof, there’s less money left for everyone else who owns shares of the company.
For too long, most fund managers played the game passively and obediently. Some have been too cozy with top corporate management, forgetting their fiduciary duty to their own investors. How else do you explain the abject failure of fund managers to police Wall Street as it careened toward the abyss in 2008? Or to adequately oversee executives, such as the Enron criminals, who were looting their companies in the years before 2002?
The new Dodd-Frank law, much of which is being eviscerated by Wall Street’s lawyers and lobbyists, at least requires that public companies give shareholders a say on pay. As a practical matter, this gives institutional investors the chance to speak clearly and openly about the scandal of unbridled executive compensation.
Two key questions for the future: Will institutional investors keep the pressure on? And will CEOs and boards of directors get the message?
As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote in 1904, “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”
But the wealthiest Americans, who haven’t raked in as much of America’s income and wealth since the 1920s, are today paying a lower tax rate than they have in over thirty years. Even though America faces a mammoth federal budget deficit. Even though public services at all levels of government continue to be slashed. Even though the median wage is still dropping, adjusted for inflation. Even though the typical American is paying more of his or her earnings in taxes – including payroll taxes, sales taxes, and property taxes – than ever before.
I’m not a class warrior. I’m a class worrier. And my worries go to why all this has happened.
I worry about the political power than comes with great wealth – such as the power of the wealthy to reduce their taxes, cut the public services most other Americans depend on, while at the same time garnering special subsidies and tax breaks for their businesses – big oil, big pharma, big agriculture, military contractors, big insurance, Wall Street.
I worry about the well-financed big lies that the very rich are the nation’s “job creators,” that the benefits from tax cuts on the rich “trickle down” to everyone else, that American corporations will create more jobs if only their taxes are lowered and if regulations protecting health, safety, and the environment were jettisoned.
I worry about the increasing dominance of Wall Street over our economy and democracy, and the near political impossibilities of closing the “carried interest” loophole that allows private-equity and hedge-fund managers to treat their income as capital gains subject to only 15% tax; of resurrecting the Glass-Steagall Act separating investment from commercial banking, and of breaking up the big banks to protect against another financial crash and bailout of the Street.
You and I have every right to be class worriers – and to be outraged at what has occurred. But we must get beyond worry and outrage, and do everything in our power to take back our economy and reclaim our democracy.
It was another justice of the Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis, who wrote in 1897, “we may have a democracy or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”
One of the most pernicious falsehoods you’ll hear during the next seven months of political campaigning is there’s a necessary tradeoff between fairness and economic growth. By this view, if we raise taxes on the wealthy the economy can’t grow as fast.
Wrong. Taxes were far higher on top incomes in the three decades after World War II than they’ve been since. And the distribution of income was far more equal. Yet the American economy grew faster in those years than it’s grown since tax rates on the top were slashed in 1981.
This wasn’t a post-war aberration. Bill Clinton raised taxes on the wealthy in the 1990s, and the economy produced faster job growth and higher wages than it did after George W. Bush slashed taxes on the rich in his first term.
If you need more evidence, consider modern Germany, where taxes on the wealthy are much higher than they are here and the distribution of income is far more equal. But Germany’s average annual growth has been faster than that in the United States.
You see, higher taxes on the wealthy can finance more investments in infrastructure, education, and health care – which are vital to a productive workforce and to the economic prospects of the middle class.
Higher taxes on the wealthy also allow for lower taxes on the middle – potentially restoring enough middle-class purchasing power to keep the economy growing. As we’ve seen in recent years, when disposable income is concentrated at the top, the middle class doesn’t have enough money to boost the economy.
Finally, concentrated wealth can lead to speculative bubbles as the rich in the same limited class of assets – whether gold, dotcoms, or real estate. And when these bubbles pop the entire economy suffers.
What we should have learned over the last half century is that growth doesn’t trickle down from the top. It percolates upward from working people who are adequately educated, healthy, sufficiently rewarded, and who feel they have a fair chance to make it in America.
Fairness isn’t incompatible with growth. It’s necessary for it.
Now that Mitt Romney is the presumed Republican candidate, it’s fair to ask how he made so much money ($21 million in 2010 alone) and paid such a low rate of taxes (only 13.9 percent).
Not only fair to ask, but instructive to know. Because the magic of private equity reveals a lot about how and why our economic system has become so distorted and lopsided – why all the gains are going to the very top while the rest of us aren’t going anywhere.
The magic of private equity isn’t really magic at all. It’s a magic trick – and it’s played on you and me.
Jake Kornbluth and I have made this 2 minute video that explains it all in eight simple steps. (Thanks to MoveOn.org for staking us.)
By the way, the “other people’s money” that private equity fund managers (as well as other so-called “hedge” fund managers) play with often comes from pension funds that contain the savings of millions of average Americans.
The pension fund managers who dole out our savings to private equity and hedge-fund guys also take a hefty slice in bonuses. And like the others, they bear no risk if their bets later turn bad. They get their bonuses regardless.
Nor are any of them — private-equity, hedge-fund, or pension-fund managers — personally liable for doing adequate due diligence. They can bet our money on the basis of no more information than what they had for breakfast.
But if these funds lose, you lose. That’s what happened in 2008 and 2009. Some of the losses are also shifted to the government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation – which means taxpayers lose.
It’s a giant con game, and it continues to this day.
Here’s what has to be done to stop it:
1. End the “carried interest” loophole that allows private-equity managers like Mitt Romney to treat their income as capital gains, taxed at 15 percent, even though they don’t risk a dime of their own income. Their earnings should be treated as ordinary income.
2. Hold the managers of private-equity funds, hedge funds, and pension funds to a “due diligence” standard. So if the funds lose money and these managers didn’t exercise due diligence, the Pension Guaranty Corporation can claw back their bonuses.
3. Raise the capital-gains rate to match the tax rate on ordinary income – especially for short-term investments. Give a tax preference only to “patient capital” – that is, for investments held for, say, five years or more.
4. Resurrect Glass-Steagall.
Mitt and others like him won’t like any of these reforms. They’d eliminate the humongous profits they’ve enjoyed at the expense of the rest of us.
But these reforms are necessary if we’re to take back our economy.
Next Monday most Americans will be filing their income taxes for tax year 2011. This year, though, tax day has special significance. If there’s one clear policy contrast between Democrats and Republicans in the 2012 election, it’s whether America’s richest citizens should be paying more.
Senate Democrats have scheduled a vote Monday on a minimum 30 percent overall federal tax rate for everyone earning more than $1 million a year. It’s nicknamed the “Buffett Rule” in honor of billionaire Warren Buffett who has publicly complained that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.
No one in Washington believes the Buffett Rule has any hope of passage this year. It’s largely symbolic. The vote will mark a sharp contrast with Republican Paul Ryan’s plan (enthusiastically endorsed by Mitt Romney) to cut the tax rate on the super rich from 35 percent to 25 percent – rewarding millionaires with a tax cut of at least $150,000 a year. The vote will also serve to highlight that Romney himself paid less than 14 percent on a 2010 income of $21.7 million because so much of his income was in capital gains, taxed at 15 percent.
Hopefully in the weeks and months ahead the White House and the Democrats will emphasize three key realities:
1. The richest 1 percent of Americans are now taking in over 20 percent of total national income, and so far have raked in almost all the gains from this recovery. Thirty years ago, the richest 1 percent got 9 percent of total income. Income and wealth are now more concentrated at the top than they’ve been since the 1920s.
2. The richest 1 percent are paying a lower tax rate than they’ve paid since 1980. For three decades after World War II, their tax rate never dropped below 70 percent. Even considering all deductions and tax credits, they paid close to 55 percent. Under Eisenhower, the top rate was 91 percent and the effective rate was 58 percent.
3. Right now the nation faces two yawning deficits – an investment deficit and a federal budget deficit. The investment deficit includes deferred maintenance on America’s infrastructure – roads, bridges, public transit, water and sewer systems that are all crumbling – and an educational system that’s being starved for resources (the federal government pays for 8 percent of K-12 education and about 5 percent of public higher education, but could do much more). The federal budget deficit is projected to mushroom to $6.4 trillion over the next ten years, mostly because of aging boomers and soaring healthcare costs.
Any serious person looking at these three realities would conclude that the rich should be paying far more. It’s not just a matter of fairness; it’s also a matter of patriotism.
In fact, given these realities, the Buffett Rule sets the bar too low. For most Americans, wages and benefits are declining (adjusted for inflation), net worth has been plummeting (their only asset is their homes), and the public services they rely on have been disappearing. For the top, it’s just the opposite: Their incomes are rising, their stock-market portfolios have been growing, and a growing portion of their earnings has been subject to a capital-gains tax of just 15 percent.
The Buffett Rule would generate only about $47 billion in extra revenues over the next decade, according to congressional estimates. Why not restore top rates to what they were before 1980, and match the capital-gains rate to the income-tax rate?
The economy added only 120,000 jobs in March – down from the rate of more than 200,000 in each of the preceding three months. The rate of unemployment dropped from 8.3 to 8.2 percent mainly because fewer people were searching for jobs – and that rate depends on how many people are actively looking.
It’s way too early to conclude the jobs recovery is stalling, but there’s reason for concern.
Remember: Consumer spending is 70 percent of the economy. Employers won’t hire without enough sales to justify the additional hires. It’s up to consumers to make it worth their while.
But real spending (adjusted to remove price changes) this year hasn’t been going anywhere. It increased just .5 percent in February after an anemic .2 percent increase in January.
The reason consumers aren’t spending more is they don’t have the money. Personal income was up just .2 percent in February – barely enough to keep up with inflation. As a result, personal saving as a percent of disposable income tumbled to 3.7 percent in February from 4.3 percent in January.
Personal saving is now at its lowest level since March 2009.
American consumers, in short, are hitting a wall. They don’t dare save much less because their jobs are still insecure. They can’t borrow much more. Their home values are still dropping, and many are underwater – owing more on their homes than the homes are worth.
The economy has been growing but almost all the gains have gone to the very top. As I’ve noted, this is the most lopsided recovery on record.
You will hear other theories about the hiring slowdown, but they don’t wash.
It’s not due to “uncertainty” about the economy. That’s a tautology – the economy’s future is always uncertain, especially when consumers don’t have the dough to keep it going.
It’s not because of fears about a European recession. Europe has been in the skids for some time now. Besides, the American economy doesn’t really depend on exports to Europe.
And it’s not about gas prices or the rise in healthcare insurance premiums. Both are up, but they’ve been trending up for many months.
It’s because consumers’ pockets are almost empty.
We’ll avoid a double-dip, but the most likely scenario in coming months is a continuation of the same – an anemic jobs recovery.
President Obama will claim the economy is improving – and, technically, it is. Growth this year will most likely average around 2 percent. The problem is, most Americans aren’t feeling it in their paychecks.
Mitt Romney will claim the economy is in terrible shape – and there will be enough evidence to justify his “cup-half-empty” rhetoric.
But when it comes to explaining what’s really wrong with the economy, Romney is the perfect foil for Obama because Romney represents the richest of the rich – a man who raked in more than $20 million last year, and paid a tax rate of just 13.9 percent (lower than much of the middle class).
He made that money by buying up “under-performing” companies – that is, companies that employed more people than they needed to, and carried less debt than was necessary to show big profits (interest on debt is deductible from company income). Romney’s firm, Bain Capital, made him and his colleagues fortunes by firing workers and loading companies up with debt.
And there’s America’s economic problem in a nutshell.
Romney and his ilk are doing wonderfully well, but the rest of the nation is still in deep trouble. Yet the U.S. economy can’t fully recover on the spending of millionaires.
The President has already announced that this election is about America’s surge toward ever-greater inequality. He’s right. And this painful recovery shows it.
It would be sadly ironic if Obama lost the election because the economy responded to widening inequality exactly as expected.