Nobody Should Shed a Tear for JP Morgan Chase
By Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone
POSTED: October 25, 1:05 PM ET
Look, there’s no denying that this is a lot of money. It’s the biggest settlement in the history of government settlements, and it’s just one company to boot. But this has been in the works for a long time, and it’s been in the works for a reason. This whole thing, lest anyone forget, has its genesis in a couple of state Attorneys General (including New York’s Eric Schneiderman and Delaware’s Beau Biden) not wanting to sign off on any deal with the banks that didn’t also address the root causes of the crisis, in particular the mass fraud surrounding the sale and production of subprime mortgage securities.
Those holdouts essentially forced the federal government’s hand, leading Barack Obama to create a federal working group on residential mortgage-backed securities (widely seen as the AGs’ price for okaying the $25 billion robosigning deal), headed up by Schneiderman, whose investigation of Chase and its affiliates led to the deal that’s about to be struck. Minus all of that, minus those state holdouts in those foreclosure negotiations, this settlement probably would never even take place: The federal government seemed more than willing previously to settle with the banks without even addressing the root-cause issues that are at the heart of this new Chase deal.
In fact, this deal is actually quite a gift to Chase. It sounds like a lot of money, but there are myriad deceptions behind the sensational headline.
First of all, the settlement, as the folks at Better Markets have pointed out, may wipe out between $100 billion and $200 billion in potential liability – meaning that the bank might just have settled “for ten cents or so on the dollar.” The Federal Housing Finance Agency alone was suing Chase and its affiliates for $33 billion. The trustee in the ongoing Bernie Madoff Ponzi scandal was suing Chase for upwards of $19 billion.
And remember, this sort of liability was basically the only risk Chase took in these deals. The government took on most of the rest, in order to make the acquisitions happen.
Chase got to buy Bear Stearns with $29 billion in Fed guarantees, with the state setting up a special bailout facility, Maiden Lane, to unwind all of the phony-baloney loans created through Bear’s Ponzi-mortgage-mechanism described above. So Chase got to acquire one of the world’s biggest investment banks for pennies on the dollar, and then got the Fed to buy up all the toxic parts of the bank’s portfolio, essentially making the public the involuntary customer of Bear’s criminal inventory.
Later on, Chase took $25 billion in TARP money, bought Washington Mutual and its $33 billion in assets for the fire-sale price of $1.9 billion, and then repeated the Bear scenario, getting another Maiden Lane facility to take on the deadliest parts of Washington Mutual’s portfolio (including, for instance, a pool of mortgages in which 94 percent of the loans had limited documentation).
Moreover, the settlement is only $9 billion in cash, with $4 billion earmarked for “mortgage relief.” Again, as Better Markets noted, we’ve seen settlements with orders of mortgage relief before, and banks seem to have many canny ways of getting out of the spirit of these requirements.
In the foreclosure settlement, most of the ordered “relief” eventually came in the form of short sales, with banks letting people sell their underwater houses and move out without paying for the loss in home value. That’s better than nothing, but it’s something very different than a bank working to help families stay in their homes.
There’s also the matter of the remaining $9 billion in fines being tax deductible (meaning we’re subsidizing the settlement), and the fact that Chase is reportedly trying to get the FDIC to assume some of Washington Mutual’s liability.
A few more notes on the deal. This latest settlement reportedly came about when CEO Jamie Dimon picked up the phone and called a high-ranking lieutenant of Attorney General Holder, who was about to hold a press conference announcing civil charges against the bank. The Justice Department meekly took the call, canceled the presser, and worked out this hideous deal, instead of doing the right thing and blowing off the self-important Wall Street hotshot long used to resolving meddlesome issues with the gift of his personal attention.
Only on Wall Street does the target of a massive federal investigation pick up the telephone and call up the prosecutor expecting to make the thing go away – and only in recent American history would such a tactic actually work.
These guys at Chase knew exactly what they were buying when they took on these companies. They just thought they were getting the deal of the century, by taking on the still-functioning businesses of two finance giants for a song, giving Chase a state-subsidized push into the pole position of American banking. And they figured, very nearly correctly, that they would never have to pay any serious freight for all the offenses committed by their new acquisitions.
Now they’ll have to write a big check, which sucks for them, but what about the victims? To those critics crying about a “shakedown”: Would you prefer that Chase merely be required to pay back every dollar to those investors wiped out by these schemes? Because that would be a hell of a lot more than $13 billion.