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Guest post: Kabuki Theater Probably Won’t Shake Up NY Fed

by Kenneth Thomas

Kabuki Theater Probably Won’t Shake Up NY Fed

Via @MarkThoma, Simon Johnson reports that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has called (very diplomatically, of course) for JP Morgan Chase CEO to resign from his position with the New York Federal Reserve Bank in the wake of risk control failures that have already led to $3 billion in losses for the bank.. Johnson comments:

Mr. Geithner’s call is a major and perhaps unprecedented development which can go in one of two ways.

If Mr. Dimon resigns, that is a major humiliation and recognition – at the highest levels of government – that even the country’s best connected banker has overstepped his limits. This would be a major victory for democracy and a step towards reopening the debate on financial reform, including introducing more restrictions on what global megabanks can do.

Alternatively, Johnson says, if Dimon manages to stay on to the end of his term December 31, it will mean a defeat for democracy and a victory for the big banks.

Of course, there would be nothing new about this: one of the striking developments since the 2008 financial meltdown is that not a single major bank executive in the United States has gone to jail for their wrecking of the global economy. Moreover, the five largest banks in the country have seen their assets increase from $6.1 trillion in 2008 to $8.5 trillion today. By contrast, in Iceland, 200 bank officials, including the CEOs of the country’s three largest banks, are all facing criminal charges for their actions leading up to the crisis. To use Richard Fields’ terms, Iceland followed the Swedish model (make the banks take charges against profits immediately: bad for the banks, good for the economy) while the U.S. has followed the Japanese model (good for the banks, bad for the economy).

While I have no special insight into the kabuki theater of high official pronouncements, I tend to agree with Johnson’s assessment that Dimon will probably remain on the New York Fed board. I say this for no other reason than the fact that, as the NY Fed’s website points out, commercial banks who are members of the Federal Reserve System appoint 2/3 of the Board members. Three are appointed by the banks to represent themselves; Dimon is one of these. Another three are appointed by the banks ostensibly to represent the public. The banks selected the co-founder of a technology investment company, the CEO of HealthNow New York, and the CEO of Macy’s to represent “the public.” Hmm. The final three members are selected by the Fed’s Board of Governors to represent the public, but all are presidents of major institutions: Columbia University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Partnership for New York City. So, 2/3 of the Board is selected to represent the public, but I feel pretty safe in saying that all nine Board members are in the 1%.

Readers, what do you think? Will Jamie Dimon resign from the New York Fed? Take our poll and let us know.

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Elizabeth Warren campaigns in MA

Elizabeth Warren is running for the US Senate in Mass. and came by Casey’s Diner Monday at lunchtime, a stop among many.   Eventually the campaign will heat up as a lot of money is being raised, and the summer ends.

Ezra Klein of the Washington Post interviewed Elizabeth Warren this Monday as well. Here is part of the transcript with questions and answers regarding JP Morgan and Jamie Dimon from the wonky economic policy and regulatory angle:

EK: That gets us to the Volcker rule, which is what would keep banks that get that guarantee from gambling with customer money and a federal backstop. But at this point, I don’t think very many people — even people who follow this stuff quite closely — have a very specific sense of what the difference between a good and bad Volcker rule is. So how do you think about that?

EW: I’m going to reframe it slightly: Who profits from the complexity of the Volcker rule? It’s the largest financial institutions. No financial institutions want a simple Volcker rule. They want layers and layers of complexity because it’s in complexity that there are loopholes. That’s where it’s possible to back up regulators who are not quite certain about the ground they stand on. And it’s a larger problem with our regulatory structure: Complexity favors those who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers. The big push I made at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was simple rules. Simple mortgage documents. Simple credit card agreements. Because complexity creates too many opportunities for an army of lawyers to turn the rules upside down.

 EK: I agree that complexity is where lobbyists and lawyers work their dark magic. But when I talk to people in the industry about this, they say that simple rules sound great, but they’re not really possible. It’s hard to distinguish a hedge from a bet, or a speculative trade from a legitimate one. The world is complex, and that’s why regulators and politicians who don’t like Wall Street and don’t like being browbeaten by lobbyists end up allowing complex rules, too.

EW: Here’s another way to look at what you just described: That’s the strongest argument for a modern Glass-Steagall. Glass-Steagall said in effect that hedge funds should be separated from commercial banking. If a big institution wants to go out and play in the market, that’s fine. But it doesn’t get the backup of the federal government. If it’s too complicated to implement the Volcker rule, do you say we give up and let the largest financial institutions do what they want? Or do you say maybe that’s the reason we need a modern Glass-Steagall?

EK: What about breaking up the big banks?

EW: You’re approaching risk from two different directions. One is the risk of the activity. That’s the Volcker rule. The other direction is to say risk is an assumption of size. Community banks shouldn’t have to deal with complex regulatory oversight, but the largest institutions should be subject to far more aggressive oversight and have to pay more for the protections they receive from the American taxpayer. Then shareholders may decide to invest in institutions that are not so large.

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