This week, four years after the collapse of Bear Stearns, the two hedge fund managers who helped bring about its demise, Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin, agreed to pay $1 million to settle a civil suit brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission. No doubt Cioffi and Tannin made many, many times the amount of their pending restitution during those heady years before the 2008 collapse, and even the presiding U.S. District Court Judge Frederick Block suggested that the settlement amounted to “chump change.” But chump change was the bid on the table, and it looks like the SEC will take what it can get. And as has become customary in these arrangements, Cioffi and Tannin will walk away without any admission of wrongdoing.
The world of finance is indeed a rigged game. As the world of finance came crashing down four years ago, aggregate losses on Wall Street and in the banking sector totaled in the trillions, exceeding the combined profitability of the industry over the previous century. That the Fed made over $7 trillion available to restore our financial system, as tabulated by Bloomberg, was only made more obscene by the fact that billions were restored to the balance sheets of our banks—including Goldman and Morgan Stanley who essentially became banks just so they could benefit from Fed largesse—filtered through a risk-free carry trade from which massive bonuses were deducted before flowing to bank capital accounts.
Americans are not stupid. They know a rigged game when they see it. But if the past four years have proven nothing else, it is that the tightly interwoven relationship between Washington and Wall Street has survived the collapse as strong as ever. From the outset of the crisis—when the banks succeeded in stonewalling the sale of toxic assets and instead got the public dollars for free—the major banks have succeeded at almost every turn in defending their interests. Four years later, the industry is more concentrated than ever, trillions of dollars of derivatives trading remains opaque and the industry culture of privatized profits and socialized risk has been codified into law.
Like the Cioffi-Tannin case, last week’s “settlement” with mortgage brokers, whose patent fraud contributed to the housing bubble and ensuing collapse, was embarrassing—whether one believes it was supposed to constitute compensation for damages, restitution for conduct, or deterrence against future abuse. That settlement, approved by 49 participating states' attorneys general, was one more example of a resurgent finance industry that has walked away largely unscathed from the havoc it wrought.
Late last year, another U.S. District Judge, Jed Rakoff, stood up for the dignity of society—someone had to—when he rejected a Securities and Exchange Commission settlement with Citigroup. It was one of those many cases floating around these days where one of our leading banks sold bundles of mortgage-backed securities to investors, while secretly betting against those same securities. Rakoff rejected the proposed settlement as “pocket change,” and “neither fair, nor reasonable, nor adequate, nor in the public interest.” But the real source of Rakoff’s wrath, like Block’s this week, was that the Citi settlement included no admission of wrongdoing.
And so the game goes on. No one admits to any wrongdoing, and four years later almost nothing has changed.
Last month, the Brits demonstrated the old school way of handling these matters when Sir Fred Goodwin, the head of British banking giant Royal Bank of Scotland was stripped of his knighthood by the Queen. Sir Fred—now just Fred—led RBS from the pinnacle of success—it was the largest bank in the world for a time prior to the 2008 collapse—to total collapse, and an ensuing bailout by the British government.
The Queen's action to restore the honor of the realm came upon the advice of a secretive Whitehall star chamber “responsible for maintaining the integrity of the honors system” after Goodwin and the RBS board were collectively exculpated of any responsibility for the collapse by British bank regulators. To put the gravity of de-knighting in context, others who have been similarly judged to have “brought the honours system into disrepute” and shared Fred's fate include the famous British mole Anthony Blunt and dictators Nicolae Ceausescu and Robert Mugabe.
We, of course, have no queen, no honor system, and certainly no humility among our financial titans.
This week, our finance industry is on the attack again. The industry target now is the Volcker rule—the proposed rule that would limit the ability of banks to trade for their own account. Leading the attack has been JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, who has turned to thinly veiled derision of Paul Volcker, as Dimon continues to make the case for scale and opacity in banking.
For his part, Paul Volcker views the eponymous rule is a political compromise at best, as he has long advocated a return to the Glass-Steagall restrictions that would fully segregate commercial and investment banking. And for good reason. Concentration and risk in the banking system has grown steadily since Clinton-era deregulation, and only increased since 2008. Today, the four largest U.S. banks hold over 50% of the assets of the banking system and the four banks most active in the largely unregulated and opaque derivatives market hold 94% of the $250 trillion volume of financial derivatives in the U.S. banking system.
Since the financial collapse, the industry has won nearly every round as it has sought to protect its privileges and power. While many might complain about the dizzying complexity of Dodd-Frank legislation, the truth is that the industry beat back the most substantive restrictions on derivatives trading as well as any constraints on size or leverage. If it can minimize the effect of the Volcker rule, the industry will have protected the two greatest sources of profitability for the big banks—derivatives and proprietary trading—despite those being the greatest sources of risk to the public and the farthest away from the public purpose of the banking system.
This Friday, in an assault on the Volcker rule that might on the surface seem to have been in support of Dimon, the Wall Street Journal editorial board ultimately made the case instead for breaking up the large banks. The Journal editorial rightly argued that Dodd-Frank promotes the illusion that an increasingly complex regulatory apparatus can prevent systemic failure. It is simply not reasonable to imagine that regulators can begin to track and monitor, much less regulate, the complex risks embedded on bank balance sheets—hidden away in collateral rules, language arbitrage and collateral valuation.
While the Journal rails against the extent to which the banking industry problem stem from monetary policy and Congressional meddling, in its penultimate paragraph, the Journal concludes that a real solution requires "a Congressional plan either for allowing large banks to fail or for breaking them up."
But too-big-to-fail is a product of the size and systemic importance of banks such as JPMorgan. This is not a question of Dodd-Frank or public disdain for bailouts. It is simply the truth. Given that truth, the remaining option, as the wisdom of the Journal editorial board suggests, is that the banks should be broken up. Then, perhaps, the Volcker rule, as half-baked and problematic as Jamie Dimon insists it is, would not be necessary, and once again we can have a banking system that serves the public interest, instead of the other way around.