U.S. banks don't come any bigger than JPMorgan Chase, so no one should be surprised by the size of its settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice that was announced today — $13 billion to end civil litigation regarding mortgage lending practices. The question people should be asking is whether that's enough to prevent such irresponsible behavior from happening again.
In the run-up to the financial collapse, JPMorgan took subprime home loans made by other financial institutions and sold them to others, including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Much of this was done by two companies JPMorgan acquired — Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual — both of which the company was encouraged to buy by Bush administration officials, including then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. Nor was the company the only bank that failed to properly vet loans. But ultimately, JPMorgan has to take responsibility for its decisions.
Make no mistake, bad securities made from bad mortgages took this country to the brink of economic collapse. The failure of companies to do their due diligence required a $700-billion bailout of the banking system, so let's not shed a lot of tears for the country's largest bank (with $2.5 trillion in assets and more than $21 billion in net income last year).
That makes JPMorgan the embodiment of the "too big to fail" mantra. That they bought institutions that brought with them so much of this legal liability just makes it all the more embarrassing for Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon and his management team.
The settlement should provide some modest relief to consumers and investors alike. Justice Department officials say $4 billion will go to aid homeowners in the form of restructured loans for low and moderate-income borrowers. There's also billions for the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which regulates mortgage finance companies Fannie and Freddie, and for JPMorgan investors who also suffered losses as a result of the deceptions.
That the $13 billion eclipses the largest civil settlement previously paid by one company — the $4.5 billion paid by BP PLC for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — is only one indication of the gravity of the charges. But as the amount only represents about seven months or so of profits from JPMorgan, just how much effect is it likely to have?
Consider, for instance, that JPMorgan showed similar laxity in its internal controls in the "London whale" trading fiasco. That matter resulted in a $1-billion settlement to close various government investigations here and overseas earlier this year, not to mention about $6 billion in losses for the company.
That's why the Justice Department should push ahead with its criminal probe of JPMorgan to determine whether certain individuals should be prosecuted for wrongdoing. Given the outrageous behavior of it and other banks, it's shocking that the Obama administration has yet to prosecute bank executives over their conduct.
Administration officials insist that their investigation is ongoing, but it's fair to wonder how aggressively they've pursued the matter given the amount of time that has passed. It's a sharp contrast from the savings-and-loan debacle of the 1980s which resulted in hundreds of indictments, from Charles Keating to Maryland's own Jeffrey Levitt, who wound up serving six years in a state prison.
Time and time again, it's become clear that the financial markets have been poorly supervised and weakly regulated by the federal government. That this extends to the arena of criminal prosecution is just par for the course. But it's given the public the impression that banking elites are regarded as above the law.
There have been too many instances when mortgages and mortgage-backed securities have been falsely represented to the public and to the government to believe that there was no criminal behavior within these giant companies. The lack of criminal indictments to date, much like the taxpayer-funded bailout, suggests the rules are simply different for Wall Street and that there's a distinct lack of accountability.
That has to change. A $13-billion settlement is a nice start, particularly for those who may receive some modest compensation for their losses. But until those responsible for the subprime rip-offs are brought to justice, it won't be enough.
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