Somebody throw some water on the irony meter because it's burning up: JPMorgan could have been spared the embarrassment and pain of its $2 billion trading loss by the very Dodd-Frank reforms JPMorgan hates.
None of those reforms are currently in place, and most of them are in danger of disappearing forever, thanks to the nightmarish flying-monkey army of lobbyists constantly dive-bombing Washington, with Jamie Dimon guiding it all from his White Tower of Awesome on Park Avenue.
"The JPMorgan episode touches on all the major protections of Dodd-Frank, which at the behest of Wall Street lobbying will not go into effect for months if not years and therefore did not apply to the JPMorgan trades in question," University of Maryland law professor Michael Greenberger said in an email. A former director at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Greenberger frequently testifies in Congress about financial reform.
Turns out that financial regulation is not just a weapon for the lumpen proletariat to take out their revenge on the job creators on Wall Street, as the story goes in Jamie Dimon's fever dreams. It can actually benefit the banks, too, possibly, by helping them not set their own money on fire. Update: Maybe instead of being mad at President Obama for talking occasionally about the need for financial reform, the banks should be mad at him for not lifting a finger to get these reforms put into law, the Huffington Post's Peter Goodman points out.
Here are the very specific things that could have kept that $2 billion in JPMorgan's pocket.
The Volcker Rule: Everybody hates the Volcker Rule. Jamie Dimon, even after watching his firm burn up $2 billion, still hates the Volcker Rule. This is the rule that attempts to turn the clock back to the days when investment banks and commercial banks were kept miles apart by a Depression-era law called Glass-Steagall, a law that was dismantled by those flying-monkey lobbyists, Alan Greenspan and the Clinton administration in the late 1990s.
The Volcker Rule attempts to remedy this by prohibiting banks with federally insured customer deposits from blowing all their money speculating on Slovakian government bonds. So you can see why banks hate it! Gambling in the market is like the Lotto: You've got to be in it to win it. But not being in it might have prevented JPMorgan's chief investment office from having those big bets on credit derivatives that cost it $2 billion.
JPMorgan has argued, and will continue to argue, that its bets were a desperately necessary strategy to balance out the risks it takes when it helps the economy and creates jobs by lending money to puppy farms, firemen and schoolteachers. It just goofed up on this one. Sorry, guys, won't happen again. But even if you take the banks' word for this and give them a pass on trading credit derivatives -- which is probably going to happen -- there are two other aspects of Dodd-Frank that could have prevented JPMorgan's big loss:
Lincoln Rule: This is way less well-known than the Volcker Rule, but probably just as hated, and just as much under assault, according to Greenberger. This rule, also known as the "Swaps Pushout" rule, denies Fed assistance to dealers in derivatives called "swaps," as in "credit default swaps," as in "what helped blow the economy up four years ago." Just like with the Volcker Rule, banks get an exemption from the Lincoln Rule if their swaps bets are purely to hedge their risks. But! They only get to take that exemption if their credit default swaps are traded through a central clearing house. Which brings us to the third aspect of Dodd-Frank that would have stopped JPMorgan before it killed its own money again:
Derivatives Clearing: Title 7 of the Dodd-Frank act is a tangled word-nest that will take regulators a while to sort through, but it gives them the right, at least, to demand that derivatives be traded out in the open, where everybody can see them, with a central clearing house directing traffic and keeping banks from being a danger to themselves or others.
This is a huge point for the JPMorgan situation, notes Greenberger. A central clearing house would not have let the bank's derivative bets drift so deeply into stupid territory. It would have seen the bank taking losses on a weekly basis and asked it to post more money for security. Maybe more importantly, the Fed would have caught on more quickly and encouraged JPMorgan to put the ix-nay on the erivatives-day.
But none of that stuff happened, because none of these reforms are in place, four years after the last crisis. Maybe this blowup will help convince banks -- and the politicians they purchase -- of the need for these regulations. Frankly, I'm not optimistic. The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression didn't convince them. A couple of billion dollars into thin air at JPMorgan probably won't, either.
And these three reforms, while important, are just half-measures designed to avoid the real issue, which MIT professor and Huffington Post blogger Simon Johnson and The Atlantic's David Rohde both address this morning, but which you know banks and their pet politicians hate to think about the most: The big banks are still way too big, creating way too much risk for all of us.