More and more people are calling for Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, to resign from the Board of the New York Federal Reserve.
His latest scandal, combined with Dimon's hypocrisy and relentless self-promotion, make him an obvious target. But Dimon isn't alone. Bankers dominate the Fed at the regional and national levels, and most of the other outside seats are held by executives from large corporations. (Remember Herman Cain?)
Should Dimon resign? They all should.
The Board Member With No Name
The scary thing is that Dimon may not be the Fed's most inappropriate board member. That honor may belong to the individual I call the Board Member With No Name. (I don't to want inflame the situation by identifying her, and what she represents is more important than who she is.)
Shouldn't a résumé that includes being the top bank lobbyist and working for the firm that laundered a third of a billion dollars for Mexican drug cartels disqualify someone from serving at the Fed?
Before she became the banking industry's chief lobbyist, the Board Member With No Name was an executive at scandal-plagued Wachovia Bank, an institution whose egregious mismanagement led to its collapse and a government rescue. Wachovia's many scandals and crimes included: deceptively packaging its toxic subprime mortgage backed securities; rigging municipal bond bids, which led to a $148 million fine; and, worst of all, laundering $378 billion in drug money for the Mexican cartels that have murdered at least 60,000 people.
The legislators who passed the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 couldn't have imagined that someday one of its governors would come from a firm that was busted when its laundered money was used to buy a drug-smuggling plane in Sinaloa.
Banks are large organizations, and it's unlikely that the Board Member even knew about the wrongdoing. She looks like a very nice person -- and she probably is. But her background hardly qualifies her for a position of public trust. After all, she's only two or three degrees of Kevin Bacon away from cartel bosses like "El Loco," who leads a group of deserters from the Mexican Army's Special Forces known as "Los Zetas."
Coincidentally, El Loco was arrested this week for beheading 49 people and dumping their bodies in the town square.
The drug cartels have been called "vicious," "evil," and "sociopathic." At Wachovia they were also called "preferred clients."
The New York Fed is the most powerful of all the regions -- understandably, as it includes Wall Street. Dimon's one of three bankers on its board. One of the others is from a bank which still owed the government nearly $1 billion in TARP money as of last report. The corporate world is represented by the CEOs of a technology venture capital firm, an HMO, and the company which owns Macy's and Bloomingdale's (who's actually said to be a good guy).
The Richmond Fed's bank representatives include the leaders of First Citizens Bancshares and CommerceFirst bank, as well as the managing partner of a Charleston law firm who specializes in labor and employment law (judging from his résumé, he defends corporations). There are also executives from an oil company, a big construction company, and an aerospace manufacturer. The Seattle board includes executives from Wells Fargo Bank (Wachovia's new parent) and Boeing.
And so it goes...
Other banks and corporations represented at the regional or branch level include Bank of America, Boyd Gaming, Shorenstein Properties, Dow Chemical, Nissan, AutoNation, USAA, IBM, Southwest, JC Penney, USG, Nissan, along with energy and lumber companies and some of the legal and accounting firms that serve the country's megabanks.
Of nearly 250 board members for the Fed's regions and branches, I was able to identify only three union representatives (from the AFL-CIO), one or two pension fund representatives (pension funds have been robbed blind by the big banks), and one member of a housing coalition. The Fed's boards have become more exclusive than a country club -- and a lot more powerful.
Why do we even have a Federal Reserve? There are people -- mostly libertarians of the Ron Paul school -- who think it should be abolished. They're wrong. We need a central bank. The financial crises that peppered our early history proved the need for a secure dollar backed by the "full faith and credit" of the United States government.
Panics like the one that led to William Jennings Bryan's famous "Cross of Gold" speech were led by speculators who became wealthy at the expense of working people and farmers. Back in the 19th century many banks issued their own dollars, leaving both buyers and sellers unsure of their value from day to day. Anybody who had been holding "Lehman Brothers dollars" would be out of luck today.
So the question isn't whether we need a central bank: We do. The question is, Why is it dominated by the people who have already ruined the economy once -- and who have a clear conflict of interest?
The World's Biggest ATM
Give a bunch of bankers access to the world's biggest ATM and look what happens: As Bloomberg News reported last August, "Wall Street's aristocracy got $1.2 trillion in secret loans" from the Federal Reserve.
What the Federal Reserve hasn't done is carry out its mission, which the Fed's own "Purposes and Functions" document describes as:
- conducting the nation's monetary policy by influencing the monetary and credit conditions in the economy in pursuit of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates
- supervising and regulating banking institutions to ensure the safety and soundness of the nation's banking and financial system and to protect the credit rights of consumers
- maintaining the stability of the financial system and containing systemic risk that may arise in financial markets
- providing financial services to depository institutions, the U.S. government, and foreign official institutions ...
When it comes to that last bullet point the Fed's knocked it out of the park, especially for the banks. The other goals? Not so much.
Scoring the Fed
Let's rate the Federal Reserve according to the parameters it set out for itself:
- "Maximum employment": Thanks to the Fed, banks have had access to free or very-low-cost money, which they've used to make money on Treasuries and other safe investments. But they haven't been lending it to the consumers and small businesses who are the engines of job growth.
- "Stable prices": Gas prices keep swinging up and down radically because of speculation.
- "Moderate long-term interest rates": Yes -- but is that good? Opinions vary.
- "Safety and soundness of the nation's banking and financial system": JPMorgan Chase's recent debacle shows how little the Fed has accomplished here. But then, how easy can it be to rein in Jamie Dimon when he's chairing the meeting?
- "Protect the credit rights of consumers": Massive mortgage fraud by major banks. One settlement after another for deceiving consumers. How much time do you have?
- "Maintaining stability ... containing systemic risk": JPMorgan Chase's latest debacle settles this issue once and for all ...
The Radical Fed
Is it any wonder that the Fed gave out more than a trillion dollars to Wall Street's biggest banks -- and did it in secret? (That alone would appear to violate securities law, as it allowed bankers like Jamie Dimon to materially misrepresent the financial condition of their corporations.)
And that's not all the newly radicalized Fed has done. It broke the rules by allowing Goldman Sachs and GE Capital to call themselves "banks" -- just in time to collect their taxpayer-funded bailouts. But it hasn't shown any flexibility when it comes to demanding that banks use some of their low-interest Fed loans to lend to the people and companies that will use it to create jobs.
The Fed has even broken its own rules in order to protect bad bankers. As Professor Steven Davidoff noted in the New York Times: "In Blocking Activists, the Fed Protects Poorly Performing Banks." It's also protecting poorly performers bankers -- like the ones that sit on its boards.
In one case the Fed blocked a shareholder action by invoking a rule that said an outside party couldn't have more than 25 percent control of a bank -- but the shareholder would only have acquired 22 percent control. As Davidoff documents, Fed is repeatedly bending or violating its own rules to prevent shareholders from exercising their rights to limit executive compensation or take action against underperforming or ethically-challenged executives.
The Fed has changed the playbook for bankers over and over. But whenever someone suggests imaginative programs to stimulate the economy by helping consumers or small businesses, the Fed suddenly decides it's a stickler for the rules.
Resistance Is Futile
In our interview for The Breakdown last week, Paul Krugman reiterated his statement that his former Princeton colleague Ben Bernanke has "joined the Borg." The "Borg" is the collective alien entity from Star Trek that takes over people's identities and leaves them with no other mission but expanding its own power.
These Federal Reserve boards represent the Corporate Borg in all its unchecked power -- but the power they possess is power that we have given them, through our elected representatives.
But they're the exceptions, not the rule.
That's why Sen. Bernie Sanders' Federal Reserve Independence Act is so important. The bill would eliminate these conflicts of interest and force the Fed boards to stop serving bankers' interests and return to the Fed's original mission. People should insist that their senators support it.
The bill follows on the Federal Reserve Transparency Act, which was cosponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ron Paul. That bill demanded a public audit of the Fed, which is how we learned about those massive secret loans. That act showed that the left and the right can work together to change our broken central banking system.
It's time to reunite that left/right coalition. Ron Paul may be wrong about the need for a central bank, but he's right when he says that the Fed must be accountable to the people.
Which gets us back to Jamie Dimon. When the prominent economist Simon Johnson first demanded Dimon's resignation he noted that, while his role is sometimes described as "advisory," Dimon sits on the Management and Budget Committee, which supervises the pay of senior Fed executives.
That committee also approves the self-evaluation of senior Fed executives -- which essentially means it gives them their performance reviews. It reviews and approves the Fed's overall budget, too, including the budget for auditing bankers like Jamie Dimon. According to the Fed itself, its other main responsibility is to "review and endorse the Bank's strategic plan."
Budget, compensation, strategic planning: That pretty much covers everything.
Dr. Johnson has started a petition drive calling for Dimon's resignation or removal. He's been joined by Elizabeth Warren and the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, which calls Dimon's position "a stunning conflict of interest."
They're right, of course. But in saner times people would also be demanding that Dimon resign from his bank, too. His tenure as CEO has been marked by a wave of massive deals to settle criminal and civil charges. That alone would have led to disgrace and resignation in more civilized times.
Even in today's more mercenary atmosphere, Dimon's nothing to write home about: The stock was worth around $40 when he became CEO in 2005 and never rose much above $50 after that. It was $33.78 after this latest fiasco.
From his perch on the New York Fed board, Dimon has had a front row seat to the dispensing of $1 trillion in secret cash to Wall Street banks -- including his own. His bank reportedly received as much as $48 billion in secret loans at 1.1 percent interest, when less privileged banks were paying 3.8 percent. The money saved in interest on that loan alone could amount to almost $1.3 billion.
It's like the old saying goes -- a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.
Dimon's always been a paper tiger, a product of his own PR campaign and the low standards of his profession. If he won't resign as JPM's CEO, he should certainly resign as its board chairman, a title he assumed in 2006. That's another clear conflict.
An ethically-managed Federal Reserve wouldn't wait for Dimon to resolve this internal conflict by giving up one of these roles. It would have demanded it long ago. And it would have dismissed Dimon from its Board for JPMorgan Chase's past scandals, as well as the one that just came to light.
And now for something completely different...
It seems like something out of a Monty Python routine. The boards that govern the Federal Reserve, the publicly-created central bank that dispenses money to bankers, are all dominated by ... the bankers who receive that money. Picture it if you can:
Fed Board room, 2008:
ECONOMIST: This is serious! The global economy is collapsing because of your reckless gambling!
LONE CITIZEN BOARD MEMBER: That is serious. What can we do? We could break up our banks and fire their executives, or ...
BANKER: Wait! I've got it! Give us more money!
(Nods all around the table)
Six months later:
ECONOMIST: This is serious! We've given you money but you're not lending it out to get the economy moving!
LONE CITIZEN BOARD MEMBER: That is serious. What can we do? Perhaps there could be rules and conditions about lending that ...
BANKER: Or they could give us more money!
OTHER BANKERS: Good one! Let's go with that!
Three years later:
ECONOMIST: This is serious! Joblessness is still at record highs. Poverty has soared. Too-big-to-fail banks are bigger than ever. And you guys are still breaking the law and skirting the rules.
LONE CITIZEN BOARD MEMBER: Hmm. That is serious. The Fed could use its regulatory authority to ...
BANKER: (aside) I hate that guy. (to all) Let me see ... hmmm ... how about giving us more money?
Three and a half years later:
ECONOMIST: This is serious! The country --
BANKERS (in unison): More money!
Clean Up the Boards
The Federal Reserve's governing structure isn't quite that bad -- but it's pretty close. As the President of the Kansas City Federal Reserve just noted, bankers have a "special obligation" to maintain the "integrity, dignity and reputation" of the central bank. "No individual is more important than the institution and the public's trust," she added.
We'll go a step further: The public's trust can no longer be given to a central bank whose governing bodies are dominated by the wealthy and powerful. Bankers and large corporations should be asked to provide information to the Fed, and should be encouraged to offer their advice. But they don't belong on its boards or committees.
Other steps are needed to make the Federal Reserve responsive the people who created it and gave it such power. But the composition of its boards is a key part of its problem. Its an impediment to change and a disgrace to the nation. As Simon Johnson told an interviewer recently, "No other central bank in any serious country in the world allows bankers to be represented in this fashion."
It's time to boot the bankers from the Federal Reserve's boards and those seats to people who will work on behalf of the citizenry which created the Fed in the first place.
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future and the host of The Breakdown, broadcast Saturdays nights from 7-9 pm on WeAct Radio, AM 1480 in Washington DC.