The report by the US Senate staff on JPMorgan Chase’s “London Whale” trades, delivered last Friday, excoriates the bank for failing to make the full extent of the problem known to regulators and the public. But a focus on who knew what when can result in missing the big point: the cost of our too-big-to-fail banks is even heftier than is widely appreciated.
The conventional wisdom in many circles is that the losses caused by the trades are regrettable but we can all move on. After all, JPMorgan’s equity cushion can readily absorb it. Private shareholders and managers have paid the price – shareholders lost $6bn and several senior managers have black marks against their names. The episode is embarrassing but the bank can earn more than $20bn a year. “A tempest in a teapot,” said Jamie Dimon, its chief executive, last year.
But before the London Whale sinks from view, consider what would befall a conventional industrial company that suffered such a horrendous, expensive managerial lapse. If JPMorgan were in the business of making things, it would have already attracted significant corporate governance activity. The loss might be the trigger for a takeover and break-up effort.