Banks are not sacred cows

That’s why we have to regulate them. Paul Krugman:

…JPMorgan’s shock announcement that it somehow managed to lose $2 billion in a failed bit of financial wheeling-dealing.

Why, exactly, are banks special? Because history tells us that banking is and always has been subject to occasional destructive “panics,” which can wreak havoc with the economy as a whole. Current right-wing mythology has it that bad banking is always the result of government intervention, whether from the Federal Reserve or meddling liberals in Congress…

o what can be done? In the 1930s, after the mother of all banking panics, we arrived at a workable solution, involving both guarantees and oversight…

This system gave us half a century of relative financial stability. Eventually, however, the lessons of history were forgotten. New forms of banking without government guarantees proliferated, while both conventional and newfangled banks were allowed to take on ever-greater risks. Sure enough, we eventually suffered the 21st-century version of a Gilded Age banking panic, with terrible consequences.

Enter Mr. Dimon. JPMorgan, to its — and his — credit, managed to avoid many of the bad investments that brought other banks to their knees. This apparent demonstration of prudence has made Mr. Dimon the point man in Wall Street’s fight to delay, water down and/or repeal financial reform.He has been particularly vocal in his opposition to the so-called Volcker Rule, which would prevent banks with government-guaranteed deposits from engaging in “proprietary trading,” basically speculating with depositors’ money. Just trust us, the JPMorgan chief has in effect been saying; everything’s under control.

What did JPMorgan actually do? As far as we can tell, it used the market for derivatives — complex financial instruments — to make a huge bet on the safety of corporate debt, something like the bets that the insurer A.I.G. made on housing debt a few years ago. The key point is not that the bet went bad; it is that institutions playing a key role in the financial system have no business making such bets, least of all when those institutions are backed by taxpayer guarantees.

Back to strict regulation is unlikely, however, as the world is stuck in a mind set that the invincible hand rules supreme. And that’s how we get smacked by it in the head repeatedly.

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