Oops: A $2 Billion Mistake

I’ll crawl out on the limb with a chainsaw this morning and predict that no matter how bad a day you have at work, it won’t nearly match the recent experience of Ina Drew. Drew is — or maybe by now was — the Chief Investment Officer at JPMorgan who managed [or not] the failed strategy that cost the bank and investors some $2 billion, with the meter still running.

Here’s from Reuters:

JPMorgan will move to limit the fallout from a shock trading loss that could reach $3 billion or more by parting company with three top executives involved in its costly failed hedging strategy, sources close to the matter said.

The bank – the biggest in the United States by assets – is expected to accept the resignation this week of Ina Drew, its New York-based chief investment officer and one of its highest-paid executives, in the next few days, the sources said.

Wow. Tough way to exit a job that was paying more than $15 million a year. Let’s pray she doesn’t end up at Merrill Lynch as my Wealth Creation Manager. Sigh.

What makes this story all the more interesting is the reaction by JPMorgan Chairman Jamie Dimon. Dimon has been a highly visible critic of regulations and other measures foisted on Wall Street after bankers put the world into financial meltdown mode a few years ago.

Essentially, Dimon’s reaction: “My bad.”

Here’s from the LA Times:

Without even waiting a decent interval for mourning, JPMorgan Chase Chairman Jamie Dimon launched his defense campaign over the disclosure that he presided over a $2-billion trading loss in derivatives within days of the disclosure itself, choosing the comforting confines of NBC’s “Meet the Press” for the campaign kick-off.

Dimon’s theme was essentially as follows: “Hey, everybody makes mistakes — sure, we lost $2 billion, but we’ve still got billions more, and we’ll figure out this one ourselves without the need for any further regulations, thank you.”

His argument is plainly designed to distract from the right way to think about JPM’s fiasco, which is that it’s exactly the sort of thing that regulations should forbid banks from doing, lest they destroy the financial system — again.

Dimon certainly showed supreme skill in choosing his venue. In “Meet the Press” host David Gregory he had a questioner who is expert in the honored television tradition of taking interviewees at their own level of self-esteem. Also someone who is so clueless about how banks and investment markets work that he hasn’t got the slightest idea of what questions to ask, much less how to follow up on an answer.

Anyway, I know that complaining about the Titans of Wall Street does about as much good as peeing in your sleeping bag on a cold night. It feels good — but doesn’t accomplish much.

So I’ll let William Deresiewicz do the heavy lifting this morning. Here’s from his op-ed in the Sunday NYT, “Capitalists and Other Psychopaths“:

THERE is an ongoing debate in this country about the rich: who they are, what their social role may be, whether they are good or bad. Well, consider the following. A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are “clinical psychopaths,” exhibiting a lack of interest in and empathy for others and an “unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.” (The proportion at large is 1 percent.) Another study concluded that the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and break the law.

The only thing that puzzles me about these claims is that anyone would find them surprising. Wall Street is capitalism in its purest form, and capitalism is predicated on bad behavior. This should hardly be news. The English writer Bernard Mandeville asserted as much nearly three centuries ago in a satirical-poem-cum-philosophical-treatise called “The Fable of the Bees.”

“Private Vices, Publick Benefits” read the book’s subtitle. A Machiavelli of the economic realm — a man who showed us as we are, not as we like to think we are — Mandeville argued that commercial society creates prosperity by harnessing our natural impulses: fraud, luxury and pride. By “pride” Mandeville meant vanity; by “luxury” he meant the desire for sensuous indulgence. These create demand, as every ad man knows. On the supply side, as we’d say, was fraud: “All Trades and Places knew some Cheat, / No Calling was without Deceit.”

In other words, Enron, BP, Goldman, Philip Morris, G.E., Merck, etc., etc. Accounting fraud, tax evasion, toxic dumping, product safety violations, bid rigging, overbilling, perjury. The Walmart bribery scandal, the News Corp. hacking scandal — just open up the business section on an average day. Shafting your workers, hurting your customers, destroying the land. Leaving the public to pick up the tab. These aren’t anomalies; this is how the system works: you get away with what you can and try to weasel out when you get caught.

I always found the notion of a business school amusing. What kinds of courses do they offer? Robbing Widows and Orphans? Grinding the Faces of the Poor? Having It Both Ways? Feeding at the Public Trough? There was a documentary several years ago called “The Corporation” that accepted the premise that corporations are persons and then asked what kind of people they are. The answer was, precisely, psychopaths: indifferent to others, incapable of guilt, exclusively devoted to their own interests.

There are ethical corporations, yes, and ethical businesspeople, but ethics in capitalism is purely optional, purely extrinsic. To expect morality in the market is to commit a category error. Capitalist values are antithetical to Christian ones. (How the loudest Christians in our public life can also be the most bellicose proponents of an unbridled free market is a matter for their own consciences.) Capitalist values are also antithetical to democratic ones. Like Christian ethics, the principles of republican government require us to consider the interests of others. Capitalism, which entails the single-minded pursuit of profit, would have us believe that it’s every man for himself.

Better go to the garage and see if I can find my pitchfork from the last Wall Street meltdown.

Something tells me me haven’t heard the last, or the worst, about this JPMorgan fiasco.

And let’s hope some of the other Titans aren’t in the queue, waiting for their turn to say: “oops!”

 

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2 responses to “Oops: A $2 Billion Mistake

  1. burghthoughts

    I hear ya, but I can’t help but wonder why more people don’t reach for the pitchforks as our government spends us 4 BILLION dollars more into debt every DAY! Day after Day!!! When do we demand they admitt to an “oops”…a Five or Six TRILLION Dollar “oops” in the last 3-4 years??? I guess that will come in about six months or so……

    • Gotta admit you have a point about the debt. Although I expect at least a few of those bucks were related to bailing out the Wizards of Wall Street a few years ago.

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