Rather than digging up the truth behind Wall Street's behavior, Congress seems content to let the possibility of another crash loom.
Jamie Dimon’s testimony before the Senate Banking Committee yesterday has led some critics to charge that the Senators tasked with getting to the bottom of what led to JPMorgan Chase’s staggering $2-to-$5 billion dollar loss in the derivatives market have dropped the ball. In spite of Mr. Dimon’s frank admission that JPMorgan Chase, like the nation’s other big banks, was sometimes led astray by “greed, arrogance, hubris [and] lack of attention to detail,” and his additional observation that the instigation of the yet-to-be imposed Volcker Rule could have reduced the losses, Dimon faced few really tough questions. As a result, we learned little, if anything, from the hearings about the true nature of the decisions that led to the loss, or how Mr. Dimon and the CEOs of our nation’s other too big to fail banks might avoid such large losses in the future. This is particularly important if what he calls the “vague and unnecessary” Volcker Rule is ultimately watered down to the point of ineffectiveness.
Given the level of campaign contributions members of the Senate Banking Committee—on both sides of the aisle—have received from the banking industry, perhaps we should not be surprised by the coddling Mr. Dimon received in the Senate hearing room. But things were not always so cordial. Roughly 80 years ago, in the wake of the 1929 financial sector crash, the very same Senate Banking Committee, under the leadership of the committee’s indomitable chief counsel Ferdinand Pecora, excoriated members of Wall Street’s financial elite. The result was a series of revelations about the behavior—what Mr. Dimon accurately calls the “greed, arrogance [and] hubris”—of Wall Street that outraged the nation and shocked Congress into action.
In the spring of 1933, for example, under the grilling many top executives received at the hands of Pecora, who cut his teeth as a prosecutor as the Assistant Attorney General for the State of New York, the Senate Banking Committee learned that top executives at National City Bank (now Citibank) had bundled a series of bad loans to Latin American countries into securities and sold them to unsuspecting investors. The Committee also learned that these same executives had received large interest-free loans from National City’s coffers and that, as J.P. Morgan, Jr. admitted, it was fairly common practice among the members of Wall Street’s banking and financial elite to keep a list of influential “friends” who were given the opportunity to purchase stocks at drastically reduced prices. Most shocking, however, was the revelation that Mr. Morgan, who as head of the nation’s largest bank was the Warren Buffet of his day, had paid no income taxes between 1930 and 1933. Nor was he alone, for the committee soon learned that many of the nation’s other top bankers had also paid little or no income tax in the years since the 1929 crash.
These disclosures, coupled with additional revelations about excessive salaries and bonuses, outraged the public and helped inspire the incoming Roosevelt administration and Congress to push through some of the most important banking and financial reforms in American history. It is thanks in part to the work of the Senate Banking Committee, then, that the nation benefitted from such reforms as the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial from investment banking and gave us the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; the 1933 Truth in Securities Act, which required the securities industry to provide potential investors with complete and accurate financial information about any financial product individuals or firms might wish to purchase; and the 1934 Securities and Exchange Act, which created the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Of course, the vast majority of the financial sector in 1933 and '34 vehemently opposed these reforms. But thanks to the willingness of the Senate Banking Committee to root out and expose many of the unethical practices that contributed to the collapse of the American economy, all Americans, from Wall Street to Main Street, were able to reap the benefits of a properly regulated financial sector for decades to come.
Today, most mainstream economists agree that it has been our return to the reckless and largely unregulated financial practices we saw in the 1920s, coupled with the dismantling of such key New Deal reforms as the Glass-Stegall Act, that led to the 2007-08 collapse of the world’s economy and the onset of the Great Recession. Yet the gentle treatment Mr. Dimon received at the hands of the current Senate Banking Committee pales in comparison to the penetrating line of inquiry pursued by its predecessors. This is unfortunate, for it represents yet another lost opportunity at the hands of our dysfunctional government to provide the kind of leadership required to bring about meaningful financial reform. Sadly, it seems that we would rather run the risk of another financial collapse than confront the truth about the unsustainable nature of an industry driven solely by the desire to accumulate vast quantities of wealth by whatever means necessary, no matter what the cost to the millions of Americans who still believe in an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.