Tens of millions of ordinary Americans will never recover from the financial collapse of 2007-09, a tragedy that spread misery around the world and cost U.S. households at least $19.2 trillion, according to Treasury estimates. So there was barely a whiff of satisfaction in last week’s $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan Chase.
The financial giant acknowledged that it knowingly bundled toxic loans into mortgage-backed securities and sold them to unsuspecting investors. But neither CEO Jamie Dimon nor any other JPMorgan employees were held personally accountable. Indeed, the bank did not admit any violation of law.
While the $13 billion payout is the largest ever by a single company engaged in government litigation, it represents only about half of the bank’s profits last year and a small portion of revenues generated from two other predatory companies (Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual) that Morgan absorbed in 2008. All in all, Dimon had a rougher day at the office than normal last Tuesday when the settlement was announced. But he appears to have escaped criminal culpability and continues to hold a job that pays a reported $18.7 million a year.
What frustrates so many people about this case and others brought against the big Wall Street firms is that money can so easily tip the scales of justice. Not only are these firms too big to fail, they’re too big to be successfully prosecuted, or so it appears. And their executives are suddenly personally blameless when those details come under question.
Attorneys who face off against Wall Street say the playing field isn’t remotely level. Firms spend enormous amounts of money to influence the writing of the laws that govern them, and when their practices are challenged they spend almost unlimited resources on legal talent hired to make the cases as long, tedious, complex and expensive as possible, with an eye toward deterring further litigation and building up a wall of invincibility.
Even governments can be intimidated, as this case illustrated. It was New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, not the Obama administration, who insisted on the aggressive approach that eventually produced, well, not quite victory but some semblance of justice for the victims. About $7 billion (tax deductible for the company) is being set aside to help rebuild communities and keep distressed homeowners afloat.
But that amount may not come remotely close to covering all the damage caused by JPMorgan, Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual. Researchers calculate that between 2004 and 2007 those firms sold $1 trillion in mortgages.
JPMorgan has so far repaid or set aside $25 billion as restitution, or about 2.5 percent of that total. But that amount may not be nearly high enough given the number of questionable mortgages that the companies may have unloaded. Untangling the toxic from the nontoxic to determine which bonds should never have been sold is a difficult task, but experts told the New York Times last week that JPMorgan may have escaped with a pretty good deal.
It should be remembered that the fraudulent and predacious actions of Wall Street were not the sole causes of the collapse. Among the other factors: Lax government regulation, sloppy work by the bond rating agencies, and an unwise push for homeownership for people who couldn’t afford homes.
The public will have a clearer overall picture as more Wall Street settlements are struck in the months ahead. Whether the government can ever lay hands of the individuals most responsible remains to be seen.