The financial crisis caused by Wall Street has been devastating for the U.S. economy, bringing on a downturn from which we are still emerging. But apparently there are some on Wall Street who still don't understand the effect the collapse they constructed has had on the rest of us.
In a recent message to shareholders, JPMorgan Chase chief executive and chairman Jamie Dimon wrote that many large banks had "no problem" navigating the crisis, whereas many smaller banks failed because of it. (As an example of the community banks that "went bankrupt" because of their own misjudgments following the 2008-2009 crisis, Dimon curiously cites Texas banks that failed in the 1980s.) Not only did most of the massive Wall Street institutions survive, Dimon notes, but JPMorgan Chase itself graciously paid roughly $8 billion in Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. assessments in recent years to help pay for the resolution of the smaller banks that couldn't hack it.
With baseball season underway, I get the feeling Jamie Dimon woke up on third base and thought he hit a triple.
During the crisis, American taxpayers forked over hundreds of billions of dollars to Wall Street firms to keep them afloat during the crisis they spawned. Had big banks been allowed to fail like smaller institutions, they would have decimated the FDIC deposit insurance fund many times over.
Now that these megabanks are back on their feet and bigger than ever thanks to their government bailouts, they continue to reap the benefits of taxpayer support. As the Government Accountability Office confirmed last year, Wall Street firms continue to receive a tangible funding advantage over smaller institutions thanks to their too-big-to-fail government guarantee.
Meanwhile, let's not forget that the 500 community banks that Dimon cites failed in recent years because of a recession created by Wall Street. A separate GAO report found that the financial crisis cost homeowners more than $9 trillion in equity and led to as much as $10 trillion in lost economic output. That's nearly $20 trillion in ultimate potential damage inflicted on Americans by the very Wall Street firms that Dimon is defending.
Ridiculing the smaller financial institutions that have to answer to the free market — that do not enjoy an absolute taxpayer backstop against failure — is beyond hubris. It shows a complete unwillingness to accept responsibility. It shows that Wall Street, infantilized by privilege, has learned nothing from what it wrought in those panic-stricken months in 2008 and 2009 and in the years of economic doldrums that have followed.
That is not only infuriating to those of us who have had to survive on our wits instead of billion-dollar backstops — it is fundamentally dangerous. The danger lies in Dimon's point that the largest banks are not the riskiest. He suggests the megabank model is nothing to worry about, even though its taxpayer-funded backstop incentivizes large institutions to continue growing and taking outsized financial risks. His point — in fact, his plea, to shareholders who might prefer to split up the massive institution into smaller, more manageable and more valuable parts — was that they've got a pretty good thing going and shouldn't relinquish the benefits of their sheer size and complexity.
We as a nation cannot allow ourselves to fall back into the too-big-to-fail trap. We must continue to seek ways to end federal subsidies and funding advantages for the largest financial firms that incentivize risky behavior and put taxpayers at risk. And we shouldn't fall victim to the siren song of the Wall Street megabanks, those institutions to which the rules of the free markets do not apply.
Camden R. Fine is president and chief executive of the Independent Community Bankers of America. Follow him on Twitter @Cam_Fine.