Now the regulators fine them! I never thought I'd write a piece criticizing regulators for belatedly piling on the big banks and fining them half a decade after the financial crisis in which they played such a central role.
But a recent fine levied against JP Morgan for actions undertaken by Bear Stearns before regulators at the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve virtually forced them to buy that bankrupt institution appears downright gratuitous.
The $350 million fine from the New York state attorney general will do a lot less damage to JP Morgan's balance sheet than the London whale. Any time one business acquires another rival, contingent liabilities are a major consideration. Just think about the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, where liabilities can lurk for decades.
Clearly, someone should have paid a price for Bear Stearns' packaging and sales of toxic mortgage derivatives. One would think regulators might want to start with Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne, who paid himself more than $500 million during his last five years at the firm. According to published reports, when Cayne wasn't playing bridge or golf, which was very often, Cayne sometimes was smoking funny stuff in his office.
Many of the acquisitions completed during the financial crisis were executed at the barrel of a regulator's gun. When Bank of America tried to exit its proposed acquisition of Merrill Lynch in late 2008, then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson subjected Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis to Godfather-style threats.
It's hard to feel sorry for Lewis, a serial acquirer who brought Bank of America to its knees with the Countrywide and Merrill acquisitions. Had he waited two more days in September 2008, he could have bought the nation's largest brokerage for a tiny fraction of what he paid. The damage and dilution the Merrill deal inflicted on Bank of America's shareholders prompted a recent $2.43 billion settlement. In the case of BofA, one has to wonder how many more multi-billion dollar fines and settlements they can sustain financially.
However, it is also instructive to examine the different regulatory regimes on either side of the Atlantic. In the United Kingdom, Barclay's wanted to buy Lehman Brothers in September 2008 and was told by the Bank of England they were in no shape to buy a firm as troubled as Lehman. Weeks later they were able to purchase those Lehman operations they really wanted out of a bankruptcy court.
Contrast that to the U.S. where we had a Treasury secretary walking around like Don Corleone with a sawed-off shotgun arranging one miserable marriage after another. Paulson probably thought he was doing the right thing, but our financial system has never recovered. Five years ago, we had banks that were to big to fail. Now they are even bigger and may well be too big to save.