The Lesson of JP Morgan's $2 Billion Loss: Break Up the Big Banks

The news is astonishing. And yet, it changes nothing. The most important banks are still too big to fail, and still, they fall short with astonishing regularity.

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Reuters

The reports are startlingly familiar. Late Thursday, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon announced a surprise $2 billion trading loss and stocks swooned. Dimon insisted, though, that there was no need for a Volcker Rule that would ban big banks from risky trading.

Last week, a Reuters investigation revealed that HSBC, the world's fifth-largest bank, failed to review thousands of internal anti-money-laundering alerts. The bank did not file legally required "suspicious activity reports" to U.S. law enforcement officials. It hired "gullible, poorly trained, and otherwise incompetent personnel" to run its anti-money-laundering effort. Each year, hundreds of billions of dollars flowed through the bank without being properly monitored.

Last month, U.S. regulators accused Citigroup of having major lapses in its anti-money-laundering systems as well. Under an agreement with the Comptroller of the Currency, the agency that regulates national U.S. banks, Citigroup agreed to improve its monitoring operations, but did not pay a monetary penalty or admit any wrongdoing.

For critics of mega-banks, the reports are the latest sign of big banks' ability to defy regulation, engage in dubious business practices and face few consequences.

In a British court last month, a former Nigerian governor pleaded guilty to pilfering $79 million from state coffers, funneling it offshore and buying six properties in the U.S. and UK. The banks he used to move the illicit money? HSBC, Citibank, Barclays and Schroders.

"Banks get hauled up by the regulators for failing to follow the law, promise to reform, and yet a few years down the line they're caught doing the same thing," said Robert Palmer of the anti-corruption group Global Witness. "I think for this to change we need strong penalties for when the banks get things wrong, and in the worst cases, jail time for individual bankers."

Four current Federal Reserve presidents, meanwhile, are arguing that the Dodd-Frank reforms have not eliminated the "too big to fail" banks, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek article published last month. Despite measures in the legislation banning further bailouts, traders, analysts and bankers simply don't buy it.

"Markets have come to believe that what the government did in 2008 and 2009 isn't a one-time deal," Kevin Warsh, a former member of the Federal Reserve Bank's Board of Governors, said in a March television interview with Charlie Rose. They think "that the government will somehow come to the rescue of these big financial firms."

The result is a half-dozen massive banks that remain so large that their collapse would cripple the U.S. economy and force another government bailout. As a result, the behemoths function as a de facto oligopoly. The sheer size of the banks - and the theoretical government backing that they enjoy - make it impossible for the country's roughly 20 regional banks and 7,000 community banks to challenge them.

BIGGER AND BIGGER

The country's biggest banks are getting bigger.

Five U.S. banks - JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs - held $8.5 trillion in assets at the end of 2011, equal to 56 percent of the country's economy, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Five years earlier, before the financial crisis, the biggest banks' holdings amounted to 43 percent of U.S. output. Today, they are roughly twice as large as they were a decade ago relative to the economy.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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