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The Missing Math in Dimon’s Economic Argument: Simon Johnson

June 09, 2011

June 9 (Bloomberg) -- When Jamie Dimon confronted Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke at a conference earlier this week, he spoke for dozens of bank executives who privately believe regulators have gone overboard in seeking to prevent another financial crisis. “Has anyone bothered to study the cumulative effect of all these things?” he asked. “Is this holding us back at this point?”

Dimon, the chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co., was pressing Bernanke to admit that the total cost of new financial regulations had not been fully calculated, and could well be holding back job growth.

What evidence does Dimon have? He is a very smart executive with an impressive track record, but his account of regulatory changes is incomplete, to say the least. Most of what he lists are the direct effect of a credit boom that ended in a severe crisis. Some badly run firms, including thrifts and mortgage brokers, failed; structured investment vehicles, which were used to hold mortgage securities off-balance-sheet, are gone; there are no more subprime or Alt-A mortgages; markets have become more transparent; and financial institutions have reduced their leverage and increased their liquidity.

As Dimon conceded in his question, risk needed to be brought under control and managed better by the private sector. There is nothing about this part of the post-2008 process that should be laid at the door of the government. If any financial sector blows itself up, firms fail, products disappear and everyone becomes more careful -- at least for a while.

Capital Surcharge

The substantive issue that seems to be bothering Dimon is capital requirements, and particularly the news that the Fed is leaning toward making large banks, such as JPMorgan, hold a 3 percent capital “surcharge” (a complete misnomer; the requirement for more equity financing relative to debt would be a buffer against losses, and not a tax.)

To adopt Dimon’s proposed methodology, what was the cumulative effect of the previous lower capital requirements in the U.S. and globally? This part is easy -- it was the reckless risk-taking and mismanagement that led us to 2008. If you pay executives and traders on the basis of return-on-equity, unadjusted for risk, they will want to take a lot of risk, boosting payouts in the good times and handing the downside risk to someone else (ideally, from their point of view, the taxpayer).

According to Sanjai Bhagat and Brian Bolton, executives at the top 14 U.S. financial companies pocketed about $2.6 billion in cash (salary, bonus and the value of stock options sold) during 2000-2008. Much of that compensation would not have been paid if there were proper adjustment for risk.

Total Crisis Costs

The realized downside risks, as handed to the taxpayer, should be measured not merely as the cost of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) or Federal Reserve rescue plans, but in terms of the increase in federal-government debt the financial crisis caused. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the financial crisis will end up increasing government debt by at least 40 percent of gross domestic product. (I’ve covered the details of this calculation elsewhere; this point is not controversial among fiscal experts.)

So, to turn Dimon’s question around, we know that previously low capital requirements led to social losses (those borne by taxpayers) in the trillions of dollars, as well as millions of jobs and homes lost, while the private gains were in the low billions.

Lower Growth

What about the cost of raising capital requirements? On this the Federal Reserve tends to hem and haw -- as did Bernanke when questioned by Dimon on June 7. The Institute of International Finance has published estimates that suggest higher capital requirements will directly lower growth. But the institute represents global banks. And the people on its board of directors -- top management from the largest financial firms in the world -- are paid primarily for return-on-equity, unadjusted for risk. They have every incentive to lobby for lower capital requirements.

And the research that says increasing capital requirements will slow growth has no merit -- a point made at length by Anat Admati, Peter DeMarzo, Martin Hellwig and Paul Pfleiderer. Increasing capital requirements means more equity financing for banks, relative to their debt. Admati and her colleagues show this makes both their equity and debt safer, and shouldn’t significantly affect the cost of credit.

Higher capital requirements will naturally change the way banks such as JPMorgan do business. That’s a plus, not a minus. Big banks today benefit from implicit subsidies because the market expects the government to step in and save them whenever necessary.

Mispricing Risk

If you scale back the likely subsidies by requiring much more capital, perhaps the megabanks will get smaller -- but the market can sort that out for itself. The important thing is to withdraw the implicit government support that makes JPMorgan and other large banks today’s government sponsored enterprises and contributes to the mispricing of risk throughout the world.

Dimon is right to ask for the math; this is finance, after all. But he and Bernanke should be aware that the right math is staring them in the face.

Calculate the true social costs of the existing system and weigh that against the nonexistent social costs of significantly increasing capital requirements. We should be going far beyond the higher capital requirements that the Fed wants to impose on JPMorgan Chase.

(Simon Johnson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

--Editors: Paula Dwyer, James Greiff

Click on “Send Comment” in sidebar display to send a letter to the editor.

To contact the author of this column: Simon Johnson at sjohnson@mit.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Paula Dwyer at pdwyer11@bloomberg.net


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