The JPMorgan Problem Writ Large

PARIS – JPMorgan Chase has had a bad year. Not only has the bank just reported its first quarterly loss in more than a decade; it has also agreed to a tentative deal to pay a fine of $13 billion to the US government as punishment for mis-selling mortgage-backed securities. Other big legal and regulatory costs loom. JPMorgan will bounce back, of course, but its travails have reopened the debate about what to do with banks that are “too big to fail.”

In the United States, policymakers chose to include the Volcker rule (named after former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker) in the Dodd-Frank Act, thereby restricting proprietary trading by commercial banks rather than reviving some form of the Glass-Steagall Act’s division of investment and retail banks. But Senators Elizabeth Warren and John McCain, a powerful duo, have returned to the fight. They argue that recent events have shown that JPMorgan is too big to be managed well, even by CEO Jamie Dimon, whose fiercest critics do not accuse him of incompetence.

Nonetheless, the Warren-McCain bill is unlikely to be enacted soon, if only because President Barack Obama’s administration is preoccupied with keeping the government open and paying its bills, while bipartisan agreement on what day of the week it is, let alone on further financial reform, cannot be guaranteed. But the question of what to do about huge, complex, and seemingly hard-to-control universal banks that benefit from implicit state support remains unresolved.

The “school solution,” agreed at the Financial Stability Board in Basel, is that global regulators should clearly identify systemically significant banks and impose tougher regulations on them, with more intensive supervision and higher capital ratios. That has been done.