By Boyd Erman
JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM) head Jamie Dimon doesn’t have to be right when he attacks central bankers and their plans for bank reform. He just has to be inflammatory.
Mr. Dimon is yet again on the offensive against those who would rein in bank risk-taking, railing in a meeting with Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney against the higher capital requirements for banks under the Basel III reform package.
The spat with Mr. Carney came just a few weeks after an interview in which Mr. Dimon called some Basel III requirements “anti-American” and a few months after he ambushed Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke with questions about whether financial sector reforms would curb economic growth.
It’s almost beside the point whether Mr. Dimon’s arguments hold up (though there is evidence that some key ones do not). He is grandstanding for a different audience.
If Mr. Dimon can raise a general alarm among the U.S. populace using incendiary talk of anti-Americanism, he can use U.S. politics to sabotage implementation and supervision of Basel III. The last round of Basel reforms aimed at improving bank stability foundered in the United States, torpedoed by fighting between regulators, intervention from Congress and pressure from bankers seeking exemptions.
The fundamental trouble with Basel has always been that while the rules are agreed upon internationally, implementation and supervision are at a national level. Without buy-in back home, Basel doesn’t work. And without the United States, home to the world’s largest financial centre and the world’s largest economy, Basel III would be gutted.
“It’s part of the war of attrition, the banging on the door by bankers and the economists who support them, on how clamping down on the banking system is clamping down on the economy at large,” said Azad Ali, a London-based counsel in the financial institutions advisory and financial regulatory group at Shearman & Sterling LLP.
Indeed, there’s a sense among bankers in Washington for the meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that Mr. Dimon spoke for all of them when he stood up to Mr. Carney, and that the rules coming down the pipe are stifling banking and its role as a feeder of economic growth. The set-to is “symbolic of the mood here,” said one banker on the scene.
Mr. Dimon benefits from the complexity of the subject. He can toss around the idea that the requirements are anti-American with little fear of being challenged, because the rules are so convoluted. On some simple measures, though, he fails. As many have noted, of the banks that are likely to get the harshest capital treatment, the U.S. banks – including JPMorgan – are in the minority.
Another of Mr. Dimon’s objections defies logic. Many U.S. banks have businesses collecting interest and chasing late payments on mortgages that they don’t own, all for a fee. Mr. Dimon wants the value of that business counted in the top tier of capital, which is supposed to be reserved for assets such as Treasury bills that can be converted to cash quickly, at close to their face value, even in a market crash.
There’s no such liquid market for an asset as specialized as a mortgage servicing right, especially in a financial crisis. Even so, Basel III allows countries a free pass for such assets, up to a point, so the U.S. could count MSRs to a degree if it wanted to.
Such details are the micro level. On a macro level, Mr. Dimon is a believer that tighter regulation will stifle economic growth by causing banks to cut back on lending or to raise loan prices.
It’s a popular stance among bankers, but one that has hardly been proved. The research unit of the Bank of England’s external monetary policy committee concluded in a 2011 study that forcing banks to hold more capital will have little impact on borrowing costs. The price of a loan in the U.K. has averaged about one percentage point above the central bank rate for the past 100 or so years, even though for much of the time banks had much higher capital levels.
The organizations behind Basel have estimated Basel III’s capital requirements will shave only fractions of a percentage point off economic growth each year over the implementation. The benefit of not having as many financial crises far outweighs that, the Bank of Canada has argued.
However, Mr. Dimon, who famously believes that financial crises roll around every few years no matter what, can ignore that. All he has to do is create enough reasonable doubt to impede implementation of Basel III in the United States, and he will have won his battle.