Why Jamie Dimon Should Be Indicted

Salon’s Alex Pareene went on CNBC on Friday to debate whether JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon should keep his job after the megabank has found itself facing numerous investigations for alleged crimes it committed over the past couple of years. Wonkblog’s Neil Irwin summed up the entire situation well:

This is Mars vs. Venus stuff, in the sense that Pareene is coming from a different planet than Bartiromo and others who are creatures of the Wall Street world. The latter group sees Dimon as the most successful of the masters of the universe, as evidenced by the fact that he steered his bank around the calamities of 2008 and has kept it roaring ahead since. In this telling, some of the unpleasantness the bank has faced, like the $6 billion “London Whale” trading loss and potential $11 billion settlement being negotiated with the Justice Department as a fine for its involvement in shady deals for mortgage securities before the crisis, are just a cost of doing business.

On the planet inhabited Pareene (and some of his supporters among the commentariat, like Felix Salmon and Kevin Roose), the fact that JPMorgan has made gobs of money under Dimon, even after accounting for those losses, is almost irrelevant. JPMorgan had been one of the (allegedly) culpable parties in all sorts of chicanery (Tim Fernholz lists the investigations here), and the CEO must take responsibility for such broad problems.

The basic divide here isn’t about the merits of these individual cases, or any personal culpability that Dimon might have in bad behavior by the bank (some of which even took place in Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual, companies that JPMorgan acquired as they were on the brink of collapse during the crisis).

The question is what obligation a mega-bank like JPMorgan, and its CEO, have to society as a whole as opposed to just the shareholders who own it.

Irwin continues on to note the systemic value of JPMorgan and the benefits such megabanks receive due to their size. That means these banks have an obligation to the whole economy, not just to maximizing shareholder value that CNBC analysts singularly focus on. Irwin concludes:

In that sense, Jamie Dimon’s role at the helm of JPMorgan is not just one of satisfying the company’s shareholders, but one with broad responsibility to steward one of the important institutions that supports economic growth. The CNBC video is evidence of how little, five years after the crisis, that sense of broad responsibility has permeated the world of Wall Street.

This is the perfect summation of the entire exchange. The problem is that Wall Street is never going to learn and understand this. They still don’t understand that banks have a societal duty to operate prudently and legally. They haven’t learned and they aren’t going to learn.

The question, then, is how to align incentives so that operating prudently and legally is in the best interest of Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan. Pareene suggests breaking up the banks so that their failure wouldn’t cause a financial crisis and require a government bailout. But in the absence of Congressional support for such a policy, there is another way to align these incentives: make CEOs and other executives have skin in the game.

This isn’t easy to do and federal agencies don’t have enough resources as it is, but there has to at least be an effort to hold individuals responsible for their bank’s actions. It’s too easy for bank executives to commit crimes, attempt to cover them up and then avoid a trial. The bank may face an investigation and have to pay a huge fine, but bank executives are never at risk of going to jail. That’s inexcusable.

If those executives suddenly faced criminal charges, their conduct would change quickly. The industry would change quickly. Executives would still try to maximize shareholder value, but they would also be concerned that the bank was doing so legally. If not, they could soon find themselves locked away. That’s a good incentive to make sure your bank isn’t breaking the law.

Best of all, this doesn’t require prosecuting every small thing that banks do wrong. It just requires prosecuting enough executives so that all of them are aware that if their bank commits a major crime, they will likely face charges.

You know where would be a good place to start? Prosecuting the leader of the bank that is about to pay the largest financial settlement in history.

That man? Jamie Dimon.