On June 22, Public Citizen was joined by U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley from Oregon, former congressman Brad Miller of North Carolina, MIT Professor Simon Johnson, University of Maryland Professor Rena Steinzor, and Marcus Stanley of Americans for Financial Reform to celebrate the release of Public Citizen’s latest publication. Too Big: The Mega-Banks Are Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Jail, and Too Big to Manage lays out the reasons why the current regulatory system has allowed mega-banks to remain too large.
Too Big immediately pinpoints the threat to American citizens’ interests as big banks continue to operate without adequate regulation:
“Americans suffered from the financial crisis of the 2008. Adding insult to injury, Americans were compelled to finance bailouts of banks responsible for the crash on the theory that permitting any to fail would cause a cascade of bankruptcies and inflict cataclysmic damage to the economy.
Yet today, the largest banks are even bigger than they were then.”
The book, by Bart Naylor, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division’s financial policy advocate, focuses on commonsense solutions, in the form of regulatory and legislative reforms, to stem the unencumbered power and greed of the mega-banks.
On May 11, JP Morgan CEO James Dimon called the president of the nation’s community bank trade association a “jerk” in a live interview. Dimon characterized Camden Fine of the Independent Bankers Association of America in this way following Fine’s assertion that the ill-regarded mega-banks hid behind better-regarded community banks for political cover when lobbying for deregulation.
Public Citizen has voiced critiques similar to Fine’s about the mega-banks. Indeed, Public Citizen urges JP Morgan’s break-up, and filed a shareholder resolution calling on a study of this idea. So when I attended the May 17 annual meeting of JP Morgan, I expected to draw some colorful rejoinders from CEO Dimon. Instead, the meeting in New Orleans, LA, known to locals as NOLA, was a meeting of “no.”
There was no name calling. In fact, CEO Dimon declared in his prepared remarks that the bank should be less defensive with public criticism. And he declared his firm squarely on the path of moral rectitude, and that misconduct would not be tolerated. He also described the company’s record financial results.
His remarks, which he read at a pace similar to the TV advertisement legal disclaimer for Cialis’ side effects, were a synopsis of his 50-page defense that opens JPMorgan’s annual report.
The comforting words regarding conduct were dissonant with the lengthy rap sheet of recent settlements for claims of misconduct at JPMorgan. They were also dissonant with the meeting venue, which was New Orleans’ Bourbon St. Shareholders attending the meeting needed to slalom there through people sleeping on the sidewalk either because they couldn’t find their way home, or they didn’t have a home; passed strip clubs open for business at 9:30 a.m.; and under awnings advertising alcoholic beverages that you’re welcome to sip on the street.
There was also no victory for shareholders hoping for some basic reforms through six separate proposals that constituted the core of this annual meeting. Public Citizen advanced one of these—the break-up study—and I introduced four others as a courtesy to the proponents who wanted to spare themselves travel expenses. Voting shareholders turned down all these proposals. Partly this is explained by the fact that 13 percent of the shareholders didn’t vote. Most voters are institutions tied into JP Morgan and other banks. Of course it didn’t help that the company uses language that confuses– the ballot didn’t actually say “break-up study,” but “shareholder value committee,” which an institutional voter sifting through hundreds of annual meeting ballots might dismiss as another expensive, needless distraction. Andrew Ackerman of the Wall Street Journal has explored this clever dodge.
About a month ago, the Panama Papers scandal broke onto the international news scene, shining sunlight on the vast numbers of shell companies the Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, used to hide assets for wealthy individuals and companies.
The leaker (hacker?) behind the Panama Papers revelations , dubbed John Doe , dumped a tsunami of data on German journalists, who then enlisted the assistance of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) to wade through the 11.5 million documents. Because of the vast amount of data, the ICIJ is now turning to crowd-sourcing analysis by publishing a searchable database to allow the public to access the trove of information on secret treasures hidden within shell companies.
Careers are already ending as the exposé shines a light on the dirty little secrets public figures have camouflaged through the use of anonymous shell companies. The Prime Minister of Iceland was forced to step down when his name was associated with the Panama Papers files. The surge of stories has yet to ebb and will likely continue to flood us with information as citizen sleuths uncover additional instances of the rich and famous using Mossack Fonseca’s services to arrange the harboring of their assets from tax authorities, journalists, and other probing eyes.
Many of the world’s elite stash their riches offshore in lush tropical locales like the Bahamas or the British Virgin Islands, but a large number are also buried in companies formed in the deserts of Nevada. The state ranks on the list of top 10 places used by the Panamanian law firm to create shell companies for their clients.
Though flush with famous foreigners’ names like Emma Watson, the actress that played Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger, Americans are conspicuously underrepresented in the 14,000 plus names on Mossack Fonseca client list. That shouldn’t be surprising, though, since the U.S. is already well-established as a tax haven.
It’s hard to believe that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) collects worker safety data with a system that is better suited for the Stone Age than the Information Age. Right now, OSHA relies on data sources that are too limited to allow the agency to effectively respond to hazardous workplace conditions. For example, data from the OSHA Data Initiative is typically two to three years old. That simply does not provide a clear picture of current threats to workers. To correct this problem, OSHA just released a rule that will require certain employers to submit workplace injury and illness records electronically on a quarterly basis, ensuring OSHA will have timely and systematic access to occupational hazard data. When the rule is implemented, workers and other members of the public will be able to access the information through a searchable database on OSHA’s website.
This rule is a big deal – it will significantly change the way OSHA monitors and responds to workplace hazards. Here are six reasons to celebrate this new rule:
- The rule helps government work more efficiently. With the most up-to-date injury and illness records, OSHA can use its resources to identify and target the hazards putting workers at the greatest risk.
- With greater efficiency in tracking injuries, we can expect to see improved results in preventing injuries. Once OSHA is able to analyze the greatest risks facing U.S. workers, it can take action to prevent and eliminate those hazards. Workers will inevitably reap the benefit of safer workplaces over time.
- Workers and the public can make informed decisions based on the information available. The more information, the better. Having access to injury and illness data on OSHA’s website will enable potential employees to make careful decisions about where to work. Likewise, customers and other members of the public can use this information to evaluate companies before doing business with them.
A stock option is to risk what air is to fire. That’s not exactly what James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers #10. (“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire”). But the nation’s fourth president would certainly agree were he to comment on Washington’s proposal to reform Wall Street pay.
Six federal agencies charged with overseeing Wall Street are proposing rules to implement Section 956 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. This section charged them to write rules that prevent “excessive” pay packages that lead to “inappropriate risk-taking.”
Americans for Financial Reform, a coalition where Public Citizen leads the task force on executive compensation issues, calls for the reduction of stock options in pay packages. Stock options are agreements providing the opportunity (but not obligation) to buy or sell stocks at fixed prices within certain time frames.
Yes, stock options can align managers’ interests with those of other shareholders. Yes, risk-taking is what companies including banks do when they make loans. This can make sense at a firm such as Apple. Managers could simply sit on the iPhone revenues and pay themselves huge sums in cash. But a shareholder prefer they develop the Next New Thing that generates increasing revenue and lifts the stock price. But just as air and fire are separately important, risk-taking can become volatile at a bank when mixed with stock options.
The problem with stock options is that they’re only valuable if the stock price rises above what’s called the strike price. Stock options are different than actual stock. If you own 1000 shares of Citigroup, which is trading at $50, you’ve got $50,000 worth of stock. If the price goes to $60/share, you’ve got $60,000, which is better. If the price sags to $40, you’ve got $40,000, which is worse.