Can Anything Short of Breaking Up the Big Banks Restrain Them?

The headline is the implicit question raised by John Winslow in a passionately argued post at Ten Miles Square today. His quite explicit answer is “No!”

His witness for the prosecution on this subject is none other than JPMorganChase, its shareholders and executives. Shortly after the company was fined a record $13 billion for the sale of fradulalent mortgages, the shareholders gave president Jamie Dixon a 73% salary increase. That’s a pretty good sign the fine didn’t change anything at JPMC.

More generally, argues Winslow, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act has made both conflicts of interest and mega-size for banks inevitable. So they aren’t going to be intimidated by Dodd-Frank regulations or fines.

Everyone knows the game is rigged, but government regulators are, for the most part, stuck fiddling with the screws. Any attempt to reinstate Glass-Steagall is a political non-starter these days, so the Justice Department is left in the rather unenviable position of simply making the toughest calls when they can. The Justice Department’s historical $13 billion fine was designed according to those officials, as a shot across the bow. Many financial reformers and litigants contend that that $13 billion is nowhere “adequate” — especially since the final deal was arrived at behind closed doors and granted the bank immunity from other lawsuits.

So mega-banks pay the fines and laugh all the way to the–well, you get the idea. Breaking them up, argues Winslow, is more than worth the risks, since leaving them alone risks another series of meltdowns and bailouts.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.