WASHINGTON — Although the second congressional hearing on a high-profile issue tends to be repetitive and anticlimactic, the Senate Banking Committee's failure to challenge Jamie Dimon last week has given House lawmakers an opportunity to bolster their reputations by sharply confronting the JPMorgan Chase chief executive.
Unlike the Senate session, which lasted only two hours, the House Financial Services Committee hearing scheduled for Tuesday will be a marathon, with 58 members getting the chance to question not just Dimon, but also a separate panel of five top regulators about the bank's recent trading loss.
The hearing last week did provide some new details and touch on important points — but lawmakers didn't follow up. Following is a rundown of questions that House members should ask to correct that oversight:
Why do you think that big banks should have higher capital requirements than small banks?
Dimon has repeatedly registered his objection to the capital surcharge for big banks that is being proposed as part of Basel III.
At Wednesday's hearing, he took issue with the complexity of the arrangement, and suggested the international proposal would require his bank to hold more capital than is necessary. "So there is an issue about how much capital is enough," Dimon said.
But under questioning from Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, a vocal supporter of requiring banks to hold more capital, Dimon also made an interesting admission.
"In general, do you think bigger banks — very big banks — should have clearly higher capital requirements?" Vitter asked.
"Yeah, I'd be fine with that," Dimon responded. "Yes, in general."
This was an overlooked piece of testimony - the CEO of one of the nation's largest banks expressed his agreement with the principle that the big banks should have to hold more capital than their smaller counterparts.
Unfortunately, no one asked the obvious follow-up question: "Why do you think so?"
There are only a few readily apparent reasons for supporting a capital surcharge on the largest banks — to level the playing field with smaller institutions; to provide a countervailing disadvantage to size; and to protect taxpayers from bailouts — and none of them typically come from the mouth of a big-bank CEO.
What's the point of a risk committee and a bevy of examiners if they can't be expected to flag trades the size of the London Whale's?
Banks as large as JPMorgan have lots of risk committees. And while Dimon acknowledged Wednesday that the risk committee for JPM's Chief Investment Office, where the massive trading losses occurred, was not independent-minded enough, he also said the firm-wide risk committee should not share the blame.
"I think it's a little unrealistic to expect the risk committee to capture something like this," he said. "This is a flaw that I would completely blame on management, certainly not on the risk committee."
"I just think it would have been hard for them to capture this if management didn't capture it. To the extent we were misinformed, we were misinforming them," Dimon added.
Later, Dimon used the same line to let the bank's regulators off the hook. Referring to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, he said: "Since we were a little misinformed, we probably had them misinformed. The mistake we made we passed on to them."
While it's understandable that Dimon would seek to confine blame for the trading losses, these comments undermine his argument that other protective measures, such as a tight ban on proprietary trading or significantly higher capital standards, are unnecessary.
Do you believe that the London Whale's trades should have been subject to margin, clearing and reporting requirements?
This is a subject that did not come up at all during the Senate hearing, but it is very much a live issue in the House of Representatives.
Democratic Rep. Jim Himes and Republican Rep. Scott Garrett are sponsoring House legislation that would exempt from certain Dodd-Frank requirements a category of swap transactions involving foreign affiliates of U.S. banks. Those requirements are not in effect yet.
Although it is not yet clear whether JPMorgan's London-based synthetic credit derivatives trades would have been impacted by the legislation, those trades have already had an impact on the legislative process.
The House Agriculture Committee, which had been scheduled to vote on the Himes-Garrett bill on May 17, postponed the vote indefinitely after Dimon announced the bank's losses.
At a House hearing on the legislation back in February, before the trading losses were announced, JPMorgan associate general counsel Don Thompson argued against an expansive application of Dodd-Frank's derivatives rules with respect to the foreign activities of U.S. banks.
Thompson argued that such overseas activities will not import excessive risk back to the United States, in part because the foreign operations of U.S. banks are already subject to the supervision of the Federal Reserve Board and the OCC.
In light of the failure of U.S. regulators to detect the risk accumulating in JPMorgan's London offices, someone might want to ask Dimon whether he believes it makes sense to dial back the regulation of American banks' foreign derivatives operations.
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