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Two Views on Bank Rules: Salvation and Jobkillers

Jamie Dimon is frustrated.

In a surprisingly public demonstration of his aggravation, Mr. Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase , unloaded last week on Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, critically questioning the government’s efforts to regulate the banking industry.

“I have this great fear that someone’s going to write a book in 10 or 20 years, and the book is going to talk about all the things that we did in the middle of a crisis that actually slowed down recovery,” he told Mr. Bernanke at a televised meeting of bankers in Atlanta, ticking off a laundry list of new regulations like higher capital requirements and a tax on systemically important financial institutions.

“Do you have a fear like I do that when we will look back and look at them all, that they will be the reason it took so long” for our banks, our credit and our businesses and “most importantly job creation” to get going again?, he asked Mr. Bernanke. “Is this holding us back?”

His question, which was quickly cheered by traders on Wall Street, was dismissed by some in Washington and on Main Street as self-serving propaganda from a chief executive seeking less regulation and higher profits.

Jamie Dimon
Mark Wilson | Getty Images
Jamie Dimon

“I see a lot of amnesia setting in now,” Sheila Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, told me during a conversation at the Council on Foreign Relations two days after Mr. Dimon’s comments. “On obvious things like higher capital standards, I say full speed ahead and the higher the better.” Making a veiled dig at Mr. Dimon, she added, “banks are not doing a lot of lending now, and the ones that are doing the better job of lending are the smaller institutions that have the higher capital levels.”

Nearly three years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the prevailing wisdom is that we need tighter regulations to avoid another crisis. It’s a popular view, one that this column has long supported. After all, if we don’t adopt tougher standards now, then when?

I called Mr. Dimon, in part, to challenge his view. But I was somewhat taken aback by his response, which was far more nuanced than his seeming diatribe to the Fed chairman.

“My point wasn’t that we shouldn’t regulate the industry,” he said. “But we should think twice about how exactly we’re doing it and the cumulative impact of the changes if the main goal is to help create jobs.”

The more restrictions put on banks, he said, the less lending and financing of businesses that will take place. To him, it’s simple arithmetic.

“I want job growth like everybody else,” he said. The problem, he contends is “we’re trying to do two very different things at the same time,” referring to regulating the industry and stimulating the economy.

“I would stop trying to solve every perceived problem at once,” he added. “The highest and most important thing we can do right now is to get the economy growing and adding jobs.”

It’s easy to dismiss Mr. Dimon as another banker crying wolf. His firm has vigorously lobbied to prevent the Federal Reserve from raising capital ratios to 10 percent from 7 percent, fearful it will crimp lending — and probably profits (and yes, compensation.)

But it’s also an uncomfortable truth that Mr. Dimon should be taken seriously, at least his suggestion that policy makers can’t predict the full impact of the coming regulation.

“Jamie Dimon is right that it only makes sense to look at the effects of financial regulation holistically,” said Kenneth S. Rogoff, an economics professor at Harvard University, and the co-author of “This Time is Different,” which looked at financial crises over several centuries.

When Mr. Bernanke answered Mr. Dimon’s question, he said, “Has anybody done a comprehensive analysis of the impact on credit? I can’t pretend that anybody really has. You know, it’s just too complicated. We don’t really have the quantitative tools to do that.”

That was an unsatisfying answer and an uncomfortable truth, too.

Indeed, Mr. Dimon may be right: Strict regulation could hamper the recovery in the short term.

But his comments also raise a larger policy and political question: Can we afford to risk another collapse of the financial system — even if it doesn’t happen for another 100 years — by going lighter on regulation today? It’s an idea, by the way, that is very hard for regular Joes to swallow.

Mr. Rogoff, whom Mr. Dimon has often cited, isn’t so sure it is that black and white.

“My instinct is that the Fed must be right to push for raising capital requirements from 7 to 10 percent,” Mr. Rogoff said. “Switzerland has already committed to the higher capital route and rather than hurting their banks, it might even have given them a competitive advantage, especially given the dodgy state of many European bank balance sheets.”

Other academic studies have come to similar conclusions. Anat R. Admati of Stanford University wrote a compelling report, “Fallacies, Irrelevant Facts and Myths in the Discussion of Capital Regulation: Why Bank Equity is Not Expensive” that suggests that raising capital requirements is not as dangerous or costly as some on Wall Street believe.

Still, Mr. Rogoff acknowledged, “I don’t see a big need to rush to raise capital requirements. If history tells us anything, it is that having a deep financial crisis is the best vaccine against having another one, at least for awhile.”

In a perfect, less politicized world, perhaps we could follow Mr. Dimon’s advice and wait to increase regulation until the economy is on steadier footing. (It’s worth noting that most of the Fed’s proposed rules and requirements already would be phased in over time.)

But will bankers — or even regulators and lawmakers — think the industry needs new rules when the economy and the job market are in full-on growth mode?

After all, the financial system only gets tested in times of crisis — at which point regulation comes too late.

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