J.P. Morgan — The man and the bank

J.P. Morgan was recently socked in the wallet by financial regulators, who levied a fine of nearly a billion bucks against the Wall Street baron for massive illegalities.

Well, not a fine against John Pierpont Morgan, the man. This 19th century robber baron was born to a great banking fortune and, by hook and crook, leveraged it to become the “King of American Finance.” During the Gilded Age, Morgan cornered U.S. financial markets, gained monopoly ownership of railroads, amassed a vast supply of the nation’s gold and used his investment power to create U.S. Steel and take control of that market.

From his earliest days in high finance, Morgan was a hustler who often traded on the shady side. In the Civil War, for example, his family bought his way out of military duty, but he saw another way to serve. Himself, that is. Morgan bought defective rifles for $3.50 each and sold them to a general in the Union Army for $22 each. The rifles blew off soldiers’ thumbs, but Morgan pleaded ignorance, and government investigators graciously absolved the young, wealthy, well-connected financier of any fault.

That seems to have set a pattern for his lifetime of antitrust violations, union busting and other over-the-edge profiteering practices. He drew numerous official charges — but of course, he never did any jail time.

Moving the clock forward, we come to JPMorgan Chase, today’s financial powerhouse bearing J.P.’s name. The bank also inherited his pattern of committing multiple illegalities — and walking away scot-free. Oh sure, the bank was hit with that billion-dollar fine, but that’s hardly devastating to a behemoth that hauled in $6.5 billion in just the previous three months. Besides, note that not a single one of the top bankers who committed gross wrongdoing were charged or even fired — much less sent to jail. Fining banks is not a crime-stopper, for banks don’t commit crimes. Bankers do. And they won’t ever stop if they don’t have to pay for their crimes.

In fact, someone should make a movie about JPM’s honchos and title it: “Bankers Gone Wild!” Not long ago, America’s biggest Wall Street empire was hailed as a paragon of financial integrity. But today it’s a house of crime, currently under investigation for management illegalities by seven federal agencies, several states and two foreign nations.

But there’s an additional “crime” taking place, hidden within that billion-dollar fine that regulators levied on the bank for top-level mismanagement, which caused shareholders to lose a whopping $6 billion in a trade scandal last year. Media reports say the bank agreed to pay the fine to settle those charges, but when it’s reported that “the bank” will pony up a billion dollars, who exactly is that?

Not the bankers who committed the illegalities, but Chase’s shareholders. Wow, how’s that for a raw deal? The money the bankers lost belonged to shareholders, yet they’re being socked for another billion to cover the bankers’ fine. Imagine if you got burglarized, then were fined for being burglarized! As one law professor said, “It’s not just adding insult to injury, it’s adding injury to injury.”

Federal regulators say it’s easier to get bankers to settle a case if they can hand the fine to shareholders, who don’t even get a say in the decision. But going after the bankers, they claim, would require a jury trial — and jurors might not convict.

Huh? What kind of bassackwards justice is that? Besides, it’s ridiculous to think that jurors wouldn’t jump at the chance to convict Wall Street banksters. That’s a jury I’d like to serve on. Wouldn’t you? Nail a couple of them, and that’d chill all of their wild finagling.

Jim Hightower is a Creators Syndicate columnist.

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