Strictly Business: Chase: Callous, clueless

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 
photoAaron Corvin, Columbian business reporter

It would be funny if it wasn't dripping in human misery.

JPMorgan Chase recently thought it wise to conduct a Twitter Q&A with the public.

Chase's announcing tweet: "What career advice would you ask a leading exec at a global firm? Tweet a Q using #AskJPM."

As Rolling Stone Magazine's Matt Taibbi put it: "Only on Wall Street would a bank that's about to pay out the biggest settlement in the history of settlements unironically engage the public, expecting ordinary people to sincerely ask one of their top decision makers for career advice."

People took to Twitter to hammer Chase. Here's Downtown Josh Brown (@ReformedBroker): "I have Mortgage Fraud, Market Manipulation, Credit Card Abuse, Libor Rigging and Predatory Lending. AM I DIVERSIFIED?"

And from Adam Coleman @AdamColeman): "Can I have my house back?"

Not long afterward, Chase agreed to pay a record $13 billion to settle claims over its fraudulent sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities that helped fuel 2008's financial crisis and that helped shove millions into unemployment.

Barry Ritholtz, the brilliant observer of capital markets and author of "Bailout Nation," rightfully castigated it: With no threat of criminal prosecution, he said recently, "you've turned these giant fines into just the cost of doing business."

But pursuing a criminal prosecution of Chase — or, for that matter, any of the immoral financial kings who toppled our economy — would have required U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department to A) locate its spine and B) use it.

Instead, as Ritholtz noted, Chase's fine is "really about $2 billion or $3 billion when you back out the various components."

Chase's arrogant Twitter ploy and its minor cost of doing business are just examples of a larger fact of American life five years after the Great Recession: While we've experienced a recovery,little or nothing has fundamentally changed about how Wall Street does business and what it thinks of the rest of us.

What's more, the recovery has changed nothing about the decades-in-the-making income inequality that Chase and other mega banks symbolize.

From 2009 to 2012, top 1 percent incomes grew by 31.4 percent while bottom 99 percent incomes grew by only 0.4 percent, according to economist Emmanuel Saez.

Those numbers make Adam Coleman's tweet to Chase — "Can I have my house back?" — that much sadder.

Don't bet on national lawmakers to do anything about it anytime soon. The paramount debate is over spending cuts, not over how to spur economic growth and to address such problems as inequality and decrepit roads and bridges.

Yes, only in Washington would the deficit, which continues to shrink, rather than mass unemployment, which continues unabated, set the policy agenda.

Still, the focus of debates and policies can be changed.

And when Thanksgiving comes, I'll be thankful for the capacity of our democracy to register, if only in fits and starts and tweets, its displeasure with runaway greed.