On the Charlie Rose show [last month], Buffett was asked what kind of message it would send if President Obama picked Jamie Dimon or another Wall Street banker to succeed Timothy Geithner, who has expressed a desire to leave the post after Obama’s first term.
“I think he’d be terrific,” said Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, about Dimon. “If we did run into problems in markets, I think he’d actually be the best person you could have in the job.”
Buffett added that Dimon would have the confidence of world leaders if he were appointed to the Treasury post.
Warren Buffett is one of America’s biggest bailout beneficiaries, having profited hugely from buying into firms whose assets were subsequently bailed out. Shortly after the crisis began in 2008, Warren Buffett loaned money to, and bought options from, Goldman Sachs, seemingly with the knowledge the bailout of AIG — a counterparty to which Goldman had massive, massive exposure — would take place.
Dimon as Treasury Secretary would intend more of the same. Dimon and Buffett and others like them believe in having their cake and eating it. They seem to believe that the U.S. taxpayer should provide a liquidity lifeline to their fragile and risky too-big-to-fail businesses, but without at the same time demanding any regulatory oversight to prevent too-big-to-fail banks from acting irresponsibly.
Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, launched a broadside against financial regulation on Wednesday, warning that new capital rules could be “the nail in our coffin for big American banks”.
Regulators are negotiating international capital standards for the biggest banks but Mr Dimon said setting the new requirements too high, or allowing overseas banks to calculate their asset base differently, could disadvantage US banks and was already stifling economic growth.
If you want to set it so high that no big bank ever goes bankrupt … I think that would greatly diminish growth,” he told a US Chamber of Commerce conference. Too large a disparity in capital requirements between Europe and the US would mean “you’re pretty much putting the nail in our coffin for big American banks,” he said.
What this really amounts to is a lack of skin in the game. Big banks can gamble and speculate without remorse and without risk — if they win they keep the proceeds, and if they lose the taxpayer will pick up the pieces. This destroys the market mechanism, and any hope of self-regulation. Were lessons learned from 2008? If the antics of Corzine, Kweku Adoboli and the London Whale — just three big financial blowups in the last year — are any guide, big finance is acting just as irresponsibly and self-destructively as before the crisis.
Buffett and Dimon surely have in mind more cronyism, bailouts and free lunches, but the reality of the next four years and beyond may be very different indeed.
While it is impossible to predict exactly when the next crisis will emerge, the current slump in capital goods orders, the intractable debt overhang, and the general trend of ditching the dollar as a reserve currency do not look good. As one of the architects (both practically and ideologically) of the current mess, Dimon as Treasury Secretary would at least get all the blowback and blame when the bubblecovery finally implodes into a currency or supply chain crisis that cannot be bailed out through liquidity injections.