This Is What Dimon and Kashkari Are Really Fighting About
Jamie Dimon is America’s most famous banker, and Neel Kashkari is its most outspoken bank regulator, so it’s not a shock that they would eventually come to blows. What’s interesting is that their contretemps is over an acronym that most Americans have never heard of, but one that may be central to preventing another recession.
TLAC, which is pronounced TEE-lack, is something you need to know about if you want to judge the sparring between Dimon, the well-coiffed chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Kashkari, the very bald man who ran for governor of California on the Republican ticket and is now president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
On April 6, Kashkari went after Dimon in a way that circumspect central bankers ordinarily don’t. In an essay published on Medium and republished on the Minneapolis Fed website, he challenged Dimon’s assertion in his annual letter to shareholders that 1) there’s no longer a risk that taxpayers will be stuck with the bill if a big bank fails, and 2) banks have too much capital (meaning an unnecessarily thick safety cushion). Wrote Kashkari: “Both of these assertions are demonstrably false.”
This is where TLAC comes in, so bear down for a bit of bank accounting. TLAC stands for total loss-absorbing capacity. The more capacity that a bank has to absorb losses, the smaller the risk that it will require a taxpayer-funded government bailout. So lots of TLAC is good. But not all TLAC is created equal. Kashkari argues that a lot of what Dimon calls TLAC on paper wouldn’t be available to absorb losses in a real-world crisis.
Imagine that a whale swims up the Thames River and beaches itself in the City of London, causing billions of dollars in losses to Bank X. If the loss is really big or Bank X is weak (unlike JPMorganChase, which most emphatically is not weak), then one such hit could push it into insolvency. The first thing that happens is that the price of the stock falls to zero. Shareholders, in other words, are the first to absorb losses. That’s fair: Shareholders get all the profit that a bank makes after paying its expenses, so they should have to take the hit when the bank’s profit is wiped out unexpectedly.
The fight between Dimon and Kashkari is over who absorbs the rest of the loss. According to Dimon, it’s the unsecured bondholders. (Unsecured meaning they don’t have a legal claim to any specific asset on the bank’s balance sheet.) Unsecured bondholders are informed that, sorry, there’s been a loss. They’re not going to get their interest payments anymore, and their bonds are being converted into common shares. Now they’re at the back of the line with the rest of the bank’s shareholders; they’ll get paid only if the bank starts making a profit again.
The beauty of the system outlined by Dimon is that taxpayers aren’t exposed to risk because if a bank gets in trouble it has a great, big escape hatch: It simply wipes out its bondholders, thus conserving its money.
“It sounds like an ideal solution,” Kashkari writes. “The problem is that it almost never actually works in real life.” In a financial crisis, regulators worry about contagion. If bondholders of one bank are defaulted on, those of other banks will worry they’re next and yank their support, causing a downward spiral of confidence that crashes the economy. So the regulators make sure bondholders keep getting paid.
“Indeed,” Kashkari writes, “the most recent crisis showed that even some debt holders who had been explicitly told that they would take losses during a crisis got bailed out.”
Kashkari argues that regulators and bankers should stop acting as if bonds are part of TLAC (which, remember, stand for total loss-absorbing capacity), because when push comes to shove, bondholders will absorb few if any losses. Taxpayers will be forced to step up and make sure they keep getting paid.
Kashkari also disses Dimon’s argument that banks’ safety cushions are needlessly thick. Dimon wrote to shareholders that if the Federal Reserve standards weren’t so tough, “banks probably would have been more aggressive in making some small business loans, lower-rated middle market loans, and near-prime mortgages.” Kashkari’s response? “Mr. Dimon argues that the current capital standards are restraining lending and impairing economic growth, yet he also points out that JPMorgan bought back $26 billion in stock over the past five years. If JPMorgan really had demand for additional loans from creditworthy borrowers, why did it turn those customers away and instead choose to buy back its stock?”