Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Maurice Greenberg: State and federal agencies are hurting shareholders and undermining confidence in the banking system

The Regulatory Attack on J.P. Morgan Feels Familiar. By Maurice Greenberg
State and federal agencies are hurting shareholders and undermining confidence in the banking system.
The Wall Street Journal, October 3, 2013, on page A13

A thriving financial-services sector requires a delicate balance of regulation and risk management. Realizing how vital this industry's health is to the economy, regulators and private businesses have spent the past century trying to create a system that ensures stability while encouraging investment. Responsible regulators understand just how difficult this is to accomplish. Others who ignore that reality often keep markets from functioning properly.

Regulators can help minimize risk to the investing public by learning from past regulatory mistakes. But it doesn't appear that they have. Now they're after J.P. Morgan Chase Co., a great American company led by arguably the best chief executive on Wall Street.

I experienced regulatory overreach first-hand at AIG. For nearly four decades, I led a team that included some of the most honorable and competent professionals in the insurance industry. We built the world's largest and most respected insurer, employing more than 90,000 people and opening markets across the world. That made AIG an attractive target for Eliot Spitzer, then New York's attorney general, in 2005.

Displaying an astonishing lack of knowledge of the insurance industry, Mr. Spitzer, by threatening to criminally indict the company, succeeded in separating the industry's most accomplished group of executives from a company that insured virtually every business sector across 130 countries. The replacement management took steps that made AIG vulnerable to the world-wide financial collapse of 2008. That provided a set of federal regulators with the opportunity to seize tens of billions of dollars from AIG's shareholders.

Nearly all of Mr. Spitzer's original allegations of accounting irregularities have been discarded or quietly dismissed by him and his successors. The remaining claims—on which no damages are sought—involve the accounting for reinsurance transactions that were not material to AIG. The real scandal, of course, is the fact that the attorney general brought this lawsuit and continues to prosecute it even today.

History seems to be repeating itself with the case of J.P. Morgan. The global bank is now under siege by federal and state regulators. The most ironic claim against J.P. Morgan is an allegation from current New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman of mortgage fraud at Bear Stearns that allegedly took place prior to J.P. Morgan's acquisition of that firm. J.P. Morgan acquired Bear Stearns at the urging of federal officials who feared that fallout from Bear's collapse would damage the entire economy.

Like AIG, J.P. Morgan plays a central role in both the U.S. and world economies. There are no more than a handful of executives with the requisite experience, talent and intelligence to lead that bank. Its chief executive, James Dimon, is one of those rare individuals. By diverting his attention from his responsibilities, government officials are hurting shareholders, pension funds, countless employees, the City of New York, and the national and global economy—not to mention undermining confidence in our banking system.

Those regulators have pushed their dubious claims to the point of requiring the bank to pay over $11 billion in fines. I hope the board of directors at J.P. Morgan will have the wisdom and courage to support their CEO and not cave to demands from regulators that can only harm the company and its stakeholders. That would send a strong message to the nation's business community and allow J.P. Morgan to continue to benefit from Mr. Dimon's leadership.

I have spent my entire career opening markets in China, Eastern Europe and across the world. When we took AIG public in 1969, we chose New York as the company's place of business because the state offered a predictable regulatory environment. And yet what I see in New York and Washington is a regulatory culture that seems manifestly determined to make this state and nation the last places where any responsible CEO would want to do business. Incredible as it seems, federal and state regulators are now negotiating for their share of the "credit"—their cut of the cash—for the damage they are currently inflicting on J.P. Morgan, competing with one another to inherit Spitzer's "Sheriff of Wall Street" title. Some people never learn.

Mr. Greenberg is chairman and CEO of C.V. Starr & Co.