In almost every criminal case -- at least the ones that get ripped from the headlines and end up on "Law & Order" -- there's a point when the D.A. offers a plea bargain.
Everyone knows how this works: The prosecutor tries to impose the harshest deal possible, given the holes in his case; the defendant, knowing he's getting off easy, faces the music and shuts up about the extenuating circumstances.
So why are President Obama and the banking industry misplaying their roles so badly in the debate over the administration’s new bank tax?
To hear the bankers squeal, you'd think they were being sent to Guantanamo for failing to get the taillights fixed on their limos; they're even thinking about challenging the tax on constitutional grounds.
To hear the president brag, you'd think he's making the taxpayers whole after an elemental breakdown of the financial system.
He says that the tax would generate about $9 billion a year for at least 10 years, which might still be shy of the projected $117-billion hit the taxpayers will take from the $700-billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP (i.e., the bank bailout). It will apply only to financial institutions with more than $50 billion in assets, or about 50 big financial companies.
Both sides are deceiving the public. Here's the reality: The proposed tax is both fully justified and not remotely as big as it should be.
Obama's tax proposal, unveiled Jan. 14, would cost the industry a pittance. Consider JPMorgan Chase, a big bank with hands no cleaner than the rest of the industry.
"In our investment bank, we should have been more diligent" about the risks of highly leveraged corporate buyouts it was financing, JPMorgan Chase Chief Executive Jamie Dimon told the Angelides commission investigating the financial crisis last week. He explained that his bank figured, wrongly, that there'd always be another boob around to take the paper off its hands -- er, JPMorgan "assumed too stable a market appetite for these types of loans."
Dimon also said JPMorgan "misjudged the impact of more aggressive underwriting standards" in mortgages. Translation: "We shoveled ridiculous loans out to home buyers and they went south."
Obama's proposal would charge JPMorgan Chase roughly $1.5 billion a year. In 2009, JPMorgan Chase collected that much in revenue every three to four working days.
Obama's fundamental error is describing the tax as a repayment of TARP. The only conceivable explanation for this characterization is that he believes it makes the tax easy for the average American to understand.
But that approach has given the bankers an excuse to whine about life's unfairness. They point out that the companies facing the biggest tax bite, such as Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, have already repaid their TARP bailouts at a profit to the taxpayer. Moreover, companies likely to generate big TARP losses, like General Motors and Chrysler, won't pay any tax.
So in those terms, the bank tax doesn't make sense. "It doesn't recoup TARP where it's being lost," Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland, told me. "It isn't really protecting the public in any way. And it doesn't fix the banks."
Morici favors dispensing with a tax fashioned to pander to taxpayer pique, and focusing on restructuring the banking industry and clamping down on excessive bonuses.
In any event, TARP was only one part of the bailout. The government indemnified several big institutions against losses when they absorbed other failing companies -- JPMorgan Chase, for instance, got a $30-billion insurance policy on assets of Bear Stearns, which it took over in March 2008.
The feds also insured money market deposits and made hundreds of billions in other commitments, all to shore up a financial industry that was coming apart at the seams. Goldman Sachs and other business partners of American International Group have been paid 100 cents on the dollar of their exposure to the insurance conglomerate, which has been bailed out to the tune of about $182.5 billion in taxpayer funds.
It's also proper to note that while we the taxpayers turned a profit on the repaid TARP investments, which were made as purchases of bank preferred shares, we didn't make out nearly as well as private investors who injected capital at the same time.
"We made an average annualized profit of about 15%," says Linus Wilson, a finance expert at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette who has been tracking TARP. "Private investors got a 44% return -- so we overpaid for the stock at the beginning." In other words, we got rooked.
Rather than a repayment of the bailout, the tax should be thought of as a combination penalty and regulatory fee. In the first sense, it punishes the financial sector for the behavior that forced the government to place more than a trillion dollars of taxpayers' money at risk and discourages the same behavior in the future.