CNN Host Sticks Up for the Biggest Bank

Erin Burnett (cc photo: mroach)

Erin Burnett

Before she was a reporter, CNN host Erin Burnett worked on Wall Street. Evidently she still sees things from that perspective. 

On October 21, Burnett took time on her show OutFront to criticize the Justice Department’s reported $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan Chase. The bank is apparently ready to settle over a variety of claims relating to mortgage securities and the 2008 economic collapse. 

To Burnett, this is the government punishing success–and making the bank pay for things it didn’t even do: 

This is all related to mortgage-backed securities and bad mortgages. It’s a hell of a lot of money, but JPMorgan can afford it, which brings me tonight’s number: $26 billion. That’s how much JPMorgan made last year. So, the fine will take about half what they make.

If that makes you feel better, maybe it shouldn’t. Just because they can afford it doesn’t make it right. Going after companies, of course, should be based on wrongdoing, not on who has the money. And the truth in the case of JPMorgan’s $13 billion fine is that many of the problem mortgages that they’re paying for now stem from two acquisitions the bank made during the depth of the financial crisis. 

Five years ago, JPMorgan bought Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual. These were hastily arranged deals brokered by Uncle Sam. In fact, many would say the fair word to use is “forced by Uncle Sam.” Jamie Dimon was told, if you don’t buy these, which are in death spirals, you’re going to jeopardize the financial system. It’s a patriotic duty, got to do it.

JPMorgan didn’t have the luxury of time to do due diligence at the time. They didn’t have the luxury of saying, no, I don’t want to buy this company because we’re worried (INAUDIBLE). Jaime Dimon got the banks cheap. They also had to take on those banks bad loans and now they’re paying for it. 

From the sound of it, you’d think the Justice Department was adopting the mentality of a bank robber: They went after JPMorgan because that’s where the money is. Burnett is suggesting that the bank is being penalized for the actions of two other institutions, Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual, that JPMorgan was forced to buy. 

Bear Stearns Building (cc photo: CR)

Buy a giant investment bank and we’ll throw in this billion-dollar office building absolutely free! (cc photo: CR)

It’s a helpful story if you’re Jamie Dimon, but it falls apart under scrutiny. As Peter Eavis of the New York Times reported last month (9/30/13), JPMorgan had been keen on the idea of buying both companies months before they were “forced” to do so by the government. That might explain why company executives like Dimon made statements after the acquisitions that they knew what they were getting.

Eavis also pointed out that it is not at all unusual for a company to assume certain liabilities when it assumes ownership of a corporation. As he put it, “the practice of holding acquirers accountable for the missteps of purchased companies is quite common.” (If this weren’t the case, it would be absurdly easy for corporations to avoid accountability for misdeeds by simply transferring ownership.)

As Yves Smith explained on CounterSpin this week (10/25/13), JPMorgan Chase bought both companies for next to nothing–and they’ve profited handsomely since then as a result. As many have noted, the Bear Stearns building itself is valued at more than Dimon paid for the entire company.

And as George Zornick at the Nation wrote last year (10/24/12), JPMorgan received plenty of things in the deal; the government “took $30 billion of toxic assets off of Bear Stearns’s books,” for instance.

So it’s hard to imagine seeing JPMorgan or its CEO as the victim here–but a CNN host who used to work as a Goldman Sachs analyst might be able to find a way. 



About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.