My Two Cents

Joseph Nocera is upset…

Chris Farrell Oct 25, 2008

…with good reason. Among the best columnists in the business, Nocera believes the banks aren’t going to make new loan with the money they are getting from the U.S. taxpayer, and he makes a credible case. He also believes that the markets are losing confidence in the Paulson-led Treasury.

Nocera listened into a JP Morgan employee conference call. Its a strong bank, and it is a recipient of a $25 billion infusion from taxpayers:

“Chase recently received $25 billion in federal funding. What effect will that have on the business side and will it change our strategic lending policy?” It was Oct. 17, just four days after JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, agreed to take a $25 billion capital injection courtesy of the United States government, when a JPMorgan employee asked that question. It came toward the end of an employee-only conference call that had been largely devoted to meshing certain divisions of JPMorgan with its new acquisition, Washington Mutual….

“Twenty-five billion dollars is obviously going to help the folks who are struggling more than Chase,” he began. “What we do think it will help us do is perhaps be a little bit more active on the acquisition side or opportunistic side for some banks who are still struggling. And I would not assume that we are done on the acquisition side just because of the Washington Mutual and Bear Stearns mergers. I think there are going to be some great opportunities for us to grow in this environment, and I think we have an opportunity to use that $25 billion in that way and obviously depending on whether recession turns into depression or what happens in the future, you know, we have that as a backstop.”

Read that answer as many times as you want — you are not going to find a single word in there about making loans to help the American economy.

Nocera is right to be upset, and the whole article is worth thinking about.

But this is what got me upset: A high level banker uses the word “depression” in a serious manner. In his answer the unnamed manager says “…depending on whether recession turns into depression or what happens in the future….”

This is a remarkable unscripted moment. And it shows that the unthinkable–another depression–is now considered a possibility when a pinstripe banker runs through a list of options. This isn’t the ramblings of a crazy forecaster.

My own guess is that this will turn out to be the first synchronized global downturn since the Great Depression.

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