Is the compliance ramp-up at big banks to blame for layoffs, including the 5,000 of them announced this week by JPMorgan?
Richard Kovacevich, former CEO of Wells Fargo, seems to think so. JPMorgan says the job cuts were necessitated by the struggle to turn a profit in a low interest rate environment, and a bottom line diminished by rising regulatory costs (and, as subtext, big fines). Kovacevich, who departed his bank in 2010—and may be more emboldened to speak his mind—has a more specific culprit in mind: all that pesky compliance personnel.
Here’s what he had to say about “absurd” levels of compliance spending during an interview that aired on CNBC Friday:
“I think what’s happening today, is that they [banks in general] are getting rid of sales staff and investing in technology and so on, in order to pay for compliance. It is staggering. In our bank there are probably close to 10,000 compliance people. At JPMorgan it is 20,000 compliance people. It is absurd that we are investing that kind of money on compliance. I don’t know how many compliance people there were at JPMorgan before Dodd-Frank, but it was probably a thousand. You have to offset those costs somewhere because revenue growth is non-existent in the banking business.”
There is no denying that big banks are spending more on compliance. JPMorgan hired an additional 4,000 compliance employees in 2013. Citigroup is on pace to add more than $3 billion to its compliance budget. HSBC employs more than 7,000 compliance-related employees.
Of course it’s a drag on the bottom line. But arguably there are some very good reasons why compliance ramp-ups can’t take all the blame here: the subprime mortgage crisis; the London Whale; BNP Paribas violating sanctions laws; LIBOR manipulation; foreign-exchange price manipulation. The list goes on and on.
A recent study found that banks generated roughly $700 billion in profits between 2007 and 2014; regulatory fines ate away $150 billion of that. Since 2009 Kovacevich’s former bank has had to shell out $14 billion in government fines, quite a bit more, we would guess, than what he used to budget for compliance efforts that might otherwise have kept that money on the ledger sheet.