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New bank failures revive break-up calls

Just when you thought banks’ reputations couldn’t get any worse, their standing collapses almost completely. The recent travails of JPMorgan, Barclays and HSBC will adversely affect the whole industry and raise demands to cut big banks down to size once again. But in tackling banks’ problematic complexity, let’s not forget the benefits of diversification.

July was a desperate month for some of the world’s biggest banks. Bob Diamond, the former chief executive of Barclays, answering questions about the rigging of Libor rates, found members of a UK Commons Treasury select committee raising doubts about his capacity for accurate recall. Quite aside from the furore about what Bank of England deputy governor Paul Tucker meant and who said what to whom about Libor in the teeth of the crisis, there is clear evidence of a cartel of traders at Barclays and several banks attempting to rig the interest rate derivatives markets in ways that carry the worst echoes of Ivan Boesky in the 1980s.

At JPMorgan, chief executive Jamie Dimon had to confess that the firm had previously overstated its first-quarter net income by $459 million and was now restating its numbers because of new doubts over some traders’ marks on the infamous synthetic credit positions taken inside the loosely controlled chief investment office division. These have so far run up $5.8 billion of losses that might yet rise by as much as another $1.7 billion.

HSBC found itself hauled before a US Senate Permanent Subcommittee investigating money laundering and forced to acknowledge that its controls, particularly of its Mexican subsidiary, "could and should have been stronger".

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