the audit

1955: When Chase Was Too Small to Bail

July 6, 2011

American Banker has a fun flashback that helps show how out of whack our financial system has gotten in the last half century.

Here’s the paper’s lede from January 1955 when Chase merged with the Bank of Manhattan (emphasis mine):

John J. McCloy, chairman of the Chase National Bank of the City of New York, and J. Stewart Baker, chairman of the Bank of the Manhattan Co., in a statement to the press today announced that their respective boards of directors “are in agreement on basic terms to merge the two institutions.”

The resultant $7.5 billion bank, to be called “The Chase Manhattan Bank,” would be second largest in the United States and largest in New York City. It would operate under the State charter originally granted by the New York legislature in 1799 to the Manhattan Co.

The second biggest bank in the country back then had $7.5 billion in assets, which would be about $63 billion in today’s dollars. That would put it about, oh, $2,135 billion ($2.1 trillion) behind the second-biggest bank today.

And it would land Ye Olde Chase Manhattan at No. 32 on the top banks list today, just behind BBVA USA Bancshares Incorporated, whatever that is.

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Okay, but the economy has grown since 1955, you say. Well, let’s look at assets as a percentage of GDP. Chase’s assets in 1955 were 1.9 percent of U.S. GDP, which was $404 billion at the time.

The second-biggest bank in 2011 has assets of $2.2 trillion, while the U.S. has GDP of $14.7 trillion (last year). That means its assets equal 15 percent of GDP.

That second-biggest bank in the land today?

Yup, it’s JPMorgan Chase, it’s way too big to fail, and its astronomical growth is an emblem of the over-financialization of our economy.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.