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Wall Street fat cats just get fatter

December 12, 2013: 1:58 PM ET
The big banks on Wall Street and other financial firms are still doing just fine despite new regulation.

The big banks on Wall Street and other financial firms are still doing just fine despite new regulation.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, Abbott Laboratories and AbbVie, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.

President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act into law on July 21, 2010. That was supposed to help prevent big banks and financial firms from doing the things that got them into the mess that ultimately led to the 2008 financial crisis.

Guess what? Not much has changed. In fact, the so-called "fat cat bankers" that Obama famously criticized in a "60 Minutes" interview in December 2009 could still stand to lose a few pounds. Kind of like Garfield. Pass the lasagna!

The nation's Big Six banks -- JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Citigroup (C), Bank of America (BAC), Wells Fargo (WFC), Goldman Sachs (GS) and Morgan Stanley (MS) -- are all very profitable. And several of them have continued to engage in shady-ish behavior despite Dodd-Frank.

Related: Big bank stocks shrug of Volcker Rule

Remember JPMorgan Chase's infamous London Whale, and that $6 billion trading loss? Sorry. I meant to call that a hedge. That happened in the spring of 2012.

But here's what really tells you how toothless Dodd-Frank is. The bank stocks have surged since the bill went from just sitting on Capitol Hill to becoming a law (remember that old Schoolhouse Rock song?) in the summer of 2010.

The Financial Select SPDR (XLF) exchange traded fund, which owns the Big Six banks as well as many regional banks and large insurers -- is up nearly 60% since July 21, 2010. That has lagged the broader market's performance slightly (the S&P 500 is up 66%) but it's not exactly a low return.

What's more, financial stocks have really started to gain momentum in the past two years, and have trounced the S&P 500 since the end of 2011. That's despite the fact that JPMorgan Chase and most of its peers have been hit with one fine after another to pay for the sins of the financial crisis.

Now you would have thought that tougher reforms would lead to banks becoming less profitable than they used to be during the go-go days of those early-mid Naughty Aughties. More restrictions should turn bank stocks into utilities -- boring companies that investors value for their dividends and little else.

That hasn't happened. Instead, investors seem to be betting that banks will continue to find novel new ways to generate strong profits. After all, the Volcker Rule component of Dodd-Frank, which was finally approved earlier this week, probably won't hurt banks too badly.

Related: The crazy trades banks can still make despite the Volcker Rule

That's because most have already eliminated the proprietary trading desks that Volcker prohibits and are employing other tactics, such as JPMorgan's 'it's a hedge defense,' to continue making risky bets with house money.

In addition, investors appear to be happy that the banks are cleaning out all the legal skeletons from their closets.

Even though many of the settlements sound like a lot of money, such as JPMorgan Chase's $13 billion over allegations of fraudulent mortgage-backed securities, the banks have all set aside enough cash to cover their litigation costs.

So instead of worrying about fines, investors think that the payouts represent the last vestiges of the 2008 crisis. The dark days are finally in the rear view mirror for good.

Related: Additional legal costs for big banks could top $100 billion

I guess that makes some sense. But the big rally in bank stocks in spite of Dodd-Frank seems to also be a sign that investors aren't fearful about more huge fines in the future for any mishaps that banks are making now.

That's unfortunate. It just shows that investors think the wolves of Wall Street (can't wait for Scorsese's new flick!) will continue to feast on us unsuspecting sheep. Or to use a Goldman Sachs-ism, Muppets.

And the big bankers aren't the only ones that are continuing to laugh their way to the, uhh, banks that they already run. Another part of Dodd-Frank, the Durbin Amendment, has also been spayed and neutered to the point of impotence.

That amendment, named after its author Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, was supposed to crimp the ability of credit card processing giants Visa (V) and MasterCard (MA) to charge significantly higher debit card transaction fees to merchants.

But in 2011, the Federal Reserve wound up raising the cap on the fees from what it had originally proposed a few months earlier. That was viewed as a victory for Visa, MasterCard and the big bank card issuers, and a defeat for Durbin and retailers.

The fate of these fees are still up in the air though. In July of this year, a federal judge struck down the Fed's proposed rule. A month later, the Fed said it was appealing that decision.

Investors, as they are wont to do, are not fighting the Fed. Shares of Visa and MasterCard are surging despite the uncertainty. Both stocks are near record highs. MasterCard just announced a 10-for-1 stock split to get its share price down to a more manageable level. (It trades just under $800.)

And oh yeah, in a further sign of validation for the financial industry, Visa and Goldman Sachs were both added to the Dow Jones industrial average earlier this year.

So forget what The Mamas & The Papas sang about how no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass. Those cats on Wall Street look pretty darn obese to me.

Reader Comment of the Week ... and Name That Tune shout-out! I wrote Tuesday's column about BlackBerry (BBRY) and took the contrarian view that the stock may have bottomed. I didn't predict great things ahead though. I merely said that the bleeding may stop.

A former CNNMoney colleague joked that maybe BlackBerry phones will become kitschy in a retro sort of way.

Good one, Ken! Well, Radiohead still loves vinyl. I wonder if Thom Yorke carries a BlackBerry. Speaking of Radiohead, that was the topic of today's silly Name That Tune challenge.

I've been feeling stressed lately about trying to bang out these columns while handling all my managerial duties. So that prompted me to tweet a Radiohead song lyric about fading into the background. Call it my new mantra. Brent Lehman (d0es he have any brothers?) is the winner!

Nice work. I love your Twitter handle by the way. Sign of your love of The Beatles and a certain Keanu Reeves film? I get by with a little help from my ... whoa!

Also, in case the rest of you were wondering, the next lyrics from "How To Disappear Completely" are: In a little while I'll be gone. The moment's already passed. Yeah it's gone. And I'm not here.

And on that cheery note, TGI Almost Friday!

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