Bluster Under Fire at JPMorgan Chase

January 24th, 2013 by Phil Mattera

Most chief executives use the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland as an opportunity to solidify their relationships with other members of the global power elite. Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase treats it as an occasion to strike back at critics. At the 2011 gathering he said he was sick of “this constant refrain—bankers, bankers, bankers.” This year he has been at it again, declaring that “we’re doing the right thing,” while regulators are “trying to do too much, too fast.”

What makes Dimon’s bluster all the more ridiculous is that it comes only a short time after he and other top executives at JPMorgan were reprimanded by a report produced by their own colleagues at the bank. The internal investigation was prompted by the ongoing scandal surrounding more than $6 billion in losses the bank experienced as the result of aggressive trading by its unit in London led by an individual nicknamed the London Whale.

For a document of this kind, the report is pretty blunt. It notes that during a conference call with analysts at an early stage of the controversy Dimon had agreed with a characterization of the matter as a “tempest in a teapot.” It goes on to accuse the bank’s chief investment office (CIO) of poor judgment and execution while alleging that the trading program in question had “inconsistent priorities” and “poorly conceived” strategies. The bank did not, the report says, “ensure that the controls and oversight of CIO evolved commensurately with the increased complexity and risks” of its activity. Such failings were behind the recent decision by the JPMorgan board to cut Dimon’s compensation in half.

Actually, the internal report and the pay cut are not the worst of Dimon’s problems. A variety of federal agencies are doing their own investigations of the trading losses, and it is likely that the bank will face civil if not criminal charges.

All this does not come as a surprise. JPMorgan—which represents the consolidation of several of the most powerful New York and Chicago money center banks as well as the investment house founded by the legendary financier and robber baron J.P. Morgan—has a long history of aggressive business practices, including ones that cross the line into outright misconduct.

For example, the bank was charged with abetting the accounting fraud perpetrated by Enron, and in 2003 it had to pay $135 million to settle SEC charges. Two years later, the bank agreed to pay $2.2 billion to settle a suit brought by Enron shareholders. That same year, it agreed to pay $2 billion to settle a suit related to its role in underwriting bonds for a company, WorldCom, at the center of another accounting scandal.

In 2003, JPMorgan’s securities arm was part of a $1.4 billion settlement by ten firms with federal, state and industry regulators concerning alleged conflicts of interest between their research and investment banking activities; its share was $80 million. In 2006 it agreed to pay $425 million to settle a lawsuit charging that its securities operation misled investors during the dot com boom of the 1990s.

During the financial meltdown in 2008, federal regulators got JPMorgan to take over two failing institutions—investment house Bear Stearns and mortgage lender Washington Mutual—that brought with them a variety of legal problems stemming from their reckless practices.

For example, in 2010 the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation announced that Washington Mutual and JPMorgan had agreed to settle claims relating to the bank’s failure. The agency did not cite the size of the settlement, but it was later reported to be about $6 billion. The following year, WaMu agreed to pay $105 million to settle an investor lawsuit relating to its collapse. Three former WaMu executives later agreed to pay $64 million to settle with the FDIC, but most of the money was to be paid from insurance policies the bank had purchased for them.

In 2012 New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, acting on behalf of the U.S. Justice Department’s federal mortgage task force, sued JPMorgan, alleging that Bear Stearns had fraudulently misled investors in the sale of residential mortgage-backed securities.  The following month, the SEC announced that JPMorgan would pay $296.9 million to settle similar charges.

JP Morgan has also faced legal travails of its own making. In 2009 the SEC announced that J.P. Morgan Securities would pay a penalty of $25 million, make a payment of $75 million to Jefferson County, Alabama and forfeit more than $647 million in claimed termination fees to settle charges that the firm and two of its former managing directors engaged in an illegal payment scheme to win municipal bond business from the county.

In 2011 JPMorgan found itself at the center of a controversy over improper foreclosures and excessive interest rates in connection with home loan customers who were members of the military. The bank agreed to pay $56 million to settle charges of having violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.

Also in 2011, the SEC announced that JPMorgan would pay $153.6 million to settle allegations that in 2007 it misled investors in a complex mortgage securities transaction. The following month, the SEC said that J.P. Morgan Securities would pay $51.2 million to settle charges of fraudulently rigging municipal bond reinvestment transactions in 31 states. The agreement was part of a $228 million settlement the firm reached with a group of federal regulators and state attorneys general.

Documents made public in a lawsuit against JPMorgan by a court-appointed trustee in the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme case suggested that senior executives of the bank had developed doubts about the legitimacy of Madoff’s investment activities but continued to do business with him. The lawsuit was later dismissed.

JPMorgan was one of five large mortgage servicers that in February 2012 consented to a $25 billion settlement with the federal government and state attorneys general to resolve allegations of loan servicing and foreclosure abuses. In April 2012 the Commodity Futures Trading Commission imposed a penalty of $20 million on JPMorgan for failing to segregate customer accounts being handled on behalf of Lehman Brothers prior to that firm’s collapse.

In July 2012 JPMorgan agreed to pay $100 million to settle a class action lawsuit charging it with improperly increasing the minimum monthly payments charged to credit card customers. And in January 2013 JPMorgan was one of ten major lenders that agreed to pay a total of $8.5 billion to resolve charges relating to foreclosure abuses.

One journalist in Davos reported that Dimon was wearing FBI cufflinks. Given this track record, FBI handcuffs might be more appropriate attire.

Note:  This piece draws on my new Corporate Rap Sheet on JPMorgan Chase, which can be found here.

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