It's beginning to look as if JPMorgan Chase has had a hand in every major banking scandal of the last decade. In fact, it's the Zelig of Wall Street crime. Take a snapshot of any major bank fraud and chances are you'll see JPMorgan Chase staring out at you from the frame.
Foreclosure fraud, investor fraud, cheating customers, market manipulation, LIBOR... and now, the coup de grace to JPM's tattered reputation: a $2 billion fine for closing its eyes and covering up as Bernie Madoff literally bilked widows and orphans, along with a lot of other families and charities. (Here's a list of investors.)
Does Jamie Dimon, the bank's CEO, still think people don't say enough nice things about him? Do his friends? More importantly, how does the largest bank in the country (measured in assets) get away with being worse than Enron?
That one's easy: By being the largest bank in the country.
Guilty as Sin
JPMorgan Chase was hit with a "deferred prosecution agreement" for criminal behavior in this latest settlement, which basically means they won't be prosecuted as long as they honor the agreement and keep admitting to their own wrongdoing. As the New York Times notes, this kind of arrangement is "nearly unheard-of for a giant American bank," is "typically employed only when misconduct is extreme," and "underscores the magnitude of the case against JPMorgan."
According to publicly available information, the case against JPMorgan Chase is extremely damning. Even after highly suspicious facts came to light about the Madoff operation, JPM continued to package and sell Madoff-fed funds to its customers. It failed to report him to the authorities even after concluding that he was engaged in massive fraud.
No wonder JPM tried to block investigators from probing its handling of the Madoff account. According to Newsweek, the Justice Department even shielded the bank from obstruction charges.
Worse Than Enron
There's no question about it: JPMorgan Chase is worse than Enron. It's true that Enron's energy market manipulations were horrible. Enron executives and employees deprived people of their life savings, drove up the price of a vital public utility, and concealed their crimes with all the wiliness of history's worst master conspirators.
But JPMorgan Chase did everything Enron did -- and much, much more. Consider:
A few weeks ago JPM paid $13 billion to settle well-documented charges of massive and widespread foreclosure fraud. Although that was the largest fine paid by a corporation in American history, there's a compelling argument that it should have been larger -- as much as 22 times larger.
JPM paid $296.9 million for lying to investors about the payment status -- and hence, the investment quality -- of its mortgage-backed securities.
JPM paid more than a third of a billion dollars to settle charges that it bilked customers by charging them for credit monitoring services it never provided.
JPM agreed to pay between $1.8 billion and $4.5 billion, depending on how you tally the cost, for illegally foreclosing on American families and throwing them out of their homes.
JPM paid another $56 million for cheating active-duty service members and their families, and for illegally foreclosing on them as well.
JPM paid $228 million for rigging the bidding for 93 municipal bond transactions in 31 states. (You know those cities that supposedly can't honor their pension agreements with retired workers? That's the kind of client they cheated here.)
JPM paid $410 million to settle charges related to its rigging of electricity prices, which is what Enron did.
JPM has paid multiple fines and settlements over the "London whale" case, in which traders sought to manipulate market prices, engaged in unlawful "reckless conduct" (while CEO Dimon bragged about the bank's risk management and "fortress balance sheet"), then unlawfully concealed their behavior. There is no evidence that any investigation sought to determine how high the cover-up went. We do know that Dimon told investors the case was "a tempest in a teapot" after privately being told that losses were running in the billions.
JPM has paid two major fines for illegally investing with customers' money.
Den of Thieves
All in all, JPMorgan Chase has paid $20 billion in fines in the last year alone. But none of these fines were personally charged to the executives who committed the crimes. Instead, they were paid by shareholders -- some of whom were also bilked by the executives in question.
What's more, most (if not all) of these fines are tax-deductible. That means that taxpayers will take a hit for JPM's criminality. Even the Enron guys didn't think of that.
Do some good people work at JPMorgan Chase? Of course. I have a couple of friends there myself, and they're honorable people. But they're living in a nest of fraudsters. Either CEO Dimon thinks that's just fine, or he's not competent enough to clean the place out and should be fired forthwith.
It's who you know ...
How does the JPM Gang get away with all of this fraud? One simple answer is: access. Political access. Even Bernie Madoff had it. The Madoff family was heavily involved in SIFMA, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, a trade group with deep Washington DC connections. (Madoff's brother Peter was honored by SIFMA in 2006.)
Dimon's DC connections, of course, are the stuff of legend. They extend to members of both parties. Until scandal completely scarred the bank's reputation, Dimon was routinely referred to as "the President's favorite banker." And as a high-powered Wall Street lawyer, Attorney General Eric Holder undoubtedly crossed paths with Dimon many times.
Our leaders insist that those personal connections carry no weight in their decision-making process. People are free to form their own opinions about that. The argument is also made, as the Attorney General did in a rare moment of candor, that some banks can't be indicted because that would put them in danger -- which, in turn, would pose a systemic risk to the global economy.
And yet nobody in the administration is claiming that this is a problem, much less proposing solutions. Solutions are available: the breakup of systemically risky institutions, for example, or the indictment of individuals rather than of institutions.
Unfortunately, nobody in the government seems very interested in solutions. They just keep making these deals, even when the malefactors involved are much, much worse than Enron.