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Archive for the ‘JPMorgan Chase’ Category

The JPMorgan Chase CEO deserves every dollar of his recent pay raise.  That statement places us at odds with most commentators. Marketwatch’s David Weidner just published a piece whose headline uses the phrase “mocks accountability” to describe the raise. Forbes bashed not only the CEO but also an “ineffective board” in its article a few days prior to Weidner’s. Other negative opinions were expressed in such disparate places as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Few of these headlines point out that the board had previously, almost a year ago, halved Mr. Dimon’s compensation to $11.5 million from about $22 million in the “London Whale’s” wake. So while his recent raise looks enormous, he is still making less than he was before. But whether we call it a pay raise or a smaller pay cut from his highest compensation, I believe this current increase was deserved for the following reasons.

First, as noted in a post on this blog at the time the “Whale” surfaced, Mr. Dimon tackled the problem of his rogue London trader within days. He very quickly dismissed both the individual trader and the head of the London hedging operation, went public without excuses on the $6 Billion loss, and tightened the reins of that operation.

Other problems that faced JPMorgan Chase were problems that crossed multiple banks: Libor rate setting, foreign currency exchange rates and mortgage packages. You can be sure that the Libor and foreign exchange rate fixing, the collusion of personnel across multiple banks in multiple countries, was not out in the open for their respective CEOs to observe. As for the mortgage securities, we have all too easily forgotten that at the peak of the financial meltdown in September 2008, the federal government seized Washington Mutual and sold it to JPMorgan Chase. These were not securities that Dimon’s operation created.

Following the exposure of the “Whale,” Mr. Dimon acted swiftly on each of these problems, cooperated fully with all investigations, worked to settle with the government and initiated programs to develop and implement additional controls. The same was true when one of his department’s involvement in the Madoff scandal came to light.

As for the board, they acted quickly and publicly to slam Mr. Dimon’s compensation last year. They reportedly argued strongly over this most recent compensation adjustment. I find those to be healthy signs of an involved board.

Contrast this with Aubrey McClendon and the board of Chesapeake Energy, the company who gave us fracking. Mr. McClendon treated the company as his own fiefdom long after it went public. He leveraged his operation as much as he could and when gas prices came down he was caught short. The board did nothing until it was too late, primarily because the board had been filled with McClendon’s friends.

Over a ten month period Mr. Dimon has settled each of the issues for the bank, while still making healthy profits and delivering shareholders a strong improvement in share price. In every case Dimon has directed his team to examine internal processes and strengthen them. He has not hesitated to remove personnel, which is a key to strengthening internal corporate culture.

In short, Mr. Dimon is exactly what you want in a professional executive and he deserves every dollar. His board also deserves more credit than they have been getting.

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A year ago we posted a number of predictions for 2013 and many proved accurate. One area in particular may be taking a significant turn for the better.

Our predictions for 2013 were:

Rebekah Brooks will go to trial. JPMorgan will further increase its reserve for bad trades by “The Whale.” No one in the investment banking industry will go to jail for anything other than insider trading. Goldman Sachs will continue to be bad. The global economy will continue to improve. Slowly. More dirt will come out regarding Walmart’s non-US operations. Somewhere in the US a bank will go under.

And there will be at least one big sex scandal.

What Did We See In 2013?

Ms. Brooks is on trial, JPMorgan did have greater Whale damage (along with several other huge financial settlements related to its business practices and flawed oversight), and several people are going to jail or being strongly pursued over insider trading. I won’t comment on the moral state of GS. The global economy has survived and is improving. Slowly. And without doing the research I am quite certain that at least one US bank somewhere was taken over by the FDIC.

I missed on Walmart’s non-US operations and a big sex scandal.

Yet the most significant change by far in terms of the financial industry is that the SEC, under new leadership, appears to have become more dedicated to putting some people in jail.

At the end of November 2012, SEC chairwoman Mary Schapiro left that office and was replaced in mid December 2012 by Elisse Walter, an SEC commissioner. Walter was an appointment by the president, who then nominated Mary Jo White as the chair. White was confirmed by the Senate and was sworn in on April 10, 2013.

Chairwoman White lost no time in tackling the challenge of prosecuting people in the financial industry. On April 22nd she named George Canellos and Andrew Ceresney Co-Directors of the agency’s Division of Enforcement. Canellos had been Deputy Director and then Acting Director of the division. Per the agency’s press release, Ceresney “served as a Deputy Chief Appellate Attorney in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, where he was a member of the Securities and Commodities Fraud Task Force and the Major Crimes Unit. As a prosecutor, Mr. Ceresney handled numerous white collar criminal investigations, trials and appeals, including matters relating to securities fraud, mail and wire fraud, and money laundering.”

In particular White appears not interested in settlements that involve a fine with no admission of wrong doing. On her way in the door she got the board of the SEC to overturn a settlement with a hedge fund manager that included a no admission of wrong doing. Soon after, the individual involved signed a new settlement in which he admitted to most of the agency’s charges.  Later in the year, JPMorgan Chase reached its first settlement under the new leadership and it too included an admission of violating certain securities laws.

An article by Sheelah Kolhatkar in Bloomberg’s Business Week in mid October recaps this sea change and quotes Mr. Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets. “Mary Jo White has clearly changed the tone, and what she’s had to say is encouraging to anybody who wants the SEC to not only be successful, but be restored to its storied place as a protector of investors and markets.”

That’s the real story for investors coming out of 2013 and we look forward to more significantly stronger settlements in the year ahead.

Why this is important

Readers of this blog know that when it comes to ethical business behavior there is one key element that so often is overlooked to our detriment: the impact of corporate and industry culture on individual behavior. In the investment banking industry we have seen a cross company, industry level trading culture that has not only violated any sense of fair play and decency but has had tremendous real dollar impact on the global economy and investors’ trust. Alleged collusion on Libor rates was topped by collusion on foreign currency exchanges. Highly risky collateralized debt obligations were packaged and sold while the bankers made mockery of their  clients and customers. Massive bets were placed on global interest rates in a game of “top gun” between traders in different organizations.

This environment at an industry level makes it difficult for a CEO such as Jamie Dimon to totally manage his organization’s (and shareholders’ and customers’) risk. Mr. Dimon is doing all the right things in coming to relatively quick settlements and pledging to install new processes and oversight within his bank. I respect what he is doing. Yet until the industry as a whole changes its macho/top gun culture we global citizens are  not safe.

If there is one way to change that macho/top gun culture it is to prosecute, convict and sentence to jail a sufficient number of egregious individuals that the investment banking and trading community sobers up.

 

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Jamie Dimon, CEO and Chairman of JPMorgan Chase, may be facing three whales instead of two.

For much of 2012, Mr. Dimon was a financial media star. While other big banks were embroiled with the fall-out of the mortgage loan / CDO disaster, Jamie was heralded as the one banker who focused closely on risk management and had managed risk successfully.

Then came the first Whale. The so-called London Whale was at the trading desk inside the bank’s Chief Investment Office, the very office whose responsibility it was to manage the risk of the bank’s investments. The trading loss incurred by that one trader ended up a bit north of $6 Billion-with-a-B dollars.

Now Jamie is facing a second Whale as the CEO is negotiating a $13 Billion-with-a-B settlement with the US government related to mortgage fraud. Reports out this past week have indicated that Mr. Dimon personally negotiated this deal with the Attorney General and was attempting to get a settlement that closed the door on any criminal investigation of the bank. The fact that he eventually elected to pay such a high price in the settlement while not obtaining release from potential criminal charges is significant.

Mr. Dimon is an accomplished CEO and experienced risk manager. The reported settlement would lead one to surmise that Mr. Dimon believed there was a measurable risk that failure to settle would lead to even greater cost, greater than $13 Billion. The continued attempt to close the door on criminal investigations by the US government may be more than just an attempt to close the case so the bank can move on.

My bet is that there is one more whale of size. Stay tuned.

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Last week the U.S Senate conducted hearings on JPMorgan’s $6.2 billion 2012 trading loss in its London office. This was the amount of a trading loss attributed to the “London Whale,” an individual trader in the bank’s Chief Investment Office (CIO), an office whose responsibility is risk management. That individual and the executive in charge of the CIO were let go and the damage now seems to be contained. So why should the Senate be investigating? Why should we care?

Critics might argue that this is the business loss of a defined corporate entity, JPMorgan Chase, and therefore a matter for the company and its shareholders, not the general public and the Congress. In most cases I would agree.

However, this is not just any company and the causes of the loss have significance beyond its corporate and national bounds. An important point to make here is that while the bank was successful in holding the loss at $ 6 billion, it could have been more extensive and had greater consequences.  More importantly, the nature of the loss is indicative of a systemic problem that continues to threaten the nation’s economy, which is the reason it is definitely the public’s business.

When the Banks Fall It Hurts Us All

JPMorgan Chase is a global financial entity, the largest global bank according to an editorial in Bloomberg. As the editorial points out, the bank’s equity is only between 3 and 4 percent of its total value. A sufficient drop in stock price could potentially wipe out that underlying equity and set events in motion that would cause the American taxpayer to bail them out.

How much would that bail out be? JPMorgan has a total value of around $4 trillion.   As someone argued soon after the first bail out, “too big to fail will one day be too big to save.”

The area that should be our greatest concern is this: if Mr. Dimon is the best risk manager in the industry, then can the industry as a whole really be counted on to be a partner with the people (via regulation) in ensuring we do not have another global calamity? The Bloomberg editorial re-opens the discussion on capping the size of the largest banks.

It’s Not Their Money

There are people who believe the $6 billion loss is an issue for JPMorgan management and its shareholders and should be left there. But it is not just the bank’s direct shareholders that may be hurt in these situations. This bank’s stock prices impact many other investors and non-investors. Indirect investors in JPMorgan include those who buy ETFs including ETFs that track the S&P, the Dow and other metrics. People who do not directly invest but have pension and other retirement plans can be affected. A major bank failure, as we saw in 2008 and 2009 can impact the economy as a whole costing the jobs of people who have no investments of any kind.

We need to address bank size to protect us all. We need to understand that complex investments aimed at managing risk can introduce new risks. And we need to realize that the importance of fiduciary responsibility must be re-established in the industry.

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The Wrapper On 2012

What a year it was. I started this blog and its associated Twitter account, @ethicsbite, in March and since that time have covered and commented on an amazing number of stories. When I scroll down the list of tweets I realize first hand the extent of ethically questionable (and many times illegal) corporate behavior in our country. Ponzi schemes, insider trading, money laundering and (in the UK) phone hacking are among the illegal. Providing financial advice to clients while your own firm profits by the reverse position is unprofessional. Manipulating the rate determination for an international banking benchmark is likely a violation of regulations. I’ll stop there as the full list would no doubt cause my readers to move on. So we’ll switch to sex.

The Petraeus sex scandal seemed to dominate the corporate ethics news at the end of the year. The New York Times story regarding Walmart’s Mexico operations was more significant in scale.  But all of that was eclipsed by juicy, titillating tales from Washington, Tampa and Afghanistan.

2012 Awards

In addition to being amazed at the plethora of unethical activity, I have marveled at the crassness of the people involved. One has to wonder how they would explain their actions to Mom.

In terms of sheer and utter crassness, the 2012 award truly has to go to the News of the World, whose employees allegedly hacked into the cell phone of a young British girl who had disappeared, then proceeded to delete some of the messages on her cell phone so they could capture potential new incoming messages. Her parents detected that something was going on and informed the police. That case led to the demise of one Rebekah Brooks, a Rupert Murdoch “protégé” and the editor of News of the World. Ms. Brooks and her husband’s relationship with David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, tainted 10 Downing Street and created a political situation that could not be ignored. As the investigation continued, Rupert found himself testifying at Parliament and Ms. Brooks was formally charged in May, together with her husband and four others, with conspiring to interfere with the investigation. She allegedly attempted to carry off the evidence in boxes she took out of News of the World’s offices. Moreover it has turned out that phone hacking may have been a relatively common tool at News of the World as close to 200 individuals, many of them celebrities and political figures, have filed suit over the hacking of their personal cell phones. News of the World was shut down by Mr. Murdoch and he subsequently re-organized the News Corp. entity.

A close second place in crassness would be Chesapeake Energy’s founder, Aubrey McClendon. Mr. McClendon showed little bounds in his use of the company’s money and making a name for himself with it. From such relatively small amounts as corporate payment of his personal staff (to be reimbursed at year end without interest on the amounts advanced) to the millions of dollars he authorized be invested in a local NBA team and the construction of a shopping mall that just happened to have eateries owned by Mr. McClendon, the CEO continually used corporate funds to “match” expenditures from his personal wealth to foster his interests. Chesapeake by this time was a publicly held company traded on the NASDAQ and the CEO’s use of money in this manner should have been overseen by the Board. But as is often the case, the Board was beholding to the CEO.  Chesapeake’s stock fell on bad times (from around $34 on 8/1/2011 to around $17 on 12/14/2012), four new independent board members were elected and McClendon was stripped of his Chairman title. But those who paid the cost were the shareholders, of course.

What Will We See In 2013?

Here are our predictions: Rebekah Brooks will go to trial. JPMorgan will further increase its reserve for bad trades by “The Whale.” No one in the investment banking industry will go to jail for anything other than insider trading. Goldman Sachs will continue to be bad. The global economy will continue to improve. Slowly. More dirt will come out regarding Walmart’s non-US operations. Somewhere in the US a bank will go under.

And there will be at least one big sex scandal.

As the French say, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

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Libor

JPMorgan Chase may be facing inquiries from up to eleven different government agencies regarding its role in the Libor rate setting scandal.

The managing director of the U.K.’s Financial Services Authority stated last week that the Libor “is no longer fit for purpose.” He is pushing for it to be replaced with alternative indices. The Reuters article implies that other indices used in commodities and stocks may also be “under scrutiny.” This will surely be grist for the mill in the courthouse where lawsuits are already being filed from plaintiffs who believe their Libor based interest rates were calculated incorrectly. It also raises the question of legitimacy on any existing contract that is Libor based. This one is going to go on for a long time with many interesting and significant repercussions.

Standard Chartered

Standard Chartered is a great name for a UK bank, isn’t it? The name just feels old, stable, conservative…. all the things you would want in a bank. Now the New York State Department of Financial Services has a hotshot young regulator who is threatening to revoke Standard Chartered’s “charter” to operate in New York on the basis that the bank allegedly laundered $250 BILLION-with-a-B for Iran through its New York branch.

Goldman

Goldman Sachs has escaped prosecution by the Justice Department for its actions related to packaging mortgages and reselling them as collateralized debt. The feds felt they didn’t have enough evidence to win the case. Sigh.

NewsCorp

News Corporation announced a $1.6 Billion-with-a-B LOSS for the most recent fiscal quarter, primarily a result of write-downs related to the restructuring of its businesses around the world. That restructuring was announced following the phone hacking scandal at News of the World in London which has resulted in Murdoch’s protege Rebekah Brooks being formally charged in criminal court. However there have also been significant charges related to restructuring initiatives underway in the company’s Australian businesses.

Chesapeake Energy

Chesapeake, the scandal that keeps on giving future case studies, was in the news first for being served subpoenas in a US anti-trust probe and then for facing financial challenges in selling its Michigan properties, which are the subject of said investigation.

Facebook

The Facebook saga continues as a lower price for its stock is causing the company to face significant challenges. Key personnel have been leaving for new opportunities, a possible sign of loss of faith in the company’s further upside potential. The company faces a $3 BILLION tax bill springing from its extensive employee stock plan. At the same time, shares that had been acquired on the private market pre-IPO will soon be able to be traded on the public market. Welcome to the real world. They obviously didn’t learn any lessons from GE which makes billions in profit without paying a dime in federal taxes. Facebook got it backwards – are they making any profits at all and yet have a billion dollar tax bill? No wonder I need a CPA to put my return together.

Knight Trading

Knight Capital Group Inc. announced that its after-tax losses on its trading glitch could amount to $270 million. Good Night.

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Libor is the London Interbank Offering Rate. It is an interest rate that is used between banks as they lend each other funds. It is a “free market” rate that has been used as a starting point for variable rate mortgages (based on Libor plus some number), rates for borrowings by municipalities and over $360 TRILLION-with-a-T in financial and derivative contracts. (Hmmm, isn’t that more than the combined GDP of all the world’s countries? Would that bring us down?)

Libor is calculated using estimates from the banks and it is those estimates that were, how shall we say this, allegedly fudged.

Last week a growing global gasp could be heard as we have learned that London’s Barclays has settled an accusation of having manipulated that rate, paying a fine of $450 Million. We then learned that potentially a dozen other large banks in North America and Europe may be under investigation. Banks may include Citigroup, Inc., Royal Bank of Scotland and Deutsche Bank. The manipulation of this rate apparently was going on before and just prior to the near global financial melt-down of 2008.

The story continued with word that Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geitner, who was head of the NY Fed during that timeframe, was potentially aware of issues with the setting of Libor and advised the British on what to do to get the situation under control. In the UK, the scandal has included allegations that the Bank of England’s deputy governor may have known but not taken action.

Ethical Analysis

The Law was broken. That’s not my personal opinion, it’s obviously the conclusion of more three-letter government enforcement agencies in the US, UK and elsewhere than can be listed here. They undoubtedly set Barclays up with a plea deal so that they can go on from there to the other banks that may have been involved. Congressional representatives are already calling for anyone involved to be prosecuted. Over the weekend the New York Times reported that the US is considering criminal charges against some banks and their employees.

Contracts and agreements were not honored. That IS my opinion and the supporting evidence is only just starting to come forth. Several municipalities are considering suing because the interest payments on their loans may have been higher than justified. They argue that they have been forced to cut their budgets to support those rates.

The community expectation of fair play was violated. When the investing public, would be mortgage holders, municipalities in need of lines of credit and other financing all have an expectation that the Libor rate is a free market rate, then manipulation of that rate by the investment banking industry which is often on the other side of the loans is clearly a violation of the standard of fair play.

Professional standards were ignored. We had expected that everyone in the investment banking industry upheld a minimum of professional ethical conduct standards. Financial advisors should be giving their clients objective analytical based recommendations. Institutions whom we entrust with our money should safeguard it from recklessness and be prudent in its management. Investment banks we might invest in as shareholders should be transparent about their business and its risks. The Libor scandal is just one of a series of continued ethical breaches by this entire industry. It is long past time to call them out.

Moral and spiritual values have been disregarded.

The true ethical issue is this: the banks believe the money is theirs, the traders think the money is theirs, and the individuals making trades think that the level of risk they successfully take with the money that is not theirs to begin with is a game to play that enables them to personally be rewarded, satisfy their ego and prove they are the biggest Whale in the sea.

The money is NOT theirs. It belongs to shareholders, depositors, pension funds and retirees. As the source of accumulated capital that drives the world economy it is a tool that can be used to the benefit of all and a hammer that can be used to dash the lives of many.

The banking industry still does not get this, as I pointed out when I tweeted this quote from one Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs: “If you put too much penalty on risk judgment, what kind of world are you going to have?”  We already know the kind of world we do have – one in which too much risk judgment takes place without, up till now, much in penalties. Perhaps we need to take fewer risks while in the process of “risk management.”

Yet to be determined is the potential impact this alleged rate fixing among the banks may have had on the overall global economy. If the rates were lower than market reality leading up to the crash, which is where the facts seem to be pointed, then a bank could lend more money than it otherwise would have been able, thereby contributing to the bubble.

Bottom Line:

The banking industry’s imprudence with the money entrusted to it, the resultant hardship and harm that has been inflicted on so many around the world and the inability of industry personnel to recognize the culpability of their firms and themselves in the global recession, coupled with their lack of regard for those who have been hurt is at odds with any true spiritual principle I am aware of.

Other Assessments: Two other interesting opinions on the ethics of the investment banking industry are

“Wall Street Ethics Codes Make Me Want to Inhale” by Susan Antilla of Bloomberg News

“The Market Has Spoken, and It Is Rigged” by Simon Johnson, Professor of Entrepreneurship, M.I.T. Sloan School

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