JPMorgan's Whale Still Causing Havoc


It's the trading mess that just won't end. If we all didn't know better, it would be easy to think that the "Whale" that has caused so much trouble for JPMorgan Chase and CEO Jamie Dimon was not named Bruno Iksil but Moby Dick.

Bloomberg reported earlier this week that the JPMorgan board is considering whether to release an internal report that is highly critical of Dimon's oversight of the London Whale. Additionally, U.S. regulators hit the company with four additional enforcement actions as part of their ongoing investigation of the events that led to a $6 billion loss for the company.

Despite the fact that none of the actions carried any financial penalties, regulators from both U.S. and U.K agencies have made clear that the investigation is ongoing. However, without minimizing the size of the loss, when you consider that the company never even experienced a quarterly loss as a result of the trade, it is hard not to agree with Dimon's initial -- much decried -- assessment that the incident was a "tempest in a teapot." Ultimately, JPMorgan remains one of the strongest positioned banks in the market. If there's a must-own name among the big banks, it's JPMorgan.

Dimon to blame?
JPMorgan is set to release earnings later this week, and, as I've mentioned, the board might release findings about the London Whale trading losses that build on its original findings from last July. The report is allegedly very critical of senior management, particularly Dimon , but U.K officials have asked the company to keep the report private until privacy law considerations can be assessed. There seems to be little question that Dimon's pay and bonus may be cut, but considering his total compensation was $23 million in each of the last two years, it is doubtful that the CEO will be in any soup lines in the near term.

What is clear, at least from where I am sitting, is that the vilification of Wall Street has not ended and that the fears of Main Street have become the fuel for a political fire. Dimon, as the individual with the top spot, clearly should be held accountable for the actions of his firm. Within the context and complexity of an organization like JPMorgan, however, the idea that the CEO should be aware and responsible for every trade goes beyond absurd; it would be irresponsible because it would mean he couldn't run the bank.

Whether regulators want to fit him for a black hat or a white whale costume, Dimon has proven himself to be a capable steward of the bank and should be treated as such. When Citigroup or Bank of America were it the midst of government bailouts, Dimon was seen as a paragon of how things should be run. It is disingenuous to now look for fault in every misstep. As Citi is in the midst of a major restructuring and B of A is limping back to the relevance it once enjoyed, JPMorgan continues to march forward successfully.

Don't call me Ishmael
Rather than recounting the various hunts for the Whale being conducted by offices ranging from the SEC, to the Office of the Comptroller of Currency (OCC) and the Federal Reserve, to the FBI, providing some clarity might be beneficial. All four of the formal orders that were issued against the bank deal with money-laundering controls and risk management:

  • Under the OCC order, the bank has 60 days to create a new compliance committee that will then submit plans to improve internal risk controls within an additional 30 days .

  • The order from the Fed gives the bank 60 days to submit a proposal outlining its plans for enhanced risk management and internal controls.

  • No comment was given on the impetus for the money-laundering orders.

At first look, and for those unfamiliar with the functioning of most regulatory bodies, these actions seem very serious. They are serious in the sense that the bank will need to comply with the orders, but they do not represent more than a slap on the wrist from an enforcement perspective. Undoubtedly, Dimon would have taken many of these steps without being asked, and it is important to remember that JPMorgan disclosed the trading losses relatively quickly.

For the various agencies that let Bernie Madoff slip right through the cracks for so many years to suddenly be indignant feels like a bit of political theater, not the legitimate ire of a watchful protector. Maybe I'm jaded, but across the losses and stock implosions that have faced every financial firm since 2008 -- including B of A and Citi -- JPMorgan's performance has been stellar. I do not mean to suggest that a $6 billion loss is meaningless, but I still believe Dimon and JPMorgan are the best in the business.

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