For investors, London Whale fines add ‘injury to injury’

September 20, 2013

JPMorgan Chase shareholders suffered a double whammy in the “London Whale” scandal.

Last year, they lost $6.2 billion when the bank’s traders in London placed bad bets on derivatives. Now, they’re going to lose $920 million more to settle
charges leveled against the bank this week by regulators in the United States and Britain.

“It adds not only insult to injury, but injury to injury,” said John C. Coffee Jr., a professor at Columbia Law School. “Record penalties are being born by the victims of the crime.”

The London Whale debacle serves as the latest example of a tension that has existed for decades, with some arguing that regulators should penalize the individuals responsible for misconduct instead of the corporation.

No individuals were named in the enforcement actions taken this week. While regulators faulted senior management for failing to properly supervise the traders, the penalties will not come out of any of the executives’ pockets.

Instead, using shareholder money, the company will pay $300 million to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and $220 million to Britain’s Financial Conduct. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Reserve will get $200 million each.

The SEC said it may place all the money coming its way into a fund to compensate harmed investors. But that basically sets up a circular transaction, said Charles Elson, a corporate governance professor at the University of Delaware.

“The money comes back to the people who paid it to begin with,” he said.

But some legal experts say corporations must be held accountable for wrongdoing, even if it means the shareholders will get hit twice.. The fines may prompt shareholders to demand change in the way a company conducts business, deterring future misconduct industrywide, said Anthony Sabino, a law professor at St. John’s University.

“Corporations are ultimately run by the shareholders and when the entity you own does bad things, you have to pay the price,” Sabino said. “It’s called justice, rough justice for sure.”

Dina ElBoghdady covers housing policy for The Washington Post.
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