JPMorgan Chase, run by charismatic chief executive Jamie Dimon, has enjoyed a reputation since the financial crisis for being different from other banks: smarter about risk-taking and less likely than its peers to be hauled before lawmakers for grillings on the Hill.
Yet the nation’s biggest bank is now facing investigations by a number of federal regulatory agencies that are subpoenaing internal documents related to everything from the bank’s recent multibillion-dollar trading loss to whether the firm manipulated energy markets in California and the Midwest.
Investigators are also asking for information from JPMorgan, among about a dozen other financial firms, about the scandal now rocking the London financial sector over how banks report the rate at which they lend to one another.
In the past two months, the company’s stock has taken a hammering and Dimon, who has been a leading critic of the government’s increased regulation of banks, has had to appear before Congress twice to talk about the company’s mistakes.
On Thursday, a federal judge ordered the company to explain by July 13 why it is declining to share e-mails requested by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, related to its power trading operations. Regulators are trying to learn whether JPMorgan extracted artificially high payments from wholesale energy markets, which may have driven up prices for consumers.
The bank said it was responding to FERC’s inquiry. Its lawyers have argued that the dozens of e-mails being requested were private and protected by attorney-client privilege.
“We believe we have complied in all respects with the law, as well as FERC rules and applicable tariffs, governing this market,” spokeswoman Jennifer Zuccarrelli said in an e-mail. “We stress that this investigation is ongoing and that no conclusions have been reached or findings adjudicated. We welcome the Court’s assistance in resolving this dispute over documents.”
But government lawyers say some of the e-mails being protected should be shared since they do not involve attorneys; rather, they involve employees — including Blythe Masters, head of JPMorgan’s global commodities group, and Francis Dunleavy, head of principal investments within that group, who reports to Masters. “Neither one is an attorney,” wrote FERC’s lawyers.
Meanwhile, JPMorgan is also trying to answer questions from the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) about how it managed to lose at least $2 billion in bad trades. The losses have prompted some lawmakers to wonder whether the bank’s operations are too risky. Dimon, who has called the errors “dumb” and “sloppy,” has answered questions before the Senate Banking Committee and the House Committee on Financial Services.
An even bigger storm is perhaps looming for JPMorgan and many other banks on Wall Street.
Investigators around the world are delving into the developing scandal surrounding the influential London interbank offered rate, or Libor. The British bank Barclays agreed last week to pay a $450 million fine to U.S. and British regulators to settle charges that it manipulated the Libor for its benefit. Barclays has indicated that other banks engaged in similar behavior.
There have already been a number of civil lawsuits filed by U.S. plaintiffs against the banks that set the Libor.
JPMorgan, along with about a dozen other firms, has said it is cooperating with investigators in the United States, Britain and Asia. The bank says it has received requests for documents from the Justice Department, the CFTC, the SEC and others.
But no matter how many regulators may buzz around the bank’s operations — and the extent of its trading losses at its chief investment office is still unknown — JPMorgan is still expected to make a healthy profit this year.
As Wells Fargo senior analyst Matthew Burnell wrote in a recent note, “We believe JPM would be solidly profitable . . . in 2012 even if CIO losses reached $9 billion.”