JPMorgan Chase Faces Full-Court Press of Federal Investigations

By Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Ben Protess
The New York Times, March 27, 13

As the nation’s strongest bank, JPMorgan Chase used to be known for carrying special sway with regulators. Now it increasingly finds itself in the cross hairs of federal authorities.

At least two board members are worried about the mounting problems, and some top executives fear that the bank’s relationships in Washington have frayed as JPMorgan becomes a focus of federal investigations.

In a previously undisclosed case, prosecutors are examining whether JPMorgan failed to fully alert authorities to suspicions about Bernard L. Madoff, according to several people with direct knowledge of the matter. And nearly a year after reporting a multibillion-dollar trading loss, JPMorgan is facing a criminal inquiry over whether it lied to investors and regulators about the risky wagers, a case that could accelerate when the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other authorities interview top JPMorgan executives in coming weeks.

All told, at least eight federal agencies are investigating the bank, including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, theCommodity Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Federal prosecutors and the F.B.I. in New York are also examining potential wrongdoing at JPMorgan.

A recent misstep points to the growing friction between JPMorgan and regulators as well as to the concerns within the bank. JPMorgan misstated how the bank may have harmed more than 5,000 homeowners in foreclosure, according to several people briefed on the matter. The bank’s primary regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, is expected to collect a cash payment from the bank to remedy the flawed review of loans, these people say.

The bank acknowledges its broad regulatory challenges. “We get it, and we are dealing aggressively with these issues,” said Joe Evangelisti, a JPMorgan spokesman.

The mortgage errors, while by themselves relatively minor, have heightened concerns within JPMorgan because they come on top of the other investigations. The increased scrutiny presents a challenge for the bank and its influential chief executive, Jamie Dimon, who was widely praised for steering JPMorgan through the 2008 financial crisis, leaving it in far better shape than its rivals. Among some executives at the bank, the worry is that the unwanted attention will undercut Mr. Dimon’s authority in Washington.

“Jamie and other executives feel terrible that the bank’s self-inflicted mistakes have put regulators in an awkward position,” Mr. Evangelisti said. He added, “We are wholly to blame for our errors and are fully cooperating with all authorities to make things right.”

Mr. Dimon has already testified before Congress and apologized for the trading losses. In response to last year’s trading blowup, the bank has also worked to root out the problems, shuffled its top executives, bolstered its risk controls and brought in a new head of compliance.

The bank’s board, which halved Mr. Dimon’s compensation in January, recently reiterated its support for him as both chairman and chief executive. JPMorgan, whose shares have soared in recent months, has recorded record profits for the last three years.

But as JPMorgan seeks to address its legal woes and restore its credibility in Washington, the bungled review of troubled mortgages could present a setback for the bank. The problems stem from January, when JPMorgan and other big banks agreed to a multibillion-dollar settlement over foreclosure abuses. As part of the pact, the bank agreed to comb through each loan file to spot potential errors, a process that the regulators will use to help determine the size of the payouts to homeowners.

While assessing 880,000 mortgages, JPMorgan overstated the potential harm for more than 5,000 loans, the people familiar with the matter said. The mistakes were not deliberate, according to a person with direct knowledge of the review, who also noted that the extent of the problem was small and that other banks were encountering their own issues with the review.

To ensure those errors didn’t cheat homeowners out of relief, JPMorgan offered additional compensation for borrowers, according to one person familiar with the matter. Still, the comptroller, which is growing impatient with JPMorgan’s mistakes, could also fine the bank, another person said.

Tensions between JPMorgan and its primary regulator were highlighted in a recent Senate report that examined the $6.2 billion trading loss. The report, by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, portrayed a somewhat defiant stance by Mr. Dimon, showing how during a brief period in August 2011 the chief executive stopped providing regulators with profit-and-loss reports about the investment bank.

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