Federal banking regulators have decided it's a bad thing that JPMorgan Chase lost $6 billion on a risky bet last year and failed to close money-laundering loopholes. But that's pretty much all they've decided.
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Reserve ordered the bank Monday to fix risk-management failures that led to the massive loss on a trade out of its London office in May 2012, as well as tighten up monitoring of cash transactions that may have allowed suspected terrorists and drug dealers to launder money. But there will be no fines or hard penalties levied for the bank's failures.
Since the revelation of the bet gone sour last year, Chase has been under ramped-up scrutiny—a swirl of congressional inquiries and calls to break up the nation's big banks. A London-based executive who oversaw Chase's sketchy trading strategy resigned, and the bank fired some senior managers. But until today, the practices that led that scrutiny hadn't changed, says Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor and former CFTC director who teaches on financial instruments and counterterorrism law. "Losing $6.2 billion, one would think, would be such a shock to the system that as a matter of good business practices, [Chase's] risk management would have been updated sufficiently, and there would not be a need for the Fed and the Comptroller to ask for a plan," he says.
Greenberger adds that the money laundering no-no—in which regulators told Chase they need to report suspicious activities by customers with ties to terrorism—is "really quite exceptional," because money-laundering statutes are "sufficiently clear that any law-abiding institution should not have a problem [complying].
"It's sort of like saying to someone we want a plan to demonstrate you aren't going to rob banks," he says. "There are already laws against robbing banks."
The federal orders constitute "a slap on the wrist," Ann Graham, professor of law at the Hamline University School of Law and a former attorney at the FDIC told American Banker. She says fines should have been levied as well.
Ongoing investigations into Chase's so-called "London Whale" trading loss by other regulatory agencies and a Senate subcommittee may still result in such fines, but Greenberger says the weak enforcement action in this case is in keeping with a pattern throughout the history of the financial meltdown in which "sanctions on banks have been what would be for you and me a traffic ticket. And this was a warning, not even a traffic ticket."
Chase has racked up a number of similar traffic tickets in recent months. In November, Chase settled with the SEC for $297 million—a relatively modest fine—on charges that it duped investors about the quality of mortage-backed securities. And the recent $10 billion settlement with big banks over foreclosure abuses has also been described as a "wrist slap," as was a similar agreement reached last February. "We've been working hard to fully remediate the issues," JPMorgan Chase spokesman Mark Kornblau said of Monday's orders in a statement, adding that the bank has made prevention of money laundering a "top priority."
Marcus Stanley, a policy director at Americans for Financial Reform, says that this kind of leniency is a far cry from the ethical opprobrium federal regulators have shown towards regular consumers hit by the financial crisis. "We have seen this disturbing pattern where people are very eager to talk about moral hazard when it comes to—God forbid—homeowners who had a bad subprime loan who might get to keep their home," he says. "But when it comes to real enforcement and punishment for [bank executives] who may have been negligent, we are reluctant to do anything."