Madoff and JPMorgan Chase

another JP Morgan legal settlement

Yesterday JP Morgan and the federal government announced a deal.  The bank has agreed to pay fines of $2.6 billion and to reform its operating practices, in return for not being prosecuted for offenses relating to the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.

Although the press reports are a bit confusing, the offenses seem to fall into two areas:

–Madoff routinely made transfers in and out of his accounts in excess of $10,000 a day.  Chase did not report these to the government as required by anti- money laundering statutes.  At least some of these transfers were rapid-fire movements from bank to bank, designed to allow Madoff to illegally collect interest on the deposits from more than one institution (“check kiting”).

–Parts of JP Morgan refused to invest the bank’s money with Madoff on the grounds that he was running a Ponzi scheme.  Other parts of JP Morgan happily continued to service Madoff, to buy his products, and to help sell them to others. Also, In the days just before Madoff’s arrest, JP Morgan withdrew most of its own money from Madoff, apparently because of fears of fraud.  The bank notified the UK government of this, but, oddly, not the US.

my take

To me, the plea deal is more evidence of a sea change in the attitude of regulators toward the financial industry since Mary Jo White became head of the SEC.  Long overdue.

In my experience, in every company there’s a tension between politically powerful senior managers who are identified with, and benefit from, the revenues generated by someone like Madoff and the relatively junior researchers who understand the facts better and are more aware of what the law requires.  The former can put up immense resistance to fixing problems.  Their allies can simply refuse to act on, or even to read, the case for a different course of action.

I’ve seen some of the Madoff sales materials.  They assert that phenomenally high returns are to be had with virtually no risk.  No explanation of how this is possible, just a simple appeal to greed.

Current media coverage is highly favorable to government investigators.  What seems to be forgotten is that Harry Markopolos, a financial analyst whistleblower with very detailed evidence of the Madoff Ponzi scheme, repeatedly showed up at SEC offices from 2000 onward to present his case.  He was ignored every time.  (Markopolos was asked by his boss to create a clone of Madoff.  He soon realized that there were periods where no assets delivered the returns Madoff claimed.)

The most elementary checks of the phony documentation Madoff prepared would have revealed the fraud.  But in their periodic inspections, the SEC appears to have checked virtually nothing.  Madoff himself commented on how easy the SEC was to fool.

One response

  1. The book that Markopolos wrote, “No one would listen”, is an excellent example of why bureaucracies need shaking up every once in a while. Lately the SEC has been very active, and focused on the big bad guys, so I am happy with activity right now. Being part of the industry, I have felt int he past that a big scandal would break, like Enron, and the SEC would kick the micro-caps. Not so any more, the seem to be policing the big guys as well.

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