JPMorgan Chase is coughing up almost $1 billion in fines for its London whale violations, with $200 million going to the SEC. But the settlement has a different flavour than usual: an admission of misconduct.
SEC or FINRA’s announcements typically include a statement saying the offending party agreed to pay a massive fine, but didn’t admit or deny wrongdoing. But now there’s a new sheriff in town, and one of her top priorities has been to bring the SEC’s enforcement regime into line with common sense, says New York-based securities lawyer Bill Singer.
He applauds Mary Jo White for “ending the hypocrisy” of the old status quo. “The regulator would continually go in front of the TV cameras and announce the biggest settlement in the history of fill-in-the-blank, and go on and on about how justice was finally served. But at the end they would do a Monty Python wink, wink, nudge, nudge routine and say, ‘By the way, the firm doesn’t have to admit it did anything wrong.’”
Singer says we shouldn’t get overly excited about the new policy.
The JPMorgan admission “sounds like a big news event, but in reality it’s not. I’m supposed to get excited that the regulator has aligned its policy with what common sense would have told them to do decades ago?”
Singer acknowledges the motivation behind the old system. “Wall Street is like an overloaded garbage truck. It you want to park it over the SEC and pull the lever, that’s fine. But it’ll bury them. And that means staff taking two-to-three years to prosecute cases instead of only six months to settle it” without requiring an admission of misconduct.
He says settlements should only apply to lesser violations; for instance, “smaller companies that are overwhelmed by regulation and tried their best [to comply but didn’t], or individuals who get in over their heads.
“But when you’re talking about big players like Bank of America, JPMorgan and HSBC, it’s a different story. If you let them write a cheque without admitting wrongdoing, it doesn’t give the system a lot of integrity.”
Singer also says the JPMorgan fine is relatively small. “All that we have here is a settlement for a little less than $1 billion, which, to be blunt, is probably what they pay for toilet paper.” Firms will still do a cost-benefit analysis, he says, when it comes to following the rules. “If the bean counters decide the misconduct will bring in $5 billion while the fine is $1 billion, they’re going to behave badly.”
Claims that the JPMorgan admission will mean a slew of civil lawsuits are overblown, Singer adds. “It does make it easier to sue them, but that’s like saying, ‘If I take two steps closer to R.A. Dickey it’ll be easier to hit his screwball.’ Do you know how much it costs to take on a company like JPMorgan in court, when it has the best lawyers in the country in its corner? Bottom line, people are way overstating the practical importance of this situation.”