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JPMorgan Chase To Pay Huge Fine In London Whale Settlement


J.P. Morgan Chase has agreed to pay a $920 million fine. It comes in response to the bank's handling of the so-called London Whale trading debacle. Last year, J.P. Morgan said that rogue traders in its London office had lost $6 billion in a failed hedging strategy and then concealed it from executives for weeks.

In addition to the fine, regulators forced the bank to take the unusual step of admitting wrongdoing, as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: The incident began early last year, when traders in London began racking up huge losses through failed derivatives trades. As the losses mounted, the traders changed the valuation models the bank used, to make the losses look smaller than they were. The trades were highly complex and it was weeks before senior officials at the bank figured out what was happening.

Dennis Kelleher heads Better Markets, a bank reform group.

DENNIS KELLEHER: There was a massive failure, from the very top of the firm, from the CEO all the way through his management team, into legal risk and compliance. It all failed.

ZARROLI: When published reports about the losses began appearing, bank CEO Jamie Dimon denied there was anything wrong, calling it a tempest in a teapot. But within a few weeks, he was forced to issue a mea culpa; several executives would lose their jobs and bonuses; two of the traders involved were recently indicted by a U.S. grand jury and are awaiting extradition from Europe.

Today, U.S. and British regulators charged the bank with insufficient internal controls and failing to supervise employees. They also levied a huge fine that will be split among four different regulators. But Dennis Kelleher notes that the fine imposed today isn't likely to cause the bank too much pain.

KELLEHER: Nine hundred million dollars is a lot of money by almost any scale, except by Wall Street scale. It's only about 13 days of profits for J.P. Morgan Chase.

ZARROLI: More painful for the bank could be the fact that it also had to acknowledge wrongdoing. In the past, regulators often negotiated settlements with banks in which they paid a fine but didn't have to admit that they did anything wrong.

Michael Greenberger is a professor of law at the University of Maryland.

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: The defendant would agree to the fine and if you didn't have the quibble about whether they were admitting guilt, it made the settlement process so much easier.

ZARROLI: But in the wake of a financial crisis, such settlements have generated a lot of public anger. Critics say they allowed banks to evade responsibility for what they've done. In some cases, judges have rejected settlements with no admission of wrongdoing, and the SEC has begun taking a harder line against them.

With today's settlement, J.P. Morgan Chase has admitted wrongdoing. But that doesn't mean it can put the London Whale incident behind it, says Michael Greenberger.

GREENBERGER: They settled part of this but there's a very big part of this that is still alive. And I think the part that's still alive is likely to be much more hurtful to J.P. Morgan.

ZARROLI: Greenberger says the Commodities Futures Trading Commission is still investigating the London Whale case. And he says the agency has much more direct jurisdiction over the derivatives market than the SEC. The CFTC can bring charges of market manipulation against the bank, which would open it up to criminal charges. So, while J.P. Morgan Chase would like to move beyond the London Whale case, it's unlikely to do so anytime soon.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.