Former JPMorgan employees charged in ‘London whale’ case
NEW YORK — The bank’s infamous “London whale” trades involved complex financial products, but prosecutors alleged that a cover-up by former JPMorgan Chase & Co. employees involved simple lies.
The accusation was part of criminal charges filed against two mid-level JPMorgan employees accused of hiding massive trading losses, which ultimately cost the nation’s largest bank more than $6 billion and rekindled fears of the financial crisis.
Jamie Dimon, the bank’s outspoken chief executive who has served as Wall Street’s unofficial spokesman, initially called the losses a “tempest in a teapot” in early 2012. But Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, took aim at Dimon’s initial dismissal and criticized JPMorgan’s management.
“This was not a tempest in a teapot, but rather a perfect storm of individual misconduct and inadequate internal controls,” Bharara told reporters Wednesday.
Critics were quick to complain the cases did not go far enough. No senior executives were named by either prosecutors or the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which filed a parallel civil case against the former JPMorgan employees.
Michael Santoro, a professor of business ethics at Rutgers University, said authorities should have taken administrative or civil steps to hold executives accountable for failing to manage rogue employees.
“When are people who are responsible going to be held responsible?” Santoro said. “The government is missing an important opportunity to bring accountability to the banking system.”
Still, both Bharara and the SEC said their investigations were continuing.
The cases centered on the actions of three employees in JPMorgan’s London office: Javier Martin-Artajo, Julien Grout and Bruno Iksil.
It was Iksil, a top European trader, who earned the London whale nickname because of his oversized market bets. He is so far cooperating with investigators and is expected to escape any criminal charges.
Martin-Artajo, who as managing director headed the trading strategy in question, and his colleague Julien Grout, a derivatives trader, both face criminal charges of falsifying records and securities filings, wire fraud and conspiracy. The defendants are believed to be in Europe and have not yet been arrested.
A lawyer for Iksil said his client would continue cooperating with authorities “as needed” but declined further comment. Attorneys for the defendants did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The cases are but the latest chapter in the “whale” saga, which rekindled fears of the financial crisis, tarnished the reputation of one of the country’s most respected banks and wounded the credibility of Dimon, once hailed as the King of Wall Street.
The trading fiasco caused a firestorm in Washington, where regulators, lawmakers and lobbyists have been sparring over how to implement new rules put in place by the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul of 2010.
A JPMorgan spokesman declined to comment, but Dimon has repeatedly apologized for the firm’s mistakes.
“This should never have happened,” Dimon told shareholders in Tampa, Fla., days after the bank disclosed the losses. “I can’t justify it. Unfortunately the mistakes were self-inflicted.”
The case involved complex financial instruments called synthetic credit derivatives, opaque instruments that were essentially bets on bonds issued by American and European companies.
As trading losses mounted, other Wall Street firms smelled blood in the water and made bets against JPMorgan’s position. Court documents portray Martin-Artajo as a boss pushing his colleagues to break the rules.
Because the financial instruments in question are not traded on exchanges, traders are responsible for determining their market value.
As the trading losses in question mounted, however, Martin-Artajo repeatedly took steps to paper over the bleeding, according to court documents. Iksil, his underling who was referred to as “CW-1" in court papers, saw Martin-Artajo’s decision not to report losses as “idiotic.”
Martin-Artajo grew angry when Iksil reported losses on the trade. “Why did you do that?” he asked at one point, according to court documents. He added later, “You’re losing your mind here, man.”
As JPMorgan executives in New York grew more skeptical in early 2012, media reports outing the London whale intensified pressure in London. At one point, according to a recorded call, Grout said: “I don’t want to show something that is too false.”
Court documents highlighted JPMorgan’s faulty risk management. They noted the bank’s “valuation control group” was staffed by only one employee in London and said it was “neither independent nor rigorous.”
April Brooks, a special agent in charge at the FBI’s office in New York, called the arrangement “little more than a rubber stamp — compliance in name only.”
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