As a banking behemoth, JPMorgan is frequently the target of lawsuits and allegations of suspicious activities. None of them have proved as problematic as the London Whale scandal, which entered a new chapter this week.
Since the banking crisis in 2008, JPMorgan has encountered criticism for its poor risk management practices. The biggest outcry began in 2012, as the flawed risk strategies deployed by trader Bruno Iksil and the bank’s London employees with derivatives trading caused the bank to lose $6.2 billion. Dubbed the London Whale, this scandal showed that JPMorgan supported Iksil despite understanding the risks involved with his approach to derivative bets. The bank went so far as to try to cover up the massive losses, initially only acknowledging a loss of $2 billion when restating its 2012 first quarter earnings.
JPMorgan eventually paid more than $1 billion in fines and admitted its mistakes to settle government investigations in the U.S. and U.K. Former traders have been criminally charged in the U.S., with trials pending.
But it’s not over yet. Resulting shareholder lawsuits have been dismissed over the years, but this week, the U.S. District Court in Manhatttan ruled that a class action suit could proceed. Led by shareholders in pension funds in Arkansas, Ohio and Oregon, the suit contends that JPMorgan knowingly hid increased risks.
Just how big is this? JPMorgan will be facing potentially hundreds of thousands of investors in this suit, some of whom bought shares after the bank’s partial disclosure of the loss.
The lesson to be learned from this story is one of oversight and compliance. JPMorgan had been using the risk measurement tool known as Value at Risk, or VaR – something the bank itself had helped to develop and popularize. But despite the fact that its VaR identified the London Whale trades as exceeding the bank’s risk indicators by more than 330 times, no actions were taken.
Risk and compliance guidelines are only as strong as those who implement them. While it appears JPMorgan has since learned this, that knowledge is coming at what may eventually be an ever-increasing cost.