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As Inquiries Persist, JPMorgan Loses Favor

Adam Jeffery | CNBC

High above Park Avenue, in a 50th-floor conference room overlooking Central Park, JPMorgan's board members had a pressing question about regulatory problems that have dogged the bank for more than a year: are we done yet?

In short, according to people briefed on the meeting held on Monday, the answer was no.

The board — which at that meeting approved $1 billion in fines to resolve investigations into an embarrassing trading loss in London as well as an inquiry into its credit card products — discussed a series of looming problems, one more vexing than the next.

(Read more: Hey Jamie Dimon, call me maybe, says Sandy Weill)

That same day, the nation's commodities trading regulator, which is investigating whether the London losses manipulated the market, warned that it intended to file an enforcement action against the bank after settlement talks broke down. The agency wanted a $100 million fine, people briefed on the matter said, and an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, a demand that the bank balked at.

Even as regulators on Thursday announced a settlement over the "London whale" trading loss, the weariness expressed at the board meeting underscored the bank's stunning fall from favor. JPMorgan emerged from the financial crisis healthier and more profitable than its rivals, and its chief executive, Jamie Dimon, was hailed as a wise and responsible manager. In just 18 months, however, JPMorgan has swung from Washington's favorite bank to financial punching bag.

The bank is now facing scrutiny from at least seven federal agencies, several state regulators and two foreign nations. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the people briefed on the matter said, is ramping up an investigation into the bank's debt collection practices. And the board on Monday learned new details about JPMorgan's decision to hire the children of well-connected Chinese officials, the focus of a wide-ranging federal investigation.

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Investigations further outside the public spotlight also came into focus at the meeting. The bank's lawyers, the people said, briefed the board about mounting scrutiny of JPMorgan's dealings with foreign banks vulnerable to money laundering.

Despite the onslaught, JPMorgan reached some closure on the "London Whale" case, agreeing to pay $920 million in fines that resolved investigations from four regulators: the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve and the Financial Conduct Authority in London. The bank agreed to pay $300 million to the comptroller's office, and about $200 million to the S.E.C. and each of the other agencies.

Still, the S.E.C. is continuing to scrutinize the losses amid angry calls from lawmakers and consumer advocates. Federal prosecutors and the F.B.I. in Manhattan are also investigating.

In a separate settlement announced on Thursday, the bank agreed to pay $80 million to the comptroller's office and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which accused JPMorgan of charging its credit card customers for identity theft products they never received.

Under the deal with the S.E.C. over the trading loss, JPMorgan took the unusual step of acknowledging that it had violated federal securities laws. That concession reverses a decades-long policy at the S.E.C. to allow banks to "neither admit nor deny" wrongdoing.

"We have accepted responsibility and acknowledged our mistakes from the start, and we have learned from them and worked to fix them," Mr. Dimon said in a statement. "Since these losses occurred, we have made numerous changes that have made us a stronger, smarter, better company."

Still, in the orders on Thursday, regulators cited the bank for "deficiencies" in oversight of the trading. The group at JPMorgan responsible for double-checking the traders' estimated profit and losses was so "under-resourced" and "unequipped," authorities said, that it consisted of a single employee. Regulators also cited "spreadsheet miscalculations" and the use of "subjective" standards for how the traders valued their bets.

The "severe breakdowns" detailed in the orders, authorities say, allowed the group of traders in the bank's chief investment office in London to go unchecked even as they amassed the risky bet using financial contracts known as derivatives. When losses soared, the government said, the traders deliberately "manipulated and inflated the value" of their positions.

Federal prosecutors and the F.B.I. in Manhattan have since brought criminal charges against two of the traders: Javier Martin-Artajo and Julien Grout, who deny the accusations. A third trader — Bruno Iksil, who was nicknamed "the London Whale" for his role in the huge positions — avoided charges and instead struck a nonprosecution deal with the authorities.

The S.E.C. on Thursday also cited JPMorgan Chase for misstating its financial results. In July 2012, the bank restated its first-quarter earnings lower by $459 million, conceding errors in the traders' valuations of losses.

The S.E.C. attributed much of the blame to JPMorgan's senior management, who did not bring concerns about the losses to the bank's board.

For example, executives learned in April that the traders appeared to inflate the value of their bets by anywhere from $275 million to $767 million. And in an e-mail about that time, a member of JPMorgan's senior management noted that disputes over the price of the trades were not "a good sign on our valuation process."

And yet, at a meeting in early May with the audit committee of the board, there was "no discussion" of the disparities, the commission said.

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"While grappling with how to fix its internal control breakdowns, JPMorgan's senior management broke a cardinal rule of corporate governance and deprived its board of critical information," George S. Canellos, co-director of the S.E.C.'s enforcement division, said in a statement.

That culture of secrecy spread through the bank, authorities said. In response to concerns from a senior executive about information leaking to the marketplace, an executive in JPMorgan Chase's investment bank promised that the group investigating the trades "speaks to no one" without "my express approval first."

Regulators were also kept in the dark, authorities said. In its order, the Financial Conduct Authority of London described how JPMorgan played down the trading losses on an April conference call. While highlighting that there "had been no material changes" to the position in recent days, JPMorgan executives in London failed to disclose that the trading portfolio breached internal stress limits and was expected to lose a significant amount of money that day.

In effect, the British agency said, it was "deliberately misled by the firm."

"Bank management must also ensure open and effective communication with supervisors so that we can effectively do our jobs," Thomas J. Curry, the comptroller of the currency, said in a statement. "Anything less is unacceptable and will not be tolerated."

Despite the assault on senior management, no executive was charged in the cases. And the fines, while collectively steep, fall in between what other banks have paid when settling with multiple regulators. Indeed $1 billion is not a devastating blow for a bank that earned $6.5 billion in its last quarter.

Even the admission of wrongdoing to the S.E.C. can be seen as a reasonable trade-off for a bank seeking to move past the trading losses.

"The settlements are a major step in the firm's ongoing efforts to put these issues behind it," JPMorgan said in a statement.

(Read more: A bad day for Jamie Dimon just got a lot worse)

But regulatory and legal woes stemming from the trading debacle still plague the bank. And the investigation by the commodities regulator, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, presents a particularly thorny problem.

The agency is pushing JPMorgan to admit that the London trading manipulated a corner of the derivatives market — an accusation that it disputes and one that it is fighting tooth and nail. Such an admission could set a precedent that threatens some of the bank's current trading businesses. But without the acknowledgment, the trading commission is pursuing a lawsuit against JPMorgan, which could cast a darker cloud over the bank.

The "London Whale" losses represent only a fraction of the regulatory scrutiny that lawyers outlined at the board meeting on Monday.

One looming threat is an S.E.C. and Justice Department investigation into JPMorgan's hiring practices in China. The investigation focuses on the bank's decision to hire the sons and daughters of high-powered Chinese officials. The hiring, records show, coincided with the bank winning business from companies controlled by the Chinese government.

Banking regulators are also investigating JPMorgan's so-called correspondent banking business, in which it relies on foreign banks to process transactions overseas. That business, authorities suspect, is susceptible to money laundering.

In response, JPMorgan has reined in the correspondent banking business. And Mr. Dimon alluded to concerns about the business in a memo to employees this week.

"While we will continue to focus on serving our clients properly around the world," he said, "we will strengthen our controls."

By Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Ben Protess of The New York Times

Banks