On Wall Street, it's said a rising tide hides many stumbles. When the economy tanks, the water recedes, and shabby bank practices are revealed for all to see.
Case in point: JPMorgan Chase, a colossus of a bank with a hard-to-grasp $2.4 trillion in assets. But this bank has played fast and loose for too long. As the largest U.S. banking company, its recent track record is disturbing and warrants scrutiny for several reasons.
First: A record settlement for the history books. The U.S. Justice Department this past week reached a $13 billion agreement with JPMorgan Chase over its peddling toxic mortgages, calling it "the largest settlement with a single entity in American history." A $13 billion penalty sounds huge, but is it to a multitrillion-dollar bank? Last year, the bank earned more than $21 billion. And some of that $13 billion can be deducted by the bank on its taxes.
Second: An admission of wrongdoing. Such accountability is missing in most federal crackdowns. This time the bank acknowledged in writing that it made "serious misrepresentations" to the public about numerous deals involving the sale of securities backed by flimsy home loans. Yet JPMorgan Chase separately insists it "has not admitted to any violations of the law."
Third: Criminal charges are still possible. The Justice settlement does not absolve JPMorgan Chase or its employees from facing any possible criminal charges.
Fourth: Some shareholders are getting well acquainted with Tampa. Saddled with controversy over a major trading loss, the bank chose in both 2012 and 2013 to hold its annual shareholders meetings behind high security at its suburban Tampa campus. Those meetings still drew some protesters, but in fewer numbers. And bank chief executive officer Jamie Dimon endured far less financial media scrutiny than he would have suffered had he stood in front of shareholders back at the bank's headquarters in New York.
Fifth: The bank's influence rises anew in Florida. With more than 20,000 employees in this state alone — and with former Florida Sen. Mel Martinez as its state chairman — JPMorgan Chase continues to pour millions into the Sunshine State in a building binge of new branches.
The upshot? JPMorgan Chase allowed a series of financial and ethical blunders to sully its reputation. It still needs an overhaul.
The latest scandal stems from allegations that amid the housing bubble, the institution packaged and marketed securities knowingly created out of shoddy mortgages. Many of those risky loans were inherited by the bank when it bought the failing institutions Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual. Large numbers of those securities later failed, fueling the 2008 financial crisis.
"Without a doubt, the conduct uncovered in this investigation helped sow the seeds of the mortgage meltdown," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
Let's look closer at how the bank internally handed those mortgages. (Looking at the guts of Wall Street deals is like examining how laws are made. You need a strong stomach.)
According to the federal settlement, JPMorgan Chase between 2005 and 2008 packaged residential mortgages on homes across the country and assured investors the loans were based on solid underwriting standards. Back then the bank went further, hiring an outside firm to examine the loans before they were packaged into securities.
When that firm identified loan problems, the bank at times ignored the warnings. The settlement notes that between 2006 and 2007, 27 percent of more than 23,000 mortgages did not meet underwriting standards.
Yet JPMorgan Chase chose to accept many of those loans or upgraded their ratings to include them in their sale of mortgage-backed securities.
Think of the "rising tide" reference at the start of this column. It can be tough to recall the heady economic times before the past punishing recession. But clearly there was a culture at many financial institutions, big and small, that the ever-soaring value of U.S. housing encouraged sloppy — or devious — loan underwriting.
Why? Because it was easy to ignore the bad lending behind pools of securities when there were quick profits to be made, and when it was so widely assumed that the mortgaged homes in question could be sold over and over at ever higher prices.
Until the bubble burst. And low tide arrived.
The $13 billion settlement is hardly JPMorgan Chase's only recent fumble.
Last week it separately reached a $4.5 billion settlement with 21 major institutional investors over mortgage-backed securities.
The global bank faces ongoing questions over its practice of hiring the children of China's elite families, allegedly to curry national favor.
Before that it was a poorly devised hedging trade that produced a major loss for the bank. CEO Dimon initially assured shareholders that loss was $2.3 billion, but now he admits it's at least $6 billion.
A winner in all this might be Bank of America, based in Charlotte, N.C., and a major player in Florida. It has been the nation's punching bag for years for its history of poor customer service and aggressive foreclosure tactics used during the housing crisis. Other banks, too, face legal and public relations challenges tied to the mortgage meltdown. More lenders may eventually be chastised by a more aggressive Justice Department.
But for now, it is JPMorgan Chase's turn to be the Bad Boy of Banking.
A $13 billion knuckle rap certainly stings, even for a behemoth like JPMorgan Chase.
But how will it influence future behavior? That's the $2.4 trillion question.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com.