JPMorgan in SEC subprime probe

November 2, 2010, 12:02 AM UTC

Does JPMorgan Chase have a Goldman Sachs problem?

ProPublica says it may. The investigative journalism outfit reports JPMorgan  has come under regulatory scrutiny over its handling of conflicts of interest in bubble-era sales of subprime debt, much as Goldman did earlier this year.

In for a penny, in for a pound

Goldman , you’ll recall, paid $550 million in July to settle a Securities and Exchange Commission probe of its handling of a 2007 sale of subprime debt to some institutional investors who promptly lost all their money when the deal tanked.

Goldman allowed hedge fund manager John Paulson, who was betting against the so-called collateralized debt obligations sold to a German bank and backed by an ill-fated bond insurer, to help select the investments, without making his role clear.

Paulson ended up making $1 billion on the deal and the investors lost the same. Goldman didn’t admit or deny any wrongdoing but conceded, bracingly enough, that mistakes had been made when it came to disclosing conflicts in the deal, part of a series known as Abacus. Goldman stock remains 13% below its level the day the SEC announced the suit.

Now JPMorgan is coming under the same glare, ProPublica reports. It says the SEC is investigating whether the bank allowed Magnetar, a hedge fund that was a big bettor against the housing bubble, to select investments in a $1.1 billion CDO that went bust. That CDO was known as Squared, after its practice of buying parts of other CDOs.

The SEC “is examining whether JPMorgan adequately disclosed to the investors it marketed Squared to that Magnetar had a role in picking the securities that went into the deal while also betting against segments of the deal,” ProPublica reports. JPMorgan didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

Magnetar made $290 million betting against the investment, while JPMorgan took in a $20 million fee for setting the wheels in motion.

Despite the similarities between the Goldman and JPMorgan cases, it is easy to see two differences that may work in JPMorgan’s favor should the investigation proceed. First, while JPMorgan Chase is not exactly synonymous with apple pie, neither can it match Goldman for sheer villainy.

Second, as JPMorgan will surely point out if it ever comes time to defend this deal in public, the bank itself managed to lose $880 million on Squared, which is ten times or so Goldman’s losses on Abacus.

If nothing else this fact undermines the narrative in which sneaky bankers spend their time greedily counting up their winnings at the expense of everyone else. Acknowledging your stupidity’s not much of a defense but at this point it’s probably the best public relations strategy the banks have.