Bankers skate again in SEC-JPMorgan deal

June 21, 2011, 11:51 PM UTC

The government took another whack at the banks Tuesday, but individual bankers continue to skate by unscathed.

The Securities and Exchange Commission scored a $154 million settlement with JPMorgan Chase (JPM) over its misleading bond-sales practices during the bubble.

Blameless bankers

In a replay of the Abacus case against Goldman Sachs (GS), the SEC charged JPMorgan Chase with admitting* it misled investors by failing to mention that the securities they were buying were being put together by a hedge fund that was betting they would default.

The nine-digit settlement and the admission are both victories for securities regulators who have been rightly pilloried for being soft on Wall Street’s bubble-era ripoff machine.

And the banks are in for more punishment where that came from. Just in the past two months we have seen civil cases being made against Deutsche Bank, Goldman and the Royal Bank of Scotland.

But even regulators’ victories have a way of feeling hollow because the bankers who set out to politely loot their clients remain untouched.

Of course, the SEC brought a suit in the Goldman Abacus case against the immortal Fabrice Tourre, but even that rare moment of accountability was clouded by the observation that Tourre is far from a top official at the firm.

The JPMorgan case also includes a suit against an individual. But the defendant is Edward S. Steffelin, who was an official at GSC, a firm that hired itself out to select the securities that constituted the collateralized debt obligations sold by banks like JPMorgan.

The SEC alleges Steffelin was selecting assets for the Squared CDO at the behest of Magnetar, a hedge fund that wanted to bet against housing-related assets. Steffelin allowed Magnetar to help pick the Squared assets even though he knew the firm was shorting the CDO, the SEC says. Another carrot for Steffelin, the SEC says: he was trying to get hired by Magnetar.

JPMorgan itself was every bit as reckless as Steffelin, according to the allegations made by the SEC. It says Magnetar “played a significant role in the portfolio selection process with the knowledge of J.P. Morgan Securities.”

Yet no individual at JPMorgan Securities faces any charges in this case – which has a familiar ring to it, since the SEC has brought a number of high-profile cases that failed to name names.

The most noteworthy one is the SEC’s disclosure case against Bank of America (BAC) over its purchase of Merrill Lynch. A judge rejected the first settlement, asking who actually made the decisions that led to the wrongdoing and asking, “Was it some sort of ghost or a human being?”

Two years later, it’s a question that in all too many cases remains unanswered.

*Correction: I initially wrote JPMorgan admitted misleading investors. As is so often the case, it neither admitted nor denied anything in the settlement. Goldman didn’t admit to misleading investors in its settlement last July but did concede it made a mistake in how its marketing materials characterized the portfolio selection process. My apology for the error.