Why JPMorgan’s China trouble may be overblown

December 11, 2013, 5:33 PM UTC

In the latest round of trouble for JPMorgan Chase (JPM), the bank’s internal emails and computer files reveal that it purposefully hired people from prominent Chinese families in order to win banking business in China, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Brooklyn federal prosecutor’s office are investigating the matter. Given the increased regulatory scrutiny surrounding international operations of American firms, especially as it relates to bribery, the China situation could be a big headache for JPM.

The only problem is that while JPM may have committed several serious infractions in conducting its business, including marketing mortgage-backed securities fraudulently, manipulating energy markets, recouping credit card debt using questionable practices, and of course failing to manage risk, the opportunistic hiring of a few individuals may not be as terrible a thing as regulators are making it out to be, and could even hurt the U.S. government’s recent efforts to rein in Wall Street recklessness.

For one thing, hiring relatives of connected politicians in China to secure business from state-owned enterprises is really no different from other methods all banks frequently use to win business, such as treating company executives to expensive meals, providing them box seats to sports games, inviting them to play at exclusive golf courses, or sending them expensive gifts during the holiday season. It is also not vastly different from any other industry; it is simply the way business is done. Moreover, even if JPM had not hired these individuals directly, it could easily (and silently) have helped them secure other jobs through referrals. In that case, it would have been nearly impossible for U.S. regulators to connect the dots.

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Secondly, the nature of the investment banking business today makes JPM’s actions almost inevitable. Once a white-shoe industry built around close personal relationships and trust between bankers and CEOs, the investment banking business changed radically in the early 1990s, moving toward a transactional model which favored profits over loyalty — on both sides. As banks hungrily sought out more deal flow and as companies shopped around for the lowest fees or financing to go along with advisory services, client acquisition became a matter of enticing potential clients with things other than just the quality of service. It may be easy to criticize JPM for this practice, but when the trend is systemic and when even clients have come to expect “sweeteners,” individual banks have little choice but to follow.

Finally, going after relatively minor transgressions like this, and especially those committed effectively on foreign soil, diverts valuable regulatory resources from more serious crimes like fraud, market manipulation, poor corporate governance, risk mismanagement, and executive misconduct — committed right here at home. I am not saying that bribery of foreign officials should be an acceptable way for American companies to do business, but in the larger scheme of things and given the extenuating circumstances outlined above, it may not be the horrendous crime that it is being treated as, and should not be the priority for regulators.

Sanjay Sanghoee is a political and business commentator. He has worked at investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein. He is the author of two thriller novels, including Killing Wall Street.

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