The government took another whack at the banks Tuesday, but individual bankers continue to skate by unscathed.
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.
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.
Are we being too hard on the economic forecasters who failed to predict the financial meltdown?
The question comes to mind in the wake of Friday's takedown of the big banks' subprime misdeeds, by ProPublica and NPR. The piece offers the latest glimpse into the games the bankers played to keep their fees and bonuses flowing as cracks started to show in the highflying U.S. housing market.
ProPublica and NPR show how the MOREColin Barr - Aug 27, 2010 2:31 PM ET
A new report shows how the too-big-to-fail banks gave the housing bubble a final breath of air, at great cost to everything but their bonuses.
They did it by manipulating the market for the yucky subprime-related debt called collateralized debt obligations, say ProPublica and NPR. The CDO boom started early in the last decade, as banks such as Goldman Sachs (GS), Citigroup (C) and the Merrill Lynch brokerage now owned by MOREColin Barr - Aug 27, 2010 1:18 PM ET
Ambac tumbled 24% after the bond insurer said it is pursuing a prepackaged bankruptcy filing.
The New York-based company lost $58 million in the latest quarter, which doesn't look too bad compared to its year-ago loss of $2.4 billion. Ambac (ABK) also said the statutory surplus at its Ambac Assurance unit surged to $1.5 billion from $160 million in March, following an agreement this spring to settle some insurance contracts covering bubble-era MOREColin Barr - Aug 10, 2010 10:23 AM ET
The feds are cracking down again on Wall Street's antics during the housing meltdown.
The Securities and Exchange Commission filed a civil suit Monday alleging that a New York money manager, Thomas Priore of ICP Capital, swindled buyers of bubble-era housing-related debt.
The agency claims the firm socked away tens of millions of dollars by "fraudulently managing investment products tied to the mortgage markets as they came under pressure in 2007."
The SEC MOREColin Barr - Jun 21, 2010 11:35 AM ET
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