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August 8, 2013

The crackdown on bank misbehavior masks a troubling reality

“‘Ex Goldman Trader Found Guilty for Misleading Investors.’ ‘Bond Deal Draws Fine for UBS.’ ‘JPMorgan Settles Electricity Manipulation Case for $410 million.’ ‘Deutsche Bank Net Profit Halves on Charge For Potential Legal Costs.’ ‘US Sues Bank of America Over Mortgage Securities.’ ‘Senate Opens Probe of Banks’ Commodities Businesses.’ ‘US Regulators Find Evidence of Banks Fixing Derivatives Rates.’ ‘Goldman Sachs Sued for Allegedly Inflating Aluminum Prices.’

So goes a sampling of headlines about the banking industry from the past week — yes, just one week. We seem to be living in an era where bankers can do no right. I can’t put it any better than a smart hedge fund friend of mine, who upon reading the news about the $410 million that JPMorgan paid to make allegations that it manipulated energy markets go away, sent me an email. ‘I am a bank friendly type,’ he said. But, he added, in typically terse trader talk, ‘Something structurally amiss when so much financial activity is borderline.’

By one measurement, the problem has gotten worse by an order of magnitude in recent years. In the annual letter he writes to shareholders, Robert Wilmers, the chairman and CEO of M&T Bank, has started keeping track of the fines, sanctions and legal awards levied against the “Big Six” bank holding companies. In 2011, those penalties were $13.9 billion. In 2012, they more than doubled to $29.3 billion. Wilmers writes that the past two years represent the majority of the cumulative $52 billion in charges, from 236 separate actions in eight countries, over the past 11 years. Wilmers also cites a study done by M&T, according to which the top six banks have been cited 1,150 times by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times in articles about their improper activities. Perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest bank, JPMorgan, accounts for a sizable chunk of all this. According to a report by Josh Rosner, a managing director at independent research consultancy Graham Fisher & Co, JPMorgan has paid $8.5 billion in fines between 2009 and 2012, or about 12 percent of its net income over that period.”

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Read full Reuters blog post here

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