Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: JPMorgan’s record $13 billion settlement is fitting, given the havoc banks caused

The Great Recession still haunts California, as became evident once more earlier this week when the U.S. Justice Department announced its $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan Chase for its role in the housing meltdown.

The size and scope of the settlement is impressive, thanks in no small part to the investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento.

It is the federal government’s largest civil settlement ever, eclipsing the $4 billion paid by BP after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010. It amounts to half of JPMorgan’s profit in 2012.

JPMorgan, the nation’s largest bank, admitted that it failed to fully detail the risks of the mortgage-backed securities to investors and agreed to cooperate in a criminal investigation, also being carried out by the office headed by U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner in Sacramento.

All that is fitting, given the havoc caused by banks during the financial crisis, especially in the Central Valley.

But the housing bubble burst more than five years ago. President Barack Obama took office in 2009, trying to get along with the banks. The effect was to delay and thus deny justice for years.

People at the top, JPMorgan executives among them, are doing well. Indeed, the settlement was announced a few days after Obama’s first treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, who formulated much of Obama’s response to the financial crisis, went through the revolving door and took a job as president of Warburg Pincus LLC, the New York-based private equity firm.

Obama’s fundamental campaign pledge was that he would help everyday Americans. For much of the state and nation, the recovery is far too slow in coming. California’s unemployment rate remains above 11 and 12 percent in Central Valley counties, unacceptable.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento started working on the case last year. That’s not the Eastern District’s fault. The main Justice Department decided to establish a task force and in late 2011 embark on a fuller investigation of the factors that led to the meltdown.

Among the items discovered by the Sacramento investigators was a memo written by a JPMorgan employee in 2006 warning about the toxic nature of the mortgages in the investment packages being marketed. As recounted by The Wall Street Journal, she was told not to worry because the bad loans would be spread among many bond offerings.

Wagner does not describe the memo as a smoking gun. Rather, it was one of many such warnings that should have been heeded, an infuriating aspect of the meltdown, which could have been avoided.

Among the investors in the JPMorgan securities were California pension funds. As part of the $13 billion settlement, CalPERS will recover $261 million, and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System will receive $19.5 million, said to be the full sum they invested in JPMorgan’s securities.

JPMorgan promises to spend the equivalent of $4 billion to help relieve still-struggling homeowners, although it’s not clear how much of that money will be spent in California.

Californians ought to be pleased about the measure of justice brought by the settlement, though it is late in coming. Jamie Dimon, who retains his job as JPMorgan’s chief executive, also said he was “pleased to have concluded this extensive agreement.”

JPMorgan’s stock sits near its 52-week high, a tribute to the certainty brought about by the settlement. As much as $7 billion of the settlement will be tax deductible. Despite the record settlement, the bank will survive and flourish.