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Today’s NYTimes Highlights My Barron’s Story on Madoff…

JPMorgan Lost Madoff in a Blizzard of Paper

JAN. 9, 2014

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Bernard Madoff outside federal court in 2009. Federal prosecutors have penalized JPMorgan for failing to report “suspicious activity” in Mr. Madoff’s account at the bank. Louis Lanzano/Associated Press

Did JPMorgan Chase deliberately cover upBernard L. Madoff’s fraud?

The documents released this week by federal prosecutors do not show it did, and I suspect it did not. JPMorgan was penalized for failing to report “suspicious activity” in Mr. Madoff’s account at the bank — the account that took in money from the Ponzi investors and paid out withdrawals.

What the documents do show, however, is a huge bureaucracy where employees stuck to their own silos and did not communicate well with others. Suspicions were there, but so were profits, and the profits seem to have outweighed any other concerns. Many people simply filled out and filed forms, oblivious to what those forms might, or might not, indicate.

And, in a way, that may be more troubling. If clear crimes had been committed, then people could go to jail and a lesson would be taught. But there is no evidence that anyone acted with impure motives — assuming that we accept that making money is a proper motive. A combination of turf wars and incompetence combined to facilitate the biggest Ponzi scheme ever.

My favorite disclosure in the documents is that JPMorgan had a requirement that a “client relationship manager” certify every year that each client complied with all “legal and regulatory-based policies.” This was no doubt viewed as a tiresome and routine requirement, both by the bankers who did the certifying and by the people in the compliance department who collected the certifications.

“In March 2009,” we are told in a “statement of facts” agreed to by the bank and prosecutors, the Madoff relationship manager “received a form letter from JPMC’s compliance function asking him to certify the client relationship again.”

Evidently, whoever sent out that letter did not read it after a computer generated it. Or perhaps that person had somehow missed the report that Mr. Madoff had been arrested on Dec. 11, 2008. That would not have been easy. In the month after the arrest, The New York Times printed 15 front-page articles on the Madoff fraud, and it received exhaustive coverage everywhere else as well.

Another highlight is that on June 15, 2007, JPMorgan’s chief risk officer refused to increase the bank’s exposure to Mr. Madoff’s fund — more than $100 million at the time — to $1 billion. Mr. Madoff had made it clear that he would not allow JPMorgan to perform due diligence on what he was doing with investors’ money.

“We don’t do $1 bio trust me deals,” the risk officer wrote in an email, using what was apparently his abbreviation for billion.

But 12 days later, that risk officer approved going up to $250 million in Madoff exposure. In the meantime, Mr. Madoff had agreed to talk with him but not to allow any new due diligence. Joseph Evangelisti, a JPMorgan spokesman, says the risk officer “relied on the current and past due diligence of our markets and credit risk units, as well as our broker-dealer group” in approving the quarter-billion-dollar exposure.

So we have no fewer than three parts of JPMorgan voicing confidence in Mr. Madoff. That does not sound good, but Mr. Madoff fooled a lot of other people, too. At least the risk officer did not approve the full $1 billion.

Soon after his first decision — the one saying the bank did not do billion-dollar “trust me deals” — the risk officer heard from another bank executive that, as he put it in an email message sent afterward to top JPMorgan Chase executives, “there is a well-known cloud over the head of Madoff and that his returns are speculated to be part of a Ponzi scheme.” He asked that someone “google the guy” to find a negative article he had been told about.

In response, a lower-level bank employee conducted a search for the article but could not find it.

The article the bank could not find was published by Barron’s in May 2001. The article, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” by Erin E. Arvedlund, noted Mr. Madoff’s secrecy and said it appeared to be impossible that Mr. Madoff’s stated strategy had produced the reported profits. But she did not raise the possibility that it was a Ponzi scheme. Instead, she speculated that perhaps he was using information garnered about pending stock market trades handled by his brokerage firm to front-run those trades. Mr. Madoff’s denials are included.

thanks for the shout out!


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