House Advantage

Banks Shared Clients’ Profits, but Not Losses

Watch an animated explanation of how banks use securities lending to make a profit at no risk to themselves, while their customers cover the losses.

By LOUISE STORY http://www.nytimes.com Published: October 17, 2010
JPMorgan Chase & Company has a proposition for the mutual funds and pension funds that oversee many Americans’ savings: Heads, we win together. Tails, you lose — alone.

Here is the deal: Funds lend some of their stocks and bonds to Wall Street, in return for cash that banks like JPMorgan then invest. If the trades do well, the bank takes a cut of the profits. If the trades do poorly, the funds absorb all of the losses.

The strategy is called securities lending, a practice that is thriving even though some investments linked to it were virtually wiped out during the financial panic of 2008. These trades were supposed to be safe enough to make a little extra money at little risk.

JPMorgan customers, including public or corporate pension funds of I.B.M., New York State and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, ended up owing JPMorgan more than $500 million to cover the losses. But JPMorgan protected itself on some of these investments and kept millions of dollars in profit, before the trades went awry.

How JPMorgan won while its customers lost provides a glimpse into the ways Wall Street banks can, and often do, gain advantages over their customers. Today’s giant banks not only create and sell investment products, but also bet on those products, and sometimes against them, putting the banks’ interests at odds with those of their customers. The banks and their lobbyists also help fashion financial rules and regulations. And banks’ traders know what their customers are buying and selling, giving them a valuable edge.

Some of JPMorgan’s customers say they are disappointed with the bank. “They took 40 percent of our profits, and even that was O.K.,” said Jerry D. Davis, the chairman of the municipal employee pension fund in New Orleans, which lost about $340,000, enough to wipe out years of profits that it had earned through securities lending. “But then we started losing money, and they didn’t lose along with us.”

Through a spokesman, JPMorgan’s chairman and chief executive, Jamie Dimon, declined a request for an interview. The spokesman, Joseph Evangelisti, said that JPMorgan had a long record of success in securities lending, and that the losses represented only a small fraction of the funds in the program.

Moreover, Mr. Evangelisti said, all of the investments had been permitted under guidelines negotiated with the bank’s clients. JPMorgan, he said, did not take undue risks.

“We have powerful incentives to take only prudent investment risks,” Mr. Evangelisti said. If customers lose money that they have entrusted with the bank, he said, that “can lead to a loss of clients and can affect the reputation of the business.”

The financial regulation bill that Congress just passed, after fierce lobbying by banks, is aimed at curtailing some of the practices that caused the financial crisis. But much of Wall Street has mostly gone back to business as usual. Nowhere are the potential conflicts more apparent than on the trading floors, where executives must balance their pursuit of profits and their duty to customers.

In addition to losing money for New Orleans workers and others, securities lending also played a central role in the near-collapse of the American International Group. Through securities lending, pensions and mutual funds borrow money to make trades, adding to the risks within the financial system.

Lawsuits are flying against JPMorgan and others, including Northern Trust. Clients say that they were not warned of the risks associated with this practice and that the banks breached their fiduciary duty. Wells Fargo lost such a suit over the summer and was ordered to pay four institutions a combined $30 million. The State Street Corporation, which took a $414 million charge in July to cover some of its customers’ losses, faces suits from other clients.

Representatives for these banks said the companies had acted appropriately and that they intended to fight the suits.

Despite such troubles, the securities lending business has rebounded after plummeting during the crisis. Today shares with a combined value of $2.3 trillion are out on loan, according to SunGard, which provides technology services to financial companies. In 2007, before the bubble burst, the total on loan was worth $2.5 trillion.

The quick revival of securities lending raises concerns about whether banks and their pension customers have learned any lessons.

“What happened was the banks got greedy and they looked at the return they were getting on the collateral and said, ‘Why don’t we go further with this?’ ” said Steve Niss, the managing partner at the NFS Consulting Group, an executive search firm specializing in investment management. “But the clients got greedy right along with the banks.”

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