JPMorgan in the crosshairs?

JPMorgan Chase has been in the headlines quite a lot lately. It's facing six federal investigations or lawsuits, and it's in line to unseat Bank of America as the U.S. bank with the most legal problems. 

But the thing is, every few years, you get a set of headlines that go something like that.

"Legal Troubles Continue to Mount for (insert name of large financial institution here).”

In the past few years, that blank has been filled by Goldman Sachs in 2010, Bank of America in 2011. And today, JPMorgan is in the hot seat.

So why JPMorgan? And why now?

“When a company falls within the sites of government, there tends to be the equivalent of what in football is referred to as ‘piling on,’” says Harvey Pitt, who knows a few things about federal investigations of big banks.  He was the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission from  2001 to 2003.

“Once an entity comes under scrutiny, and people are looking at its records anyway, specific problems in other areas may come to attention,” Pitt says. 

And as more potential problems come to light, the damage to a company’s reputation can snowball, which invites even more scrutiny, according to Georgetown Law professor Donald Langevoort, who also used to work for the SEC.

When it comes to laws governing big banks, Langevoort explains, the lines “between legality and illegality can be very fuzzy,” which means sometimes government regulators are “tempted to either give someone the benefit of the doubt or not.”

So, “when the company's reputation is flying high, you tend to give them the benefit of the doubt,” he says. “When the company's been dragged through a lot of scrutiny -- not so much.”

And what if, in the meantime, the CEO of the company has been vocally resisting federal regulation, as JPMorgan CEO Jaime Dimon has been doing in the last few years?  Langvoort and Pitt both insist the government doesn't do investigations just out of spite.

Of course, “regulators are human beings,” says Pitt. “Having been one, I can tell you it’s true. And as human beings, they are subject to many of the same tendencies we all have.”  So, Pitt argues, vocal corporate critics of the government “do draw attention to themselves -- and sometimes where there’s smoke, there may actually be fire.”

But, he cautions, “none of the regulators would dare bring any kind of action unless they felt there was a very substantial basis for the allegations.”

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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