At the end of last week, JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) shocked investors by reporting a loss for the quarter that ended on Sept. 30. Perhaps more shocking than the loss itself, though, is what it implies about the honesty of the people running the bank.
That a bank lost money, of course, isn't unusual. Over the last few years, countless lenders have suffered debilitating losses, forcing hundreds into the arms of the FDIC or better-capitalized suitors.
What is surprising is that JPMorgan lost money. As one analyst noted during the bank's quarterly conference call, CEO Jamie Dimon took pride in his record of not reporting a single loss throughout the entire financial crisis.
It's been nearly a decade since the nation's largest bank by assets didn't earn a quarterly profit. For that, you have to go back to 2004, when settlements related to the bank's dealings with Enron and WorldCom led to a second-quarter deficit of $0.27 per share.
It seems obvious, in turn, that this isn't good news for JPMorgan's shareholders. Underlying last quarter's loss was a $9.15 billion charge-off to build the bank's legal reserves; it now has $23 billion set aside to cover such matters.
Beginning with last year's London Whale debacle, JPMorgan has become a target of numerous investigations. To name only the most noteworthy, it's been accused of hiring the children of high-ranking government officials in China to get business, of rigging energy markets in California, of duping investors into buying faulty mortgage-backed securities, of selling fraudulent credit card services, and of making errors in "hundreds of thousands" of debt-collection lawsuits.
But what's been lost in the shuffle over the last few days is that JPMorgan theoretically didn't have to report a loss in the third quarter if it didn't want to. As I said, the problems stemmed from the bank's decision to record a $9.15 billion provision for expected legal costs.
The point being -- and the bank's executives discussed this during the conference call -- we don't know the exact amount of the underlying losses. And as a result, it wouldn't have been unheard of in the banking industry for JPMorgan to have chosen to record only, say, $8 billion in legal provisions, thereby preserving Dimon's unbroken string of profitable quarters.
To be fair, a loss is a loss. It will impact the amount of capital JPMorgan distributes to shareholders, and it tarnishes the bank's reputation for invulnerability.
But I can't help but think that there's a positive side to this as well. During a time in which JPMorgan has been inundated by negative press about dishonesty and malfeasance, it's refreshing to see that, at least on this score, its leaders are able to set aside ego in favor of honesty.
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