Friday, July 15, 2011

Rigged Muni Markets

An outraged Republican friend sent me a link from Jesse's Café Américain, commenting on SEC and other actions announced on July 7. The related SEC actions, from their announcements, are summarized below. My friend was distressed at the inadequacy of the penalties.

SEC and Other Actions

The SEC charged J.P. Morgan Securities LLC (JPMS) with fraudulently rigging at least 93 municipal bond reinvestment transactions in 31 states. JPMS agreed to settle SEC complaints of violations of Section 15(c)(1)(A) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 by paying approximately $51 million, to be passed on to municipalities that were cheated. JPMS and its affiliates also agreed to pay $177 million to settle related claims by the IRS and other federal and state authorities.
JPMS improperly won bids by entering into secret arrangements with bidding agents to get an illegal 'last look' at competitors’ bids. Municipal issuers and investors didn't stand a chance against the fraudulent strategies JPMS and others used to guarantee profits. - Robert Khuzami, Director of the SEC's Division of Enforcement.
When municipalities sell securities, they usually invest the proceeds of the sales  until the money is needed. As part of its oversight of the tax-exempt market, the IRS requires that such proceeds be invested at fair market value, which is commonly done by utilizing a competitive bidding process. But the SEC claims that from 1997 through 2005, JPMS's fraudulent practices undermined this process. Municipalities paid more for reinvestment products than they should have. JPMS thereby jeopardized the tax-exempt status of billions of dollars in municipal securities. 
When powerful financial institutions like JPMS conspire with each other to intentionally violate regulations designed to ensure fair investment prices, the integrity of the municipal marketplace becomes corrupted. Rather than playing by the rules, the rules got played. - Elaine C. Greenberg, Chief of the SEC's Municipal Securities and Public Pensions Unit.

The SEC complaint filed in U.S. District Court for New Jersey, JPMS acted as agent for JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. It sometimes won bids by obtaining information ("last looks") from bidding agents about competing bids. It sometimes won bids that were wired in advance for JPMS to win (“set-ups”). The bidding agent deliberately set up non-winning bids from other providers, for whom other bids were wired for them to win. The employees involved are no longer with JPMS.

Comment

The SEC gets great credit for nailing this one. The penalties may be inadequate, but it's good to see the SEC taking action. The financial markets in the United States need to have their credibility restored and the SEC has a crucial role to play in making it happen.

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