Wall Street has grown to celebrate superheroes like Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon for their superior management skills and keen business sense. We have come to praise and applaud risk-takers on the assumption that the markets always know best.
Leaders like Dimon are viewed as possessing special powers. Many believe Dimon, who led JPMorgan Chase out of the financial crisis, is a banking prodigy who could do no wrong. But even Dimon is helpless in the face of reckless behavior by employees like the trader Bruno Iksil, who lost $2 billion and counting for JPMorgan's chief investment office.
"Star traders" like Iksil structure their trades in such a complicated way that the average person could never understand them. We have no way of knowing whether the hedges that the CIO put on actually "hedged" the original position. Such complexity, conveniently, can also serve as a powerful tool to refute public outcry.
The question is: Why create such risk in the first place? Or, more importantly: Why create the type of transactions that require a superman to oversee them?
Since the Volcker Rule is still being finalized, FDIC-insured banking institutions will continue to take on these risks as long as they are allowed or exempted to do so. However, banks should face the same consequences for infractions as the rest of society. The "London Whale" trades created massive disruptions in an already fragile market and, ironically, they have caused unrest and disgust in the hedge fund community – a community that loves unregulated market competition. Why don't we hold banks to their own standards, and stop giving them a pass when they blunder?
The Commodities Futures Trading Commission, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Securities and Exchange Commission have all reportedly opened preliminary investigations into the trading loss. And Dimon will be giving a testimony before the Senate Banking Committee next Wednesday to answer questions about the matter. But the inquiries must serve as more than window dressing.
On Wednesday, Occupy the SEC will be marching in Manhattan from JPMorgan Chase's downtown office to the SEC, calling for the agency to investigate Dimon himself for possible violation of the disclosure requirements of Sarbanes-Oxley Act. (Remember how he brushed off the early reports of the London Whale's outsized bets "a tempest in a teapot"?) We will also recommend that the SEC make a criminal referral to the Department of Justice if it finds evidence of wrongdoing.
Many people are frustrated with the slap-on-the-wrist treatment that Wall Streeters enjoy: random petty criminals are sentenced to hard jail time, but the trader who loses billions of dollars is told not to do that again. The JPMorgan Chase debacle is symptomatic of a broken regulatory system.
Many of these financial superheroes who wreaked havoc have not been prosecuted; only given large fines at best. What message does this send? Americans would have been well served by giving Wall Street its day in court. The SEC has to uphold its foundational principles: public companies offering securities to investors must tell the truth about their business, the securities, and the risks involved in investing; and people who sell and trade securities must treat investors fairly and honestly, putting their clients'interests first.
It is fairly simple: if SEC officials find that a company has done wrong it has the power to investigate, issue civil penalties, and refer the case to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution. As many financial experts and white-collar crime lawyers have said, the SEC has not fully utilized its authority, as demonstrated by the treatment of Lehman Brothers' Dick Fuld. Will MF Global's Jon Corzine skate too?
The function of a financial institution is not merely to manage risk, but to act primarily as the steward of society's assets and smart allocation of capital. We hope that the SEC and the other regulators will help re-examine the priorities of too-big-to-fail financial institutions.
Finally, the current culture corrodes and disrupts sound business practices and stunts the rehabilitation of our financial system. The SEC is an imperfect vehicle (as evidenced by its lackluster approach to its duties leading up and during the financial crisis) but it's the only vehicle we have. If they don't do their job, who will?
Elizabeth Friedrich is a member of Occupy the SEC, a subgroup of the Occupy Wall Street movement. She works as a program associate at the Federation for Community Development Credit Unions and a consultant with ValueSpark Capital, a social venture fund based in New Orleans. Twitter @ekfriedrich