Banking giant JPMorgan Chase yesterday agreed to pay a US$410 million (RM1.3 billion) settlement to resolve US charges that it manipulated power prices in California and The Midwest.
JPMorgan will pay a civil penalty of US$285 million to the US Treasury and disgorge US$125 million in unjust profits, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) said in a statement. The settlement is among the largest on record for FERC.
The settlement enables JPMorgan to put to rest one of several lingering regulatory issues and comes as the bank explores exiting the physical commodities business amid rising political criticism of giant banks.
FERC Commissioner Tony Clark said the agreement "sends a strong signal" against market manipulation.
Clark said the case also was an instance of an investigation subject striving to "obfuscate the true intent of their business strategies as a litigation posture for dealing with their regulators."
A JPMorgan spokesman had no comment on Clark's remarks.
The bank said in a statement that it "is pleased to have reached an agreement with FERC to put this matter behind it."
The bank has said it has already taken reserves to pay for the settlement and will not need to find additional resources.
The agreement follows allegations that JPMorgan traders engaged in "market manipulation" in a series of incidents.
In one of the alleged schemes, JPMorgan took advantage of "make whole" pricing rules in the day-ahead market that are intended to allow power producers to recover all of the costs of their power even if it is above market costs.
FERC said JPMorgan gamed the system by posting bids in the day-ahead market that were accepted and then offering bids the following day that it knew were too high to be accepted; the bank would still get the payments under the rules.
JPMorgan's "purpose in submitting the bids was not to make money based on market fundamentals, but to create artificial conditions" that would lead to premium payments, FERC said.
The scheme distorted the broader electricity market, FERC added.
The settlement comes only days after JPMorgan announced that it was pursuing "strategic alternatives" for its physical commodities business, including a possible sale or strategic partnership.
US lawmakers have spotlighted banks' involvement in physical commodities in recent weeks amid concerns that their role can distort markets and leave consumers vulnerable to market manipulation.
The criticism is part of a growing political hostility towards banks that are sometimes seen as "too big to fail" or "too big to jail."
An official of brewing company MillerCoors told a Senate panel last week that aluminum consumers last year paid an additional US$3 billion in expenses because of delays in delivering aluminum from aluminum storage facilities controlled by large financial players, including Goldman Sachs.
Senator Sherrod Brown, who chaired last week's hearing, said the expansion of financial players into physical commodities "has been accompanied by a host of anti-competitive activities: speculation in the oil and gas markets; inflated prices for aluminum and potentially copper and other metals; and energy manipulation."
The Federal Reserve recently said it is reevaluating a 2003 policy that allows banks to own physical commodity assets. - AFP, July 31, 2013.