May 29, 2012

JPMorgan, the Dimon Principle and Fiduciary Duty

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  • Proxy Voting RIAs are not required to vote proxies on behalf of their clients. However, when an RIA does assume responsibility for voting proxies, the firm’s policies and procedures should help to ensure that votes are cast in the best interest of clients.
  • Client Commission Practices and Soft Dollars RIAs should always evaluate whether the products and services they receive from broker-dealers are appropriate. The SEC suggested that an RIA’s failure to stay within the scope of the Section 28(e) safe harbor may violate the advisor’s fiduciary duty to clients, so RIAs must evaluate their soft dollar relationships on a regular basis to ensure they are disclosed properly and that they do not negatively impact the best execution of clients’ transactions.

JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon spoke out quickly against the hedging/betting practices that, it appears, caused the firm’s $2 billion (or more) loss over just a six-week period. Dimon stated the hedge was “poorly reviewed, poorly executed, poorly monitored,” and, most importantly, irrespective of whether it violated the Volcker Rule, it most emphatically violated the “Dimon Principle,” according to Dimon himself.  

What is the Dimon Principle? Does it apply to fiduciary duty? As luck would have it, we have an opportunity to see whether it does or not.

Securities investigator and former SEC staffer Edward Siedle recently reported in a Forbes column regarding a nonprofit client and how JPMorgan Chase Bank applies fiduciary duty.

According to Siedle, “when asked (about fiduciary status), a representative of the bank stated that the bank was a fiduciary with respect to the client’s accounts and referred the client and me to a document entitled, Investment Accounts and Services Offered by JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. and Affiliated Banks.” 

The meaning of the statement “the bank (is) a fiduciary…” begins to take shape in this document. 

Siedle notes the JPM document language suggests fiduciary duty may not apply when JPM executes trades or sells alternative investments. Additional language lists a host of “Conflicts of Duty," but offers no explanation of the implications of the conflicts for the investor, or opportunity to provide explicit informed consent on each conflicted transaction. Numerous circumstances are mentioned where additional fees or expenses may be levied against the client, but there is no explanation as to the amounts of fees or expenses. Further, the bank may “effect” the purchase or sales of securities for the client account “which may coincide,” coincidentally, with the purchase or sales of “the same Securities” … of “the account of Morgan affiliates.”   

It appears when the bank representative said the bank was a fiduciary with “respect to the client’s accounts” he or she meant only some of the accounts some of the time. The Dimon Principle is as high—or higher—a standard as is the Volcker Rule. 

A central question for retail investors is whether what JPM suggests is its fiduciary duty rule meets the higher demands of the Dimon Principle.

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