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Report: JPMorgan to End Prop Trading

It’s impossible to tell from this vantage point the fallout of the financial reform law, at least not until most of the rules get finalized. But while it doesn’t all point in a positive direction, we have some indication that the law will have a wider-ranging effect than at first thought.

First and most important, JPMorgan Chase, one of the nation’s largest banks, will reportedly close their proprietary trading desk:

JPMorgan Chase & Co. told traders who bet on commodities for the firm’s account that their unit will be closed as the company, the second-biggest U.S. bank by assets, starts to shut down all proprietary trading, according to a person briefed on the matter.

The bank eventually will close all in-house trading to comply with new U.S. curbs on investment banks, said the person, who asked not to be identified because New York-based JPMorgan’s decision hasn’t been made public.

Closing the proprietary trading desk for commodities affects fewer than 20 traders, one in the U.S. and the rest in the U.K., the person said. The unit is based in London, and traders there were given notice on Aug. 27 that their jobs were at risk as required by U.K. law, according to the person. Proprietary traders in fixed-income and equities, who account for 50 to 75 employees, will need to find jobs when those desks are shut down, this person said.

While we’ve heard a lot about investment banks moving their prop trading units into asset management companies or hedge funds, and taking on the same risk, it does look at first glance like JPM will get out of that game entirely. Furthermore, offloading the risk in a separate firm will make it easier for regulators to allow that firm to fail or put the burden on the shareholders and investors, if the risk consumes them. Severing the ties inside the investment bank makes it harder for them to assume the “too big to fail” pose.

This is just the hint that some of the risk in the system is being accounted for. But the more interesting developments come on the accountability side. For one, the SEC asserted the right to investigate and charge credit rating agencies for fraud perpretrated overseas. There’s a difference between having the right and using it, as can be seen by the SEC’s declining to charge Moody’s over their CDO ratings in 2007. But starting from a position of more accountability makes the threat real to the raters.

In addition, the new proxy access rules empower activists to shake up corporate boards:

Until last Wednesday, unions and activists who wanted to change corporate policy had to do it the old-fashioned way: lobby lawmakers, muster public pressure, and push for boycotts. But last week the Securities and Exchange Commission handed them a brand-new weapon to fight companies on social-justice and workers’ rights issues: the corporate ballot box. The new rule allows shareholders to field their own candidates for corporate boards and place them on the same ballot as management’s picks. Sought by advocates of corporate accountability for more than 30 years, it could change the way activists deal with corporations, allowing unions, for instance, to help elect a labor-friendly director on the board of Massey Energy, the company responsible for the deadliest mine disaster in 25 years, which workers regard as particularly unconcerned with safety. “This is a definite sea change,” said Simon Billenness, an Amnesty USA board member who works on shareholder advocacy for the organization. “With the SEC’s decision, power has shifted away from company management, and when we are talking with shareholders about possible actions, we have a new tool.”

Ultimately I think this could become the biggest tool in the shed to stop runaway greed on Wall Street.

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David Dayen

David Dayen