JPMorgan Chase says that its potential losses related to Bernard L. Madoff, the man accused of engineering an immense global Ponzi scheme, are “pretty close to zero.” But what some angry European investors want to know is when the bank cut its exposure to Mr. Madoff — and why.
As early as 2006, the bank had started offering investors a way to leverage their bets on the future performance of two hedge funds that invested with Mr. Madoff. To protect itself from the resulting risk, the bank put $250 million of its own money into those funds.
But the bank suddenly began pulling its millions out of those funds in early autumn, months before Mr. Madoff was arrested, according to accounts from Europe and New York that were subsequently confirmed by the bank. The bank did not notify investors of its move, and several of them are furious that it protected itself but left them holding notes that the bank itself now says are probably worthless.
A spokeswoman, Kristin Lemkau, said the bank withdrew from the Madoff-linked funds last fall after “a wide-ranging review of our hedge fund exposure.” Ms. Lemkau acknowledged, however, that the bank also “became concerned about the lack of transparency to some questions we posed as part of our review.”
Investors were not alerted to the move because, under sales agreements, the issues did not meet the threshold necessary to permit the bank to restructure the notes, she said. Under those circumstances, she added, “we did not have the right to disclose our concerns.”
That doesn’t satisfy some investors. As they see it, they were the first people who should have been alerted to the bank’s concerns. “Instead, we continued to pay our fees to the bank and remained the only ones exposed to the risks that JPMorgan did not want to assume,” said the chief asset manager of an Italian investment firm, who declined to be identified because of potential litigation.
The tale began several years ago when a unit of JPMorgan Chase in London issued a series of complex derivatives that gave investors a way to triple their bets on the Fairfield funds, whose solid consistency mirrored the track record that had quietly — and ruinously — drawn investors to Mr. Madoff for decades.
Leveraged notes issued by big banks like JPMorgan Chase and Nomura became conduits through which fresh money flowed from institutional investors into the Fairfield Sentry and the euro-based Fairfield Sigma funds, both run by the Fairfield Greenwich Group — and, in turn, into Mr. Madoff’s hands.
The arrangement worked like this: Investors put up cash to buy the notes from the bank. In return, the bank promised to pay them up to three times the future earnings of the Fairfield funds. When the notes matured in five years, assuming the funds did well, these investors would get more than if they had invested in the funds directly. The bank collected just under 2 percent in fees, investors said.
And because the bank had to hedge its entire risk, it put up to three times the face amount of the notes into the Fairfield funds. Thus, Fairfield Greenwich got more cash to manage than it otherwise would have, increasing its own fee income. To reward note-holders for making that possible, Fairfield paid them a so-called rebate of a fifth to a third of a percentage point a year, according to documentation of those transactions.
The first sign of trouble came in early October, when Fairfield Greenwich notified investors that it would no longer pay them rebates.
The reason, according to the Italian asset manager, was that JPMorgan Chase had “suddenly cashed out” of the Fairfield funds. “The official explanation was that there had been a strategic decision to get out of all hedge funds,” the asset manager said. “The Fairfield official was quite upset.”
Several other European money managers said they were told the same thing.
A spokesman for Fairfield Greenwich declined to comment on the bank’s actions last fall, citing restrictions imposed by the beleaguered firm’s lawyers.
Given the turbulent times, the Italian asset manager said he thought the bank urgently needed to raise cash. That seemed the only way to explain why the bank would pull out of a fund that was up 5 percent when other major market indexes were down 30 percent, he added.
A source close to JPMorgan Chase, however, recalled bank officials saying that the bank’s “due-diligence people had too many doubts” about the performance of the underlying funds.