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JPMorgan facing criticism on valuation of complex bonds it sold

JPMorgan Chase & Co inflated the value of complex bonds it sold to individual investors, by 15 per cent in one example, according to a study by a financial consulting firm that works with plaintiffs in securities litigation.

[NEW YORK] JPMorgan Chase & Co inflated the value of complex bonds it sold to individual investors, by 15 per cent in one example, according to a study by a financial consulting firm that works with plaintiffs in securities litigation.

The bank overstated how much some of its structured notes were worth by failing to account for fees for the indexes that determined the payouts on the securities, according to the study from Securities Litigation & Consulting Group. The consulting firm analysed at least US$253.7 million of one kind of structured note sold by JPMorgan between 2011 and 2014, and found that some were sold with inflated valuations.

Amanda Smith, a spokeswoman for JPMorgan, declined to comment on the study.

Structured notes have grown increasingly attractive to mom-and-pop investors that are starved for income in a low-interest-rate environment. The bonds often pay higher interest than regular corporate debt and are usually created by combining a bond with a derivative that offers extra market exposure, as well as added risk.

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Last year banks issued about US$43.5 billion of structured debt that was registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, up about 13 per cent from 2012 levels.

But regulators fear that individuals can have trouble figuring out fair prices for the securities, and have fined banks for failing to disclose enough information about the bonds. Rule makers have been zeroing in on structured notes tied to complex, self-designed indexes in particular. With that pressure, issuance levels in recent years have been far below their pre-crisis highs.

In April 2012, the SEC sent a letter to banks that sell structured notes, encouraging them to prominently disclose the difference between the public offering price of the note and the issuer's estimated value for the bonds.  The estimated values are what JPMorgan may have overstated, according to the Securities Litigation & Consulting Group report.

The consulting firm looked at a kind of bond called a "volatility note". It calculated an estimated value of the 10 largest such securities sold by JPMorgan between 2011 and 2013 as ranging from 67.5 to 85.5 US cents on the US dollar. In the case of the bond worth 85.5 US cents, JPMorgan had disclosed an estimated value of 98.6 US cents, or about 15 per cent higher. Many of the JPMorgan notes were sold without the bank having disclosed estimated values, according to the report.

Volatility notes are designed to pay a higher return if futures market investors grow more concerned about stock market price fluctuations, which would increase an index known as the CBOE Volatility index, or the "VIX." Securities linked to volatility strategies "are complex to begin with," said Joe Halpern, chief executive officer at Exceed Investments in New York. When they're also designed to react to market conditions, they "can go from complex to almost impossible to understand."

In a JPMorgan prospectus for one of the securities, the bank described its method for determining the value of the notes using its own index based on movements in VIX futures. It said the level of the index would be reduced by two fees, one of 0.75 per cent a year, the other ranging from 0.2 to 0.5 per cent applied each day to hypothetical futures positions.

The bank also said that the fee did not impact the value of the notes. According to the study from the Securities Litigation & Consulting Group, the fees reduced the index by at least 4.8 per cent, and on average by 10.6 per cent.

Securities Litigation & Consulting Group, based in Fairfax, Virgina, offers expert witnesses to parties involved in legal disputes, including plaintiffs' firms. It has published research on structured notes in the Journal of Investing.

Judy Burns, a spokeswoman for the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Michelle Ong, a spokeswoman for brokerage industry regulator Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, declined to comment on the study.

In June, the SEC and Finra fined Bank of America Corp unit Merrill Lynch US$15 million for allegedly failing to adequately inform investors of costs embedded in their securities. Merrill Lynch neither admitted nor denied the findings. At the time, Bill Halldin, a spokesman for Bank of America, said that the bank's volatility-linked note "was specifically designed as a hedge to protect clients against volatility in the stock market and to be one part of a larger portfolio strategy."

UBS Group AG paid US$19.5 million to the SEC in 2015 for allegedly misstating how a proprietary currency index was calculated. The bank did not admit nor deny the findings. Erica Chase, a spokeswoman for UBS, declined to comment.