WASHINGTON » JPMorgan Chase & Co. agreed to pay $410 million today to settle accusations by U.S. energy regulators that it manipulated electricity prices.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said the bank used improper bidding strategies to squeeze excessive payments from the agencies that run the power grids in California and the Midwest. The improper conduct occurred between September 2010 and November 2012, FERC said.
JPMorgan, the biggest U.S. bank, is paying a civil penalty of $285 million and returning $125 million in allegedly improper profits. Of that amount, $124 million will go to electric utilities that bought power in California and $1 million to those in the Midwest.
FERC said its investigation had found improper trading practices were used at Houston-based JPMorgan Ventures Energy Corp.
New York-based JPMorgan said in a written statement that it’s "pleased to have reached an agreement with FERC to put this matter behind it." JPMorgan didn’t admit or deny any violations.
The move is part of a broad crackdown by FERC on alleged price manipulation. FERC recently levied a $453 million penalty on Barclays, Britain’s second-largest bank, for manipulating electricity prices in California and other Western states. Barclays is disputing the allegations.
FERC said JPMorgan’s energy unit used five "manipulative bidding strategies" in California between September 2010 and June 2011, and three in the Midwest from October 2010 to May 2011.
The agency that runs the Midwestern power grid, now called the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, covers Manitoba and all or part of 15 states: Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi.
JPMorgan Ventures Energy has contracts with power generating companies to trade their electricity. FERC said the JPMorgan traders offered to sell electricity at artificially low prices in a "day-ahead" market, so that companies would put their plants on standby mode to quickly generate energy. That would allow JPMorgan to earn fees for putting the power plants on standby mode.
Later, the traders would offer to sell electricity from the plants at higher prices in the market for last-minute energy needs, according to FERC.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said FERC’s actions regarding JPMorgan and Barclays "put the interests of families and consumers first, by holding accountable traders and banks that manipulated power prices for short-term profits."
"I urge (FERC) to continue to aggressively police energy markets," Wyden said in a statement.
The alleged conduct was brought to FERC’s attention in 2011 by the California Independent System Operator, the agency that runs the state’s power grid. The agency’s general counsel, Nancy Saracino, called the settlement with JPMorgan "a vindication."
"The fact that JPMorgan’s conduct was detected, stopped and punished illustrates the effectiveness of ongoing market oversight, which is essential for healthy competition," Saracino said in a statement.
On Friday, JPMorgan said is considering selling off part of its physical commodities business, which includes metals as well as energy. The company said the possibility of new regulations was a factor behind the decision to look at a potential sale or partnership.
Big Wall Street banks like JPMorgan are facing increased scrutiny of their involvement in businesses that store and transport commodities such as oil and aluminum. A Senate committee held a hearing last week into whether banks should be allowed to control power plants, warehouses and oil refineries.
FERC, an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, oil and natural gas, gained expanded authority to monitor possible manipulation of energy markets as a result of the Enron scandal in 2001. Market abuses by Enron and other trading firms resulted in rolling blackouts throughout California during the summer of that year. FERC was empowered to impose fines of as much as $1 million per violation per day, compared with the previous limit of $10,000 per violation.
JPMorgan shares slipped 36 cents to $55.33 in trading today.
AP Business Writers Joshua Freed in Minneapolis and Marcy Gordon in Washington contributed to this report.