(Bloomberg) -- JPMorgan Chase executives have been deposed and thousands of pages of internal documents subpoenaed as part of an SEC investigation into whether senior asset-management executives at the bank developed a policy of improperly steering clients into investments for JPMorgan's own financial gain, according to people familiar with the investigation.
The SEC is scrutinizing, among other issues, how the largest U.S. bank by assets managed pensions and other accounts that hold it to a so-called fiduciary standard, which obligates it to put clients' financial interests ahead of its own.
Those questions echo a broader national discussion over biased financial advice. The White House is backing a Labor Department effort to apply the fiduciary standard to brokers who handle retirement accounts. The SEC, which regulates investment advisers, said in March it will explore applying the same standard to all financial advisers.
The SEC's investigation into potential conflicts of interest at JPMorgan, a probe that began roughly two years ago, has become more active in recent months, the people said. It is being assisted by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees national banks, according to another person who was briefed on the matter.
Darin Oduyoye, a spokesman for New York-based JPMorgan, declined to comment. The SEC also declined to comment through Florence Harmon, a spokeswoman.
Among the first executives deposed was Silvia Trillo, according to people familiar with the investigation. Trillo is an executive director who develops strategies for multi-manager portfolios, her LinkedIn profile says.
There is no indication that Trillo has been involved in or accused of wrongdoing. Contacted by phone by Bloomberg, she declined to comment.
The SEC is looking into whether the bank and its brokerage affiliate, J.P. Morgan Securities, adopted a strategy that uses bonuses and other incentives to encourage their financial advisers to steer clients improperly into in-house funds, structured notes and other investments that generate fees for the bank, the people familiar with the matter said.
For at least a few years, an approach to steer clients toward funds that are lucrative to the bank has been referred to internally as "guided architecture," according to a former employee who worked with retirement plans.
The SEC is looking into whether JPMorgan's practices breached the bank's duty to clients, these people said. The regulators also are asking whether the bank's communications with clients over the years adequately disclosed its compensation and other practices, the people said.
JPMorgan, in a 2015 disclosure statement for endowment and foundation clients, said it rigorously reviews internal and external investment options but prefers in-house products unless it believes others can give a portfolio substantial benefits not offered by its own funds.
"We prefer internally managed strategies because they generally align well with our forward-looking views and our familiarity with the investment process, as well as the risk and compliance philosophy that comes from being part of the same firm," the statement said. "It is important to note that J.P. Morgan receives more overall fees when internally managed strategies are included."
Regulators are also interested in the bank's use of its own funds inside products it has marketed to retail investors, including an all-in-one investment called the Chase Strategic Portfolio, said the people familiar with the matter.
The SEC has said it is broadly targeting conflicts of interest in the asset-management business.
"We expect to recommend a number of conflicts cases for enforcement action," said the co-chief of the SEC Enforcement division's asset management unit, Julie Riewe. These, she said in a February speech, include "undisclosed bias toward proprietary products and investments."
JPMorgan's asset-management unit has faced criticism in recent years, including claims by advisers who alleged they were pressured to sell in-house products even when it wasn't in their clients' best interests.
Separately, in 2012, arbitrators ordered JPMorgan to pay $373 million plus interest to American Century Investment Management Inc. of Kansas City, Missouri, after determining that JPMorgan had "stacked the cards" by giving its employees incentives to favor its own funds in retirement accounts.
JPMorgan's asset-management business has grown as it and other big banks face regulatory pressure in other areas, including trading. The bank had the highest percentage growth in asset inflows of any large manager in the five years through 2014, ending the period with $1.7 trillion in assets under management, according to a February presentation it made to investors.
JPMorgan's asset-management unit includes investment advisers - who oversee pensions, trusts and private accounts - and also manages funds in which those clients could invest, generating fees for the bank.
JPMorgan has built its asset-management unit in part by expanding its mutual fund operation. It has $443 billion in AUM in hundreds of mutual funds, and more in hedge funds and other investments. - Bloomberg News