A Whale of a Loss JP Morgan's $2 billion problem

JP Morgan escaped unscathed during the 2008 financial meltdown and is considered the safest bank in the US. But recent trading losses reveal the problems of modern finance techniques and the fragility of risk models

Published: May 16, 2012
A Whale of a Loss JP Morgan's $2 billion problem
Image: Keith Bedford / Reuters
Jamie Dimon, CEO JP Morgan

Having benefitted from risk management failures of others such as investment bank Bear Stearns and hedge fund Amaranth, JP Morgan (JPM) appears to have made an “egregious” and “self inflicted” hedging error. The bank would have done well to reflect on John Donne’s meditation: “send not to know for whom the bell tolls it tolls for thee”.
 
A $2 billion Banana Skin …
The losses indicated are $2 billion and may be higher. JPM’s share price fell around 9 percent (a loss of around $14 billion in market value) when the news was announced via a hastily arranged news conference. The bank lost considerably more in reputation and franchise value. 
 
The episode has all the usual trappings of a salacious trading disaster. Competitors had christened Bruno Iksil, one of the traders responsible–Lord Voldemort (after the Harry Potter villain). The position, which has been common knowledge in the market since early 2012 at least, was dubbed “the London whale”. After the losses were announced, the usual journalistic liberties have been taken–the whale has “beached” or “been harpooned”. 
 
But the losses raise serious issues. The losses do not relate to the usual “rogue trading” incident which is typically dismissed as impossible to detect or control. Instead the losses relate to normal investment activities of a bank and its attempt to hedge its investment risks. There are no suggestions that anybody acted outside their authority or outside the ambit of their trading limits. As a result, the episode provides insights into the problems of modern high finance techniques of hedging, bank investment strategies and the sometimes unintentional consequence of regulation of markets. 
Details are sketchy. The losses relate to a position taken to “hedge” a $300+ billion investment portfolio managed by JPM’s Central Investment Office (CIO) overseen by staff, including experienced hedge fund investment managers. The portfolio increased in size to $356 billion in 2011 from $76 billion in 2007.
 
The objective of the CIO is hedging JPM’s loan portfolio and investing excess funds. During an April 13, 2012, conference call, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPM referred to the unit as a “sophisticated” guardian of the bank’s funds. 
 
In its statement, the bank advised investors that: “Since March 31, 2012, CIO has had significant mark-to-market losses in its synthetic credit portfolio, and this portfolio has proven to be riskier, more volatile and less effective as an economic hedge than the Firm previously believed.” 
 
The large investment portfolio is the result of banks needing to maintain high levels of liquidity, dictated by both volatile market conditions and also regulatory pressures to maintain larger cash buffers against contingencies. Broader monetary policies, such as quantitative easing, has also increased cash held by banks, which must be deployed profitably. Regulatory moves to prevent banks from trading on their own account –the Volcker Rule—has encouraged the migration of trading to other areas of the bank, such as liquidity management and portfolio risk management hedging.
 
Faced with weak revenues in its core operations and low interest rates on cash or secure short-term investment, JPM may have been under pressure to increase returns on this portfolio. The bank appears to have invested in a variety of securities including mortgage-backed securities and corporate debt to generate returns above the firm’s cost of capital.
 
In 2011, the CIO portfolio contributed $411 million to JPM’s earnings, below its contributions of $1.5 billion in 2008 and $3.7 billion in 2009. JPM’s disclosures show that the unit took significant risk. Based on a common measure known as VaR (Value at Risk), the potential statistical loss for a single day was $57 million in 2011, similar to the $58 million of average risk in the bank’s larger investment bank and trading business.

The Art of Topiary…
The losses relate to an attempt to hedge the exposure on this portfolio. 
 
As hedging would reduce returns, the strategy adopted appears to have been to buy insurance against default in the short term (to end 2012) and finance the hedge by selling insurance against default in the medium term (to end 2017). The structure took advantage of the difference in pricing of insurance between the two maturities of around 0.60-0.70 percent per annum. The transaction meant that JPM was protected against a deterioration of credit conditions (defaults or increases in credit margins) in the period till end 2012. But the bank was exposed to the same risk after that date until end 2017. JPM’s view appeared to be that risk would increase in the near term, for example as a result of deterioration of the European debt problems, but abate in the longer term. 
 
JPM used an older less-liquid contract, which provided insurance against defaults on a basket of corporations (known as a credit index). In all probability, the choice was driven by economic considerations. The constitution of the specific index selected may have provided a better match to the exact risks in JPM’s books. The pricing of the particular index may have been more favourable. The relative trading liquidity of alternative hedging instruments would have been a factor.
 
The choice may also have been motivated by the desire to mask the bank’s trading activities from other market participants to allow the position to be established without moving market prices. The particular contract, originally issued in 2007, was extensively used in a variety of structured products. This meant that trades could be disguised as hedging existing products or client positions rather than on JPM’s own account. 
 
With the benefit of hindsight, the trades seem to be no more than what Lord Voldemort might view as “school-boy spells you have up your sleeve!” 

A Whale of a Loss JP Morgan's $2 billion problem
Image: Eduardo Munoz/ Reuters

Imperfect Hedges…
In the conference call announcing the loss, Dimon explained that the CIO portfolio was a hedge for the bank’s balance-sheet risk. He stated: “It actually did quite well. It was there to deliver a positive result in a credit-stressed environment. And we feel we can do that and make some net income”. 
 
It is questionable whether the CIO portfolio or the problematic positions could be regarded as a true hedge. It is complex and relies on the correlation between the bank’s underlying positions and trades. The effectiveness of the hedge also relies on the changes in credit pricing for different maturities. The simplest way to reduce risk would have been to sell off existing positions or offset the positions exactly.
 
The bank’s assertion that the entire set of transactions was both a hedge and a source of earnings is confusing. The bank should have heeded the warning of the 17th-century French author François de La Rochefoucauld: “We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.”
 
Given JPM vaunted risk management credentials and boasts of a “fortress like” balance sheet, it is surprising that the problems of the hedge were not identified earlier. In general, most banks stress test hedges to ensure their efficacy prior to implementation and monitor them closely. 
 
While the $2 billion loss is grievous, the bank’s restatement of its VaR risk from $67 million to $129 million (an increase of 93 percent) and reinstatement of an older risk model is also significant, suggesting a failure of risk modeling. It seems likely that the models may not have incorporated fully the risk of the various relationships between the instruments changing substantially over time. 
During the conference call, Dimon conceded that the trades were “flawed, complex, volatile, poorly reviewed and poorly monitored ... there are many errors, sloppiness and bad judgement”.
 
The episode also points to failures on the part of parties other than JPM. 

Banks are now obliged to report positions and trades, especially certain credit derivatives. This information is available to regulators in considerable detail. Given that the hedge appears to have been large in size (estimates range from ten to hundreds of billions), regulators should have been aware of the positions. It is not clear whether they knew and what discussions if any ensued with the bank. 
 
External auditors and equity analysts who cover the bank also did not pick up the potential problems. Like regulators, they perhaps relied on assurances from the bank’s management, without performing the required independent analysis. 
 
Encouraging Pundits…
The losses are complicated by Dimon’s vocal opposition to some aspects of the re-regulation of financial institutions, especially Volcker Rule, which seeks to restrict proprietary trading of banks. Given that JPM survived the financial crisis relatively well and his personal high standing within President Obama’s administration (he was considered a potential treasury secretary), Dimon has held the moral high ground in arguing for less stringent regulations.
 
In the bank’s annual report, Dimon wrote: “If the intent of the Volcker Rule was to eliminate pure proprietary trading and to ensure that market making is done in a way that won’t jeopardise a financial institution, we agree….We, however, do disagree with some of the proposed specifics because we think they could have huge negative unintended consequences for American competitiveness and economic growth”.
 
Banks have sought a weaker version of the Volcker Rule with broad remit to undertake “portfolio hedging”. This would allow banks to view an investment portfolio in its entirety and enter transaction to offset the risks of the entire portfolio, without the necessity of hedging securities or positions on an individual basis as would be required by a narrow definition of hedging. Banks argued that this exemption is essential to allow flexibility in managing risk within a large financial institution.
 
The JPM episode has helped re-open the debate. During his conference call, Dimon ruefully observed the bank’s $2 billion loss “plays right into the hands of a bunch of pundits out there”.
 
Legislators and regulators now argue that the rules for portfolio hedging are too wide and impossible to police effectively. In addition, the statutory basis may not support the rule. The legislative intent was intended only to exempt risk-mitigating hedging activity, specifically hedging positions that reduce a bank’s risk. Interestingly, drafters of the portfolio hedging exemption recognised the potential problems, seeking comment on whether portfolio hedging created “the potential for abuse of the hedging exemption” or made it difficult to distinguish between hedging or prohibited trading. 
 
In a recent Congressional hearing, Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, who helped shape the eponymous provision, questioned whether the volume of derivatives traded was “all directed toward some explicit protection against some explicit risk”.
 
The pundits have been quick to suggest that the losses point to the need for more stringent regulations. But it is not clear that a prohibition on proprietary trading would have prevented the losses. 
 
In practice, without deep and intimate knowledge of the institution and it activities it is difficult to differentiate between legitimate investment and trading of a firm’s surplus cash resources or investment capital. 

  

It is also difficult sometimes to distinguish between hedging and speculation. The JPM positions which caused the problems were predicated on certain market movements—a flattening of the credit margin term structure- which did not occur. 
 
Hedging individual positions is impractical and would be expensive. It would push up the cost of credit to borrowers significantly. All hedging also entail risks. At a minimum, it assumes that the counterparty performs on its hedge. But inability to legitimately hedge also escalates risk of financial institutions. Ultimately no hedging is perfect or as author Frank Partnoy told Bloomberg: “The only perfect hedge is in a Japanese garden”.
 
Additional regulation assumes that the appropriate rules can be drafted and policed. Experience suggests that it will not prevent future problems.  
 
Bankers and regulators have always been seduced by an elegant vision of a scientific and mathematically precise vision of risk. As the English author GK Chesterton wrote: “The real trouble with this world [is that]…. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.”

Human Sacrifices…
JPM indicated that it is trying to unwind its positions. Given the size, the level of losses may increase as markets may move against the bank as it tries to liquidate its position.
 
But JPM should survive this loss. The bank was quick to point out that the $2 billion loss was offset by profits in other parts of the portfolio. According to the bank: “As of March 31, 2012, the value of CIO’s total [available for sale] securities portfolio exceeded its cost by about $8 billion. 
 
The fate of specific actors is more difficult to predict. Dimon’s language in describing the losses was expressive: “… Errors, sloppiness, and bad judgment… Badly executed, badly monitored. I’m not going to repeat it 800 times…“I know it was done with the intention to hedge tail risk… it was unbelievably ineffective…”
 
He seemed to be trying to distance himself and the bank’s board from the failures by praising the expertise of the individuals involved: “We added different types of people, talented people and stuff like that”. He was at pains to point out that the CIO until had been very successful to date.
 
But human sacrifices will be needed. The question is whether it reaches the executive suite or can be limited to foot soldiers. Dimon has admitted his credibility is at stake, though not necessarily his job. 
 
What complicates Dimon’s position is that as recently as April 13, 2012, he indicated that the CIO positions were not problematic, dismissing the issue as “a complete tempest in a teapot”. After the losses were announced, Mr. Dimon admitted on US television that he was “dead wrong” to have dismissed questions about the issue.
 
Just Watch This Space…
The episode raises deeper concerns, beyond the issues at JPM. 
 
How many other such problems in other firms remain undiscovered? JPM is a major player in credit derivatives and by no means the worst managed or the most aggressive in risk taking. If it curtails its activities then the loss of liquidity may affect other players and result in unrelated losses.
 
How has earnings pressure in banks affected their risk taking? Clearly, the large cash holdings of banks and the need to generate adequate returns for shareholders is encouraging risk taking.
 
How does regulatory initiatives and monetary policy action affect bank risk taking? Central bank policies are adding to the problem of banks in terms of large cash balances which must be then invested at a profit. The implementation of the Volcker Rule may have had unintended consequences. It encouraged moving risk taking activities from trading desks where the apparatus of risk management may be marginally better established to other parts of banks where there is less scrutiny.
 
The most important question remains whether any specific action short of banning specific instruments and activities can prevent such episodes in the future. It seems as Lord Voldemort observed in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2: “They never learn. Such a pity”.
 
Satyajit Das is author of Extreme Money: The Masters of the Universe and the Cult of Risk (2011) 

(This story appears in the 08 June, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Sandhya Upadhyaya

    A powerful and effective analysis of modern banking scenario. Must read article for all those involved directly or indirectly in financial banking.

    on May 16, 2012
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