J.P Morgan Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon said the firm suffered a $2 billion trading loss after an “egregious” failure in a unit managing risks, jeopardizing Wall Street banks’ efforts to loosen a federal ban on bets with their own money.
The firm’s chief investment office, run by Ina Drew, 55, took flawed positions on synthetic credit securities that remain volatile and may cost an additional $1 billion this quarter or next, Dimon told analysts yesterday. Losses mounted as JPMorgan tried to mitigate transactions designed to hedge credit exposure.
Having listened to the conference call (I was roaring with laughter), Jamie Dimon sounded very defensive especially about one detail: that the CIO’s activities were solely in risk management, and that its bets were designed to hedge risk. Now, we all know very well that banks have been capable of turning “risk management” into a hugely risky business — that was the whole problem with the mid-00s securitisation bubble, which made a sport out of packaging up bad debt and spreading it around balance sheets via shadow banking intermediation, thus turning a small localised risk (of mortgage default) into a huge systemic risk (of a default cascade).
But wait a minute? If you’re hedging risk then the bets you make will be cancelled against your existing balance sheet. In other words, if your hedges turn out to be worthless then your initial portfolio should have gained, and if your initial portfolio falls, then your hedges will activate, limiting your losses. A hedge is only a hedge if it covers your position. That is how hedging risk works. If the loss on your hedge is not being cancelled-out by gains in your initial portfolio then by definition you are not hedging risk. You are speculating.
Dimon then stuck his foot in his mouth even more by claiming that the CIO was “managing fat tails.” But you don’t manage fat tails by making bets with tails so fat that a change in momentum produces a $2 billion loss. You manage tail risk by making lots and lots of small cheap high-payoff bets, which appears to be precisely the opposite of what the CIO and Bruno Iksil was doing:
The larger point, though, is I think we all know damn well what Jamie Dimon and Bruno Iksil were doing — as Zero Hedge explained last month, they were using the CIO’s risk management business as a cover to reopen the firm’s proprietary trading activities in contravention of the current ban.
Personally, I have no idea why the authorities insist on this rule — if J.P. Morgan want to persist with a hyper-fragile prop trading strategy that rather than hedging against tail risk actually magnifies risk, then there should be nothing to stop them from losing their money. After all, these goons would quickly learn to stop acting so incompetent without a government safety net there to coddle them.
The fact that Dimon is trying to cover the tracks and mislead regulators is egregious, but that’s what we have come to expect from this den of vipers and thieves.