Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan’s risk question

April 13, 2012

This morning, JPMorgan reported $5.4 billion in earnings, or $83 million per weekday. While management trumpeted the increased strength of the company’s “fortress balance sheet” (trademark pending), they also pushed back on a Bloomberg report that a bank division called the Chief Investment Office had shifted from risk management toward large-scale speculation.

The CIO division, of course, is where the now infamous trader known as “Voldemort” works, and Bloomberg has compiled more evidence that the bank could have trouble with the Volcker Rule. Bloomberg’s reporting contradicts JPMorgan’s description of the CIO as a division that uses approximately $360 billion in excess deposits to manage risk, not to make bets for its own account:

JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon has transformed the bank’s chief investment office in the past five years, increasing the size and risk of its speculative bets, according to five former executives with direct knowledge of the changes.

Achilles Macris, hired in 2006 as the CIO’s top executive in London, led an expansion into corporate and mortgage-debt investments with a mandate to generate profits for the New York- based bank, three of the former employees said. Dimon, 56, closely supervised the shift from the CIO’s previous focus on protecting JPMorgan from risks inherent in its banking business, such as interest-rate and currency movements, they said.

On today’s earnings call, Dimon called the story a “tempest in a teapot.”

Dimon’s comments are hard to square with one of the CIO division’s traders writing a reported$100 billion in protection on a single CDS index. Similarly perplexing was Dimon’s statement that, because of CIO investments, JPMorgan would profit from rising rates.

Given Dimon’s tone this morning – “It’s like having mozzarella for pizza, when it goes up a little your margins go down a little bit … that was a dumb analogy,” he said at one point – it’s unlikely we’ll get much more information about the bank’s risk-taking.

Dimon joked: “I constantly read about counterparties.” While we’re secretly hoping he’s talking about us, the bank’s actual counterparties are likely still waiting for answers.

Note: this is an excerpt. The full Counterparties email is here.

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