Counterparties: Your massive guide to JPMorgan’s failed hedge

By Ben Walsh
May 11, 2012

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It turns out we probably should fear Voldemort. Yesterday Jamie Dimon hastily scheduled a 5 p.m. conference call in which he was forced to explain a sudden $2 billion loss in his Chief Investment Office, a division that was supposed to safely hedge the bank’s risk.

JPMorgan’s stock fell more than 9% on the news. Dimon, who last month called the issue a “tempest in a teapot”, said the hedges implemented by the “London Whale” (aka Bruno Iksil) were a “bad strategy, executed poorly”; he also conceded “many errors”, “sloppiness” and “bad judgement”.

The responsibility for mistakes ultimately rests on Dimon’s shoulders. Jonathan Weil noted that yesterday’s disclosures meant that “either Dimon misled the public about the gravity of the festering trades during his company’s first-quarter earnings call last month. Or he didn’t know what was happening inside the bowels of his own company.” Barney Frank didn’t let this opportunity pass him by, either, saying that “JPMorgan Chase, entirely without any help from the government, has lost, in this one set of transactions, five times the amount they claim financial regulation is costing them.”

Adding to Dimon’s chagrin was his acknowledgement in yesterday’s conference call that he gave proponents of increased financial regulation, including Barney Frank, yet another proof point. As Felix notes, the strong likelihood that the trades were Volcker-compliant “only goes to show how weak the Volcker Rule” is and affirms the need for “dumb rules” that traders can’t easily game.

So just what specifically went wrong? For a deep and wonky explanation, Lisa Pollack details what might have been going on and concludes that both regulators and Dimon should have seen the buildup of risk, if not the losses, long before yesterday. Heidi Moore also has a handy guide that spells out exactly what happened in non-financial English. Zero Hedge outlines how analysts need to change how they examine the profitability of big banks, and their hedging business model.

There’s still some dispute over whether Iksil’s positions were actually a hedge or just a disguised bet. Matt Levine has an extended take on this, and before the latest revelations the Epicurean Dealmaker pointed out that the difference between a hedge and speculation is subtle because “the same trade or financial instrument can be used in either way at different times and under different circumstances.”

Chief among Iksil’s errors, it seems, was a model that didn’t accurately capture the risk of the strategy. The CDS index Iksil was selling protection on has moved away from him recently, but why JPMorgan’s losses were so large relative to the index’s more modest change remains unclear. Derivatives are a zero-sum game, of course, and at least two hedge funds run by mostly ex-JPMers have made some $30 million each.

For his part, Dimon is far from finished explaining what went wrong, and we won’t have to wait long for his next attempt. On Wednesday, he taped an interview with NBC’s David Gregory to air on Sunday’s Meet the Press. After yesterday’s announcement, Dimon has decided to retape the appearance. – Ben Walsh

Before we move on to today’s links, we’re announcing the second Counterparties book giveaway. Exhausted by cetacean puns, we believe Jamie, Bruno et al. at JPMorgan deserve their own lolcats. Here’s an image to get you started. Send us your best work, and you could win a copy of Tadas Viskanta’s book Winning Strategies from the Frontlines of the Investment Blogosphere. We have two to give away!

JPMorgan
What it’s like to have your boss ask you to execute a $1 billion hedge – Kid Dynamite
Simon Johnson: It’s “stunning” that JPMorgan lost so much at a mild time in the credit cycle – Huffington Post
Levin: “The latest evidence that what banks call ‘hedges’ are often risky bets … banks have no business making.” – Senate.gov
The controversial measure of JPMorgan’s risk that tripled over the last year – BI
In their own words: JPMorgan’s risk management standards – JPMorgan
The 10-Q in which JPMorgan discloses CIO’s losses – SEC
Fitch downgrades JPMorgan – Bloomberg

New Normal
A map of economic mobility in America – South Carolina, Oklahoma and Louisiana rank worst – Pew
Jobless claims fall again – AP
More than 230,000 unemployed Americans are going to lose their unemployment benefits this weekend – WashPo

Be Afraid
What short-sellers mean when they say Chinese banks are “built on sand” – Bloomberg

Pork Products
Basically every important manufacturer in America gets some sort of government subsidy – NYT
Obama’s stupid idea for a manufacturing subsidy – Yglesias

Regulations
Occupational licensure as rent-seeking – Conversable Economist
The case for global accounting – Floyd Norris

Oxpeckers
The troubling financialization of the Washington Post – CJR

Compelling
Domestic oil production is irrelevant to oil prices – Yglesias

Startups
NYC is now the fastest-growing tech hub in America – Mashable

Alpha
Bond titan Jeff Gundlach was once in an extremely hilarious-looking ’80s rock band – Businessweek

Facebook
Co-founder Eduardo Saverin gives up his U.S. citizenship ahead of IPO, presumably to save on taxes – Bloomberg

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