How Bruno Iksil lost $2 billion

By Felix Salmon
May 16, 2012

In February 2009, Deutsche Bank announced that its Credit Trading desk had managed to lose €3.4 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008, with €1 billion of those losses directly attributable to the bank’s prop desk.

The losses in the Credit Proprietary Trading business were mainly driven by losses on long positions in the U.S. Automotive sector and by falling corporate and convertible bond prices and basis widening versus the Credit Default Swaps (CDS) established to hedge them.

In English, Deutsche Bank had put on a basis trade: it owned credit instruments, like bonds, and it also owned credit default swaps designed to hedge against those loans. And then the trade blew up.

The Deutsche trader responsible for the monster losses was Boaz Weinstein, who eventually left the bank to start his own hedge fund, Saba Capital. His first job, obviously, was to make sure he didn’t blow up a second time. But his second job, it seems, was to use his experience at Deutsche to be able to notice when someone else was about to blow up on a massive basis trade. In this case, JP Morgan.

Go back to early February, long before the articles about the “London Whale” came out in Bloomberg and the WSJ, and you’ll find Weinstein revealing his biggest trade at the Harbor Investment Conference:

The derivatives trader and legendary hedge fund manager said his trade idea is to buy Investment Grade Series 9 10-Year Index CDS (maturing on 12/20/2017).

“They are very attractive,” he explained adding that they can be bought at a “very good discount.”

At the time, Weinstein didn’t know — or necessarily even suspect — that his big trade would involve a zero-sum bet with one of the biggest hedge funds in the world, JP Morgan’s Chief Investment Office. But over time, as he bought more and more protection but the price stubbornly refused to rise, he began to learn just how big the other size of the trade was. Whale big.

Tracy Alloway and Sam Jones have pieced together the best account yet of what exactly JP Morgan was up to. Yet again, it was a basis trade, although this one was horribly complex even by basis-trade standards. Essentially, that CDX.NA.IG.9 position was a second-order hedge, designed to offset volatility in JP Morgan’s first-order hedge, which was designed to offset credit risk in the rest of the bank’s portfolio.

The first-order hedge itself doesn’t make a great deal of sense — Iksil seems to have bought “tranches” of CDS indices, which would pay off if some (but not all) credits suddenly got into trouble. For a bank which had broad economic exposure to European meltdown and/or a US double dip, that seems like a pretty narrow hedge.

But if the first-order hedge is weird, the second-order hedge is downright scary. Do you remember the notorious Howie Hubler trade at Morgan Stanley, where he made a smart bet against dangerous subprime securities, but then put on a much larger “hedge” which ended up costing him $9 billion? Iksil’s trade seems a bit like that:

Because of the mechanics of the trade, in order to achieve a “market neutral” position, whereby JPMorgan hedged the bet against volatility as best it could and offset the cost of its short positions, the bank had to sell far more units of cheap protection on the IG.9 as a whole than it bought on short, more expensive tranches.

Inevitably things started to go wrong. There are two things you can do when something starts to go wrong in the markets. You can unwind your position at a loss. Or you can try to fix it. Iksil, and Drew, chose the latter:

The two legs of JPMorgan’s trade did not move according to the relationship the bank had expected, meaning the position became imperfectly hedged. Like many credit models before it, JPMorgan appeared to misjudge correlation – one of the hardest market phenomena to accurately capture in mathematics.

In order to try and stay risk neutral, the dynamic hedge required even more long protection to be sold. The bank continued to write swaps on the IG.9, causing a pricing distortion that was spotted by more and more hedge funds seeking profit.

The rest, pretty much, is history.

Iksil, we’re told, is going to leave JP Morgan, while taking his own sweet time doing so: “although a spokeswoman for the bank said Mr. Iksil is still employed, he is no longer trading on behalf on the bank and is expected to be gone by the end of the year”. I’m sure he’ll use the intervening months to feel out his chances of being able to raise a few billion dollars for a hedge fund of his own, and weigh them up against simply joining a fund like Saba. Iksil’s now learned a $2 billion lesson — and as Boaz Weinstein can attest, once learned, those lessons can be surprisingly valuable.

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