Unstructured Finance

Jamie Dimon’s teflon coating

By Matthew Goldstein and Jennifer Ablan

Jamie Dimon’s coat of teflon is wearing well, even as the criminal and regulatory investigation into the London Whale trading scandal deepens.

Shares of JPMorgan Chase, which plunged more than 20 percent in the days after the bank revealed in May that the trading losses were much worse than previously believed, have rallied back. The stock is now trading around $38.66 a share. On May 10, when the bank disclosed after the bell that it had lost at least $2 billion on derivatives bets made by a group of London-based traders, the stock closed at around $40.

When Dimon was called before Congress to testify on the trading scandal in June, he was generally treated like the king of Wall Street by congressman and senators. At the time, bank’s internal probe had not yet found evidence that the three traders may have tried to hide their losses, so the fallout from the scandal appeared limited. The bank disclosed those finding to federal authorities before releasing its second-quarter earnings and restating its numbers for the first quarter.

So has Dimon, who came sailed through the financial crisis without a scratch–unlike say Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein–once again emerged as a champion? Maybe, but a lot will depend on what the investigations turn up and whether it fits with Dimon’s attempt to portray the now $5.8 billion trading debacle as an isolated risk management failure–potentially carried about by a small group of traders bent on concealing their actions.

As Emily Flitter and David Henry have been reporting over the past few weeks, Dimon’s narrative has begun to take some hits. The once small group of people believe to be involve now includes at least 7 current or former employees who have hired lawyers, including several risk officers. On Wednesday,  Reuters reported a fourth trader who worked under Bruno Iksil, the man nicknamed the London Whale because of the big bets he has taken on, is now also drawing scrutiny.

Will FHFA opposition to principal reductions boost eminent domain efforts?

By Matthew Goldstein and Jennifer Ablan

There’s nothing surprising about FHFA head Ed DeMarco’s decision to nix the idea of writing down some of the debt owed by cash-strapped homeowners on mortgages guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie. DeMarco, whose agency regulates Fannie and Freddie, has been a consistent opponent of principal reductions–something we pointed out last October in our story on the need for a “great haircut” on consumer loans and including student and mortgage debt to stimulate the economy.

But DeMarco’s renewed opposition comes at a time that there is a growing consensus that something needs to be done on the housing front to get the U.S. economy going, as opposed to simply churning along at the current anemic rate of growth. More and more economists are saying that reducing mortgage debt will not only reduce foreclosures, it will give ordinary Americans more money to spend on goods and services.

It doesn’t take an MBA from Harvard to know that when people have spending power it translates into more demand and that usually prompts employers to hire more people to fill that demand.

UF Weekend reads – The PIMCO edition

Jenn Ablan likes to tell me that people are always writing about PIMCO and Bill Gross, the long reigning “king of bonds.” And when you think of it there’s a lot of truth to that assertion.

Gross’ mammoth $263 billion Total Return Fund gets endless coverage because–by its very size–it really is the bond market. It’s one reason why so much ink is spilled whenever the Total Return Fund has a month where investors pull more money out of the fund than put in.  And it’s why there’s so much analysis of what Gross & Co. are doing with Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities–and whether they are using lots of leverage and derivatives to boost exposures.

Then again, it’s hard to ignore Gross & Co. since the bond king and his co-partner and heir apparent, Mohamed El-Erian are on TV virtually everyday offering their views on just about anything doing with the economy.

Daniel Loeb goes long Chesapeake bonds; leaves activism to others

Daniel Loeb, who runs $8.7 billion at his hedge fund Third Point, has been an opportunistic buyer in the bonds of Chesapeake Energy, the embattled natural gas producer, according to sources familiar with the matter.

But Loeb, known to rattle the cages of companies for years (see: war with Yahoo), isn’t piggybacking on Carl Icahn’s or O. Mason Hawkins’s activist role in Chesapeake, demanding changes in management or the overhaul of its business practices.  Indeed, all the elements are there for a veteran agitator like Loeb, as Chesapeake has been embroiled in scandal over a controversial investment program involving CEO Aubrey McClendon.

But the New York-based hedge fund manager, who told his investors in June that Chesapeake is now his fund’s fourth largest position, could simply be making a straight investment play and leaving the rest to Icahn and Hawkins. Imagine that?

Outrage isn’t asleep it’s just gone underground

By Matthew Goldstein and Jennifer Ablan

Where is the outrage? A year ago, the Occupy Wall Street movement was just getting started, with mass demonstrations across the nation against corporate malfeasance and greed.

But now it’s been crickets and we don’t mean the game. There’s been no marching on Wall Street nor on the steps of Capitol Hill since the latest revelations of bad behavior in the financial sector. The populist uproar has been rather sedate in the face of the deepening scandal that big banks rigged Libor–a benchmark lending rate; JPMorgan Chase’s mounting losses from disastrous credit bets and a possible cover-up attempt; and the disappearance of customer funds from Iowa futures broker PFGBest, discovered after its founder tried to commit suicide and left a note outlining a 20-year fraud.

But the lack of populist rage doesn’t mean there’s a lack of concern about these and other scandals. We think that’s a misreading of the temperature of the American people. And if Wall Street thinks the average person doesn’t care about the nearly $6 billion trading loss at JPMorgan Chase, or the alleged Libor manipulation scandal , then the street is badly misjudging things.

The hedge fund world’s version Elvis plays cupid

You know Bill Ackman as a hedge fund rabble rouser, but did you know on the side he likes to play cupid. Here’s Svea Herbst-Bayliss with a post on the Pershing Square Capital manager’s softer side:

By Svea Herbst-Bayliss

Bill Ackman is known as many things: investor, corporate nudge and quick-talking television pundit. But matchmaker?

Helping his single friends and acquaintances find a life partner is, however, close to the multi-millionaire’s heart and he’s doing his part to help. And every so often, Ackman and his wife whirl through their Rolodexes and invite their unattached friends to come on over to their place and spend a few hours meeting other singles.

Eminent Domain reader

Jenn Ablan and I have done a lot reporting on Mortgage Resolution Partners’ plan to get county governments and cities to use eminent domain to seize and restructure underwater mortgages. As we’ve reported, it’s an intriguing solution to the seemingly intractable problem of too much mortgage debt holding back the U.S. economy. But it’s also a controversial one that threatens to rewrite basic contractual rights and the whole notion of how we view mortgages in this country.

And then there’s the issue of just who are are the financiers behind Mortgage Resolution Partners and whether they’ve gone about selling their plan in the right way.

The debate over using eminent domain has sparked a lively debate on editorial pages, on blogs and in other media, and that debate is likely to continue now that Suffolk County, NY says it is looking at eminent domain just like San Bernardino County, Calif.  So here’s a bit of sampler of some of the differing views and coverage on this important topic:

UF Weekend Reads

It’s Libor all the time, just not for me.

Earlier I blogged about how the Libor scandal just isn’t getting me as worked up as it is for other journalists (see Joe Nocera’s column today in the NYT). It’s not that I don’t think allegations of market manipulation aren’t important. And this is nothing to take away from the groundbreaking reporting by my Reuters colleague Carrick Mollenkamp did on the matter back in 2008 while he was at the WSJ.

It’s just that in the scheme of things, the allegation that bankers may have conspired to keep Libor artificially low to make their institutions seem more solvent during the height of the financial crisis doesn’t chill me to the bone. Did anyone really believe those institutions were solvent during the crisis? Does anyone really believe banks with hundreds of billions of second-liens on their books and other poorly reserved loans are really solvent today?

We simply say the banks (except for maybe some in the euro zone) are solvent and whistle past the graveyard.

Hedge funds vs. darts

By Matthew Goldstein

The Wall Street Journal used to run a feature in which some of its staffers would periodically pick stocks by throwing darts against a target. The idea was to see how many times stock picking by pure chance could outperform the picks of a bunch of experts.

The WSJ ended the popular feature several years ago but maybe it’s time from someone to bring it back and this time use darts to try to outperform some of top hedge funds managers. That’s because with the average hedge fund up about 1.2% during the first-half of the year, it would seem an investor on his or her own could do just as well picking stocks blindfolded.

Indeed, with the S&P500 up about 8 percent for the first half, the 3.7% gain for David Einhorn’s Greenlight Capital and the 3.9% gain for Dan Loeb’s Third Point don’t look so robust on second glance.

Libore? The real scandal is still CDOs

By Matthew Goldstein

There is an opaque financial market where pricing is determined by a cadre of Wall Street banks and private emails show that behind the scenes  many in the market don’t even believe in what they are doing.

The Libor price fixing scandal?  Sure. But what I’m talking about here is the market for the CDOs, which at the end of the day you can still argue did more harm to the world financial system than the allegations now emerging from the Libor scandal.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not defending the apparent misconduct by bankers to manipulate Libor, a benchmark interest rate for lots of commercial and leveraged loans. But it’s still not clear just what the big harm was in the Libor scandal.

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