• 22 Aug 2013 at 10:53 AM

Banks In Trouble For Losing Money And Getting In Trouble

Half of today’s financial news stories are about how some government enforcement agency is looking into something you already knew about. This is very boring for me! Remember when Goldman lost a bunch of money by fat-fingering some options trades?1 That still happened. Remember how JPMorgan did some naughty things with California electricity markets? Those historical circumstances continue to obtain. Remember the Whale? Still a thing.

You could wonder about the substance of some of these investigations. JPMorgan’s electric boogaloo, while intensely naughty, also seems pretty clearly to have followed FERC/ISO rules to the letter, so it’s hard to imagine charging anyone with a crime, as the FBI is apparently contemplating.2 And while I don’t know much about the SEC rules re: electronic options trading, the actual thing that Goldman did was sell options really cheaply, and it would be pretty weird if there were a rule against that, so I don’t know where the SEC is going with its enforcement investigation.3 (The Whale, I’ll give you, that stuff seems bad.) But basically, yeah, sure: bad things happened, rules might have been violated, market safeguards were shown to be less robust than had previously been thought, it is altogether fitting and proper that someone look into it. Or a lot of someones I guess.

Still the stories carry a whiff of looking for the keys under the lamppost: Read more »

UBS is selling its over-the-counter commodity derivatives portfolio to JPMorgan, prompting John Carney to say this:

Here’s a good rule of thumb. When one bank buys a business from another bank, it’s almost always a case of regulatory arbitrage. It’s never really because of synergies or managerial talent or whatever other hokum the media relations churn out to their willing dupes in the press. It’s just about one bank being better able to take advantage of the rules.

So even though the rationale for JPMorgan Chase buying the over-the-counter commodities derivatives business of UBS remains mysterious, you can safely surmise this is regulatory arbitrage. Most likely, it’s got to do with capital requirements.

Umm maybe? I don’t know, this question seems a little over-determined; the thing is that pretty much everyone thinks that (1) JPMorgan is pretty good at running an investment bank, the occasional hiccup aside, and that (2) UBS is pretty crap at doing so. So are US regulators relatively more comfortable with JPM managing this portfolio than Swiss regulators are with UBS doing so? Sure, probably, but probably so are the respective shareholders, and counterparties, and senior managements, and anyone else you might ask. Really moving any portfolio of anything from UBS to JPMorgan is probably Pareto optimal.

The light irony comes from – well here is Bloomberg’s first sentence: Read more »

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission fined JPMorgan $410mm today and you can see why JPMorgan would be okay with that. The details are in this marvelously complicated FERC order and settlement agreement,1 but the outlines of the story are simple. FERC built a terrible box, and the box had some buttons that were labeled “push here for money,” and JPMorgan pushed them and got money. You can understand the category mistake very easily:

  • FERC thought the box was for generating electricity at market prices but with a robust backup system to ensure reliable supply, and
  • JPMorgan thought the box was for dispensing money.

It’s a perfectly understandable mistake to make if you have spent your career building and operating boxes that dispense money, as JPMorgan global commodities head Blythe Masters has. What else could the box be for?

I suppose we should talk about how the box worked, because this is that sort of blog. Read more »

Yesterday the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered Barclays and four of its traders to pay $488 million for manipulating energy prices by doing basically this:

  • (1) Buying electricity with medium-term swaps,
  • (2) Selling electricity with short-term forward contracts, and
  • (3) Buying electricity in the spot market.

And vice versa (switching buys and sells). The idea is that since the swaps in step (1) settled based on the spot price in step (3), Barclays can manipulate the value of its swaps arbitrarily high by just overpaying in the spot market. Like, buy 100 whateverowatts of swaps at $1 per WW, then buy 5 WWs physical, pushing up the price to $3/WW, and you’ve spent $15 (5 WW physical x $3/WW) to make $200 (100 WW swap x [$3 – $1]).

This is nonsensical on first principles, though that doesn’t make it wrong; lots of true things are nonsensical on first principles; that’s like a feature of first principles. When you lay it out like that, though, you can see the oddity, which is that FERC thinks step (3) (buying physical) pushed up the price, but thinks step (2) (selling like next-day electricity) did not push down the price. If this worked then you could replicate it in any market, like: Read more »

  • 01 Nov 2012 at 2:07 PM

Barclays Did Plenty Of Non-Libor Manipulating Too

What can we make of this Barclays FERC thing? Besides, like, ha ha ha Barclays you sure like manipulating things? Quick version is: the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has proposed to fine Barclays $470mm for manipulating California electricity markets by uneconomically buying/selling spot physical electricity in order to manipulate up/down the settlement prices it received on its electricity swaps. Barclays disagrees, etc. You can find the FERC order if you look hard enough1 and I am not an energy-trading guy and I will tell you: I found it entirely incomprehensible! So there’s that.

One quick and obvious thing to make of all this is: remember how one problem with Libor is that, though it underlies zillions of dollars of real economic activity (mostly swaps and stuff, some loans), Libor itself has for years been a nearly purely made-up number, not based on any actual transactions, so you can magically manipulate Libor by just pointing and saying “I MANIPULATE THEE”? That is not true of, God, some sort of electricity price or something: Read more »