GAAP

Here’s a good Sonic Charmer post about how JPMorgan could have prevented the London Whale loss by imposing a liquidity provision on the Whale’s desk:

Liquidity provision means: ‘the more illiquid the stuff you’re trading, the more rainy-day buffer we’re going to withhold from your P&L’. And since one way a thing becomes illiquid is ‘you’re dominating the market already’, you inevitably make it nonlinear, like a progressive income tax: No (extra) liquidity provision on the first (say) 100mm you own, half a point on the next (say) 400mm, a point on the next 500mm, 2 points on the next 1000mm, etc etc. (specific #s depend on the product). Problem solved. In fact, it’s genuinely weird and dumb if they didn’t have such a thing.

The London Whale’s problem (one of them) was that he traded so much of a particular thing that he basically became the market in it. That means among other things that even if on paper “The Price” of what he owned was X there would have been no way for him to sell the position for X. A liquidity provision is a rough and dirty way of acknowledging this fact.

This suggestion isn’t a matter of GAAP accounting: JPMorgan wouldn’t report its asset values, or its revenues, net of this liquidity provision. It’s just an internal bookkeeping mechanism: his bosses informing the Whale that, for purposes of calculating his P&L and, thus, his comp, they would take the GAAP value of the things he had and subtract a semi-arbitrary number for their own protection.

It is weird and dumb that they didn’t do this although you can sort of guess why: the Whale portfolio started very small, and by the time it got big the Whale was both profitable and a (mostly imaginary) tail risk hedge, so it would have been hard for a risk manager to take a semi-punitive step to rein in his risk-taking. “Just tell the Whale to take less risk” does in hindsight seem like a sensible suggestion, but I suppose if he’d made $6 billion it wouldn’t.

Something else though. Here you can read about an exchange between the SEC and JPMorgan about the Whale newly released yesterday. Read more »

This Bloomberg article about accounting differences between the US and Europe for derivative-y things comes down pretty squarely on the side of Europe, which is to be expected: European (well, IFRS) standards tend to gross up the size of bank balance sheets, compared to US GAAP standards. Grossing up bank balance sheets makes for bigger numbers and scarier banks, and “US banks are scarier than they seem” is more newsworthy than “European banks are less scary than they seem.” Also intuitively truer. As Bloomberg puts it:

U.S. accounting rules allow banks to record a smaller portion of their derivatives than European peers and keep most mortgage-linked bonds off their books. That can underestimate the risks firms face and affect how much capital they need.

Or it can overestimate the risk European firms face. Or any estimating of risks based on any measure of balance-sheet size is necessarily indeterminate. Risk happens tomorrow, not yesterday.

Anyway though some of these accounting differences are puzzling insofar as they are not accounting differences. Here is the mortgage bond one: Read more »