When I got the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report on the London Whale last night, I did what any sensible human would do: I ctrl-F’ed for my name and the names of my friends and enemies, gloated briefly, and then set to work rationalizing not reading the rest of it. After all, it’s ridiculous for the Senate to investigate a basically legitimate trade that, though it lost some money, did nothing to destabilize JPMorgan or the financial system as a whole. And we’ve heard all the important Whale stuff before, including in JPMorgan’s own Whale autopsy, and even then it was old news.
But then I started skimming the executive summary and after underlining every sentence in the first ten pages I figured I’d have to give it a closer look. It’s an amazing, horrifying read.
What was the Whale up to? I don’t think you’ll get a better explanation than this, from a January 2012 presentation by the Whale himself, Bruno Iksil (page 74):
Mr. Iksil’s presentation then proposed executing “the trades that make sense.” Specifically, it proposed:
The executive who led the J.P. Morgan Chase Co. cash-management unit at the center of the “London Whale” debacle is scheduled to testify Friday before a Senate panel probing the $6 billion trading loss at the nation’s largest bank by assets. Former Chief Investment Officer Ina Drew, who resigned as head of the unit last May, will make her first public appearance since the New York company disclosed the trading losses last spring. [WSJ]
How should one read JPMorgan’s Whale Report? I suppose “not” is an acceptable answer; the Whale’s credit derivatives losses at JPMorgan’s Chief Investment Office are old news by now, though perhaps his bones point us to the future. One way to read it is as a depressing story about measurement. There were some people and whales, and there was a pot of stuff, and the people and whales sat around looking at the stuff and asking themselves, and each other, “what is up with that stuff?” The stuff was in some important ways unknowable: you could list what the stuff was, if you had a big enough piece of paper, but it was hard to get a handle on what it would do. But that was their job. And the way you normally get such a handle, at a bank, is with a number, or numbers, and so everyone grasped at a number.
The problems were (1) the numbers sort of sucked and (2) everyone used a different number. Here I drew you a picture:1
Everyone tried to understand the pool of stuff through one or two or three numbers, and everyone failed dismally through some combination of myopia and the fact that each of those numbers was sort of horrible or tampered or both, each in its own special way. Starting with:
VaR: Value-at-risk is the #1 thing that people talk about when they want to talk about measuring risk. To the point that, if you want to be all “don’t look at one number to measure risk, you jerks,” VaR is the one number you tell the jerks not to look at. Read more »
You’ve all peered into Ina Drew’s soul by now, right? My basic reaction was, “she kicks it old school.” This is obvious from the way that she stayed in Short Hills after getting rich, instead of decamping to, like, the moon, I guess? More telling, perhaps, is the fact that she seems to have been present at the creation of the idea of buying and selling financial instruments to hedge a bank’s credit risk:
By the mid-1980s, Drew was working directly under an economist named Petros K. Sabatacakis, the head of Chemical Bank’s global treasury department. Among the department’s tasks was managing interest-rate risk … Still, the group was considered a sleepy backwater until Sabatacakis turned their attention a few years later to banking’s other major risk: credit default. The bank was most vulnerable to its lenders1 defaulting in a recession; in a recession, the Federal Reserve generally lowers interest rates to increase borrowing and spending. Sabatacakis determined they should continue to buy those securities whose value would rise in a recessionary environment. “It was a trader’s mentality,” says Glenn Havlicek, a trader who worked under Drew for 22 years. “It may seem elemental, but at the time, the idea of mixing a trading solution and a credit-crisis solution — it was in its awkward infancy.”
That was an awkward infancy! Basically you notice that there’s a correlation between (1) spreads widening and (2) rates tightening, so you get long rate product to hedge your spread product? That’s a pretty blunt instrument: Read more »
Drew was something of an unusual figure on Wall Street and not easily categorized. She was known for her small, girlish voice but could let loose with profanity when angered. She was the daughter of a Newark lawyer and had a reputation as a tough adversary but practically blushed whenever she spoke about her husband, a periodontist who was her high-school sweetheart and played on the Johns Hopkins basketball team. Tall, with expensive blond hair, she dressed impeccably for the office, favoring classic Chanel suits and Manolo Blahnik shoes, as well as a blinding emerald-cut diamond ring; but she and her husband never left the affluent but unremarkable suburban neighborhood in Short Hills, N.J., where they settled more than 20 years ago. [NYT]
The past couple of weeks, some might argue, have been the worst of Jamie Dimon’s professional career. Although being fired by Sandy Weill in 1998 was obviously a distressing time in Dimon’s life, a JPMorgan trader’s multi-billion dollar (and counting) loss appears to be even more painful for the CEO, who now has a reputation (and a title: “America’s Least Hated Banker”) to defend. While it’s unlikely that the blunder will cost him his job, every article written questioning Dimon’s judgment, suggesting that he is in fact fallible, and wondering aloud if he is simply a pretty face (that is about to get the regulation it has vociferously argued against rammed down its throat) clearly hurts. So far, Dimon has chosen to frame the situation, at least publicly, as a group fuck-up, one for which the responsibility is shared among himself, The Whale, The Whale’s bosses, and The Whale’s bosses’ bosses. Over the weekend, though, a heretofore unmentioned character, whose actions set in motion the events that served to tarnish JD’s halo, was added to story. And now, Dimon has a place to channel his anger: on a bloodsucking vermin whose days are numbered. Read more »
Dimon was approached by reporters after the [shareholder] meeting and was asked about whether executive pay would be taken back under the bank’s clawback provisions. “We will do the right thing…And that may well include clawbacks,” Dimon said. “The buck always stops with me.” [WSJ, earlier]
Earlier today, it was announced that Matt Zames had been named JPMorgan’s new Chief Investment Officer, to replace Ina Drew, the woman who supervised the trader responsible for the firm’s whale of a loss and was dismissed over the weekend. Previously, Zames served as the firm’s head of fixed income and while he may be happy to be seen by senior management as a guy capable of putting out a fire, based on his experience, is probably at least a little bit underwhelmed by the task. Read more »
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