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:
We* don’t really find it particularly amusing amusing or post-worthy that a Jefferies employee misguidedly put Jamie Dimon on an email about a working group list but judging by the number of people who’ve sent it to us, this is the height of banking humor, so here you go: Read more »
Mike Mayo: I think what I hear UBS saying in their presentation is, if I’m an affluent customer, I’ll feel a lot better going to UBS if they have a 13 percent capital ratio than another big bank with a 10 percent ratio, do you agree with that or disagree? Jamie Dimon: So you would go to UBS and not JPMorgan? Mike Mayo: I didn’t say that, that’s their argument. Jamie Dimon: That’s why I’m richer than you. [BloombergTV]
[Elliott Capital's Paul] Singer said the unfathomable nature of banks’ public accounts made it impossible to know which were “actually risky or sound”. … Mr Singer noted that derivatives positions, in particular, were difficult for outside investors to parse and worried that banks did not always collateralise their positions. Mr Dimon said the bank did for all “major” clients. Mr Singer retorted: “Well, we’re a minor client then.”
Whoops! Guess someone else doesn’t know what positions banks collateralize. I suspect someone at Elliott is already on the phone with JPMorgan to renegotiate their CSA. Also so many other people; I count about $50 billion of uncollateralized (fair value) derivative exposure at JPMorgan, suggesting that it fully collateralizes a little under two-thirds of its trades.1 Perhaps those are the two-thirds with the major clients, but if so that seems a little irrelevant. That’s a lot of minor-client money.
Why does Singer care? Well I guess he wants better collateral terms from JPMorgan? More seriously … there is whatever incentive to say things that always exists at Davos sessions, which I guess is a thing, ugh.2 Then there is the broad question of whether banks are too opaque to invest in. Singer is not alone in thinking that the answer is no; we talked a while back about how a lot of smart people get kind of freaked out by bank financial statements; derivatives, as well as other buzzwords like prop trading and opacity, play a role in their conclusions as well. Also here is a funny article about how 60% of Bloomberg subscribers are basically commie anarchists: Read more »
“At first I thought it was a friend of mine pulling a prank. I thought it was Lloyd Blankfein,” Jamie Dimon said yesterday in Germany, re: the time Tom Brady called to cheer him up about JPMorgan’s $6.2 billion trading loss. He didn’t elaborate but it’s pretty obvious that the day Goldman was sued over Abacus, Dimon called over to GS pretending to be Aretha Franklin, telling Lloyd “no one’s got any R-E-S-P-E-C-T for clever investment products,” while months after JPMorgan bought Bear Stears, JD received a call from someone claiming to be “Jimmy Cayne” calling from the lobby with a sample of 90210 kush that he insisted Dimon had to come down and try but “A-SAP, ’cause Big J had to double park his truck.” [Bloomberg]
Back in October, the most wonderful aspect of the JPMorgan Whale Tale emerged in the pages of Vanity Fair: the day Vice-Chairman Jimmy Lee barricaded himself in his office determined to come up with a way to help Jamie Dimon, and after hours of thinking real hard, summoned his six secretaries and told them they had a job to do, which was getting Tom Brady on the horn so he could deliver a pep talk sure to cheer up the boss. Was the call kind of awkward, considering the two had never spoken and Brady’s lack of useful investment ideas likely meant his big speech involved not much more than “Even Super Bowl champion quarterbacks have bad days” and “Keep your chin up out there?” Probably. And yet some sort of bond was clearly forged, which would explain why Dimon felt compelled to throw Brady this bone: Read more »
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 »