London Whale

Today U.S. prosecutors charged former JPMorgan CIO traders Javier Martin-Artajo and Julien Grout with various crimes for mis-marking the London Whale structured credit portfolio positions. The complaints are here and here and reading them you get the strong sense that Bruno Iksil, the Whale himself, was the hero of the whole saga. Oh, sure, he built a colossal portfolio of what turned out to be massively money-losing speculative trades, and yes, he did sit by and watch as his boss Martin-Artajo and his underling Grout conspired to mis-mark that portfolio to disguise hundreds of millions of dollars of losses, but: it made him angry.1 So that’s something? Anyway, he is not being charged and is cooperating with authorities, and I guess one benefit of cooperating, in addition to the not prison, is that you come across pretty well in the complaints.

Meanwhile Martin-Artajo and Grout were not pure of heart, per the complaints; they conspired to mis-mark the book to, in Martin-Artajo’s case, make sure that their bosses didn’t take it away from him,2 and in Grout’s case, I dunno, to do what Martin-Artajo told him to do I guess. The dynamics of this terrible terrible team are a bit unclear. From the emails and recorded calls Martin-Artajo seems like the sort of guy you would not want to work with if you were law-abiding and massively money-losing; he spent a lot of time yelling at Iksil for his conscience.3 Read more »

You might not remember this but there’s a bank called JPMorgan and that bank invests its excess cash in a portfolio of available-for-sale securities and a year ago this week it announced that a certain cetacean had lost $5.787 billion hedging those securities. Man, that pissed people off. There was a hearing and everything. Good times.


Bank of America Corp’s balance sheet suffered from rising bond yields in the second quarter, suggesting that the second-largest U.S. bank may be more exposed to interest-rate risk than some of its major rivals. … Bank of America appears to have used mortgage bonds in an investment portfolio to bet yields would stay stable and relatively low, say analysts who studied the size and composition of its holdings.

It lost that bet. U.S. bond yields surged after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said the bank would taper its latest bond buying programs. Bank of America booked some $5.73 billion of paper losses from these securities in the quarter, and still held about $170 billion as of June 30.

Those losses and others were in a portfolio, known as the “available-for-sale” book, which affects a bank’s balance sheet but does not affect earnings.

Are you not tickled by the coincidence? Read more »

Capiche? Read more »

Is Jamie Dimon too powerful at JPMorgan? I have a wonderful, simple test in mind, though it may be impracticable; anyway here it is:

  • if a majority of shareholders vote in favor of the nonbinding proposal to strip him of his role as chairman of the board, and
  • he remains chairman of the board, then
  • he’s probably too powerful!

Let’s find out!

Honestly, who cares who cares who cares who cares if JPMorgan’s board has an independent Chairman or just an independent Presiding Director? The board’s job is to keep an eye on Jamie; if it failed to do that then giving it a fancy new title doesn’t seem likely to improve performance. Is it your impression that Jamie Dimon, who apparently rides roughshod over pissant Presiding Directors,1 will nonetheless be meek and subservient when faced with a Chairman?

Discussion about this proposal is confused because some people think that having an independent chairman is a good thing in all circumstances, or at least say they do; CalPERs’s governance czar, for instance, believes that “There’s a fundamental conflict in combining the roles of chairman and C.E.O.” and so CalPERS will vote to split the roles at JPMorgan just as they did last year. Others think that, y’know, it depends on the people. The people here would presumably remain the same though there’s some rumbling that Dimon would take his toys and go home if he couldn’t be chairman too.

Outside of CalPERS, though, the universal-good-governance theory doesn’t seem to move anyone much. Here, if you’re interested, are JPMorgan’s top 20 shareholders: Read more »

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 »

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]

There are a lot of things that, if you wanted to, you could legitimately blame on former JP Morgan employee London P. Whale. The $6.2 billion trading loss the bank incurred over the summer. Ina Drew getting fired. This awkward phone call. Some stuff you can’t pin on him, though many have tried: male pattern baldness, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Apple Maps, Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, tempting as it may be. Read more »

  • 30 Jan 2013 at 2:32 PM

Human-Whale Relations At JPMorgan Were Pretty Frosty

Is JPMorgan too big to manage the quantity of public confusion about its operations? Maybe? This Reuters story about how JPMorgan was betting against its own Whale trades is a bit silly: the fact that JPMorgan’s investment bank dealer desk may have been long (short) some of the instruments that JPMorgan’s Chief Investment Office was short (long) is not all that noteworthy. JPMorgan contains multitudes; the dealer desk and the CIO sit in different places and do different things and generally might have similar, offsetting, or entirely unrelated positions.1 In fact if you assume that the positions at issue here were mainly the Whale’s massive CDX NA IG position – he was very very long index credit, among other trades – you could imagine that the dealer desk would sort of naturally be short the same thing. A big part of a dealer’s job is to (1) write single-name CDS to people who want to short particular names and (2) buy index CDS to hedge.2 So it would naturally be looking to buy index protection, and if a certain whale of its acquaintance was selling – why not?

Still there is a piece of news here, which is this:

Two people familiar with Iksil and his boss, Javier Martin-Artajo, said the two CIO employees complained about the investment bank’s actions in the spring of 2012, accusing its traders of deliberately trying to move the market against the CIO by leaking information on its position to hedge funds. Iksil made his complaint to a member of JPMorgan’s compliance department, one of the people said. But those same sources said they had not seen any evidence to support that claim …

So, maybe news? There’s no evidence to support it; perhaps it’s just the Whale’s (retrospectively justified?) persecution complex. Still: the Whale crew thought that the investment bank were trying to make them take losses. Imagine that it’s true! Why would it be true? Read more »