How does JP Morgan lose $2 billion in a single trade?

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase

The craziness of one trader at JP Morgan Chase having the power to lose $2 billion is totally blowing my mind. Didn’t we just pass laws that would reign in out-of-control risky betting by banks? This is a bank that we, the American people, insure. If it goes belly-up then we will be expected to pay the bill. That’s more risk than I can take. I suspect that is more risk than the American public can stomach.

From RS:

I’m still not entirely clear on what the trades by Bruno Iksil, the so-called “London Whale,” were exactly. According to the excellent Felix Salmon at Reuters, Iksil had taken a massive long position on corporate CDS, and when word of this leaked out, the market turned on him and beat his brains out. From Salmon’s piece:

Whenever a trader has a large and known position, the market is almost certain to move violently against that trader — and that seems to be exactly what happened here. On the conference call, when asked what he should have been watching more closely, Dimon said “trading losses — and newspapers”. It wasn’t a joke. Once your positions become public knowledge, the market will smell blood.

If you’re wondering why you should care if some idiot trader (who apparently has been making $100 million a year at Chase, a company that has been the recipient of at least $390 billion in emergency Fed loans) loses $2 billion for Jamie Dimon, here’s why: because J.P. Morgan Chase is a federally-insured depository institution that has been and will continue to be the recipient of massive amounts of public assistance. If the bank fails, someone will reach into your pocket to pay for the cleanup. So when they gamble like drunken sailors, it’s everyone’s problem.

Activity like this is exactly what the Volcker rule, which effectively banned risky proprietary trading by federally insured institutions, was designed to prevent. It will be argued that this trade was a technically a hedge, and therefore exempt from the Volcker rule. Not only does that explanation sound fishy to me (as Salmon notes, for Iksil’s trade to be a hedge, this would mean Chase had an equally giant and insane short bet on against corporate debt, which seems unlikely), but it’s sort of immaterial anyway: whether or not this bet technically violated the Volcker rule, it definitely violated the spirit of the law. Hedge or no hedge, we don’t want big, federally-insured, too-big-to-fail banks making giant nuclear-powered derivatives bets.

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Errington C. Thompson, MD

Dr. Thompson is a surgeon, scholar, full-time sports fan and part-time political activist. He is active in a number of community projects and initiatives. Through medicine, he strives to improve the physical health of all he treats.

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The Thirteeneth Juror

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