Wonkbook: The losses and lessons of Hedgegate

at 07:15 AM ET, 05/14/2012

On Saturday, at 9:17am, Henry Blodget, the editor of Business Insider, asked the question that was on everyone's mind: "So, when is JP Morgan going to fire the incompetent fools who just lost $2 billion and trashed the firm's reputation?"


JPMorgan Chase is expected to accept the resignation of one of the highest-ranking women on Wall Street after the bank lost $2 billion in a trading blunder, a person familiar with the matter said May 13. (Mark Lennihan - AP)
The answer, according to the Wall Street Journal, is...soon. The paper reports that the botched trade is "likely to result this week in the departure of three of the highest ranking executives with direct ties to the investments."

Over at Seeking Alpha, Gene Kirsch tried to put Hedgegate into a broader context. "JPMorgan losses are reported to be actually $800 million in Q2 with the potential for legal and other losses up to $4.2 billion over a longer period of time, possibly exceeding one year," he wrote. "The banking unit of JPMorgan Chase alone made $12.4 billion last year. The holding company has over $2.26 trillion in assets and is the largest U.S. bank and 8th largest in the world. The holding company made $29.9 billion in operating income and just over $20 billion in net income for 2011. So, this initial loss of $800M represents approximately 4% of its total net profit for all of 2011, less than 2.7% of its operating income."

The firm, in other words, can manage it. Though as Brad DeLong was quick to point out, tallying the direct losses misses the episode's larger impact on the firm's value. "The revelation that JPMC did not have control over its derivatives book--even though accompanied by promises of multiple firings and deep reforms--destroyed 1/7 of JPMCs franchise value." Turns out the market doesn't much like it when what's reputed to be the safest bank on Wall Street turns out to be incompetent.

Jared Bernstein draws out the larger lesson nicely, and so I'll quote him at some length. "The fundamental truth here is the one known since Adam (Smith, that is) and amplified by the great financial economist Hy Minsky: humans underprice risk. Their proclivity to do so increases as the business cycle progresses and confidence takes over (remember, JP’s bet was unwound by the fact that the economy wasn’t as strong as they thought). The advent of a global derivatives market with notional trades in the trillions greatly amplifies the risks."

"The fact that humans like Jamie Dimon—he who presided over JP’s self-proclaimed 'fortress balance sheet'—he who inveighed against financial reform as imposing unnecessary oversight on such skilled risk managers as he and his staff—fall prey to this fundamental truth only underscores the lesson of this episode in financial hubris."

"And that is this: financial markets are inherently unstable. They will neither self-correct nor self-regulate. Their instability poses a threat to markets and economies and people across the globe. Therefore, they need to be regulated. That’s not to say that anyone knows the best way to do this yet in order to balance the necessity of oversight with the dynamics of the markets. We don’t know where to set the speed limits. It must be an iterative process. But we do know they need to be set, and JP’s loss should be taken as a warning that our tendency is to set them too low."

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Top stories

1) Euro zone leaders are seriously discussing a Greek exit. "Eurozone central bankers have talked publicly for the first time of managing a possible Greek exit from Europe’s monetary union as stalemate in Athens talks on a coalition government raises the prospect that Greece will renege on the terms of its international bailout. The comments by members of the European Central Bank’s governing council indicate that the risk of eurozone fragmentation is being taken increasingly seriously by the region’s policymakers. They mark a significant shift at the ECB, which has previously argued that European treaties do not allow for an exit and that a break-up would cause incalculable economic damage." Ralph Atkins in the FT.

Greece is headed towards new elections. "Greece appears headed to new parliamentary elections next month, further delaying its efforts to meet international demands to overhaul its economy, after leaders of the country’s major political parties declared little hope Sunday for a last-ditch effort to form a coalition government...Greek President Karolos Papoulias met with politicians Sunday in an effort to construct a unity government that could guide the country through the bailout program, and he planned to continue discussions Monday. But with top leaders expressing little hope for compromise after a week of efforts, it appeared likely that Papoulias would be forced to call new elections, most likely for June 10 or 17. Hopes for compromise have rested on Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the anti-bailout Coalition of the Radical Left Party, also called Syriza...But Tsipras has refused to go along with the pro-business New Democracy party, which won 19 percent of the May 6 vote, and the Socialists, who won 13 percent." Michael Birnbaum in The Washington Post.

KRUGMAN: "we’re talking about months, not years, for this to play out."

@TheStalwart: Weird. As @renovatio_news points out, #quediceKrugman (What Krugman Says) is trending in Spain. http://twitpic.com/9ktvbo

2) Wall Street looks the same to voters. The giant $2 billion trading loss at JPMorgan Chase highlights a central problem in President Barack Obama’s case for a second term: Four years after the financial crisis nearly brought the nation to its knees, very little appears to have changed. No high-profile bank executives are in jail. Special multi-agency task forces to go after financial fraud and mortgage market abuses appeared in State of the Union addresses, only to issue a few news releases and mostly vanish from public view. And now one of the largest banks in the United States, headed by a Democrat and operating with government guarantees, has turned in the kind of headline-grabbing, casino-style style loss that drives voters crazy and that Obama’s financial reform bill was supposed to stop. Ben White in Politico .

JPMorgan Chase has been lobbying to make exactly the kind of trades that just lost the company billions of dollars. "Soon after lawmakers finished work on the nation’s new financial regulatory law, a team of JPMorgan Chase lobbyists descended on Washington. Their goal was to obtain special breaks that would allow banks to make big bets in their portfolios, including some of the types of trading that led to the $2 billion loss now rocking the bank. Several visits over months by the bank’s well-connected chief executive, Jamie Dimon, and his top aides were aimed at persuading regulators to create a loophole in the law, known as the Volcker Rule. The rule was designed by Congress to limit the very kind of proprietary trading that JPMorgan was seeking...The loophole is known as portfolio hedging, a strategy that essentially allows banks to view an investment portfolio as a whole and take actions to offset the risks of the entire portfolio. That contrasts with the traditional definition of hedging, which matches an individual security or trading position with an inversely related investment -- so when one goes up, the other goes down." Edward Wyatt in The New York Times.

The real response to JPMorgan Chase's loss may come from global regulators, not the Volcker rule. "The size and scale of the surprise $2bn loss at JPMorgan Chase last week is likely to accelerate plans by global regulators to force banks to improve their trading risk models...While initial reactions to the JPMorgan loss last week focused on how it could reshape the US debate over implementing the 'Volcker rule' ban on proprietary trading, the misstep by one of the world’s largest banks could have far broader consequences. The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, which sets global rules, has already sought a replacement for Value at Risk - the main measure of potential trading losses - and looked at additional capital requirements to cover potential damages that are not adequately measured by existing models. That project was seen as a long-term effort when it was announced two weeks ago, but it has now gained urgency and could be pushed through more quickly." Brooke Masters and Tracy Alloway in The Financial Times.

CONFUSED? Here's an explainer on JPMorgan Chase's loss.

@davidmwessel: Barney Frank on JPM: Case that banks don't need new rules to avoid repeat of '08 crisis "at least $2 billion harder to make today” (DJNS)

3) Republican state officials are dragging their feet on setting up exchanges. "In about two dozen states across the country, the insurance marketplaces at the heart of the 2010 health-care law remain in limbo, with Republican governors or lawmakers who oppose the statute refusing to act until the Supreme Court decides its constitutionality...In states with Democratic governors, such as New Hampshire and Minnesota, it is often Republican-dominated legislatures that are causing the hold-up. And in six states where Republicans hold both branches of government, including Kansas and South Dakota, state assemblies haven’t even considered laws to establish the marketplaces. Though the battles primarily break along partisan lines, there have been at least a half-dozen exceptions. Last spring, the Republican governor of Nevada chose not to stand in the way of an exchange bill adopted by the majority Democratic assembly." N.C. Aizenman in The Washington Post.

4) Congressional transportation bills won't fill America's infrastructure funding shortfall. "The nation’s population is growing at a steady pace, yet infrastructure investments lag. The lifelines of commerce -- roads, bridges, runways, ports -- are showing their age, and in this era of fiscal austerity it may be a long time before they get rebuilt...The financing fiasco has been well-known for years -- in fact, the last transportation bill, enacted in 2005, ordered up a blue-ribbon commission tasked with studying the financing problem and making recommendations for how to fix it. The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission’s final report, issued in January 2008, a year before the last transportation bill was to expire, recommended that the country needs to be investing at least $225 billion annually from 'all sources' for the next 50 years in order to upgrade infrastructure to a state of good repair and make transportation advances. The Senate’s current transportation bill, in comparison, would fund highways and transit at $109 billion over two years." Kathryn Wolfe in Politico.

Top op-eds

1) BAKER AND HASSETT: We need a targeted response to long-term unemployment. "Policy makers must come together and recognize that this is an emergency, and fashion a comprehensive re-employment policy that addresses the specific needs of the long-term unemployed. A policy package that as a whole should appeal to the left and the right should spend money to help expand public and private training programs with proven track records; expand entrepreneurial opportunities by increasing access to small-business financing; reduce government hurdles to the formation of new businesses; and explore subsidies for private employers who hire the long-term unemployed. Those who hire for government jobs must do their share, too: managers who are filling open positions should be given explicit incentives to reconnect these lost workers. Every month of delay is a month in which our unemployed friends and neighbors drift further away." Dean Baker and Kevin Hassett in The New York Times.

@davidfrum: "50 to 100% increase in death rates for older male workers in yrs immediately following a job loss"

2) YGLESIAS: America is headed towards default. "House Republicans voted to take money away from programs meant to help poor people and give it to the military instead. That’s not my idea of wise policy, but that’s what was terrible about it. The problem is that the vote constitutes a collective Republican welching on the agreement that was reached last spring to raise the statutory debt ceiling and avoid national default. Yesterday’s vote doesn’t undo the deal or cause any immediate problems, but by so speedily backing out of their agreement, the Republicans have done something much worse--made it impossible for anyone to negotiate with them in the future, because it’s clear they cannot be trusted to keep the promises they made. If President Obama wins re-election, the debt-ceiling issue will have to be confronted again, but now in a Congress that has been poisoned by the Republicans’ welching on the last agreement. The country, in other words, is set for an even more severe version of the crisis that crushed financial markets last summer." Matthew Yglesias in Slate.

3) KRUGMAN: JPMorgan Chase's loss proves the need for bank regulation. "Banks are special, because the risks they take are borne, in large part, by taxpayers and the economy as a whole. And what JPMorgan has just demonstrated is that even supposedly smart bankers must be sharply limited in the kinds of risk they’re allowed to take on. Why, exactly, are banks special? Because history tells us that banking is and always has been subject to occasional destructive 'panics,' which can wreak havoc with the economy as a whole...So what can be done? In the 1930s, after the mother of all banking panics, we arrived at a workable solution, involving both guarantees and oversight. On one side, the scope for panic was limited via government-backed deposit insurance; on the other, banks were subject to regulations intended to keep them from abusing the privileged status they derived from deposit insurance, which is in effect a government guarantee of their debts." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

@Austan_Goolsbee: #lettersyouwontsee: Dear Mr. Volcker, you were right all along. we're now fixing things and won't let it happen again. yours, wall St.

4) SLOAN: JPMorgan Chase doesn't prove the need for the Volcker Rule. "The Volcker Rule, named for former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, is an example of the problem involved in regulating giant companies in a complex world. The principle sounds wonderful and simple: Don’t let banks use federally insured deposits for risky trades. But implementing it is proving to be incredibly difficult, as realists, including me, predicted would happen. Once bank lawyers finish finding loopholes in the detailed provisions, whatever they prove to be, the rule will probably have little meaningful impact. So bash Morgan all you like for its trading losses, and feel free to snicker at the spectacle of Jamie Dimon losing his swagger and having to eat crow. But don’t confuse Morgan’s mess-up with the supposed need for the Volcker Rule. The Volcker Rule would have symbolic impact, by appearing to rein in Wall Street. But it will prove to be more useful as a full-employment act for loophole specialists than for reining in the banks." Allan Sloan in The Washington Post.

5) SNOW: Tax cuts on dividends and capital gains should stay. "Nine years ago this month Congress passed President George W. Bush's Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act. That bill's lower rates on capital, as well as the continuity in tax policy it established, have helped make our economy far more resilient. The legislation's centerpiece was a reduction in the taxation of dividends and capital gains to 15%. Unfortunately, the 2003 tax rates, including those on capital income, are due to expire at the end of the year. Capital warrants special tax treatment because of the central role it plays in generating economic growth and jobs. Capital is the very lifeblood of the market economy, the mainstay of innovation, and the foundation for future prosperity. As more of it is put to work today, labor output and wages will rise tomorrow. An appreciation of that critical relationship should guide how the tax system treats earnings from capital." John Snow in The Wall Street Journal.

6) THALER: Beware of slippery slope arguments on healthcare. "One pernicious category of imaginary risks involves those created by users of the dreaded 'slippery slope' arguments. Such arguments are dangerous because they are popular, versatile and often convincing, yet completely fallacious. Worse, they are creeping into an arena that should be above this sort of thing: the Supreme Court, in its deliberations on health care reform...Justice Scalia is arguing that if the court lets Congress create a mandate to buy health insurance, nothing could stop Congress from passing laws requiring everyone to buy broccoli and to join a gym...Please stop! The very fact that a slippery slope is being cited as grounds for declaring the law unconstitutional -- despite that 'significant deference' usually given to laws passed by Congress -- tells you all that you need to know about the argument’s validity. Can anyone imagine Congress passing a broccoli mandate law, much less the court allowing it to take effect?" Richard Thaler in The New York Times.

Top long reads

Jeffrey Toobin on how John Roberts orchestrated Citizens United: "Citizens United is a distinctive product of the Roberts Court. The decision followed a lengthy and bitter behind-the-scenes struggle among the Justices that produced both secret unpublished opinions and a rare reargument of a case. The case, too, reflects the aggressive conservative judicial activism of the Roberts Court. It was once liberals who were associated with using the courts to overturn the work of the democratically elected branches of government, but the current Court has matched contempt for Congress with a disdain for many of the Court’s own precedents. When the Court announced its final ruling on Citizens United, on January 21, 2010, the vote was five to four and the majority opinion was written by Anthony Kennedy. Above all, though, the result represented a triumph for Chief Justice Roberts. Even without writing the opinion, Roberts, more than anyone, shaped what the Court did. As American politics assumes its new form in the post-Citizens United era, the credit or the blame goes mostly to him."

Andrew Martin and Andrew Lehren on the skyrocketing cost of college: "With more than $1 trillion in student loans outstanding in this country, crippling debt is no longer confined to dropouts from for-profit colleges or graduate students who owe on many years of education, some of the overextended debtors in years past. Now nearly everyone pursuing a bachelor’s degree is borrowing. As prices soar, a college degree statistically remains a good lifetime investment, but it often comes with an unprecedented financial burden. Ninety-four percent of students who earn a bachelor’s degree borrow to pay for higher education -- up from 45 percent in 1993, according to an analysis by The New York Times of the latest data from the Department of Education. This includes loans from the federal government, private lenders and relatives. For all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000."

'90s nostalgia interlude: Nine Inch Nails play "The Becoming" in studio..

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come: Wholesale prices are down; rebates will be credited to the ACA; Secure Communities expands; the IEA doesn't like Obama's plans; and cats, in slow motion.

Economy

Europe's woes could hit the U.S.. "During bouts of European turmoil in the past two years, U.S. financial markets regularly stumbled and growth ebbed due to fears of a euro-zone meltdown. But Europe muddled through and avoided calamity, and the effects on the U.S. economy weren't all bad. U.S. exports to Europe rose, and many U.S. banks benefited as overseas competition fell away. Now, the troubles in the currency union--the threat of a Greek exit from the euro zone, rising borrowing costs in Spain and Italy, recessions in several European countries--are renewing fears of an escalating crisis that could deliver a more serious blow to the fragile U.S. recovery. U.S. companies are bracing for a hit. Networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. last week blamed worries about Europe, along with other uncertainty, for its cautious outlook. Watchmaker Fossil Inc. reported a slowdown in German sales on top of deeper pullbacks in Italy and Spain. Chemicals firm Celanese Corp. attributed its disappointing results to weakening European demand." Sudeep Reddy in The Wall Street Journal.

Wholesale prices declined for the first time this year. "U.S. wholesale prices declined for the first time this year, suggesting a drop in energy costs is helping to keep inflation under control. The index of producer prices, which measures how much wholesalers and manufacturers pay for goods and materials, fell a seasonally adjusted 0.2% in April from a month earlier, the Labor Department said Friday. The decline, the first since December, was due entirely to cheaper prices for energy goods, including gasoline and utility gas...The report on producer prices suggests inflation is subdued, after a run-up in oil prices earlier this year pushed costs beyond the Federal Reserve's annual inflation target of roughly 2%. Lower inflation could reassure Fed officials as they keep a key interest rate exceptionally low through late 2014 to stimulate the economy. Lower inflation also gives the Fed more room to act, perhaps through additional bond purchases, if economic growth falters." Josh Mitchell in The Wall Street Journal.

@BobCusack: "Where are the jobs?" references (from both parties) in the Congressional Record between '09-'12: 357. Between '05-'08: 3.

Vintage bicycle manufacturing tutorial interlude: How a bicycle is made.

Health Care

Insurers will be required to credit premium rebates to Obamacare. "Health-insurance companies must tell customers who get a premium rebate this summer that the check is the result of the Obama administration's health-care law, according to federal guidelines released Friday. The move is the latest sign the Obama administration is trying to draw attention to the law's benefits before the fall elections, even though the law faces an uncertain future. The Supreme Court is expected to decide in June whether its central plank--a mandate that everyone carry insurance--violates the Constitution. Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, has pledged to wipe out the law if elected. Under the 2010 legislation, insurers that don't spend a specified amount of revenue on actual medical care--as opposed to administrative costs--must refund the difference to customers." Louise Radnofsky in The Wall Street Journal.

Domestic Policy

The Senate cybersecurity bill is running into privacy concerns. "There’s yet another hurdle for Sen. Joe Lieberman’s cybersecurity bill: Democrats who say it doesn’t go far enough to protect consumer privacy. With Senate Republicans standing firm against the measure, the friendly fire from Democrats means there’s only more work ahead as Lieberman and others scramble to cobble together 60 votes to move the bill. A handful of members, including Sens. Al Franken of Minnesota and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, are echoing the concerns of civil liberties groups, which are growing increasingly fearful that consumers’ data could end up being passed around by companies and the government as security experts share with each other information about emerging cyberthreats. To them and others, the Senate measure as written would specify too few limitations on how data could be used and cover entities with too broad a protection from liability." Tony Romm and Jennifer Martinez in Politico.

The Obama administration will expand the controversial Secure Communities program. "Obama administration officials have announced that a contentious fingerprinting program to identify illegal immigrants will be extended across Massachusetts and New York next week, expanding federal enforcement efforts despite opposition from the governors and immigrant groups in those states. In blunt e-mails sent Tuesday to officials and the police in the two states, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said the program, Secure Communities, would be activated 'in all remaining jurisdictions' this Tuesday...Last year, officials at the agency said they had determined that they did not require consent from states to start the program. Citing antiterrorism legislation that Congress passed in 2002, the officials canceled agreements they had signed in 40 states and said they would extend the program nationwide by 2013." Julia Preston in The New York Times.

Minority contracts fell last year for the first time in a decade. "U.S. government contracts to black-and Hispanic-owned small businesses fell last year for the first time in a decade, declining at a sharper rate than awards to all companies. Contracts to the black-owned firms dropped 8 percent to $7.12 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, compared with fiscal 2010. Awards to Hispanic-owned businesses decreased 7 percent to $7.89 billion, according to federal procurement data.Contracts to the two minority groups fell at a faster pace than all contracts, which dipped 1 percent as the U.S. government slowed spending to help reduce the federal deficit. The gap may reflect stiffer competition over a shrinking pool of revenue and the recession’s greater impact on black and Hispanic firms...The absence of these set-aside programs may help explain the dip in awards for some minority groups, said James McCullough, who leads the government contracts practice at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson in Washington." Danielle Ivory in The Washington Post.

Cuteness amplified interlude: Cats in slow motion.

Energy

Fracking is sparking a boom in sand mining. "Scouts armed with geological maps and elevations from Google Earth are knocking on doors in the upper Midwest in search of what seems too common to mine: sand. The sedimentary material is in high demand among U.S. oil and natural-gas producers, setting off a sand rush in Wisconsin, Minnesota and other Midwestern states. While adding jobs, the mining boom is prompting pushback from some local residents, who are surprised by the frenzy and leery of its impact on their communities. Sand mined in the Midwest is used in places such as North Dakota and Pennsylvania to tap oil and gas reserves. The U.S. producers' demand for sand reached 28.7 million tons in 2011, up from six million tons in 2007, according to independent laboratory PropTester Inc. and consultancy Kelrik LLC...Sand, injected deep underground to prop open fractures in shale formations and allow oil and gas to flow out, is important in 'fracking.'" Mark Peters and Isabel Ordonez in The Wall Street Journal.

Lawmakers are torn on how to use high-speed rail funds. "As roads become more crowded each year, transportation planners have been looking for a game-changer that can reduce congestion and efficiently move millions of people. Enter rail -- a centuries-old mode that may be a shining savior to those hoping to push the United States into a new way of getting people around at high speeds. But it won’t work everywhere -- a lot depends on simple geography. And lawmakers are torn between how to use limited funds: along the densely packed East Coast, which has a history of commuter rail, or out West, where California has ponied up billions of dollars to build a high-speed system, much of it from scratch. Amtrak’s Acela service from Boston to Washington runs the fastest trains in the country, maxing out at 150 mph and increasing soon to 160 mph...Three thousand miles away, California is inching ever closer to its high-speed rail vision, having formally approved the initial Central Valley route." Burgess Everett and Adam Snider in Politico.

The IEA has concerns about Obama's plans to increase oversight of oil markets. "Barack Obama’s plans for strengthened supervision of the oil markets have come under fire from the International Energy Agency, which has warned they could lead to sharp swings in crude prices. The warning, contained in the agency’s monthly oil market report, came in response to moves by authorities in the US and Europe to crack down on what they see as excessive speculation in commodities markets using derivatives. The US president’s proposal to give the Commodity Futures Trading Commission authority to direct exchanges to raise margin requirements to address increased price volatility or prevent excessive speculation or manipulation could have the opposite effect, the western countries’ oil watchdog said on Friday. The IEA said raising margin requirements in oil futures trading might increase price volatility and concentrate market share in the hands of large speculators while having no effect on price levels." Guy Chazan in The Financial Times.

America is running out of helium. "Sure, Congress has plenty of crises to deal with: a weak economy, an expiring highway bill, the end-of-the-year 'taxmageddon.' But now there’s another one floating into view. The United States is running out of helium. Yes, helium. Thanks, in part, to a 1996 law that has forced the government to sell off its helium reserves at bargain-bin prices, the country’s stockpile of the relatively rare and nonrenewable gas could soon dwindle...Congress is slowly grasping the extent of the problem. At a sleepy Senate hearing Thursday morning, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee listened to an array of experts chat about the gas. The hearing was tied to a bill, sponsored by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), that would change how the government sells helium from its Federal Helium Reserve (yes, this exists) in order to prevent shortages." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

@mattyglesias: Helium Privatization Act is a classic example of inefficient pseudo-privatization gone horribly wrong

Wonkbook is compiled and produced with help from Karl Singer and Michelle Williams.

 
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