JPMorgan Chase’s Gambling Problem

Bill Black on JP Morgan’s Gambling Problem, with the full article over at the Big Picture here:

We need to begin with context.  It was toxic financial derivatives (not) backed by fraudulent liar’s loan mortgages (“green slime”) that drove the U.S. crisis.  Paul Volcker urged the administration and Congress to bar any entity that received federal deposit insurance from investing in financial derivatives.  The Dodd-Frank Act did so in a provision called “the Volcker rule.”  Treasury Secretary Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke, who exist to serve the interests of CEOs of the largest banks, oppose the Volcker rule.  Jamie Dimon leads the banking industry’s opposition to the Volcker rule.  Dimon has a three-part strategy:  stall the Volcker rule, gut its effectiveness by creating a massive loophole, and get the rule repealed by a future Congress.  The loophole takes advantage of the fact that the Volcker rule was not intended to prevent banks from using derivatives to create (true) hedges.  The current draft of the rule, however, renders the rule useless because it allows banks to call non-hedges “hedges” – it adopts a standard I call “hedginess.”  A systemically dangerous institution (SDI) like JPMorgan has vast amounts of financial derivatives and it can (and does) call any speculative bet it takes in financial derivatives a “hedge.”

The NYT article demonstrates that JPMorgan is speculating, not hedging, and that the current draft of the Volcker rule would render us defenseless against the next financial crisis.  The article misses these analytics and presents a misleading portrayal of the purportedly good years of CIO under Princess Drew.  It turns out that CIO’s profits and losses come from the same practice – gambling on massive amounts of financial derivatives – not hedging.  The NYT misses this key analytical point.  Here is how the article portrays the events:

“But when the losses were mounting in recent weeks, Ms. Drew’s command of the chief investment office was far different from what it had been during her stellar performance of 2008, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former traders, bankers and executives at JPMorgan Chase.”

The CIO did not have a “stellar performance” in 2008.  It simply had a run of good luck at the gambling table.  Indeed, big wins in gambling indicate a terrible bank operated in an unsafe and unsound manner.  Big wins from gambling in financial derivatives can only come from enormous, extremely risky gambles.  A bank that makes enormous, extremely risky gambles is a bank that desperately needs to have its senior management team removed – immediately – and that is true regardless of how those bets turn out in any particular year.  There is no conceivable social purpose to providing the explicit federal subsidy of deposit insurance and the (much larger) implicit federal subsidy of “too big to fail” that all SDIs enjoy to a bank so that it can take massive gambles on financial derivatives.  The Jamie Dimons of the world know that if they win the gambles they will be made immensely wealthy and that when they lose the gambles massively the federal government will bail them out.  Every gamble a federally insured bank (or an implicitly guaranteed SDI) takes is a gamble with government money.  Bank leverage is always extreme in the modern era; it vastly exceeds the reported (and often inflated) capital.  The government is the true creditor through its explicit and implicit guarantees of the bank’s creditors.

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