Cryin: Dimon, J.P. Morgan Chase Lose $2 Billion
May 11, 2012 "Rolling Stone" - -A quick note on the disastrous news emanating from J.P. Morgan Chase, whose unflappable (well, unflappable until yesterday) CEO Jamie Dimon yesterday disclosed that the bank suffered $2 billion in trading losses this quarter.
Here’s the summation from the New York Times:
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:
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.
This incident is certain to reignite the debate about Dodd-Frank and may undermine the broad effort to roll back the bill, which we wrote about in the latest issue of the magazine. Staffers on the Hill started mobilizing the instant the Chase news hit the airwaves yesterday, and you can bet we'll hear more debate in the next few months about not only the Volcker Rule but the Lincoln Rule, which was designed to wall off risky swaps from the federally-insured side of these banks. I’ve heard from all sides today, with some thinking the Chase trade was Dodd-Frank compliant, and others saying it probably violated both the Volcker and the Lincoln rules.
Either way, the incident underscored the basic problem. If J.P. Morgan Chase wants to act like a crazed cowboy hedge fund and make wild exacta bets on the derivatives market, they should be welcome to do so. But they shouldn’t get to do it with cheap cash from the Fed’s discount window, and they shouldn’t get to do it with money from the federally-insured bank accounts of teachers, firemen and other such real people. It’s a simple concept: you either get to be a bank, or you get to be a casino. But you can’t be both. If we don’t have rules to enforce that concept, we ought to get some.
Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books, most recently The Great Derangement and Griftopia, and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary.