Posts Tagged ‘derivatives’

JP Morgan Chase’s $2 Billion Loss Under Investigation

Monday, May 21st, 2012

As the Department of Justice and the FBI open their investigation into how JP Morgan Chase lost $2 billion, the government is investigating to determine if any criminal wrongdoing occurred.  The inquiry is in the preliminary stages.  Additionally, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which regulates derivatives trading, are also looking into JPMorgan’s trading activities.  JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon said that the bank made “egregious” mistakes and that the losses tied to synthetic credit securities were “self-inflicted.”

The probe is perceived as necessary, given the ongoing debate about bank regulation and reform, and one expert said it raised the level of concern around what happened.  “The FBI looks for evidence of crimes and goes after people who it alleges are criminals.  They want to send people to jail.  The SEC pursues all sorts of wrongdoing, imposes fines and is half as scary as the FBI,” said Erik Gordon, a professor in the law and business schools at the University of Michigan.

According to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the trading loss “helps make the case” for tougher rules on financial institutions, as regulators implement the Dodd-Frank law aimed at reining in Wall Street.  Geithner said the Federal Reserve, the SEC and the Obama administration are “going to take a very careful look” at the JPMorgan incident as they implement new regulations like the “Volcker Rule,” which bans banks from making bets with customers’ money.  “The Fed and the SEC and the other regulators — and we’ll be part of this process — are going to take a very careful look at this incident and make sure that we review the implications of what that means for the design of these remaining rules,” Geithner said.  Under review will be “not just the Volker Rule, which is important in this context, but the broader set of safeguards and reforms,” Geithner said, noting that regulators will also scrutinize capital requirements, limits on leverage and derivatives markets reforms.  “I’m very confident that we’re going to be able to make sure those come out as tough and effective as they need to be,” Geithner said.  “And I think this episode helps make the case, frankly.”

Geithner said that Dodd-Frank wasn’t intended “to prevent the unpreventable in terms of mistakes in judgment, but to make sure when those mistakes happen — and they’re inevitable — that they’re modest enough in size, and the system as a whole can handle them.”  The loss “points out how important it is that these reforms are strong enough and effective enough,” he said.

With the passage of Dodd-Frank, banks are required to hold more capital, reduce their leverage and assure better cushions across the financial system to accommodate losses.  Geithner’s comments are similar to those made by other White House officials, who have avoided blasting the bank for its bad judgment, and instead used the event to bolster the case for the financial overhaul.

“We are aware of the matter and are looking into it,” a Justice Department official said “This is a preliminary look at what if anything might have taken place.”  The inquiry by the FBI’s financial crimes squad is in a “preliminary infancy stage,” the official said, and federal law enforcement agents are pursuing the matter “because of the company and the dollar amounts involved here.”

JPMorgan’s and the financial system’s ability to survive a loss that large showed that reforms put in place after the 2008 financial crisis have succeeded.  Nevertheless, the loss by the nation’s largest bank highlights the need for tough implementation of the Volcker Rule on proprietary trading and other rules that regulators are still finalizing.  “The whole point was, even if you’re smart, you can make mistakes, and since these banks are insured backed up by taxpayers, we don’t want you taking risks where eventually we might end up having to bail you out again, because we’ve done that, been there, didn’t like it,” according to President Obama.

Mark A. Calabria, Director of Financial Regulation Studies for the Cato Institute, takes a contrarian view.  Writing in the Huffington Post, Calabria says that “Unsurprisingly, President Obama and others have used the recent $2 billion loss by JPMorgan Chase as a call for more regulation. Obviously, our existing regulations have worked so well that more can only be better!  What the president and his allies miss is that recent events at JPMorgan illustrate how the system should — and does — work.  The losses at JPMorgan were borne not by the American taxpayer, but by JPMorgan.  The losses also appear to have been offset by gains so that in the last quarter JPMorgan still turned a profit.  This is the way the system should work.  Those who take the risk, take the loss (or gain).  It is a far better alignment of incentives than allowing Washington to gamble trillions, leaving someone else holding the bag.  The losses at JPMorgan have also resulted in the quick dismissal of the responsible employees.  Show me the list of regulators who lost their jobs, despite the massive regulatory failures that occurred before and during the crisis.

According to Calabria, “President Obama has warned that ‘you could have a bank that isn’t as strong, isn’t as profitable making those same bets and we might have had to step in.’  Had to step in?  What the recent JPMorgan losses actually prove is that a major investment bank can take billions of losses, and the financial system continues to function even without an injection of taxpayer dollars.  It is no accident that many of those now advocating more regulation are the same people who advocated the bailouts.  Banks need to be allowed to take losses.  The president also sets up a ridiculous standard of error-free financial markets.  All human institutions, including banks and even the White House, are characterized by error and mistake.  Zero mistakes is an unattainable goal in any system in which human beings are involved.  What we need is not a system free of errors, but one that is robust enough to withstand them.  And the truth is that the more small errors we have, the fewer big errors we will have.  I am far more concerned over long periods of calm and profit than I am with periods of loss.  The recent JPMorgan losses remind market participants that risk is omnipresent.  It encourages due diligence on the part of investors and other market participants, something that was sorely lacking before the crisis.”

Federal Reserve Asks for Comments Before Implementing the Volcker Rule

Monday, October 24th, 2011

Federal regulators have requested public comment on the Volcker Rule — the Dodd-Frank Act restrictions that would ban American banks from making short-term trades of financial instruments for their own accounts and prevent them from owning or sponsoring hedge funds and private-equity funds.  The Volcker rule, released by the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, is intended to head off the risk-taking that caused the 2008 financial crisis.  The rule, which is little changed from drafts that have been leaked recently, would ban banks from taking positions held for 60 days or less, exempt certain market-making activities, change the way traders involved in market-making are compensated and assure that senior bank executives are responsible for compliance.

Analysts say the proposed rule could slash revenue and cut market liquidity in the name of limiting risk.  Banks such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc., have already been winding down their proprietary trading desks in anticipation of the Volcker Rule kicking in.  Banks’ fixed-income desks could see their revenues decline as much as 25 percent under provisions included in a draft, brokerage analyst Brad Hintz said.  Moody’s Investors Service said the rule would be “credit negative” for bondholders of Bank of America Corporation, Citigroup, Inc., Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley, “all of which have substantial market-making operations.”  The rule, named for former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, was included in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act with the intention of reining in risky trading by firms whose customer deposits are insured by the federal government.

John Walsh, a FDIC board member and head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, said that he was “delighted” that regulators had reached an agreement on the proposed rule, “given the controversy that has surrounded this provision — how it addressed root causes of the financial crisis.”  “I expect the agencies will move in a careful and deliberative manner in the development of this important rule, and I look forward to the extensive public comments that I’m sure will follow,” Martin J. Gruenberg, the FDIC’s acting chairman, said.  The rule will be open for public comment until January.

Not surprisingly, Wall Street opposes the rule, saying it will cut profits and limit liquidity at a difficult time for the banking industry.  Moody’s echoed those concerns, saying the current version of the Volcker rule would “diminish the flexibility and profitability of banks’ valuable market-making operations and place them at a competitive disadvantage to firms not constrained by the rule.”  Some Democratic lawmakers and consumer advocates are pushing to close loopholes in the rules, especially the broad exemption for hedging.  Supporters of the Volcker rule take issue with a plan to excuse hedging tied to “anticipatory” risk, rather than clear-and-present problems.  “Unfortunately, this initial proposal does not deliver on the promise of the Volcker Rule or the requirements of the statute,” said Marcus Stanley, policy director of Americans for Financial Reform, an advocacy group.  Additionally, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association raised concerns about whether the exemption for trades intended to make markets for customers is too narrow.

According to Moody’s, the large financial firms all have “substantial market-making operations,” which the Volcker Rule will target.  The regulations also will recreate compensation guidelines so pay doesn’t encourage big risk-taking.  Derivatives lawyer Sherri Venokur said restrictions on compensation are “intended to create a sea change in the mindsets of those who create the culture of our banking institutions — to value ‘safety and soundness’ as well as profitability.”

Equity analysts at Bernstein say that the Volcker Rule — if implemented in its current form – will slash Wall Street brokers’ revenues by 25 percent, and cut pre-tax margin of their fixed income trading businesses by 33 percent.  According to Bernstein, the Volcker Rule’s potential limitations are a surprise because it appears to prohibit flow trading in “nonexempt portions” of the bond-trading business.  Bernstein says inventory levels – and, in all probability, risk taking – must be based on client demands and not on “expectation of future price appreciation.”

A Bloomberg.com editorial offers support to the Volcker Rule, while admitting it won’t be perfect.  According to the editorial, “This week, the first of several regulatory agencies will consider a measure aimed at ending the practice.  Known as the Volcker rule, after Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, the measure would curb federally insured banks’ ability to make speculative bets on securities, derivatives or other financial instruments for their own profit — the kind of ‘proprietary’ trading that can lead to catastrophic losses.  Whatever form it takes will be far from perfect.  It will also be better than the status quo.  The bank bailouts of 2008, and the public outrage over traders’ and executives’ bonuses, laid bare a fundamental problem in big institutions such as Bank of America Corporation, Citigroup Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

“They attempt to combine two very different kinds of financial professionals: those who process payments, collect peoples’ deposits and make loans, and those who specialize in making big, risky bets with other peoples’ money.  When these big banks run into trouble, government officials face a dilemma. They want — and in some ways are obligated — to save the part of the bank that does the processing and lending, because those elements are crucial to the normal functioning of the economy.  But in doing so, they also end up bailing out the gamblers, a necessity that erodes public support for bailouts and stirs enmity for banks.  Separating the bankers from the gamblers is no easy task. Commercial banks’ explicit federal backing — including deposit insurance and access to emergency funds from the Federal Reserve — is attractive to proprietary traders, who can use a commercial bank’s access to cheap money to boost profits.  Bank executives like to employ traders because they generate juicy returns in good times that drive up the share price and justify large bonuses. In effect, both traders and managers are reaping the benefits of a government subsidy on financial speculation.  The Volcker rule will not — and probably cannot — fully dissolve the union of bankers and gamblers.”

House GOP Taking a Second Look at Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Law

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Congressional Republicans may water down the financial reform law.  The newly empowered Republicans in the House of Representatives will attempt to rein in regulators who are in the process of implementing the comprehensive reform of financial rules and advocate for a smaller government role in the mortgage market.  By taking control of the House in the recent mid-term elections, the GOP will have more influence over the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and greater sway over any technical fixes that Congress makes to rules that govern derivatives trading.

“We don’t want them to regulate capriciously, arbitrarily, without engaging in a cost-benefit analysis,” said Representative Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), a member of the House Financial Services Committee.  President Barack Obama brought attention to the Republicans’ intent in a recent radio and Internet address, noting that House and Senate members “are now beating the drum to repeal all of these reforms and consumer protections.  I think it would be a terrible mistake,” he said.

With Democrats still in control of the Senate and in the White House, it’s highly unlikely that the Republicans will be able to carry out a fundamental revision or even repeal of the Dodd-Frank law.  There’s also the possibility of a presidential veto if repeal legislation makes it through both houses on Congress.  Because the Republicans now have a majority in the House, the diminished number of Senate Democrats will have to reach across party lines on financial issues for the simple reason that any changes will require support from both parties.  Bipartisan compromise will be used to arrive at consensus in the next Congress, said Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD), who is replacing the retiring Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT), who headed the Senate Banking Committee.  According to Johnson, “We sometimes differ on how we achieve our goals, but we have to agree more often than not.”

Anthony Downs On Financial Reform

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Anthony Downs discusses the ins and outs of financial reform.  The nation’s financial system needs significantly more regulation than exists now.  The lack of tough regulatory powers strongly impacted the recent financial crash and the Great Recession that ensued.  The good news is that the Obama administration is moving firmly in this direction with financial reform legislation a critical item on its agenda.  This is the opinion of Anthony Downs,  a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and former President of the Real Estate Research Corporation.  In a recent interview for the Alter NOW Podcasts, Downs said that between 1980 and 2007, the value of international capital markets – including bank deposits, assets, equities, public and private debt – quadrupled relative to the world’s GDP, lifting millions of people out of poverty.  Although unprecedented, this growth relied heavily on borrowed money to finance higher living standards and highly leveraged loans with limited reserves backing them.  In the end, the growth was unable to be sustained.

The financial reform legislation currently undergoing reconciliation by a Senate-House conference committee is not a reinstatement of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act – which separated investment and commercial banking — because banks will still be allowed to deal with securities.  Under the new law, banks will have to register derivatives with some type of formal exchange and maintain records on who is borrowing money and under what terms.  This marks a significant change from before the Great Recession, when derivatives were traded with virtually no oversight.

Downs believes that former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan contributed to the financial crisis in two ways.  In 2001, when Greenspan was informed that there was fraud in the subprime housing market and that he should do something about it, he refused to take action because he didn’t believe in regulation.  According to Downs, “that was a terrible mistake and meant that all the horrible loans made in the subprime market could continue unchecked.”  Greenspan’s second error was to maintain low interest rates for as long as he did at a time when an enormous amount of capital was coming into the United States economy from overseas.  Because investors were avoiding the stock market, they put their money into real estate.  That drove the price of properties sky high and destroyed the concept of intelligent underwriting and evaluating the risk before approving the loan.

 
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Volcker Rule Is Giving Big Banks Headaches

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Volcker Rule implementation is scaring the big banks.  Curiosity is growing about which Wall Street banks will be the first to get out of proprietary trading or the private equity business as they restructure to come into compliance with new financial regulatory reform legislation. The Volcker Rule – named for former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker – limits banks from these practices and sets new levels on the size of private equity or hedge fund investments.  In other words, the banks are not allowed to hold more than three percent of their Tier 1 capital – a measure of their financial strength — in private equity or hedge fund investments.

Bank of America is almost in compliance, though Goldman Sachs must act more aggressively and is reported to be weighing several options to comply with the increased regulation.  The good news for the Wall Street banks is that they have several years in which they can reduce their holdings.  “They have time to adjust,” said Mark Nuccio, partner at Boston-based Ropes & Gray.  “I don’t think there’s any intention on behalf of the regulators to create economic dislocation at financial institutions.”

The new rules are driving certain banks to rethink their business, while others see the new law as a welcome excuse to distance themselves from unwanted hedge or private-equity funds.  “If you were leaning toward a strategic change anyway then now is a good time to re-evaluate the business because you have a regulator saying you shouldn’t be in this business anyway,” said Thomas Whelan, chief executive of Greenwich Alternative Investments.  This is particularly true for banks that quickly acquired hedge fund operations during the boom years.  At that time, having a hedge fund was essential to the strategic mix.  Since 2008, however, when hedge funds posted their worst-ever returns and clients tried to cash in assets, the math changed for many banks.

Senate, House Versions of Financial Reform Bill Headed to Reconciliation

Monday, June 7th, 2010

Senate passes financial reform legislation; the bill now must be reconciled with the House version.  Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) is enjoying a big victory in his last days in the Senate following passage of broad financial reform legislation designed to rein in the excesses that caused the financial meltdown.  First, the Senate and House versions of the bill must undergo reconciliation.  Under the new law, for example, homebuyers will have to provide proof of income when applying for a mortgage.  Additionally, a new consumer protection apparatus will monitor lenders who offer subprime loans and then raise interest rates to sky-high levels.

The legislation – which will bring openness to complex financial instruments such as derivatives – passed 59 – 31 and provides a way to liquidate financial institutions once viewed as too big to fail.  It also establishes a council of regulators who will monitor threats to the economy and specific restraints on the derivatives trading, which set off the toxic debts that froze the credit markets and prompted the Federal Reserve to make trillions of dollars of loans to banks on the brink of collapse.

The vote hands President Obama his second landmark legislative victory this year, following the March passage of his historic health-care bill. “Our goal is not to punish the banks,” he said hours before the final vote, “but to protect the larger economy and the American people from the kind of upheavals that we’ve seen in the past few years.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) summed up the legislation: “When this bill becomes law, the joyride on Wall Street will come to a screeching halt.”  The reconciled bill is expected to hit President Obama’s desk for his promised signature this summer.

Back to the Futures? Not Just Yet. Investors Still Spooked by Derivatives

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

It’s no surprise that investors are still wary of investing in derivatives, given the financial devastation that these vehicles’ collapse caused last year.  Proof of the fact is that the IPO of a financial instrument designed to be on American home prices failed because its auction did not generate adequate investor interest.51916680SC005_NYSE

According to its Securities and Exchange Commission filing, MacroMarkets turned down all auction bids because there was an “insufficient demand for an equal number of Down and Up shares”.  In other words, MacroMarkets was forced to abandon the auction process because the offering would work only if there was an equal number of shares in both the “up” and the “down” trusts – and if each pair of shares totaled $50.  The firm had initially set a minimum closing investment pool of $125 million, though CEO Sam Masucci did not disclose the value of the bids received before pulling the plug.

MacroMarkets sought out investment from homebuilders and banks who want to hedge their housing exposure, as well as foreign investors seeking a stake in U.S. real estate.  The problem is that investors had difficulty valuing the shares because it meant predicting the movement of the 10-city index on which the offering was based.  That’s not easy in a housing market where prices may not have bottomed out yet.

When housing trusts eventually restart, their shares will trade under the symbols UMM for “up” and DMM for “down” on the NYSE Arca, the New York Stock Exchange’s all-electronic U.S. trading platform.