JPMorgan $2 billion loss hits shares, credit, image
JPMorgan $2 billion loss hits shares, credit, image
Printer-friendly versionPDF version
By David Henry and
Douwe Miedema,
Reuters
May 10, 2012

NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) - JPMorgan Chase & Co lost $15 billion in market value and a notch in its credit ratings on Friday while a chorus of regulators and politicians reacted to its surprise $2 billion trading loss by demanding stiffer oversight for the banking industry.

The loss by one of Wall Street's most respected banks embarrassed chief executive Jamie Dimon, a leader lauded for steering his bank through the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis without reporting a loss.

"We know we were sloppy. We know we were stupid. We know there was bad judgment," Dimon said in an interview with NBC television to be broadcast on "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

He said it wasn't clear whether the bank had broken any laws or violated any rules. "We've had audit, legal, risk, compliance, some of our best people looking at all of that."

The loss also invited regulatory scrutiny for a man who had all but led the charge to limit it, criticizing the so-called Volcker rule to ban proprietary trading by big banks.

The New York Times reported that the Securities and Exchange Commission has opened a preliminary investigation into JPMorgan's accounting practices and public disclosures about the trading loss.

On Friday, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Schapiro told reporters: "It's safe to say that all the regulators are focused on this."

The debacle sparked new fears about big banks and prompted Dallas Federal Reserve Bank President Richard Fisher, who has called for the breakup of the top five U.S. banks, to say he is worried the biggest banks do not have adequate risk management.

The fallout extended across much of the banking sector, with shares of some of Wall Street's top names declining on Friday. Among others, Citigroup dropped 4.2 percent, Goldman Sachs fell 3.9 percent and Bank of America slipped 1.9 percent.

JPMorgan was far away the worst performer, however, falling 9.3 percent on a day when some 212 million of its shares traded, the most volume in its history.

Fitch Ratings cut JPMorgan's debt ratings a notch and put all of the ratings of the bank and its subsidiaries on negative ratings watch.

While Fitch saw the size of the loss as manageable, "the magnitude of the loss and ongoing nature of these positions implies a lack of liquidity," the ratings agency said.

"Fitch believes the potential reputational risk and risk governance issues raised at JPM are no longer consistent with an 'AA-' rating," it said.

Standard & Poor's put JPMorgan and its banking units on a negative outlook, but affirmed its current ratings.

In a conference call disclosing the problem on Thursday, Dimon said the $2 billion in losses could rise by a further $1 billion, and acknowledged they were linked to a London-based credit trader Bruno Iksil. Nicknamed the 'London Whale,' Iksil amassed an outsized position which hedge funds bet against.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, meanwhile, had been aware of JPMorgan's big trading loss and is currently monitoring the situation, according to a source close to the situation.

The Fed, which is JPMorgan's primary regulator, aims to ensure banks are sufficiently capitalized to withstand such trading mistakes, not to prevent them, the source said.

'STAKES ARE TOO HIGH'

The exact nature of the trading loss is still unclear, although sources said a host of asset managers, arbitrageurs and hedge funds were on the other side of the bet, viewing it as good value and a effective way to insure portions of their portfolio.

Blue Mountain, a hedge fund with offices in New York and London, was among those on the other side of JPMorgan's trade, according to two people familiar with the situation.

Dimon will undoubtedly be pressed by investors for more details about what exactly went wrong when he hosts the bank's annual shareholder meeting on Tuesday in Tampa, Florida.

A national union on Friday urged shareholders to approve a stockholder resolution calling for an independent board chairman at JPMorgan. Dimon currently holds the chairman and CEO titles.

"The stakes are too high to leave Jamie Dimon unsupervised," said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, which sponsored the proposal. "Dimon denied that the London Whale' was making risky bets, and now that this has turned out to be a fish story, shareholders need to step in."

Dimon had parlayed his bank's reputation as a white knight during the financial crisis into a position as the de facto representative fighting against excessive post-crisis regulation.

"What concerns me is risk management, size, scope," said Dallas Federal Reserve Bank's Fisher answer to a question about JPMorgan's trading loss. "At what point do you get to the point that you don't know what's going on underneath you? That's the point where you've got too big."

The trader at the center of the storm, Iksil, who graduated in engineering from the Ecole Centrale in Paris in 1991, was not available for comment. The Frenchman, and the Chief Investment Office (CIO) where he works, are known by rival credit traders for taking extremely large positions.

Friends, colleagues and fellow traders describe an unassuming man, a far cry from the brash image normally associated with traders staking huge bets in fast-moving financial markets, including derivatives.

"He's a really nice bloke. A quiet bloke. He's not an arrogant trader, he's quite the opposite. He's very charming," one former colleague at JPMorgan said of Iksil, whom he said was married with "a couple of kids".

JPMorgan characterized the costly trading strategy that led to the loss as a hedge, rather than as proprietary trade, or a bet with the bank's own money. But that line has been difficult for regulators and experts to define as they seek to craft the Volcker rule.

One friend and former JPMorgan colleague said Iksil and the team were not carrying out proprietary trading in disguise, and that the unit's activities were known at the highest levels of the bank.

"The CIO does not do prop trading, let's be clear on that ... It involves taking positions in the form of investments, trades, credit-default swaps, or other, with the aim of rebalancing the risks of JPMorgan's balance sheet.

"The information comes from the very top of the bank and I do not even think that the CIO team members at Bruno's level are given the full picture," the ex-colleague said.

Iksil was brought into the CIO unit to head its credit desk, an asset class it had not previously covered, a person who worked in the unit said. It built up large credit positions over several years through trades which were vetted by management and the losses now likely resulted from a combination of these trades going wrong, the person said.

The CIO desk had grown rapidly in the past five years and was given free range to trade in a whole range of financial products, the only exception being commodities, they added. The CIO is run by New York-based Ina Drew, who is Chief Investment Officer.

Credit market traders said other banks have comparable functions to JPMorgan's CIO. The French banks, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank and UBS were all cited as examples of large treasury functions that hedge credit exposures in similar ways.

"The argument that financial institutions do not need the new rules to help them avoid the irresponsible actions that led to the crisis of 2008 is at least $2 billion harder to make today," U.S. Representative Barney Frank said in a statement.

The Democrat co-authored the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law designed to avoid a repeat of the recent credit crisis.

(Reporting by David Henry in NEW YORK, Rick Rothacker in CHARLOTTE, North Carolina, Dave Clarke in WASHINGTON, Svea Herbst-Bayliss in BOSTON and Vidya Ranganathan in SINGAPORE, Douwe Miedema, Sinead Cruise and Christopher Whittall in LONDON, Lionel Laurent in PARIS; Writing by Alexander Smith and Paul Thomasch; Editing by Alwyn Scott, Jon Boyle, Tim Dobbyn, Gary Hill)