JPMorgan Chase & Company is the largest financial holding company in the United States, with $2.4 trillion in assets. It is also the largest derivatives dealer in the world and the largest single participant in world credit derivatives markets. Its principal bank subsidiary, JPMorgan Chase Bank, is the largest U.S. bank. JPMorgan Chase has consistently portrayed itself as an expert in risk management with a “fortress balance sheet” that ensures taxpayers have nothing to fear from its banking activities, including its extensive dealing in derivatives. But in early 2012, the bank’s Chief Investment Office (CIO), which is charged with managing $350 billion in excess deposits, placed a massive bet on a complex set of synthetic credit derivatives that, in 2012, lost at least $6.2 billion.
The CIO’s losses were the result of the so-called “London Whale” trades executed by traders in its London office – trades so large in size that they roiled world credit markets. Initially dismissed by the bank’s chief executive as a “tempest in a teapot,” the trading losses quickly doubled and then tripled despite a relatively benign credit environment. The magnitude of the losses shocked the investing public and drew attention to the CIO which was found, inaddition to its conservative investments, to be bankrolling high stakes, high risk credit derivative trades that were unknown to its regulators.
The JPMorgan Chase whale trades provide a startling and instructive case history of how synthetic credit derivatives have become a multi-billion dollar source of risk within the U.S. banking system. They also demonstrate how inadequate derivative valuation practices enabled traders to hide substantial losses for months at a time; lax hedging practices obscured whether derivatives were being used to offset risk or take risk; risk limit breaches were routinely disregarded; risk evaluation models were manipulated to downplay risk; inadequate regulatory oversight was too easily dodged or stonewalled; and derivative trading and financial results were misrepresented to investors, regulators, policymakers, and the taxpaying public who, when banks lose big, may be required to finance multi-billion-dollar bailouts.
The JPMorgan Chase whale trades provide another warning signal about the ongoing need to tighten oversight of banks’ derivative trading activities, including through bettervaluation techniques, more effective hedging documentation, stronger enforcement of risk limits, more accurate risk models, and improved regulatory oversight. The derivatives overhaulrequired by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is intended to provide the regulatory tools needed to tackle those problems and reduce derivatives-related risk, including through the Merkley-Levin provisions that seek to implement the Volcker Rule’s prohibition on high risk proprietary trading by federally insured banks, even if portrayed bybanks as hedging activity designed to lower risk.
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