Category / Writedown

Whale watching, the official tour January 16, 2013 at 3:15 pm

How large sea creatures should avoid trying to optimize their capital requirements

The official account of the JPMorgan Whale losses is pretty much in line with the guesses outlined on DEM and FT Alphaville.

First, regulatory capital optimization under the post-crisis rules was a critical motivation:

Two of the recent Basel Accords, commonly referred to as “Basel II.5” and “Basel III,” alter the RWA calculation for JPMorgan and other banking organizations. As the new standards become effective over a phase-in period, certain assets held by banking organizations such as JPMorgan will generally be assigned a higher risk-weighting than they are under the current standards; in practical terms, this means JPMorgan will be required to either increase the amount of capital it holds or reduce its RWA… In 2011, JPMorgan was engaged in a Firm-wide effort to reduce RWA in anticipation of the effectiveness of Basel III. The Synthetic Credit Portfolio was a significant consumer of RWA, and the traders therefore worked at various points in 2011 to attempt to reduce its RWA.

The initial position was long protection to hedge against the naturally long credit position in the CIO bond portfolio:

In the fourth quarter of 2011, the Synthetic Credit Portfolio was in an overall short risk posture

The combination of capital optimisation and trying to add jump-to-default protection to the short credit spread position did not help. In particular, rather than paying out, they funded the JTD protection by selling protection on the IG9s:

the traders began to discuss adding high-yield short positions in order to better prepare the Synthetic Credit Portfolio for a future default. The traders, in late January, also added to their long positions, including in the IG-9 index (and related tranches). These long positions generated premiums, and (among other things) would help to fund high-yield short positions

So what they had was an IG9 5 year short (short credit), high yield short (short credit but specifically long JTD protection) funded by an IG9 10 year long. The net position turned long credit, but they were well positioned against a shortish recession.

The firm’s main problem at this point was that two goals were in conflict. On one hand their position was so large (if unnoticed by regulators) that they would get crushed if they tried to leave too fast: on other other, they needed to leave to reduce capital. The solution, of course, was to try to change how capital was calculated.

the concern that an unwind of positions to reduce RWA would be in tension with “defending” the position. The executive therefore informed the trader (among other things) that CIO would have to “win on the methodology” in order to reduce RWA.

JPM were so big in the IG9s they could not do more — or significantly less. They had to contemplate taking yet more basis risk to balance the portfolio:

[The only option]… was to increase his long exposure in on-the-run investment-grade instruments, such as IG-17 and IG-18,… Beginning on March 19 and continuing through March 23, the trader added significant long positions to the Synthetic Credit Portfolio. These … included additions to the 5-year IG-17 long position (a notional increase of approximately $8 billion), the 5-year IG-18 long position (a notional increase of approximately $14 billion), and several corresponding iTraxx series, most notably the 5-year-S16 ($12 billion) and the 5-year-S17 ($6 billion).

This did not help the RWA usage of the portfolio: all of that basis risk is expensive in an IRC model. As the trader said, this is what kills me. They mis-marked it too, of course, for some definition of mis-marked, because it is impossible for traders to mark something that size accurately. But the real lesson is that JPM did not navigate between the Scylla of upcoming capital requirements and the Charybdis of close out costs very well. What is interesting is that without the RWA motivation, this probably would not have happened.

Dexia – another awkward result November 8, 2012 at 11:05 am

In July 2011:

Dexia was subject to the 2011 EU-wide stress test conducted by the European Banking Authority… As a result of the assumed shock, the estimated consolidated Core Tier 1 capital ratio of Dexia would change to 10.4% under the adverse scenario in 2012… the results determine that Dexia meets the capital benchmark set out for the purpose of the stress test.

And today, according to Bloomberg:

Belgium and France, wrestling for more than a year over the second rescue of Dexia, agreed on a 5.5 billion-euro ($7 billion) recapitalization of the bank.

As Jonathan Weil said last year, you can’t believe anything about regulatory capital benchmarks, in Europe or elsewhere, stressed or not. That’s because the capital ratio only makes sense if you believe the banks’ valuations and loan loss provisions are correct – and Dexia demonstrates vividly (as Wachovia and Lehman and Wamu and so many others did during the crisis) that they can be materially wrong for years.

A lovely quote July 3, 2012 at 12:28 pm

From a clever chap I had lunch with last week, apropos JPMorgan:

The market punishes the successful by giving them too many opportunies.

His point was that of the three big universal banks that came out of the crisis well – JPMorgan, Barclays and Deutsche – two of them have now blown up. So, Anshu, it is only a matter of time…

Lisa in one sentence June 20, 2012 at 8:50 am

Lisa Pollack has a long and good post on FT Alphaville which can be summarized thusly:

So, Mr. Regulator, given you had full reporting of JPMorgan’s synthetic credit trades in the DTCC warehouse, and it was blatantly obvious from that that they had a whale of a position, why didn’t you do anything about it?

Regulating the whale on alphaville June 15, 2012 at 12:11 pm

A slightly expanded version of this post on the JPMorgan losses, accounting, and CRM models is up on FT alphaville here.

Understanding Jamie Dimon’s Testimony: the strange case of CRM June 13, 2012 at 9:46 am

In the theory of programming languages, you learn that parsing is a syntactical operation that doesn’t require any analysis of meaning. Therefore I shouldn’t complain that dealbook’s recent post, Parsing Jamie Dimon’s Testimony, doesn’t inform as, really, it doesn’t promise that it will. It does, though, set up enough clues that you can guess a little more of the JPMorgan story.

Here are the key pieces.

  • Dimon said:

    In December 2011, as part of a firmwide effort in anticipation of new Basel capital requirements, we instructed CIO to reduce risk-weighted assets and associated risk. To achieve this in the synthetic credit portfolio, the CIO could have simply reduced its existing positions; instead, starting in mid-January, it embarked on a complex strategy that entailed adding positions that it believed would offset the existing ones. This strategy, however, ended up creating a portfolio that was larger and ultimately resulted in even more complex and hard-to-manage risks.

  • The new Basel capital requirements will require a bank like JPM to calculate capital for the correlation trading portfolio using a new type of internal model, a CRM or comprehensive risk model.
  • CRM models operate on a portfolio basis, and will recognise partial risk hedging. Therefore if you have a position and want to reduce capital somewhat but keep some of the risk, you can do that by ‘adding positions that [you believe]would offset the existing ones’.
  • CRM models do not include investment positions, so if the broad theory that JPM was long deposits, long corporate credit risk to invest then, then using synthetic credit positions to protect the crash risk of the bonds is correct, the CRM model would only have included the last of these positions. Thus JPM would have had both an accounting and a capital mismatch: depos and bonds accural accounted and capitalized in the banking book; protection fair valued and CRM-modelled in the trading book.
  • It seems a reasonable theory then that JPM was trying to address this mismatch by modifying its positions to reduce future regulatory capital (and accounting volatility) while still keeping their essential nature as crash hedges. The modifications introduced extra risk which caused the $2B hole.

That’s my current best guess; I await Jamie’s congressional testimony with interest.

Too big to invest May 22, 2012 at 7:49 am

Perhaps tediously, I want to go back to the size of JPMorgan’s surplus liquidity. Bloomberg has some new data:

About half of the $381.7 billion in JPMorgan’s chief investment office portfolio is in company bonds, asset-backed securities and mortgage debt not backed by the U.S. government, according to a March 31 filing. That compares with 7.7 percent at the end of 2007. The amount, $188.1 billion, is more than the holdings of such securities by its three biggest competitors combined. It exceeds the total assets of Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks Inc., the 10th-biggest U.S. lender.

There is an ideal size for an investment vehicle: $50M is too small; $500M is perhaps ideal; $10B is getting to be too large. This is because you want to be big enough that people will take you seriously, sign ISDAs with you and so on, but you want to be small enough that you are nimble and that your positions don’t move the market too much. Very large funds find it very hard to invest themselves anywhere near as profitably as smaller ones.

Now look at JPM’s CIO. They are a thousand times bigger than the ideal size. Simply finding a reasonably safe home for that $400B is quite difficult. Making a meaningful change to asset allocation is very difficult. This isn’t expiation for the losses – just another sign that JPM, along with its peers, is too big.

Changing models with Jamie May 15, 2012 at 7:12 am

I have finally managed to track down the transcript of Jamie’s embarrassing call. My favourite part relates to JPMorgan’s VAR:

We are also amending a disclosure in the first quarter press release about CIO’s VAR, Value-at-Risk. We’d shown average VAR at 67. It will now be 129. In the first quarter, we implemented a new VAR model, which we now deemed inadequate.

67 to 129. Not an immaterial change then. Ooops.

Update. Does this give JPM a Sarbannes-Oxley problem?

Another update. IFR reports

the Chief Investment Office, the unit responsible for the high-profile loss that JP Morgan disclosed last Thursday, had a separate VaR system.

It used a less stringent calculation that gave a lower risk assessment of its trades, according to people who previously worked at the bank.

The unit also reported directly to CEO Jamie Dimon, a factor which allowed it to maintain a separate risk monitoring set-up to other parts of the investment bank, these people said.

For me, the reporting line and oversight issues are even worse than the VAR model ones.

Floating carcus ahoy May 11, 2012 at 9:20 am

When Magellan emerged from the strait that bears his name into the Pacific ocean, he thought that he was only a few days sailing from Portugal and home. Good try, but no cigar. A similar navigational issue seems to be plaguing folks over last night’s $2B JPMorgan loss. Here are some things we can, and cannot conclude from this ‘egregious’ loss.

Update. FT alphaville makes a similar point about the difficulty of identifying a ‘good’ hedge here.

EXceLent Failure December 11, 2008 at 6:21 am

From Bloomberg:

XL Capital Ltd., the biggest Bermuda- based insurer by assets, is seeking a buyer after reporting investment losses larger than its market value, four people with knowledge of the matter said.

Big oops. I could be mean about actuaries. I could be mean about monoline-type business models. But for now I just want to raise a glass to a company that was mostly a sophisticated risk taker. Sadly `mostly’ and `not enormously hugely massively well-capitalised – more capital than you can shake a stick at’ can be a toxic mixture.

And the winner is… November 16, 2008 at 6:42 pm

…Wachovia by a country mile.

Credit Crunch Losses by Banks

Fannie and Freddie’s Bad Week July 11, 2008 at 12:53 pm

Taken from CNN and Bloomberg, some tidbits on the GSEs:

  • At the end of last year, Fannie alone had packaged and guaranteed about $2.8 trillion worth of mortgages, approximately 23% of all outstanding US mortgage debt.
  • Egan Jones estimates that Freddie alone will need to raise $7 billion over the next two quarters due to writedowns and losses. The company’s market capitalization is $8.7 billion.
  • In an April report, Standard & Poor’s said an Armageddon scenario whereby Fannie and Freddie are insolvent is unlikely, but that if it happened, the cost to U.S. taxpayers would be more than $1 trillion.
  • Former St. Louis Federal Reserve President William Poole said recently: “Congress ought to recognize that these firms are insolvent, that it is allowing these firms to continue to exist as bastions of privilege, financed by the taxpayer”
  • “I worry about those institutions,” retired Richmond Fed President Alfred Broaddus said. “They are huge. They dwarf the Bear Stearns issue. In the very worst case scenario, I don’t know how you do it other than extend money and the public takes the loss.”
  • CDS on Fannie and Freddie senior debt now trade at more than 80bps.
  • The one year return on both of the stocks is approximately -80%.

Update. The FT fills in some more background.

Investors were unnerved by a warning from Bill Poole, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, that the chances that a bail-out of Fannie and Freddie might be needed were increasing.

Mr Poole said Freddie Mac owed $5.2bn (£2.6bn) more than its assets were worth in the first quarter, making it insolvent under fair value accounting rules.

And needless to say, investors have taken note despite attempts by Bernanke and Paulson to reassure the markets. Fannie was down 13% yesterday; Freddie, 22%. It seems that my earlier sarcasm really was justified. Oh and the NYT says that a regulatory takeover is being considered. It’s probably too late to short the stock, but is selling default swaps on the senior debt a good trade at the moment?

Update. John Dizard thinks so. From the FT:

I have what Wall Street calls a “strong buy” recommendation: buy the senior debt of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. You can get a risk-free spread over US Treasuries. If you want more leverage, and you have a line with a credit default swap dealer, then sell five-year protection on the names.

Hiding the pain June 27, 2008 at 6:21 pm

A couple of weeks ago I pointed out that while the US institutions have taken their write down medicine, raised new capital, and are busy getting on with trying to figure out what to do next, the Europeans have been much less assiduous in recognising their losses. Now Citigroup, via FT alphaville, comes up with a concrete example: Barclays. The corrected version of the Citi piece is said by the FT to include the following:

Barclays has reclassified some assets, most notably leveraged finance and CDOs, and accounts for them as if they were loans held to maturity. This means that these assets are not marked to market but impairment provisions are raised when the bank believes that there is a risk to the credit outlook. While this is an unusual treatment for leveraged finance, as the financing was originally intended to be sold down, the assets are at least primarily loans. The treatment is even more unusual for CDO exposures.

That four billion really does not look enough now, does it?

Update. It is not just CDOs. From the FT:

The debate has [also] focused on Barclays’ policy of accounting for leveraged loans by looking at the borrower’s financial performance rather than the price at which those loans are trading in the market.

This has puts it at odds with some US and European rivals, which value their leveraged loans on a mark-to-market basis. Most leveraged loans are trading at 80-90 per cent of their face value, with some changing hands for as little as 70 per cent.

The ECB on Eurozone Bank Loss Recognition June 17, 2008 at 7:19 am

More from the ECB financial stability review. We take up the story with a discussion of the losses in large complex financial institutions:

The impact of the sub-prime crisis can be seen in the figures disclosed by banks in their financial statements in two main ways: valuation changes on various assets and increases in credit impairments. Most of the figures recorded in banks’ accounts are valuation changes and relate to securities whose value has been adversely affected by the sub-prime turbulence. Under International Financial Reporting Standards, euro area banks value these securities depending on the accounting category in which they were included at the time of recognition [principally] fair-value [and] available for sale.

(The emphasis is mine.)

In other words the impact so far on Eurozone banks has mostly been confined to fair value instruments. For accrual accounted loans we have not yet seen massive increases in loan loss provisions. Clearly there are some European countries with their own property market issues – the UK, Spain, Ireland, the Baltics, perhaps Poland – so we definitely have not seen the end of this story yet.

The ECB then points out the inherent superiority of FAS 157 vs. IAS 39:

the way in which banks calculate mark-to-market valuation changes and whether these valuation changes are comparable across banks have attracted increased attention in the current period. Before the turmoil, under IFRS, banks disclosed limited information concerning the amount and type of assets that were marked to model. This situation in the euro area is in contrast to the United States where new Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) require certain disclosures concerning the portion of assets in a portfolio that are purely marked to model.

In other words the Europeans can hide both their methodology and the split between mark to market and mark to model whereas the Americans can’t.

The enumeration of pain April 2, 2008 at 9:06 am

Following yesterday’s writedown and capital raising from UBS, Bloomberg has a very useful summary of the pain so far. Here are the losses which total over $5B: follow the link for the rest.

Firm Writedown Credit Loss Total
UBS 38 38
Merrill Lynch 25.1 25.1
Citigroup 21.4 2.5 23.9
HSBC 3 9.4 12.4
Morgan Stanley 11.7 11.7
IKB Deutsche 9 9
Bank of America 7.3 0.9 8.2
Deutsche Bank 7.4 7.4
Credit Agricole 6.5 6.5
Credit Suisse 6.3 6.3
Washington Mutual 0.3 5.5 5.8
JPMorgan Chase 2.9 2.1 5
[…]
TOTALS 206 25.8 231.8

Credit Suisse: "Repricing of certain asset-backed positions" February 19, 2008 at 7:05 pm

With the markets in structured finance plummeting, there is clearly an incentive to polish up valuations for inventory positions. It appears as if some traders have given in to temptation at Credit Suisse. A press release today reveals an overestimate of inventory value amounting to $2.85B and the BBC reports that structured credit traders in London have been suspended.

What is interesting about this is how completely predictable it is. With the current market illiquidity, it is very difficult to price some structured credit products. At best you are marking many of them as a spread to some proxy such as the ABX or TABX. Clearly for CS to be confident that the positions are mismarked, they can’t be just in the margin of error: they must be well outside it. Which given the size of the margin at the moment, means that it might well have been fairly egregious…

Update. The WSJ’s take on the difficulty of marking to market in the current conditions is here.

Downgrades rising February 7, 2008 at 9:47 pm


The ratings agencies are starting to notice how high the water has risen around the monolines. Today XL Capital reported a billion dollar loss for the 4th quarter and Moody’s cut them from AAA to A-. In one step.

Can MBIA and Ambac be far off? Given mounting regulatory pressure the agencies surely cannot delay long. Admittedly the monolines are scrambling to raise new capital but the WSJ thinks that the rescue plans won’t prevent downgrades. One hopes for the sake of the credibility of the whole system, that they are right.

UBS, the agencies, and other drama January 31, 2008 at 6:43 pm

A panoply of drama today.

First UBS. $14B. That’s quite a lot. As Bloomberg reports:


The Zurich-based bank announced today a net loss of 12.5 billion Swiss francs ($11.4 billion) for the fourth quarter […]

The bank increased markdowns directly linked to the subprime market to about $12 billion from the $10 billion it forecast in December and said an additional $2 billion of writedowns are for other U.S. residential mortgage securities.

This is in marked contrast to their prediction of a profit for Q4 made at the time of the Q3 writedown. Perhaps more significantly, as Naked Capitalism points out, this suggests more pain to come from the other players before this sorry farrago is over.

Next the bitter suspense of the bond insurers. Will they be downgraded today? Tomorrow? Sometime, never? The agencies are walking the line. If they wait for the man, Mr. Dinallo, they risk losing even more credibility. If they move too fast too soon they risk a shareholder lawsuit. (CNBC has some further insight here while the FT points out the size of the short interest in the monolines — about 40% apparently.)

Meanwhile opinions continue to differ on how much the monolines need. Even the normally bullish WSJ says:


However, it quickly gets complicated, given that the banks themselves have differing levels of risk exposure to the bonds in question and also have differing abilities to provide cash. Calculating how much each should put up on a pro rata basis could be complicated and spark disagreement.

Moreover it is not just the banks’ relative share that is in doubt, but also the size of the recapitalisation. The FT has estimates of between $10B (the monolines themselves) and $140B (Independent Strategy). You certainly don’t want to low ball it and then have to go back to the market again so any plan that only puts in a couple of billion per firm has significant danger.

Update. John Thain is bullish here although he agrees that an industry wide bailout will be problematic. He said in an interview with the Financial Times on Wednesday that


He expected individual credit insurers would receive capital infusions from investors, but that it would be difficult to craft an “industry-wide” bail-out for the beleaguered guarantors.

Mr Thain said an effort by New York state regulators to help leading bond insurers maintain their credit ratings was raising interest in the sector on the part of investors including private equity groups and specialists in distressed companies.

However […] getting banks to agree on a single approach was unlikely because they have different exposures to the credit insurers and varying opinions on what should be done.

Meanwhile Bloomberg reports:


MBIA Inc., the world’s largest bond insurer, posted its biggest-ever quarterly loss and said it is considering new ways to raise capital after a slump in the value of subprime-mortgage securities the company guaranteed.

The fourth-quarter net loss was $2.3 billion, or $18.61 a share, raising concern the Armonk, New York-based company will lose its Aaa rating at Moody’s Investors Service. The loss came a day after FGIC Corp.’s insurance unit became the third company to be stripped of its AAA credit rating.

Soc Gen Shock January 25, 2008 at 8:31 am

Soc Gen has discovered there is less behind those nice sturdy vault doors than they thought. 4.9B Euros less, approximately, according to Bloomberg, thanks to the activities of a rogue trader, Jérôme Kerviel. They are raising 5.5B Euros of fresh capital.

The similarities with Barings border on the eerie. The trades were in equity index futures. They weren’t complex, nor did they involve options. Although the trader did not control the middle office, as Leeson did, he did have extensive knowledge of it from prior employment there, and hence managed to evade the firm’s controls. See here for the full statement.

Finally in a delicious irony, as FT alphaville points out, Soc Gen is Risk Magazine’s equity derivatives house of the year. (Recall that NatWest was high in Risk Magazine’s GBP and DEM interest rate derivatives league tables in 1994-996 just before they revealed their interest rate derivatives loss in, err, GBP and DEM.)

It is absolutely extraordinary that this can happen in 2008. To generate a five billion loss on asset backed securities is unfortunate. To do it on equity index futures is incredible. If the fictitious positions were exchange traded futures did they not do basic position reconciliation from the exchange to their systems? What about margin? If they were OTC forwards did they allow the trader to control confirmations from counterparties? What about collateral? The autopsy on this one will be interesting.

Meanwhile on Radio 4 this evening there has just been speculation that the dramatic falls in markets around the world earlier in the week were caused in part by Soc Gen liquidating its positions. If this is true and we got the 75 bps FED rate cut as a result, there is going to be some serious trouble. Surely Soc Gen couldn’t have dumped ten of billions of index futures without telling the regulators could they?

Update. The Bank of France knew but neither they nor Soc Gen told the FED according to Bloomberg. That’s shocking.

The Guardian is uneqivocal here: ‘SocGen’s desperate race to clear up the damage and unravel Kerviel’s trading positions were at the heart of the stockmarket turmoil on Monday when share prices across Europe crumbled by 7%.’ We won’t know if that is really true for a while, but for now I’ll leave you with a link to a summary of the Market Abuse Directive. Note in particular


Market manipulation comprises three parts. These are: transactions and orders to trade that give false or misleading signals or secure the price of a financial instrument at an artificial level. […]

Update. There is a nice New York Times article on Soc Gen’s unwind, Société Générale’s Sales May Have Incited Market Plunge, with details of the notionals transacted on Monday and Tuesday here. They going to be in serious trouble with the FED if these suspicions turn out to be true.

Prising apart the Merrill writedown January 17, 2008 at 7:04 pm

The headline is Merrill Posts Record Loss on $16.7 Billion Writedown. Let’s take the Merrill earnings release and pull it apart a bit. Specifically, consider the CDO positions.

A first glance, the position seems fairly benign.

But now consider the footnotes:

(2) Primarily consists of principal amortization for U.S. super senior ABS CDO net exposures, as well as changes in hedges and increases due to ineffective hedges.

Now, amortisation reduces exposure. But the high grade number is up. So the increase must be due to ineffective hedges. This emphasises that these are net numbers.

(3) For total U.S. super senior ABS CDOs, long exposures (including associated gains and losses reported in income and other net changes in net exposures) were $46.1 billion and $30.4 billion at September 28, 2007 and December 28, 2007, respectively. Short exposures (including associated gains and losses reported in income and other net changes in net exposures) were $31.3 billion and $23.6 billion at September 28, 2007 and December 28, 2007. Short exposures primarily consist of purchases of credit default swap protection from various third parties, including monoline financial guarantors, insurers and other market participants.

Ah. Those would be the monolines that are doing so well at the moment. I don’t want to rain on Merrill’s parade, but if I were an investor, I might want to know a bit more about those hedge counterparties other than their ratings. The weighted average spread they trade at in the CDS market perhaps. That would give some idea of where between a net $4.8B and a gross $30.4B the exposure really lies.