Credit Default Swaps

Jamie Dimon Eats $2 Billion Worth of Crow

If you are the CEO of a major global bank and you have to announce a $2.0 billion trading loss, you will no doubt feel that the shareholders, regulators, and reporters are all against you. But if you announce that the loss occurred in a portfolio that just six weeks earlier was the subject of criticism in the press, and which you described as nothing more than “a tempest in a teapot”, you are entitled to feel that the gods are against you.

The gods definitely have it in for Jaime Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, the legendary “fortress balance sheet” bank that prides itself on having avoided problems during the housing bust and credit crisis of 2007-2008. Someone inside the bank blew a large cannonball through the bank’s fortress walls, and it seems likely to have been “the Whale” of the credit derivatives market, JP Morgan’s Bruno Michel Iksil.

JPMorgan Say What?

wallstreetWhat a surprise, that biggest fighter against financial regulation of them all, JPMorgan Chase accrued a $2 billion dollar loss:

The $2 billion loss came from a complicated trading strategy that involved derivatives, financial instruments that derive their value from the prices of securities and other assets. JPMorgan said the derivatives trades were part of a hedge, meaning they were set up to offset potential losses on the bank’s large holdings of bonds and loans.

black swanThat loss was caused by derivatives and credit default swaps and in part due to a Value at Risk model. This is the same type of model which was part of the financial crisis and has been warned about repeatedly for not being mathematically complex enough to base one's gambling debts on. No surprise a VaR model was behind the loss.

It produced large losses even without extreme movements in the derivatives markets or underlying bond markets.

Greece on the Edge

greece ruinsGreece is on the edge. Part of their bail out, the voluntary losses Greek bond holders were supposed to accept, is falling short.

Private holders of €206bn in Greek bonds have until Thursday evening to decide whether to take part in a swap where they would trade bonds for a package of bonds and cash that would knock about €100bn off Athens’ debts.

Greece must get 75 per cent of holders to participate to avoid forcing the deal on holdouts through so-called “collective action clauses” which were inserted retroactively into Greek bonds by the government last week. If less than 66 per cent participate, even the CACs would become invalid, scuppering the entire deal.

The ECB is already saying voluntary participation will be too low and now there is talk of forcing the holders of Greek debt to take their haircut:

Greece expects bondholders to accept a one-time offer to write off about 100 billion euros ($140 billion) of Greek debt and is ready to force them to participate if necessary, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said.

When Even the Clearing Houses Start to Malfunction

Financial markets rise and fall based on the perceived value of the products being sold. But there are occasions when market value is affected by the condition of the marketplace itself, and whether the infrastructure that supports the market is structurally sound. This is the situation investors are now facing. There is rottenness apparent in even the largest and most trusted markets, like the US Treasury market, and investors are beginning to question how safe their funds are, or whether the protection being bought is worth anything. Private money is nervous, or it is fleeing the markets altogether. When so many different markets are afflicted by the same creeping structural weakness, it is no surprise that the average investor begins to ask whether Financial Armageddon may be upon us.

There are a number of recent cases where the “system” did not work the way investors expected, especially in the case of the collapse of MF Global, and the less-publicized ruling that banks would not have to pay out the protection they sold investors who bought credit default swaps covering a potential Greek government default. Before we turn to these specific and highly consequential events, we should look at the some of the precedents which reveal a history of rule-changing by banks and regulators that inevitably has worked against the interest of investors.

Rules Can be Changed for the Benefit of the Market Makers