If you are a Wall Street honcho and you decided not to cancel your trip to Davos, Switzerland, this year, you must be feeling pretty good about things.
Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., was at the World Economic Forum for the first time since 2008, newly bearded and fresh from a year in which the firm made $7.5 billion in net income and regained its swagger as the potentate of Wall Street. Brian Moynihan, the CEO of Bank of America Corp., was back and could hold his head a bit higher: BofA’s stock was up close to 60 percent in a year as Moynihan has slowly begun to put behind him the bank’s errors leading up to and during the financial crisis.
And, of course, there is Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co. Let’s face it: The man is in a class by himself. He has become a perennial at Davos, where he is perennially outspoken. In 2011, he made news by picking a rhetorical fight with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France about whether the time had finally come to take Wall Street’s bankers, traders and executives out of the cross hairs of public ire. This year, the incorrigible Dimon wasted no time: On the first day of the conference he was defending banks and bankers and urging regulators to slow down their drive to prevent another financial crisis like the one that brought capitalism to its knees in 2008.
“The financial sector is too big,” Zhu warned. “The products are too complicated. Transparency is not there. In this sense, I say the financial sector still has a long way to go.”
Zhu reminded Dimon that the repercussions from the financial crisis are still reverberating, even if those on Wall Street can’t feel them. “Two-hundred-million people still don’t have jobs today,” he said. “With all the debating going on, the financial market structure didn’t change very much. We’re not safer yet.” He added there has been “zero deleveraging” in the financial sector since the crisis. “The size is still big, the product is still complicated,” Zhu continued. “And the market-based activity hasn’t actually decreased, rather increased.”
Dimon pushed back in a way you might not have expected from a boss whose troops engineered a $6.2 billion loss last year in a series of trades marked by lax oversight and bad risk management.
“It’s going to be another five years of pointing fingers, scapegoating, using misinformation,” Dimon said in response to Zhu and another panelist, hedge-fund manager Paul Singer, who also worried that Wall Street banking remains too opaque. “We’re trying to do too much too fast.”
As he has said many times before, Dimon suggested that bankers and regulators need to sit down together -- and soon -- to create regulations that can actually do the job of regulating Wall Street.
“It’s five years after the crisis, we still haven’t fixed a lot of the things that you’re talking about,” Dimon told Zhu. And Dimon, being Dimon, couldn’t resist a self-satisfied quip. He told Singer, in response to the question of bank transparency, “Paul, with all due respect, you know hedge funds are pretty opaque, too.”
As for the “London Whale” trading losses, he ate, according to the New York Times, a “diet portion of humble pie.” Allowed Dimon: “If you are a shareholder of mine, I apologize.” Without missing a beat, he added about 2012, “We did have record profits. Life goes on.”
Unfortunately for Dimon, his appearance at Davos comes a week after an internal bank task force issued a 132-page report about what went wrong at the chief investment office in London last year that resulted in the huge trading loss. Even though the report is pretty sanitized -- names of most of the traders involved have been expunged -- and one gets the sense there is still much more to the story, it leaves little doubt that the kind of oversight Dimon disdains is very much needed at his bank.
Take, for instance, the matter of how the traders in the CIO marked their trades as the losses were mounting. Because the risky securities they were investing in were difficult to value with precision and traded infrequently, the London traders seemed to have regularly underestimated their growing losses --a potential felony if intentional. The report also describes how junior traders tried to do the right thing by flagging the mounting losses, but more senior traders squashed their efforts, saying of one junior trader: “On a number of days beginning in at least mid-March, at the direction of his manager, he assigned values to certain of the positions in the Synthetic Credit Portfolio that were more beneficial to CIO than the values being indicated by the market. The result was that CIO underreported the losses, both on a daily basis and on a year-to-date basis.”
On March 20, according to the report, one trader wanted to mark his book, showing a $40 million loss for the day. Shortly thereafter, a more senior employee told the trader that showing that big a loss “would cause problems for him” during a meeting the next day with Chief Investment Officer Ina Drew, in part because Drew “might prohibit his team from adding to their long positions” to enable them to try to trade their way out of the growing losses.
It went on like this for weeks, until April 10, the day after news reports by Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal first mentioned the London Whale and the potential losses. According to the internal report, one JPMorgan Chase trader predicted the loss that day might be as much as $700 million, as smart hedge-fund traders lined up against the bank. A more senior trader objected, saying a loss that size “would undermine his credibility.” The potential loss was then recalculated to a projected $5 million for the day. This was, of course, ridiculous, and “after a confrontation” between traders, an updated estimated loss for the day of $400 million was circulated. For once, the bank had its numbers right: After the markets closed, Drew reported to a vacationing Dimon the loss for the day was $412 million. It was, Drew wrote, an “eight-standard deviation event” -- something that would happen once in a trillion years.
Yet it did happen -- in ways even worse than Drew, Dimon or anyone else at JPMorgan Chase could have conceived. No matter how much fun Dimon has pontificating at Davos, the fact remains that five years after the financial crisis began, America’s supposedly best bank could still make crazy bets with its depositors’ money and have no idea what it was doing.
(William D. Cohan, the author of “Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was formerly an investment banker at Lazard Freres, Merrill Lynch and JPMorgan Chase, against which he lost an arbitration case over his dismissal. His sister-in-law, Ellen Futter, is on JPMorgan Chase’s board of directors. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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