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A really big bank blunder

J.P. Morgan's $2 billion trading loss is the big story today, and has tongues wagging.


It is the lead story in both the Wall Street Journal , Forbes and the New York Times, but for bank reformers, the story is like manna from heaven.

While he failed to foresee his company's huge losses from risky trading, J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon did accurately predict the feeding frenzy among critics that would ensue.

"It plays into the hands of a bunch of pundits but you have to deal with that and that’s life,” Dimon said in a conference call., a non-profit reform group, said the incident at J.P. Morgan is all the proof necessary to show that reform is needed.

"Jamie Dimon and JP Morgan Chase just proved what anyone not getting a paycheck from a Wall Street bank already knows: gigantic too-big-to-fail banks are too-big-to-manage," writes Dennis Kelleher, the group's president.

Here is more of Kelleher's statement:

"Ignoring the trillions in dollars of damage done by Wall Street in causing the economic collapse, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has been a relentless critic of financial reform.  He has denied that the biggest banks continue to threaten our financial system and our economy and claims they are well run and know how to manage risk.  JPM's announcement today of a surprise $2 billion in losses from illiquid derivatives proves him wrong and shows the need for financial reform, especially a strong Volcker Rule, to limit such risky betting."


The Volcker Rule would, among other things, restrict banks' ability to make risky trades.

"Today’s announcement is a stark reminder of the need for regulators to establish tough, effective standards to implement the Merkley-Levin language to protect taxpayers from having to cover such high-risk bets," said U.S. Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and co-author of the Merkley-Levin language establishing the Volcker Rule.

But more than making the case for a Volcker rule, some say the incident exposes a major flaw in the proposed legislation.

Matthew Yglesias at writes:

"Dimon repeatedly insisted that the whole operation is Volcker-compliant, and JP Morgan is describing the operation as an effort at hedging gone wrong. Nobody knows exactly what happened, but in general if you just lost $2 billion that's a good sign that you're not hedging. The idea of hedging is to accept a small cost in order to insure yourself against the risk of a big loss. Two billion dollars is a big loss even for JP Morgan. So why call it hedging? Presumably because the Volcker Rule allows proprietary trading for the purposes of hedging. This turns out to be a big loophole."

Americans for Financial Reform believes that's why the Volcker Rule not only needs to be enacted, but strengthened.


"The regulators current rule has a loose, permissive standard for portfolio hedging that might have permitted these trades under a hedge exemption, even though they clearly violated the proprietary trading ban. We hope that regulators will heed the warning here, and move speedily to finalize a Volcker Rule that is stronger than their initial proposed rule," its statement reads. 
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But according to the Journal's Steve Goldstein, blogging in MarketWatch, "The simple fact is that no rule is going to be strong enough to prevent a bank from acting with hubris and stupidity."

"The best way to combat 'too big to fail' is to make banks small enough that failures wouldn’t matter," Goldstein writes. "Short of that obvious step, best to be prepared for the worst."

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