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J.P. Morgan's $2.3 Billion Loss as a Red Herring

May 14, 2012


J.P. Morgan's Loss as a Red Herring
By R Tamara de Silva
May 14, 2012

Much ado is being made about J. P. Morgan's disclosure of over $2 billion in trading losses and one hopes the media and regulators do not use this as yet another opportunity to completely miss the point. Wall street must not rely exclusively on its present risk models that are based exclusively on VaR and variations of VaR-it must learn to think outside its own box and anticipate worse case scenarios. We cannot afford to have many more systemic crises that threaten to bring down the financial system simply because yet again, the unexpected and un-modeled occurs.

Chief Executive Jamie Dimon's public self-flagellation aside, this loss compromises merely 20% percent of J. P. Morgan's pretax profit for the first quarter of this year. Put another way, J. P. Morgan has a market capitalization of $137.4 billion of which $2 billion comprises a bit more than 1 percent--hardly fodder for anyone's angst against quasi-public Wall Street juggernauts that seem to privatize profit and publicize loss being 'too big to fail." Mr. Dimon is wrong to assert that the trading losses were the result of hedges. It would be more wrong for lawmakers on either side of the aisle to call for hasty regulations on an industry they have never really understood and from whose pockets they are lobbied and receive the heftiest campaign contributions. A cursory look at what has happened to the Volcker Rule illustrates this point. The real lesson of J. P. Morgan's $2.3 billion loss is that Wall Street must once and for all adjust the way it manages and understands risk.

Risk management is the difference between success and ruin in the financial markets and its failure is felt around the world by even those hapless individuals who have never sold a credit derivative. No where is the importance of risk management better illustrated than to recount our most recent crises, which according to Wall Street's most prevalent measurement of risk, Value at Risk (VaR), were never supposed to happen: The market crashes of 1987 and 2000, Long-Term Capital Management, the collapse of Bear Stearns, the Savings and Loan Crisis, the crash of 1929, the collapse of Northern Rock, the Russian Debt crisis. Understanding risk is the single most important consideration for any participant, from the independent trader to the juggernaut of a Goldman Sachs.

But what does Wall Street understand by the term risk? There are many discussions of what constitutes "risk" in the financial markets but not surprisingly, there is no one definition. Typically, discussions of risk revolve around the concepts of Value at Risk (VAR), beta, delta, the capital asset pricing model (CAPM) and the Black-Scholes options pricing model (BSM). All these ways of quantifying risk are based on inarguably faulty assumptions.

This is where a refresher on the Gaussian Bell Curve enters any discussion on Wall Street's risk models. There are really only two things worth knowing about a Gaussian Bell Curve this is also taught to the legions of business school graduates who go on to write risk models as analysts and traders on Wall Street. The first is that a Gaussian Bell Curve assumes events occur in a normal distribution. What this means is that in a Gaussian Bell Curve, if events or occurrences were plotted, they would occur in the largest numbers at or towards the very center of the bell curve. All these events, plotted on a chart would take the shape of a bell curve, hence the name. Events which occur less frequently would occur towards the edges of the curve. The further the event was from the center of the bell curve, the more improbable it is to occur. This is called a normal distribution. The second thing one should know about the Gaussian Bell Curve, perhaps less well taught is that it does not predict market events very well at all.

Analysts at investment banks make models of reality with predictive capability-it is called modeling. J. P. Morgan invented Risk Metrics in 1994 as a set of financial models that were to be used by investors to measure portfolio risk. Risk Metrics like financial modeling in general, attempts to take a certain set of variables or causes and isolate them as being the very variables that account for change in financial markets. This is a bit simplistic but works reasonably well when reality happens within the fat center of a bell curve. Financial models seek to replicate financial reality much like economic models and models of human behavior that have become extremely popular in the social sciences writ large. Financial risk models like social science models suffer from all the weakness and frailty of over-simplifying reality and selectively isolating causal variables. In sum, financial risk models fail catastrophically when worse-case scenarios or even the genuinely unexpected occurs.

This does not mean we have a reasonable alternative to risk models as we humans do not like indeterminacy. We do not like to make decisions or look back in hindsight and think we made decisions by tossing a coin. On the contrary, we like to find reasons for why we made decisions and why events occurred. We tend to think we can. We have at times an irrational belief in the rational. But as Pascal once stated, nothing is more rational than the abdication of reason itself. The ability of social scientists or investment bankers to explain events through the actions of rational human actors appeals to our psyche. It is appealing simply to think we can.

Models of the financial markets like models of the human behavior in the social sciences have serious limitations. To start, they have to simplify reality. One of the ways that modeling simplifies and in a sense, falsifies reality is by making assumptions about human beings, which are not true. For example, modeling tends to assume that humans, whether in a marketplace or in a poker game are rational and that they act at all times in accordance with their best interests. This is not borne out by reality. Any cursory historical account of human behavior belies that humans act rationally. Human beings are emotional actors as much as they are rational actors.

The supremacy of emotions to the human story is only matched by our social scientists willful neglect of them. However, given a choice, time and again, we often act on our emotions and against our rational interests. Our strongest emotions keep us awake at night, they cause us physical pain, they have helped our race to achieve beyond all expectation when at other times they have left us paralyzed. We think wishfully when we rationally should not. The markets are replete with examples of irrational exuberance, traders who act out of hope, fear and greed as much as they act out of a consistent rational interest in maximizing their profits. Markets historically at tops and bottoms have betrayed the irrational mob mentally of the masses of its participants.

If humans were truly rational, we simply would not have addictive behaviors like gambling, drug addiction, drinking or any self-destructive behavior. We may not even have much ill-health, skin cancer, road-rage, or obesity because knowing we should take care of ourselves, we would-this is rational. We may never purchase luxury items or clothes. We may not care so much about how our neighbors live because we would not feel envy, jealousy, sympathy or pity. The pursuit of leisure and charitable activities may well be quite different. So many of Tocqueville's observations about American life would not hold water.

But in reality, half of our brains are devoted to pure emotion. And this half has expressed itself as the stuff of life. We cannot seem to choose our emotions one at a time either. If we were, we would want to be able to love without being vulnerable to grief, to experience the wings of hope without putting ourselves in danger of experiencing disappointment or the failure of our hoped-for event. As a race, we have spent most of our time acting on our emotions and being in their grip as is borne out in our history, our mythologies, culture, our wars and literature. It is in every sense human to be irrational or at least to experience emotion. To argue that humans are rational actors is at a minimum to simplify things, but really it is not a valid assumption.

Modeling also suffers from faulty assumptions about the ability of human participants to gather, assimilate and react to information. Most models are sensitive to information. Information causes the rational actor in a model to act a certain way, presumably in a way that will maximize that actor's interests. In the real world, information is not perfect. There is misinformation. Rumors, false tips, erroneous analyst reports are example of misinformation. Some information that is available to a rational actor is false information. Even if we assumed that all the information available to market participants was correct and no false or misinformation was available, market participants would process and assimilate the information differently and at different rates. One example of misinformation and information assimilated at different times is the discovery of a report in 2008 on the internet that United Airlines was facing bankruptcy. This report was over a year old but it caused the price of the stock to drop by over 40% in a single day, before it was discovered that the report was old. In the real world, individually and collectively, we have different intellectual and ideological frameworks, we also have different levels of intelligence, among other factors that allow us to reach very different conclusions when faced with the same information. My neighbor may react to rising gasoline prices years faster than I would by immediately cutting down on his driving or purchasing a hybrid vehicle. Market participants react to identical information at various rates. One person may react quickly to too little information and another may wait much longer accumulating much more information. Sometimes waiting to act while accumulating and digesting information is not a good thing like waiting to liquidate a losing position before your losses wipe you out when acting sooner would have allowed you to cut your loss without going broke.

Another problem with financial models is that they do not account for insider information or conflicts of interest. A good idea for anyone with a year to spare would be to write a volume chronicling conflict of interest in the financial world. One of the inherent conflicts in investment banks has been the Chinese wall that is supposed to separate the investment banking and sales functions of the investment house from the research and analysis side. Some have argued that this Chinese wall did not always exist. There is an inherent conflict between the need to sell the investment banking services of a bank to the same customer who is being covered by the bank's analysts. There is an enormous and still unresolved conflict of interest in the functions of credit ratings agencies. The credit ratings agencies are paid by the issuers (their clients) of the securities they were supposed to evaluate, creating an inherent conflict of interest. If the analysts or agencies are too harsh in their coverage, then the ability of the bank to sell its investment banking services may suffer or the agencies will lose their clients.

What about the potentially insider information that the analysts obtained in covering a company and the danger that this information would travel across the room to the trading floor of the investment bank? Another conflict of interest certainly, but it is also an example of a market participant having insider information or simply information that other market participants do not have, before they have it.

Another fallacy with financial modeling is that models are required to isolate a fixed amount of causal variables. In other words, a financial model that was designed to predict the risk of an investment portfolio would be comprised of say twenty factors or variables, each of which or a certain number of which would affect a change in measure of risk to the investment portfolio. What if in reality, it was one hundred or ten thousand different variables or things that would change the riskiness of the portfolio?

The financial models of investment bank analysts and traders assign likelihood to the possibility of certain events occurring. Financial models assume a normal distribution (a bell curve) of asset returns or risk. Using a normal distribution, events that diverge from the mean or center of the bell curve, by five or more standard deviations, known as a five-sigma event, are very rare and ten-sigma events are nearly impossible. However, the 1987 market crash represents a change of 22 standard deviations. The odds of such a 22 standard deviation event occurring are so low as to deemed impossible.

In the real financial markets, events considered nearly impossible by financial models assuming normal distributions of events, not only are possible, they are occurring frequently. There have been multiple fluctuations greater than five standard deviations in our most recent past. Events that according to a Gaussian Bell Curve are supposed to occur only once every one hundred thousand years, if at all, are occurring in certain cases, several times in a decade. Dramatic market events or fat tails do occur in a greater frequency than is possible assuming normal distributions suggesting distributions are not normal. Since the 1998 Russian debt crisis, the global financial markets have experienced at least 10 events, none of which were supposed to occur more than once every few billion years.

The financial services industry is full of at least two generations of analysts, investment bankers, statisticians and of course economists, who have been indoctrinated through college, their masters and MBA programs to believe in the bell curve and normal distributions-it is beyond time that they learned to think outside the box. Alternatively, to the extent that any regulations are enacted, they should seek to once more separate investment banking from commercial banking so that as long as Wall Street relies on one VaR number, they are allowed to fail and their losses are never again shared by the public. @
R. Tamara de Silva

May 14, 2012
Chicago, Illinois

R. Tamara de Silva is an independent trader and lawyer

Comparing the Incomparable- Credit Ratings Agencies Revisited

January 17, 2012
Comparing the Incomparable- Credit Ratings Agencies Revisited


By R. Tamara de Silva
January 17, 2011

Yesterday, Standard & Poor's relieved the Eurozone's bail-out fund, the European Financial Stability Facility ("EFSF") of its AAA credit rating, possibly hampering the fund's ability to contain the European debt crisis. This comes on the heel's of the S&P stripping both France and Austria of their triple-A rating in favor of a rating of AA+.[1] The effect of the S&P downgrade may be negative. Ratings agencies exist to level asymmetries in information and evaluate risk but one of their inherent oddities is that they seek to compare things whose differences in scale make them incomparable. Ratings agencies also have conflicts of interests, they often evaluate financial products (like collateralized debt obligations) that they do not understand, they seem to lack fixed ways to measure absolute risk, and they are at times, catastrophically wrong.

Elephants and aardvarks

Downgrades should not be considered in a vacuum. When the ratings agencies equate economies based upon ability to repay debt, they artificially equate countries disregarding factors such as size, geo-political risk and political infrastructure that make their comparisons odd.

S&P announced on August 5, 2011 that it would downgrade the credit rating of the United States. Interestingly it announced during the last day of this same month that while the world's only superpower and largest economy would now get only a AA+ rating, securities backed by sub-prime home loans, the same type of investments that led to the worst financial debacle since the Depression (and one from which we have not yet arguably recovered) would receive its once coveted triple AAA rating...unlike the United States.

There is no question that the United States will be able to repay its debts, we will continue to print more money-the larger issue is the continual erosion in the Dollar over time. Although a currency cannot be devalued ad infinitum without catastrophic results, at least for the time being, there is no credible replacement for the Dollar continuing to be the world's reserve currency. No other nation has the assets to back up being the world's reserve currency.

Looking at the S&P's downgrade of the United States in a vacuum, one would think that it is more prudent (according to all three ratings agencies), to prefer Austria, Denmark, Norway, France, Germany, Singapore, Luxemburg, the Swiss or even Finland. There is no consensus by all three agencies on countries like Hong Kong, Australia and the Isle of Mann. Yet other than ratings, the similarity ends there. Comparing the United States, the largest and most analyzed economy in the world with relatively petite nations like Luxemburg and Finland are like comparing the teeth of an otter and an elephant-one is so remarkably larger than the other that a comparison seems problematic. Admittedly both animals have teeth. Or like comparing the speed of an elephant and an aardvark.

To put the utility of comparison between the United States, which has a GDP of $14.657 trillion, in perspective, here are the GDPs of some of the remaining triple AAA rated countries in 2010 according to the IMF [2] :

• Luxemburg has a GDP of $52.43 billion,
• Germany's GDP is $3.314 trillion (largest in the EU)
• France $ 2.582 trillion,
• United Kingdom $2.172 trillion
• Lichtenstein $4.83 billion
• China $10 trillion (largest behind United States)


Comparing the largest most innovate, most scrutinized economy in the world to a nation like China is humorous because in terms of actual accounting standards, any meaningful transparency, the complete absence of a stable democracy or political freedoms-China is a peasant country. When the United States is downgraded, there is no other United States to compare it to, so to some extent, the rating downgrade may not be absolutely everything the media proclaims it to be.

Effect of downgrade on United States so far

When the markets opened on the first Monday after S&P's downgrade of the United States, the benchmark 10-year Treasury bond's yield dropped to 2.5%. Price, which is inverse to yield in bonds, has continued to increase even approaching all-time historic levels. This past August, the 10-year yield dropped almost 60 basis points, piercing below 2% (lower than their historic all-time low in 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed). The demand for United States' Treasuries has increased dramatically immediately following the S&P downgrade.

If the United States were deemed less credit worthy (less likely to pay its creditors), then investors and bond holders would demand higher returns for buying any U.S. debt/bonds. The very ability of the United States to borrow money by issuing bonds would be jeopardized. The market has ruled against this logic and to a large extent against S&P-justifiably so.

Remember a government bond is a debt instrument issued by a national government denominated in that government's currency. United States Treasury securities are valued in US dollars-their price is in United States Dollars.

A risk-free interest rate is the nominal rate of return for an investment with no risk (no credit risk) [3] of financial loss. The risk-free rate of return for almost all this century was the yield of United States Treasuries.

graph.pdf

Why would the market seemingly disregard the opinion of S&P? Perhaps because many people remembered that during the housing bubble, sketchy loans (once again I proffer this as a new legal term of art) were repackaged by investment banks into investment pools and other mortgage backed securities and received the gold standard of financial ratings, the coveted and in theory elusive, AAA rating by the largest credit ratings agencies, including S&P and Moody's. S&P's granting of triple AAA ratings to companies and investment vehicles that turned into junk ratings caused $2 trillion in losses to everyone that relied on them-basically, everyone. No one else seemed to find it ironic that this same agency told the United States by how much it thought its debt should be lowered.

Conflicts of interest and fraud

But back to the credit ratings agencies... Not that long ago, in August 2010 and again in July of 2010, the SEC threatened to charge all three ratings agencies with fraud. Some would say better late than never. During the housing bubble, sketchy loans (I use this as a new legal term of art) were repackaged by investment banks into investment pools and other mortgage backed securities and received the gold standard of financial ratings, the coveted and in theory elusive, AAA rating by the largest credit ratings agencies, including S&P and Moody's. The agencies' granting of triple AAA ratings to companies and investment vehicles that turned into junk ratings caused billions if not trillions of dollars in losses to everyone that relied on them-basically, everyone. The credit ratings agencies are paid by the issuers (their clients) of the securities they were supposed to evaluate, creating an inherent conflict of interest. They were the game's referee and one of its players at the same time.

The SEC report on Credit Ratings Agencies from June 2007 identified another problem other than having the referee in a match being paid by one of the sides, (not the investors or the public's side mind you), that prevented the agencies from giving accurate ratings. The agencies could not give accurate ratings of many of the instruments involved in the housing bubble and credit crisis because of the complexity of the transactions involved and the inability of agencies to understand what they were analyzing.

One could argue that the agencies were not engaging in a deliberate (alright not a horribly deliberate) fraud, that is having a public position of trust, being paid and knowing they cannot do what they are assigned to do but pretending to do it anyway. Mind you, if anyone else had engaged in this behavior, they would have likely been indicted for fraud and possibly RICO.

What may let the agencies off the hook is that they relied on the issuers' (the clients again, usually investment banks) audit committees. Audit committees cannot seem to be comprised of Chia Pets in human dimension. The fact that these committees represented having signed off on the financial instruments in question should mean something-if not, why have these corporate committees?!

Furthermore, one could argue that the credit ratings agencies must not be held responsible for their ratings because they did not and could not have understood the trading transactions taking place at the investment banks because they had to rely on the information they were given which was not itself transparent.

A possible longer term solution to the conflict of interest driven nature of the credit ratings agencies is to take away the compensation structure of the credit ratings agencies and deregulate them completely in-order to discourage inherent conflict of interest or use the Credit Spread Market-problem solved! Take away what is essentially a government-sponsored monopoly of credit ratings agencies and allow investor paid credit ratings agencies, which could open up the market and privatize the ratings industry. Without credit ratings agencies, the market will determine value more efficiently than the analysts at the agencies. A problem with this approach is that there might be variance between the ratings of twenty agencies as opposed to just three, causing the rating on any one agency to mean less and to make more work for risk managers.

No liability

S&P has somehow avoided to this very day, all criminal and civil liability for its part in the most recent financial crisis. If the agencies had some liability for their ratings, they may have a better incentive for assuring that they got them right. Neither the Justice Department nor the SEC (which has itself managed to miss all the major financial debacles of the past five years) has ever charged S&P with criminal conflict of interest (as they in practice do and would do to any number of much smaller economic participants with a much smaller fields of damage). Neither the Justice Department nor the SEC has gone after S&P for admitting before Congress in 2008 and 2009, that their being paid by the issuers (their clients) of the securities they were supposed to evaluate, created an inherent conflict of interest and did in fact wrongly influence their ratings.

Nobody has charged the S&P with criminal fraud or fraud on the marketplace for taking money from issuers in simple bad faith (playing the part of the referee and judge in a boxing match after being paid by one of the boxers) for rating securities, they admitted in sworn testimony they did not understand!

This sordid tale has no end. According to Bloomberg, S&P is giving its self-coveted triple AAA rating to junk,

"Standard & Poor's is giving a higher rating to securities backed by subprime home loans, the same type of investments that led to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, than it assigns the U.S. government.
S&P is poised to provide AAA grades to 59 percent of Springleaf Mortgage Loan Trust 2011-1, a set of bonds tied to $497 million lent to homeowners with below-average credit scores and almost no equity in their properties."
[4]


A spokesperson for S&P when asked about why it would give its higher rating of triple AAA yet again to subprime securities repackaged by many of the scions of AIG and Goldman that participated in causing the Credit Crisis and profited from its bailout simply stated, "We believe our ultimate success will be driven by the value investors derive from our ratings and analysis."
However, it is not honest, however much one is paid, to issue a triple AAA rating to what Bloomberg calls,

"More than 14,000 securitized bonds in the U.S. are rated AAA by S&P, backed by everything from houses and malls to auto- dealer loans and farm-equipment leases, according to data compiled by Bloomberg,"

and not the United States of America.

Relatively speaking

Size matters. Pension funds and many of the largest institutional investors have rules about what investments they may invest in and these rules are based on the ratings given to investments by the credit ratings agencies. Consider that Australia, Andorra, Bermuda, Canada, Cook Islands, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom retain their triple-A ratings.[5] These countries represent less than 21% of the world's collective GDP...my math may be slightly off. If investment funds were limited to investing in triple-A products, it would be preposterous to think that less than 21% of the economy of the world would fund the remaining 79%.

Another weakness of the credit ratings agencies is that there is no set standard employed for measuring absolute risk. What I mean by absolute risk is the measure in gambling parlance, of the risk of ruin. Wall Street and regulators have, in the example of a bank lets say, no better way other than asking for capital ratios to ascertain a bank's risk or ruin. Other factors, like the value of assets and counterparty transactions lack still, even in 2012, transparency.

Because the credit ratings agencies share this problem of being unable to objectively ascertain absolute risk, they lag the markets' own detections of absolute and relative risk. For example, the agencies did not foresee the Latin American debt crises, the European debt crisis, AIG, the Credit Crisis, Enron, Worldcom, or even MF Global. In this sense, credit ratings agencies look backwards better than they can look ahead. Arguably, there are extremely few economists or market participants that can look ahead-this may be a wholly unfair criticism...except this is part of the reason for having the ratings agencies.

The most obvious problems with the existing regulatorily instituted regime of three credit ratings agencies is that they have no competition, no real accountability because they have to be utilized even when wrong, and no liability. This oligopoly ought to be dismantled and the private sector should be allowed to get into the ratings game in the same way that analysts exists in the financial markets for every other type of investment. Doing so would eliminate the existing conflicts of interests within the credit ratings agencies and allow investors to pay the private ratings agencies for their research. Competition will have to drive the caliber of research and ratings upward.

Sadly, nothing in the gargantuan 2,300 page Dodd-Frank Act or that has been discussed in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs addresses the problems with the credit ratings agencies...the same ones that contributed to our recent financial crisis.@

R. Tamara de Silva

Chicago, Illinois
January 17, 2012

R. Tamara de Silva is an independent trader and securities lawyer

Footnotes:
1. The EFSF's ratings are derived from its backers and France and Austria were two of the largest guarantors behind Germany. S&P's downgrade of the EFSF will mean the fund has 440 billion less in Euros than before the downgrade.
2. These numbers are adjusted by PPP (purchasing power parity), basis-this takes into account, relative cost of living and inflation rates, rather than just exchange rates.
3. There are other risks like inflation risk (the principal returned on a debt instrument upon maturity would have less purchasing power) and currency risk (the Dollar could as it has, decline in value relative to other currencies).
4. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-08-31/subprime-mortgage-bonds-getting-aaa-rating-s-p-denies-to-u-s-treasuries.html
5. http://www.standardandpoors.com/ratings/sovereigns/ratings-list/en/us?sectorName=null&subSectorCode=39&filter=E