Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Thursday, June 21, 2018

The inherent problems and contradictions of Wall Street trading make government intervention a necessity.

The fiasco at JPMorgan Chase is most disturbing because it reflects the inherent riskiness of modern financial trading. Few articles have pinpointed this as the problem. It is the reason strong regulations and high capital requirements are necessary; you can’t outsmart these inherent contradictions.

JPMorgan ran its trading operation out of its risk management group, which was supposed to offset risk, not take on new ones. But even if you are trying to implement a pure hedge—that is, minimize risk—there are two big issues here. One is the inefficiency of markets and the lack of adequate information. You can buy or sell a security—usually a derivative, or a leveraged security based on the ups and downs of another security—to hedge a position, such as a portfolio of bonds you think might readily fall in value. This was the Chase situation.

However, the first problem with this is that the hedge is not necessarily properly priced, because the markets are inefficient and prices are not transparent to all. It is often too cheap. Second, the counter-party—the seller or buyer on the other side of the transaction—may not meet his or her commitment. This is what happened when AIG sold insurance (credit default swaps) to Goldman Sachs and then couldn’t pay it off without a government bailout when markets collapsed.

The next big issue is the human one. Judging from press accounts, JPMorgan wasn’t trying merely to hedge. In truth, there are no pure hedges or people wouldn’t make money at all. Nothing can eradicate risk completely. Rather, JPMorgan looked like they were taking long and short positions on balance—that is, trying to win bigger by guessing the direction of the markets, not just hedge.

Again, there are two problems within this larger issue. First is the inalterable human temptation to make a big killing, especially when the individual bankers are being paid big bonuses to do so and suffer relatively little if they guess wrong. Call this asymmetric incentive. They may even have changed their own yardstick, or value at risk, to seem like they were taking less risk. No doubt they had some kind of argument to do so.