The Wall Street Journal ran a story last week about Citigroup and Deutsche losing money on the oil hedge they sold to Mexico. The article talks of a loss totaling $5 million on a put sold for a premium of $450 million, so, in the grand scheme of things, this is not a big matter. However, it does raise an interesting puzzle in light of the Volcker Rule’s prohibition against proprietary trading.
Matt Levine over at Bloomberg does a nice job of dissecting what the banks are doing in the deals with Mexico. It’s part intermediation – taking a portion of the oil price risk from Mexico and reselling it through the oil futures market. But it’s also part acting as a principal – taking another portion of the oil price risk from Mexico and putting it onto their own balance sheets.
Are they allowed to do that – put the oil price risk onto their balance sheet? How is that different from proprietary trading? If Mexico weren’t involved, and the other side of the trade were a hedge fund, would that be any different, as far as safety and soundness is concerned?
Matt Levine thinks the story is a nice example of the banks doing their job. Sure enough, it’s a job that needs being done. But is it really the job of the banks to warehouse oil price risk? It may be socially useful, it may be a valuable financial activity, but it’s not an activity that belongs on a bank balance sheet. Levine’s column reflects how hard it is to get away from the old mentality in which banks think their job is to sell their balance sheet. The problem is, of course, that it isn’t their balance sheet that they are selling. It’s the taxpayers’.