Category Archives: governance

Games with Risk Controls

FT Alphaville has been running a series of blog posts digging in to items raised in the investigation of the fiasco at JP Morgan’s Chief Investment Office. The series is called The Belly of the Whale.

Today’s entry is a must read for anyone who has tried to “control” traders using quantitative risk measures. It’s all about gaming government capital rules. But shouldn’t any corporate officer who has to manage teams of traders have to worry about similar games being played?


Was Ina Drew a Hedger or a Speculator?

This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine included a piece by Susan Dominus about Ina Drew, the former Chief Investment Officer (CIO) at JP Morgan who resigned following the outsized trading loss in her unit. The focus of the piece is on the rough and tumble of a woman trying “to succeed as an interloper in the Wall Street boys’ club. But buried within the piece is a repeated confusion of hedging with proprietary trading. Dominus repeatedly describes Drew as responsible for hedging this or that risk facing the bank, but immediately afterwards Dominus lauds Drew’s uncanny ability to predict where the market was heading and so to be a profit center. Since the question of whether JP Morgan’s CIO was or was not hedging is at the heart of the public policy dispute surrounding JP Morgan and the Volcker Rule (see here and here), it is worthwhile addressing the confusion in Dominus’ piece.

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Chesapeake’s Two Natures

In yesterday’s post I said that Chesapeake’s management was speculating on natural gas and oil prices. But Chesapeake claims that it is a hedger. Speculating and hedging are different things, so is Chesapeake a hedger or a speculator?

In representations to regulators, Chesapeake’s Vice President for Finance and Assistant Treasurer, Elliot Chambers, has stated categorically that “we never speculate.” Is that true? Is his definition of a speculator the same as mine?

Chesapeake is a hedger. It uses exchange traded futures and options, OTC swaps, and a specialized financing vehicle called Volumetric Production Payments, among other things, to mitigate the price risk on its production and “predict with greater certainty the effective prices we will receive for our hedged production.” (10K for FY2011 p. 72)

But Chesapeake is also a speculator. The company is straightforward in its SEC filings that it tries to profit off of price swings: “We intend to use this volatility to our benefit by taking advantage of prices when they reach levels that management believes are either unsustainable for the long term or provide unusually high rates of return on our invested capital.” (10K for FY2011 p. 6) “Depending on changes in natural gas and oil futures markets and management’s view of underlying natural gas and oil supply and demand trends, we may increase or decrease our current derivative positions.” (10K for FY2011 p. 59) “Our general strategy for attempting to mitigate exposure to adverse natural gas and oil price changes is to hedge into strengthening natural gas and oil futures markets when prices allow us to generate higher cash margins and when we view prices to be in the upper range of our predicted future price range. Information we consider in forming an opinion about future prices includes general economic conditions, industrial output levels and expectations, producer breakeven cost structures, liquefied natural gas trends, natural gas and oil storage inventory levels, industry decline rates for base production and weather trends.” (10K for FY2011 p. 87) As I related in yesterday’s post, Chesapeake’s decision last fall to remove its natural gas hedge was based on its prediction that prices were temporarily low and would recover, allowing it to replace the hedges and capturing a profit on the short-run volatility. This is all speculation.

A company can be both a hedger and a speculator.

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Credit Suisse note is not a solution to bonus culture

Credit Suisse (CS) has announced it will pay a portion of its bankers’ bonuses with a structured note instead of cash. The note pays a fixed coupon of around 6% per year, and is backed by a package of derivative contracts currently in the balance sheet of CS. Since the value of the portfolio is risky, the payout is not guaranteed.

In a memo to staff, CS CEO Brady Dougan touts the structured note as a way to address the criticism made against the financial industry’s bonus structures. But is that true?

The central criticism is that the relationship between risk and return is out of whack. The principal behind past bonus structures has been “heads I win, tails you lose”. Performance has been rewarded without regard to risk. Losses have been put to shareholders or to taxpayers. A related criticism is that the process for setting bonuses is opaque and managed by insiders, at the expense of shareholders and taxpayers. This makes it unlikely that insiders ever fail to succeed against the benchmarks that are set, and ensures that the system is skewed against shareholders and taxpayers.

Does the new CS structured note address these criticisms?

No it doesn’t.

It was designed with an entirely different purpose in mind, which is strengthening the bank’s capital position in light of new banking rules. The derivatives portfolio backing the structured note comes from CS’s balance sheet, and CS hopes the move will decrease the measured risk of its balance sheet and improve its capital ratio under the new Basel III agreement. CEO Dougan is straightforward about this strategic objective. But he also wants to advertise the move as addressing shareholder and public concerns on bonus rules.

The structured note fails to address either of the two key criticisms.

Most importantly, it is terribly opaque. Many details haven’t yet been released, but in his memo to staff, CEO Dougan acknowledged that “Instruments such as PAF2 are inherently hard to value. It’s obviously not something that is traded in regular markets so has to be modeled.” Only an investment banker still locked in a pre-2008 mindset would structure a note like this as a step forward to transparency and accountability?

It is also hard to see how the structured note provides a sensible risk-reward relationship for the bank’s senior staff. No one starting from a blank piece of paper would design a compensation scheme based this way on the portfolio of derivatives now on the bank’s balance sheet. Indeed, CS has designed the arrangement with an escape hatch should the capital regulations surrounding its real strategic objective change:

PAF2 represents an effective and real sharing of risk but, nonetheless, we still need to reserve the right to amend this structure in the event of changing requirements. The most likely change would be to amend PAF2 to an instrument that instead of referring to our specific portfolio would reference a public index of credits. In our view this would be just as good for our employee investors. We also need to include a call at market value in case these requirements change so materially that the instrument is no longer effective.

If the note were also a real solution to the bonus problem, it would survive changes in the regulatory capital rules that are its real objective.

If CS’s management were serious about addressing the compensation problem, they would design a durable scheme, not a one-off gimmick. The scheme would include a clear downside for managers and a clear tie to the long-term fortunes of the bank. Simon Nixon at the Wall Street Journal’s Heard on the Street column mentions UBS’s plan to pay bonuses as contingent convertibles as one example in this direction. Another alternative would be the explicit clawback provisions being pushed by New York City Comptroller John Liu. The key is that managers should not be able to walk away from the future fortunes of the bank, and the scheme should encourage cross monitoring of risks among managers within the bank. And these incentives should be clear to all, inside and out. The CS proposal is not a step forward on this front.

The lesson from MF Global for the management of a prop trading unit.

Much has been said about MF Global, the US brokerage and clearing group that filed for bankruptcy in late October. In March 2010, when Jon Corzine was brought in as the CEO, MF Global’s franchise in brokerage and clearing operations was strong, but had tallied a string of losses. Corzine was tasked with cutting expenses and returning those operations to profitability. But that wasn’t good enough for him. He wanted to transform the firm into a major league investment bank, expanding into market making in fixed income instruments as well as adding asset management, advisory and capital market services. Corzine also sought to transform proprietary trading into a major source of profit for the firm.

Proprietary trading was something more to Jon Corzine than simply another line of business. He personally stepped in to make an outsized bet on the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis. The firm took a long position in bonds of financially stretched European countries with loans secured by the bonds themselves. To avoid the risk of refinancing, MF Global arranged the trade to be funded until the maturity of the bonds. If everything went according to plan, for a ten percent haircut on the collateral, the spread between the EU high bond yields and the overnight rate would generate €400-€500 million in profit for the company.

As Aaron Lucchetti and Julie Steinberg, of the Wall Street Journal report, MF Global’s Chief Risk Officer, Michael Roseman, warned of the dangers of the trade: he “contended MF Global didn’t have enough spare cash to withstand the risks of its position in bonds of Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Belgium. He also presented gloomy hypothetical scenarios of what could happen if MF Global’s credit rating was downgraded because of the exposure.” Nevertheless, Corzine held firm and the Board did not restrain him.

MF Global’s lenders grew worried over the summer as the collateral lost a good deal of value. They demanded the company post additional margin, and when the company was unable to do so, they called the loans. With no additional credit available to the firm, MF Global had no choice but to liquidate the portfolio at very disadvantageous prices, for the market for bonds of highly indebted European countries is very illiquid. Ultimately, the bad bet forced the company into bankruptcy.

There are many lessons that can be drawn from the collapse of MF Global. One that we would like to highlight has to do with the proper place of prop trading in a larger business. We see no problem with standalone prop trading units – hedge funds, as they are sometimes called. When the prop traders are gambling using their own balance sheet, they are forced to fully bear any risk of failure. But when the prop traders share a balance sheet with other lines of business – like MF Global’s brokerage and clearing operations – the danger arises that they are gambling using the capital of other units without paying for it. When MF Global’s bet went bad, it lost more than the price of that bet. It wiped out the long-term health of the brokerage and clearing franchise. That is a dead weight cost produced by having the two operations share a balance sheet.

Was that potential cost factored in when taking the original bet? We doubt it. Measuring the capital at risk from proprietary trading is a difficult task. Traders habitually underestimate the risks of their trades and the capital required to run their operation. MF Global structured it’s repo-to-maturity deal to seemingly hedge out key risks, thereby benefitting from an accounting trick that kept its bet off of its balance sheet and out of sight of the market. But that accounting treatment ignored the huge liquidity risk created by the need to hold onto the position to maturity. That liquidity risk put the entire balance sheet of the firm on the line. Ultimately, one of MF Global’s regulators, FINRA, flagged the risk and demanded more capital, forcing more disclosure.

One way to discipline traders is to give them their own balance sheet. With no one to blame but their operation, the tradeoff between risk and return is more carefully scrutinized. A stand alone balance sheet isn’t the only tool for disciplining traders, but it is certainly the most reliable. Companies that decide, for whatever reason, to put the proprietary trading unit onto the same balance sheet with other activities, had better have superior disciplinary tools at their disposal than what MF Global had.

Prop trading under the guise of hedging: The forgotten lesson of Metallgesellschaft and the Volcker Rule

In the world of finance, the name Metallgesellschaft (MG) is known primarily as one of the early “derivative disaster” cases. MG was a metal, mining and engineering company, and the 14th largest corporation in Germany. At the start of 1994, the company stood on the brink of bankruptcy because of more than $1 billion in losses racked up by a small trading office in New York with a big bet in oil futures. MG’s debacle sparked a vigorous debate—our contribution is here, and a collection of many contributions is available here.

MG was short on a set of long term contracts for the delivery of refined oil products to small businesses for periods of up to 10 years. Many of the contracts were negotiated with a fixed price, while others had more complicated terms. On the other side, MG was long a set of crude oil futures or OTC swap contracts for delivery in one to six months. Taken together, this looked like a long dated short position in the physical hedged by a short dated stack of futures. The critique focused on two questions. First, was the short dated stack a successful value hedge, or had traders at MG failed to accurately “tail the hedge”? Second, did the attempt to hedge such a long horizon physical obligation using derivatives subject the firm to one-sided margin calls, producing a liquidity crisis that the firm could not withstand? From these two questions flow a host of related questions about alternative designs of a better hedge, about the accuracy with which the accounting reflected the underlying financial reality, and governance.

From the narrow perspective of financial engineering, these are all useful questions to consider. However, these questions all start from the premise that the task is to hedge the company’s given exposure on the physical contracts. That is what the situation looked like at first glance, from outside. But courtesy of the acrimony between the team that crafted the failed futures trading strategy and the corporation that dismissed them, a number of internal documents with details on the strategy became public.

Those documents reveal that this premise was incorrect. The traders at MG operated under a very different premise: the long futures position was the real source of profit. If it had been up to them, they would have concentrated on building it up. However, corporate risk management rules limited the quantity of long futures contracts to the volume of physical deliveries. The traders, therefore, had an incentive to market the physical delivery contracts. The more they expanded their long positions in the futures contracts, the more they could loosen the limits imposed by the internal risk limitations, and expand speculative trades. The long futures position only looked like a hedge. In fact, it was a speculation. Traders used hedging to engage in risk taking.This was a classic prop trade disguised as a hedge of a customer facing transaction. When the prop trade blew up, it nearly brought down the entire firm. This aspect of the case is often forgotten.

Eighteen years later, this lesson from the MG case has renewed relevance in light of the $2 billion trading loss by trader Kweku Abdoli at the Delta One desk of the Swiss bank UBS. That spectacular loss gave a fresh reminder of the dangers posed by prop trading at banks, and of the need for prohibitions like the Volcker Rule. So long as taxpayers are the backstop for banks, the traders, the management and shareholders do not suffer the full penalty of the risks from trading. Opposition to the Volcker Rule by bankers is strong, and takes many forms. They argue that any customer facing business, like a Delta One desk, is protected from the prohibition by the mere fact that it is customer facing. This is nonsense. Thankfully, the current draft regulations for the Volcker Rule look to all of the fingerprints of prop trading, and do not provide any such simplistic exceptions. Both the MG case and the UBS case show that prop trading can operate under various guises. It’s prop trading that is the problem, regardless of how it is cloaked.

Exelon, E.On and the Volcker Rule

The Volcker Rule contained in the Dodd-Frank financial reform act bans banks from proprietary trading. In order to implement the Rule, it is necessary to distinguish proprietary trading activities, which are proscribed, from market-making activities and other traditional banking functions, which are allowed.

Many traders at banks claim that this distinction is impossible to make in any rational way. Also that it will bury them in a maze of complex and arcane rules and costly compliance systems.


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The Volcker Rule & Trader Compensation

A Bloomberg article details how a draft of the Volcker Rule uses the structure of trader compensation to distinguish between proprietary trading and market making. Exactly right!

Lesson from UBS on trader compensation

The case of the $2.3 billion trading loss at UBS holds many lessons for any company that trades derivatives. Remember, UBS wants to claim its trader was a rogue that victimized the company. There was a time that a bank could shout ‘rogue’ as an effective excuse of senior management. But that time is now long past. There have been plenty of penetrating questions asked about the self-evident shoddiness of UBS’ control systems. Another area that deserves scrutiny is the compensation system. How is a trader’s pay determined?

Pay should be for performance. But what counts as performance?

The metrics for performance on a proprietary trading portfolio should be different from the metrics for performance by a market maker. A market maker ought to be compensated, in part, for how successfully s/he is hedging trades. For a market maker, outsized gains on the unhedged component should not count towards a bonus, whereas for a trader running a proprietary portfolio, they should.

How was performance measured at UBS’ Delta One desk? If the traders were being rewarded based on the total profitability of the desk, then UBS was incentivizing them to speculate, and the Delta One desk shouldn’t be described as customer facing or market making.

This same lesson applies to non-financial companies that hedge through their own trading desk. The metrics for performance on hedging should incentivize minimizing risk. The metrics should measure risk reduction. When the desk reports big profits — after netting out the matched positions — that’s a bad sign, not a good one.

If you pay out bonuses when bets payoff, be prepared to see some bets that lose big, too. It’s not a rogue trader if the risky bets are rewarded by the compensation system.


It is becoming clear that the UBS scandal that rocked financial markets last week is not just about a single trader suddenly gone awry. UBS’s controls – both in risk management and auditing – failed miserably. Top bankers in the investment banking arm of UBS didn’t have a clue about what was going on in the trading desks and in the back office. When a kid can so easily blow a $2.3 billion hole in the balance sheet, and cause so much damage to the reputation of a top tier bank, there’s something awfully wrong.

But the failures of the system go beyond UBS alone. Kweku Adoboli made trades that apparently didn’t require prompt confirmation with its counterparties. Why? Because in Europe, where UBS’s Delta-One trading desk is based, the vast majority of trading in exchange-traded funds (ETF) occurs over the counter (OTC), in bilateral trades. The rapid growth in ETF trading (a profit center) has outpaced spending in back-office and reporting activities (a cost). According to the Wall Street Journal, a report published in 2009 states that over three quarters of European ETF trading didn’t require any reporting.  The Bank of England, among other supervisory authorities, has called attention to the growing complexity and interconnectedness of ETFs. Unregulated OTC trading also makes them obscure. The inherent lack of transparency of OTC markets provides a fertile ground for misrepresentation and outright fraud. It is also likely that opacity makes it much harder to measure the risks taken by ambitious traders.

The European Commission is now carefully saying that it will look into the possible regulatory implications of the case. The Commission, scared to death by the banks’ threat to leave if new regulations are imposed, has ignored the lessons of the 2008 Jerome Kerviel affair, responsible for Societé General’s $7.2 billion mishap with ETFs and related OTC derivatives transactions. It would serve the European Union well if it learned from the US, where ETF trades are reported and cleared through public and open exchanges. No opacity, less room for cheating.


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