Prop Trading at JP Morgan

JPMorgan’s management released its Task Force Report (Report) on the trading losses at its Chief Investment Office (CIO). It’s very clearly written tick-tock and provides a good account of how various controls broke down. Taking for granted the task assigned to the traders running the CIO’s Synthetic Credit Portfolio, the report outlines where things went wrong.

As an accident of timing, the losses were first disclosed in the midst of a public debate about the Volcker Rule’s prohibition on proprietary trading at banks. So, for the public, the case became a test of whether the proposed regulations implementing the Volcker Rule had any teeth: would they prohibit the trades being done at JPMorgan’s CIO once they came into force? Management has always contended that the Synthetic Credit Portfolio was run to hedge the bank’s natural long position in credit risk, and that it was not proprietary trading and would not be prohibited under the Volcker Rule. That contention is repeated summarily in the Report when it gives an introductory overview of the Portfolio’s origin and operation. But, the contention is never actually substantiated: indeed, the Report does not purport to address the prop trading question directly.

There is much in the Report that would lead a reader to doubt management’s contention and to conclude instead that the Synthetic Credit Portfolio was a classic example of prop trading.

A key forensic test for distinguishing prop trading from hedging is the compensation criteria. A hedger’s success is not measured by his or her own profit and loss on the hedge trades. Instead, a hedger’s success is measured by how well his or her own profits and losses track and set off the losses and profits on the assets being hedged. The metrics for performance on hedging should incentivize minimizing net risk. The metrics should measure net risk reduction. When the desk reports big profits — after netting out the matched positions — that’s a bad sign, not a good one. The JPMorgan Report strongly suggests that the traders on the Synthetic Credit Portfolio expected to be rewarded on their own profit and loss, not on how successfully they hedged the bank’s natural long position. That compensation system fits prop trading, not hedging.

The Report does briefly consider the wisdom of the compensation scheme, but not from the perspective of the Volcker Rule and identifying prohibited activities. Instead, the Task Force was just concerned with the question of whether the profit and loss criterion was overvalued to the exclusion of other criteria management imposed on the unit.

So, it looks as if JPMorgan’s CIO, and its Synthetic Credit Portfolio provide a useful test case for the Volcker Rule going forward. The original regulations proposed for implementing the Rule did include an assessment of compensation criteria. Whether that will continue in a final rule is yet to be seen. And then comes the question of enforcement.

 

 

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