JPMorgan (JPM) just gave us the preview of the next financial crisis. A surprise, hidden $2 billion trading loss in esoteric foreign derivatives at on offshore branch by America’s premier bank is exactly what the markets did not want to hear right now. The London whale has beached itself. Although no one has mentioned this, these are exactly the same sort of securities that drove MF Global into bankruptcy only seven months ago. As baseball great, Yogi Berra, said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
I doubt that JPM will go under on this one, but others may. This is how our financial system works these days. There is never just one cockroach. With the profitability of traditional business lines now pared back to pennies, banks are desperate to reach for marginal income wherever possible to keep from turning into utilities. Bring on the downgrades! Indeed, the loss could well result in a de-rating not just for (JPM), but the entire US banking sector.
As a result, they have all turned into giant, opaque hedge funds. Some genius thinks up a trade that works out great in computer back testing. The Federal Reserve indirectly provides all the capital they need through its zero interest rate policy. It makes good money for a while. Then the word gets out, and everyone starts imitating them.
But the copycat institutions lack the sophistication, the risk control, and the experience to get it right. When too much capital pours into a single trade it ceases to work. Some little market setback gets magnified 100 fold by leverage and the wanabee trader blows up. If JPM lost $2 billion, you can bet someone else has lost $20 billion on a smaller capital base and the runs begin. However, we may not hear about this for another nine months, once the annual audits get underway and fail.
The scary thing is that the senior management of JPM may not even know what their true position is. They are relying on sheepish presentations by some mid-level traders using model driven pricing that has utterly failed them.