Friday, May 11, 2012

JPM: Crows' Nests and Glass Houses

   May 11, 2012-- I was listening to CNBC in my car and the smug Joe Kernen was interviewing a British woman, I do not know her identity. In a nutshell he said to her that since the British had lost their empire and had no Navy they had little right to an opinion on U.S. markets or regulatory affairs. The words which really pissed me off were something like: "The only thing Britain has left is Prince William and his wedding." While I was swearing at him via my radio, this British woman answered him coolly: "What we in the U.K. have learned is not to crow when you are on top." A brilliant answer. And one that Jamie Dimon should heed.
   When JP Morgan Chase was on top of the world, having (more or less) successfully fought off the dragons of the credit crisis and financial markets meltdown, Dimon went on a rampage to discourage any sniff of regulatory action. He sent lobbyists by the dozens to Washington, DC (all the banks did) and spoke at any and all conferences or to journalists who wanted a "balanced" opinion on regulation. He was particularly smug when savaging the Volcker Rule. His message: We don't need it. As the British woman on CNBC said, it is a good idea not to crow when you are on top.
   Today JPM sits with a $2bn loss on derivatives, which he admits they lost control of. Lost control? Losing $2bn in one month? If the market was aware that JPM had built up an untenable-looking "whale" of a position in credit default swaps over a month ago, then surely JPM's risk team must have noticed?  According to the FT, the bank had implemented some new risk modelling tools in Q1, which it has now shelved. Have they not heard of testing new applications before they go into a live environment? And where did JPM, or any other bank for that matter, get the idea that using VaR was a good idea? It was obvious after the credit crisis that over-reliance on VaR was one of the problems. (I wrote about it in Financial News in December 2008.)
   Note to Dimon: Don't go out throwing stones at regulators when you live in a glass bank.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Oil Price Reporting Agencies: There for a Reason

   Here is a little-known fact: Almost 95% of the oil in the world is priced using reporters' assessments. Amazing, no? Oil price reporting agencies (PRAs), including Platts, Argus Media and ICIS, are responsible for much of the contract pricing of crude oil, oil products and petrochemicals around the world, from the wellhead to the refinery to the pump. Regulators have had little interest in these agencies over the years until that fateful day in September 2008 when crude oil bumped up against $150 per barrel. Since then they have been trying to wrap their heads around this industry we call the oil business. The agencies have been under the microscope of International Organization of Securities Commissions since the G20 asked them to look into last year.
   Alarmed by the sudden interest, these three PRAs are trying to head off regulators by offering up a self-regulation code, according to today's Wall Street Journal. This is a knee-jerk reaction and will do little to assuage regulators, which are being beaten up by politicians trying to somehow force oil prices down.
   But regulators (and clueless politicians) should take note: there is a reason that PRAs exist. Oil is the most non-homogenous commodity on the planet. A barrel of crude oil from one North Sea platform can differ in specification enormously from one only a few nautical miles away. Every refined barrel of petroleum products and petrochemicals differs depending upon the source of the crude oil, the sophistication of the refinery, and the appetite of the consumer. There is no one way to price oil without using the human brain. Only an experienced price reporter knows how specifications differ. Only a human being can tell when a source is telling a lie (and even with experience this is difficult). I should know. I have worked as a price reporter for all three of the above agencies.All of which are dedicated to ensuring the most accurate, honest, BS-proof prices.
   Price reporting is a thankless task, no reporter gets thanked for getting prices right. But the truth is, in the long run they do. They may be wrong for a day, or even a week, but it has been proven again and again that PRAs call the market accurately over time. The regulators should leave well enough alone. The words 'can' and 'worms' spring to mind.