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Can We ‘TRACE’ JP Morgan’s Business?

Posted by Larry Doyle on July 17, 2009 9:09 AM |

On Wall Street, information is everything!! Access to the information is invaluable. Why? Given the speed with which markets move, any early hint of developing news is priceless in terms of the ability to transact quickly and profitably.

Why is ‘high frequency program trading’ viewed with such skepticism? Select participants with advanced computer programs gain access to market flows prior to other participants and are able to act on it. That playing field is not level. I shared my disdain for this practice in writing, “Why High Frequency Program Trading Smells.”

What other battles are being waged by Wall Street firms looking to defend their turf at the expense of consumers and investors? Credit cards and credit derivatives. Which Wall Street firm has the greatest combined exposure to these businesses? None other than JP Morgan Chase.

The Financial Times highlights how JP Morgan Chief Hits at Credit Card Rules:

Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JP Morgan Chase, on Thursday hit out at strict rules on US credit cards, saying they would cost the bank’s lossmaking card unit up to $700m next year.

While Mr. Dimon is railing on new legislation aimed to protect consumer interests in the credit card space, he conveniently avoids mentioning how both JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America are already implementing procedures to skirt that legislation. How might these financial behemoths do that? Shift from fixed rate credit cards to variable rate. I exposed this maneuver a few weeks back in writing, “Banks Build Better Mousetrap.”

Dimon continues his defense of JP Morgan’s franchise:

He singled out the credit card provisions, which from February (2010..LD’s edit) will constrain lenders’ ability to raise rates for risky borrowers, and rules that propose to move most derivatives trading on to exchanges as two contentious areas.

The tough stance by JPMorgan reflects Wall Street’s new-found confidence in lobbying regulators and the government. After keeping a low profile during the crisis, many of the banks that repaid the bail-out funds are becoming more aggressive in Washington.

In regard to derivatives activity, JP Morgan has a dominant position in the market. Why? Their strong capital position, enormous balance sheet, and strong credit rating make them an attractive counterparty for customers. Make no mistake, JP Morgan has a license to ‘print’ money, and a lot of it, across the entire derivatives platform.

While Washington will tout how they are increasing regulation of the derivatives space, this business is truly multi-pronged. There are plain vanilla derivatives in more highly liquid sectors of the market. These ‘standardized’ derivatives will most certainly move to an exchange to create total transparency. Value added for customers will be minimal only because these markets are already fairly well defined and exposed. JP Morgan and other Wall Street firms will cede this ‘standardized’ space while they fight tooth and nail to maintain their enormously advantageous position in the area of ‘customized’ derivatives.

There is little to no transparency in the world of customized derivatives and as a result the bid-ask spreads are very wide. Cha-ching, cha-ching. Jamie and his friends on Wall Street are working extremely hard to keep it this way.

In their defense, it is likely not functionally feasible to move many customized derivatives to an exchange. What should regulators compel them to do? JP Morgan and every other financial firm on Wall Street should have to report every derivatives transaction to a system known as TRACE, which stands for Trade Reporting and Compliance Engine.  This system currently only covers transactions within the cash markets and not derivatives.  What does that mean for investors? No transparency and price discovery for investors in the customized derivatives space. As such, Jamie and friends can keep those bid-ask spreads nice and wide and ring up huge profits in the process.

I won’t make many friends on Wall Street, and perhaps lose some of my current friends, but TRACE should be implemented across all product lines. For those involved in the markets, please access the TRACE system to gain a wealth of pricing data while keeping your brokers and financial planners honest!!

LD

  • Aaron kramer

    Great idea LD but it will be fought because TRACE would expose how much counter party risk GS and JPM actually are exposed to and expose others to. There are rumors to the actual size of JPM off the balance sheet derivatives exposure and it is a multiple of our country’s GDP. I not saying that its ultimate exposure is that great, as we saw with the Lehman book close to 90% of the book was netted out, but a little clarity would be nice. Of course would you see JPM as a great counter party if you knew they had 60 trillion in derivatives on its books? a 100 trillion? The idea of netting out risk is great when all the parties pay at 100%, just ask GS. Unfortunately when your counter parties don’t pay everyone else is left in a lurch.

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