By David Henry and Douwe Miedema
NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) - JPMorgan Chase & Co's shock trading loss of at least $2 billion from a failed hedging strategy knocked shares of the largest U.S. bank by assets down over 9 percent on Friday, along with the reputation of Chief Executive Jamie Dimon.
For a bank lauded for navigating the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis without reporting a loss, the errors are embarrassing, especially given Dimon's criticism of the so-called Volcker rule to ban proprietary trading by big banks.
Dimon, in a conference call Thursday, conceded the losses, which could rise by a further $1 billion, were linked to a Wall Street Journal report last month about London-based credit trader Bruno Iksil. Nicknamed the 'London Whale', the paper said Iksil amassed an outsized position which hedge funds bet against.
Dimon will undoubtedly be pressed by investors for more details about what exactly went wrong when he hosts the bank's annual shareholder meeting on Tuesday in Tampa, Florida.
A national union on Friday urged shareholders to approve a stockholder resolution calling for an independent board chairman at JPMorgan. Dimon currently holds the chairman and CEO titles.
"The stakes are too high to leave Jamie Dimon unsupervised," said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, which sponsored the proposal. "Dimon denied that the 'London Whale' was making risky bets, and now that this has turned out to be a fish story, shareholders need to step in."
Iksil, who graduated in engineering from the Ecole Centrale in Paris in 1991, was not available for comment. The Frenchman, and the Chief Investment Office (CIO) where he works, are known by rival credit traders for taking extremely large positions.
A friend and former JPMorgan colleague said Iksil and his team were not carrying out so-called prop trading, where a bank makes bets with its own money, in disguise and its activities were known about at the highest levels.
"The CIO does not do prop trading, let's be clear on that...It involves taking positions in the form of investments, trades, credit-default swaps, or other, with the aim of rebalancing the risks of JPMorgan's balance sheet.
"The information comes from the very top of the bank and I do not even think that the CIO team members at Bruno's level are given the full picture," the ex-colleague said.
Wall Street may have lost its most potent spokesman against Washington reforms.
Dimon had parlayed his bank's reputation as a white knight during the financial crisis into a position as the de facto representative fighting against excessive post-crisis regulation.
The debacle prompted Dallas Federal Reserve Bank President Richard Fisher, who has called for the breakup of the top five U.S. banks, to say he is worried the biggest banks do not have adequate risk management.
"What concerns me is risk management, size, scope," he said in answer to a question about JPMorgan's trading loss. "At what point do you get to the point that you don't know what's going on underneath you? That's the point where you've got too big."
INSIDER video: Dick Bove: JPM "London Whale" trader should be fired http://link.reuters.com/zup28s
INSIDER video: JPMorgan $2 bln snafu the nail in prop trading's coffin http://link.reuters.com/xup28s
Iksil was brought into the CIO unit to head its credit desk, an asset class it had not previously covered, a person who worked in the unit said. It built up large credit positions over several years through trades which were vetted by management and the losses now likely resulted from a combination of these trades going wrong, the person said.
The CIO desk had grown rapidly in the past five years and was given free range to trade in a whole range of financial products, the only exception being commodities, they added.
Credit market traders said other banks have comparable functions to JPMorgan's CIO. The French banks, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank and UBS were all cited as examples of large treasury functions that hedge credit exposures in similar ways.
The CIO is run by New York-based Ina Drew, who is Chief Investment Officer.
JOBS AT RISK
JPMorgan reported that since the end of March, the CIO had made significant mark-to-market losses in its synthetic credit portfolio. Although other gains partially offset the trading loss, the bank estimates the business unit will post a loss of $800 million in the current quarter. The bank previously forecast the unit would make a profit of about $200 million.
Dimon said the problem was with the way the hedging strategy had been carried out, describing it as "ineffective, poorly monitored, poorly constructed".
"It is risky and it will be for a couple quarters," said Dimon, who admitted to having egg on his face due to the loss. He indicated that some people may lose their jobs.
JPMorgan had informed the UK's Financial Services Authority (FSA) of the situation, but this was a regulatory requirement and there was no indication that the regulator would take any action, a source familiar with the situation said.
The loss is a blow to Dimon and the reputation of a bank strong enough to take over investment bank Bear Stearns and consumer bank Washington Mutual when they failed in 2008.
"Jamie has always styled himself as one of the kings of Wall Street," said Nancy Bush, a longtime bank analyst and contributing editor at SNL Financial. "I don't know how this went so bad so quickly with his knowledge and aversion to risk."
The bank's position remains strong. It has been earning more than $4 billion each quarter, on average, for the past two years and had $2.32 trillion of assets supported by $190 billion of shareholder equity at the end of March - a ratio of almost 13 percent. That is four times the industry mean and ahead of 10-11 percent at Citigroup and Bank of America Corp .
In disclosing the loss, Dimon was forced into a major about face. During an earnings call last month he dismissed reports that Iksil had amassed a huge position that prompted hedge funds to bet against him as "a complete tempest in a teapot".
But on Thursday, Dimon said the bank's loss had "a bit to do with the article in the press." He added: "I also think we acted a little too defensively to that."
Questions over precisely what trades had gone wrong for JPMorgan bounced around London's credit markets on Friday, with the focus on credit derivatives. These financial instruments have been targeted by regulators who say their development played a central role in the financial crisis.
But Dimon and leaders of other large banks have recently pushed back. Last week they met Federal Reserve Governor Daniel Tarullo in New York to question the way regulators run tests to see if banks have enough capital to withstand possible losses.
"The argument that financial institutions do not need the new rules to help them avoid the irresponsible actions that led to the crisis of 2008 is at least $2 billion harder to make today," U.S. Representative Barney Frank said in a statement.
The Democrat co-authored the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law designed to avoid a repeat of the recent credit crisis.
Allegations that traders at the banks take outsized risks with bank capital to earn big bonuses have been among the drivers of government regulations since the financial crisis.
JPMorgan says it uses pay formulas to reduce the chance of that happening throughout the bank.
Regulators and lawmakers are now likely to push Dimon for more details about the trades. Those details will guide how regulators now view the issue and its impact on the Volcker rule, said Karen Petrou, managing partner of Washington-based Federal Financial Analytics.
If the trades were meant to hedge against specific risks as opposed to clearly being done as a proprietary bet on the markets, it may not play as clearly into the Volcker rule debate as supporters of the crackdown want it to, she said.
Dimon said he remained opposed to the Volcker rule.
(Reporting by David Henry in NEW YORK, Rick Rothacker in CHARLOTTE, North Carolina, Dave Clarke in WASHINGTON and Vidya Ranganathan in SINGAPORE, Douwe Miedema, Sinead Cruise and Christopher Whittall in LONDON, Lionel Laurent in PARIS; Writing by Alexander Smith; Editing by Jon Boyle and Tim Dobbyn)