JP Morgan, Lehman and Nightmares

October 5, 2008

I am often asked about individual bank stocks, especially JP Morgan. Generally my answer is that Bank of America, JP Morgan and a few others look to be likely survivors, but how profitable they will be I am really unsure.

JP Morgan is a special discussion, because I point out a rather astonishing fact, they have a notional exposure to around 90 trillion in derivative contracts, or did last March (pdf.) 58 trillion of it swaps of some sort. Probably credit default swaps (CDS) are the majority. Which means…what? I don’t know, and frankly if anybody really does they aren’t telling me. In essence I am left telling people that I have to treat that as a “black box.” Not exactly confidence raising. Personally there are better ways to make money than hoping a company with 90 trillion in derivatives exposure has a handle on it in my book, but then again, I am admitting that I have no idea what I am talking about, and cannot find anyone else who does either.

Warren Buffet often speaks of defining a circle of competency when investing and staying inside it. It doesn’t matter how big the circle is, just knowing when you are inside it. Well, 90 trillion in derivatives exposure is outside of my circle of competency to assess.

The nightmare is what if it is outside of JP Morgans circle? I suspect it is, and the massive exposure of two other banks as well (Citibank and Bank of America have approx. 38 trillion apiece.)

What makes me wonder about it today? Personally I have always felt that there was a good chance that JP Morgan was who was being saved when the Fed brokered the acquisition of Bear Stearns. Bear goes under and JP Morgan would have to come up with huge payments on CDS contracts. Also, I suspect that Bear was a counterparty for a large number of derivatives, which if Bear was insolvent might not have all been paid up. Or maybe not. Then I see this over at Barry Ritholtz’s:

“Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s main lender and clearing agent, JPMorgan Chase & Co., caused the liquidity crisis that led to Lehman’s collapse, creditors said.

JPMorgan had more than $17 billion of Lehman’s cash and securities three days before the investment bank filed the biggest bankruptcy in history on Sept. 15, the creditors committee said in a filing Oct. 2 in bankruptcy court in Manhattan. Denying Lehman access to the assets on Sept. 12, the bank “froze” Lehman’s account, the creditors claimed.

JPMorgan, the biggest U.S. bank by deposits, financed Lehman’s brokerage operations with daily advances, while money market funds and other short-term lenders provided overnight loans, according to bankruptcy court documents. When JPMorgan shut Lehman off from funds, Lehman “suffered an immediate liquidity crisis that could have been averted by any number of events, none of which transpired,” according to the filing.

The creditors asked the judge in charge of the case to let them interview a witness and request relevant documents from JPMorgan and to pursue possible legal claims. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge James M. Peck is scheduled to hold a hearing Oct. 16 on that request, the creditors said.”

Hmmm, so Lehman may have been torpedoed by JP Morgan? Hardnosed but not weird, until this little tidbit in the update:

Ron Kirby notes: “I wrote about a very strange occurrence – the reporting of J.P. Morgan “transferring” 138 billion dollars to Lehman, after Lehman had already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy early last Monday morning…It is highly likely [or a certainty on my planet] that J.P. Morgan was INSOLVENT and was “BAILED OUT” last Monday, September 15, to the tune of 138 billion dollars. This would explain why the Fed and Treasury dictated that Lehman fail – to disguise or otherwise obfuscate the recapitalization of or illicit transfer of 138 billion to A MUCH SICKER, TEETERING ENTITY, J.P. Morgan Chase.”

The link is filled with some rather out there speculation (and I have no intention of confirming or discrediting it) but this is a very odd transaction. Immediately after sending Lehman 138 billion they received 138 billion from the Federal Reserve. What were they off loading? Meanwhile they allegedly cut off Lehman.

Back to Bear. Was allowing JPM to take over Bear and the Fed guaranteeing most of their debt a back door method of recapitalizing a banking behemoth? Are the acquisitions that JPM has been making under very favorable terms a sign of strength or weakness? Gifts from the Federal Reserve to recapitalize them? How much trouble is in that book of derivatives?

I have already pointed out the problems in Europe, problems which the failure of AIG would have exacerbated due to their massive involvement in  the CDS market. Is it possible that JPM was also heavily exposed to a failure by AIG? With 90 Trillion in nominal exposure it is hard to imagine they were not. With that much exposure who could possibly be more of a candidate for the “too big to fail” label. Could the Fed be manipulating these events to save them without causing the kind of panic that Bear and the later victims have caused?

I don’t know, which is the real tragedy. Nobody knows what the exposure of anybody is, so we are all left guessing. The Federal Reserve, our government, the financial institutions themselves are all busy obscuring rather than bringing things to light. In order to avoid panic by showing us all how deep the problems are, they are busy spreading suspicion, distrust and panic by keeping everybody, including financial institutions they have to deal with, in the dark. The hope of generous terms from the government keeps banks from admitting what their books really look like, or to try and sell in an orderly manner what they have. Who needs to expose your books to potential lenders when the Federal Reserve will take a used car as collateral and at a lower rate.

How bad off are these institutions? We have no idea. We are left with our imagination and our nightmares.

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