How VaR Modeling Gone Wrong Cut Pay of Wall Street’s Most Powerful CEO, JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, by Half

Posted on January 17, 2013. Filed under: Financial Crisis, Fixed Income, Operations, Securities, Strategies | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon (Eric Piermont / AFP/Getty)

JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon (Eric Piermont / AFP/Getty)

President Barack Obama’s favorite Wall Street CEO, JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon is facing more than having his pay cut in half to $11.5 million for 2012, compared with $23 million a year earlier. He is facing the prospect of seeing his reputation, cemented until now by his smart handling of the bank during the financial crisis, becoming tarnished as he has been deemed ultimate responsible for the banks’ loss of more than $6.2 billion in the first nine months of 2012 on bets by U.K. trader Bruno Iksil, nicknamed the London Whale, who operated under Chief Investment Officer Ina Drew.

The Chief Investment Office (CIO) was supposed to manage excess cash while minimizing risk using credit derivatives as part of a hedging strategy; instead, their trades became so large that the bank couldn’t easily unwind them. At the bottom of this miscalculation were blunders in the development, testing and approval of a new VaR model to measure the risk of their Synthetic Credit Portfolio.

VaR (Value at Risk) is a metric that attempts to estimate the risk of loss on a portfolio of assets. A portfolio’s VaR represents an estimate of the maximum expected mark-to-market loss over a specified time period, generally one day, at a stated confidence level, assuming historical market conditions. Through January 2012, according to the 129-page report from a task force led by Michael Cavanagh, co-head of the firm’s corporate and investment bank, the VaR for the Synthetic Credit Portfolio was calculated using a “linear sensitivity model,” also known within the Firm as the “Basel I model,” because it was used for purposes of Basel I capital calculations and for external reporting purposes. The Basel I model captured the major risk facing the Synthetic Credit Portfolio at the time, which was the potential for loss attributable to movements in credit spreads.

However, the model was limited in the manner in which it estimated correlation risk: that is, the risk that defaults of the components within the index would correlate. As the value of the tranche positions in the Synthetic Credit Portfolio increased, this limitation became more significant, as the value of these positions was driven in large part by the extent to which the positions in the index were correlated to each other. The main risk with the tranche positions was that regardless of credit risk in general, defaults might be more or less correlated.

This limitation meant that the Basel I model likely would not comply with the requirements of Basel II.5, which originally had been expected to be formally adopted in the United States at the end of 2011. One of the traders responsible for the Synthetic Credit Portfolio therefore instructed an expert in quantitative finance within the Quantitative Research team for CIO to develop a new VaR model for the Synthetic Credit Portfolio that would comply with the requirements of Basel II.5. They believed that the Basel I model was too conservative, that it was producing a higher VaR than was appropriate.

Early in the development process, CIO considered and rejected a proposal to adopt the VaR model used by the Investment Bank’s credit hybrids business for the Synthetic Credit Portfolio. Because the Investment Bank traded many customized and illiquid CDSs, its VaR model mapped individual instruments to a combination of indices and single name proxies, which CIO Market Risk viewed as less accurate for CIO’s purposes than mapping to the index as a whole. He believed that, because the Synthetic Credit Portfolio, unlike the Investment Bank, traded indices and index tranches, the Investment Bank’s approach was not appropriate for CIO. The Model Review Group agreed and, in an early draft of its approval of the model, described CIO’s model as “superior” to that used by the Investment Bank.

The Model Review Group, charged with the formal approval of the model, performed only limited back-testing, comparing the VaR under the new model computed using historical data to the daily profit-and-loss over a subset of trading days during a two-month period, not even close to a typically required period of 264 previous trading days, a year. In addition, they were pressured by the CIO to accelerate its review, overlooking operational flaws apparent during the approval process; for instance, it was found later that the model operated through a series of Excel spreadsheets, which had to be completed manually, by a process of copying and pasting data from one spreadsheet to another. The Model Review Group discovered that, for purposes of a pricing step used in the VaR calculation, CIO was using something called the “West End” analytic suite rather than Numerix, an approved vendor model. CIO assured the Model Review Group that both valuations were in “good agreement.”

Sandy Weill, left, and Jamie Dimon, then with American Express, at a conference in California in 1983.   (Photo: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis)

Sandy Weill, left, and Jamie Dimon, then with American Express, at a conference in California in 1983. (Photo: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis)

On January 30, the Model Review Group finally authorized CIO Market Risk to use the new VaR model which would utilize the Gaussian Copula model, a commonly accepted model used to map the approximate correlation between two variables, to calculate hazard rates and correlations. A hazard rate is the probability of failure per unit of time of items in operation, sometimes estimated as a ratio of the number of failures to the accumulated operating time for the items. For purposes of the model, the hazard rate estimated the probability of default for a unit of time for each of the underlying names in the portfolio.

Once in operation, a spreadsheet error caused the VaR for April 10 to fail to reflect the day’s $400 million loss in the Synthetic Credit Portfolio. This error was noticed, first by personnel in the Investment Bank, and by the modeler and CIO Market Risk, and was corrected promptly. Because it was viewed as a one-off error, it did not trigger further inquiry. Later in May, in response to further losses in the Synthetic Credit Portfolio, a review of the West End calculated discovered that it was using the Uniform Rate model rather than Gaussian Copula model, contrary to the Model Review Group approval.

Although this error did not have a significant effect on the VaR, an operational error was found in the calculation of the relative changes in hazard rates and correlation estimates. Specifically, after subtracting the old rate from the new rate, the spreadsheet divided the result by their sum instead of their average, as the modeler had intended. This error likely had the effect of muting volatility by a factor of two and of lowering the VaR, minimizing the estimate of the potential loss in the Synthetic Credit Portfolio, which ultimately grew to more than $6.2 billion. Despite this humongous loss, JPMorgan Chase disclosed full-year 2012 record net income of $21.3 billion on revenue of $99.9 billion, guaranteeing Dimon’s survival at the helm for the moment.

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The New York Times Reports Declining U.S. High-Frequency Trading

Posted on November 12, 2012. Filed under: Conference, Exchanges, Flash Crash, Securities, Securities and Exchange Commission, Technology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Declining U.S. High-Frequency Trading

From The New York Times, once the hottest thing to hit Wall Street in years, high-speed or high-frequency trading — known as H.F.T. — is now struggling to make gains in today’s stock market.

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The Speed Traders Author, Edgar Perez, to Present at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences

Posted on August 17, 2011. Filed under: Event Announcements, Flash Crash, Securities, Technology | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Mr. Edgar Perez, author of The Speed Traders, An Insider’s Look at the New High-Frequency Trading Phenomenon That is Transforming the Investing World (, will present on November 8th during Tuesday Seminars for the Mathematics in Finance Masters Students at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University, on the subject “The Present and Future of High-Frequency Trading”. Not only do these seminars give students an opportunity to learn about what Wall Street and finance practitioners do, and hear about recent research in academia and industry, but also to personally meet and interact with speakers such as Mr. Perez and professionals in the investment world.

Edgar Perez, Author, The Speed Traders

The Full Time Masters in Mathematics in Finance at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University is a three-semester professional masters degree with the expectation that students are seeking positions in the financial industry. Entry into the full-time MS program can be made only in the fall. Students take four courses per semester, participate in the weekly Masters Seminar, and usually do an internship during the summer between the second and third semesters. While the program is not able to guarantee placement in summer internship positions, we do have strong contacts within the financial community and offer significant help by distributing resumes to prospective employers and hosting on-campus interviews. The track record of our students receiving summer internships is extremely strong. We place heavy emphasis on job placement, with assistance given to resume preparation, interviewing skills, and access to our growing network of contacts.

The Speed Traders, published by McGraw-Hill Inc., is the most comprehensive, revealing work available on the most important development in trading in generations. High-frequency trading will no doubt play an ever larger role as computer technology advances and the global exchanges embrace fast electronic access. The Speed Traders explains everything there is to know about how today’s high-frequency traders make millions—one cent at a time. In this new title, The Speed Traders, Mr. Perez opens the door to the secretive world of high-frequency trading. Inside, prominent figures drop their guard and speak with unprecedented candidness about their trade.

Mr. Perez is one of the great business networkers and motivators on the lecture circuit; he is available worldwide for the following speaking engagements: Present and Future of High-Frequency Trading, The Real Story behind the “Flash Crash”, Networking for Financial Executives, and Business Networking for Success.

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