Is JP Morgan’s $2 Billion Loss a Mountain or a Molehill?

Yale Law School’s Jonathan Macey places JP Morgan’s $2 billion loss in perspective. His article begins:

Regulators, politicians and news reporters are hysterical at the news of J.P. Morgan’s recent $2 billion trading loss. The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating to see whether laws were broken.

We appear to be on the verge of making it a crime for a business to lose money. The truth is that nobody should care about J.P. Morgan’s loss—nobody except J.P. Morgan stockholders and a few top executives and traders who will lose their bonuses or their jobs in the wake of this teapot tempest. The three executives with the closest ties to the losses are already out the door.

After the $2 billion in losses, J.P. Morgan still had $127 billion in equity. This means that J.P. Morgan could lose another $100 billion and creditors would still have an equity cushion that could absorb 10 times the losses that the bank suffered on this trade. The trading loss wasn’t close to apocalyptic even for shareholders. J.P. Morgan’s shares dropped 9.28% in the wake of the loss. A shareholder with a $100,000 investment in J.P. Morgan would see the value of his investment reduced to $90,720, hardly a financial Chernobyl.

The $2 billion loss also resulted from trades designed to hedge against the threat of even bigger losses. Macey also explains why JP Morgan’s loss is not a justification for additional government regulation.

The real lesson of what J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon has called the bank’s “egregious failure” in risk management is that hedging is far more difficult to do in real life than it appears to be in theory—because the real world is a complicated place. The trades that J.P. Morgan made were extremely complex, and it certainly appears that they did not work the way that they were supposed to. But the reason that markets work better than central planning is because market participants learn from experience, and they learn fast and thoroughly because they suffer significant losses when their investments, whether they be hedges or not, turn out badly.

Thus, far from serving as a pretext to justify still more regulation of providers of capital, J.P. Morgan’s losses should be treated as further proof that markets work. J.P. Morgan and its competitors will learn from this experience and do a better job of hedging the next time. They will learn because they have to: In the long run their survival depends on it. And in the short run their jobs and bonuses depend on it.