You could be forgiven for turning away from Friday's JPMorgan London Whale hearing, dismissing it as a mind-bogglingly complicated dissection of even more complicated financial transactions. Lawmakers thundered away at bank executives and financial regulators about VaR levels and SCPs and a host of other inscrutable acronyms.
But the basic story behind the hearing this: Bruno Iksil, a trader in the bank's London office, made a huge bet on corporate bonds using derivatives called credit default swaps. Iksil came to be known as the "London Whale," and his overconfidence not only distorted credit markets but led to a $6 billion loss for JPMorgan Chase.
This week, the Senate Homeland Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a scathing report dissecting the factors leading up to the trading loss. On Friday, legislators followed up by speaking to JPMorgan officials, including the former head of the bank's London office, as well as several U.S. government regulators.
With the five-and-a-half-hour hearing over, here is a simplified guide to what will come of all the sound and fury:
A Warning Signal
The bank's trading gaffe is unsettling on multiple levels. JPMorgan, as the committee's report points out, is "the largest derivatives dealer in the world and the largest single participant in world credit derivatives markets." Large banks taking risky positions led to the financial collapse in 2008, so this kind of loss, while smaller in scale, is an echo of the much bigger crisis, whose effects are still felt today.
In addition, JPMorgan invented credit default swaps, and yet they lost control of their dealings in the swaps in this case. "The guys that invented the product messed up big time. And if the best and the brightest can mess up like that, what does it mean for the rest of the system?" says Jim Angel, associate professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.
One analyst points out that the hearing serves as a signal that regulators have to step up their game. "If they were such big losses and JPMorgan is the center of all attention, where were the regulatory authorities?" says James Barth, senior finance fellow at the Milken Institute, and former chief economist at the Office of Thrift Supervision, a regulatory agency.
Because the losses were relatively small for a company worth nearly $194 billion, Angel says he's not worried about the fundamental safety of the financial system for the immediate future.
"It doesn't strike me as 'This is a symptom of an imminent financial crisis—that rot is going to bring down the financial system.'" Rather, he says, "It serves as a front-page warning to every other financial institution: don't make this mistake."
Post-crisis banking hearings regularly yield moments that not only make headlines but that are replayed for years after the fact on shows like "Frontline" and "The Daily Show." Today's was no different. For example, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addressed the question hanging over all big banks: "Do you believe that JPMorgan is too big to fail?" he asked.
"I don't think it is too big to fail," responded Ashley Bacon, acting chief risk officer at the bank. However, he added that "there is work to be done" for the bank to demonstrate that fact.
While the senators may have been sincerely outraged at the trading losses, the hearing availed them of the opportunity to thunder away at big bank executives, who remain a target of resentment amongst many American voters.
Members of Congress may want political points and "Daily Show"-worthy clips of grilling banking regulators, but there's no need to be entirely cynical.
"It really is a legitimate fact-finding expedition," says Angel. "Our legislators come from a variety of different backgrounds. They're not necessarily financial experts." In other words, they can be just as confused by media accounts of trading missteps as the average American. The difference is that lawmakers are in a position to directly ask the people involved what went wrong.
Fighting the System
It's no secret that the people responsible for the banking crisis have faced few repercussions. Even Attorney General Eric Holder recently explained that the size of some banks makes prosecution difficult without hurting the national economy.
For those legislators who still hope to effect some sort of change to the banking or regulation system, says Angel, "this is a good way to get publicity and to get more support for their cause, [by] raising public awareness of the cause as well as raising awareness among their fellow legislators."
...But Having Little to Show for It
Legislators may have their problems with the bank regulation system, but trying to fix those problems is a Sisyphean task. After all, after plenty of scrapping, Congress finally passed Dodd-Frank, which did little to simplify a remarkably complex and fragmented regulatory system. Barth says that the U.S. has a history of passing post-crisis financial regulation that doesn't get the job done. He also adds that lawmakers tend to put too much emphasis on going after bankers, when they ought to be focusing more on the regulators tasked with keeping the system secure. Without that pressure, he says, the regulators will stay on the sidelines.
"The regulatory authorities know what happened," he says. "They know what they did or did not do to contribute to the crisis. They're going to remain relatively silent and watch members of Congress go after big banks."