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Waiting For JPMorgan And The Whale

Posted: July 12, 2012

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When the big bank reports second-quarter earnings on Friday, the real news will be how big its trading losses have grown. The answer could have repercussions for the entire banking sector.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, here seen in June testifying before a congressional committee, will try to explain the bank's trading losses to investors on Friday.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, here seen in June testifying before a congressional committee, will try to explain the bank's trading losses to investors on Friday. Chip Somodevilla

Ever since the peak of the financial crisis, we've been treated to the occasional spectacle that leaves the market and its hangers-on in a tizzy: unveiling the terms of new bailout programs, revealing bank stress-test results, and, not long ago, JPMorgan Chase's chief executive on the hot seat before Congress.

Friday brings us another in the series: JPMorgan Chase will announce its second-quarter earnings. Normally, this would be a moderately significant event, thanks to JPMorgan's size and the fact that it's reporting first among the big banks.

But this time, there's a bigger draw: The company is expected to update the world on its multi-billion-dollar losses, the result of the "London whale" — and detail what the company is doing in response.

The whale, of course, refers to a JPMorgan trader in London who has been blamed at least in part for an ill-fated investment strategy that, as of May, had cost the bank $2 billion. Since then, reports suggest the losses could have ballooned to as much as $9 billion.

The big bank is pulling out all the stops. It's breaking the news at 7:30 a.m., instead of its typical 9 a.m., presumably to give the market more time to digest any unpleasantness. An executive overseeing the company's investigation into the losses will join Chief Executive Jamie Dimon and other regulars on the earnings call. The company is gathering stock analysts at its headquarters, instead of just holding the usual conference call, Bloomberg News tells us.

For those listening at home (or at the office), the Associated Press offers four key questions as a guide: How big are the losses? How much pay will the company try to claw back from which executives and former executives? How will Dimon come off — brash or cowed? And, of course, how will the losses affect profits?

We'd add a few other thoughts:

That bit about profits is probably the least significant. Unless the losses have grown phenomenally, JPMorgan can probably absorb them, and even make up for them with income from elsewhere in its operations. If necessary, it can always sell some long-term investments, recognizing gains that add to income. That kind of "low-quality" earnings isn't what investors prefer — they like income from ongoing and healthy lines of business, rather than quick one-time fixes like asset sales — but the bottom line isn't expected to suffer dramatically.

Also, watch what the bank says about the risk of more losses to come. Whatever dollar figure JPMorgan puts on the trading losses tomorrow, they could keep growing unless the bank manages to close out of its positions, which is taking some time.

Finally, what effect, if any, will JPMorgan's new disclosures have on regulatory reform efforts? JPMorgan's struggle with its whale of a bet has driven home just how risky and impenetrable the big banks still are. That has sharpened attention on banking regulation more than anything we've seen in a while. Another Bloomberg article says the SEC is already looking at pushing banks to disclose more about how they model potential losses. Depending what the company says, and whether it comes off as sufficiently penitential, regulatory efforts across the banking sector could gain or lose steam.

Oh, and if you like the idea that JPMorgan might try to recoup pay from some executives involved in the losses, don't hold your breath. Clawbacks are not only rare, they can drag on for months or years without resolution, if the executive decides to fight the move.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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