JP Morgan Loss Bomb Confirms That It’s Time to Kill VaR

One of the amusing bits of the hastily arranged JP Morgan conference call on its $2 billion and growing “hedge” losses and related first quarter earning release was the way the heretofore loud and proud bank was revealed to have feet of clay on the risk management front. Jamie Dimon said that the bank had determined that its value at risk model was “inadequate” and it would be using an older model. And no wonder. The Financial Times report contained this bombshell:

JPMorgan also restated its “value at risk”, a measure of maximum possible daily losses, of the CIO [the unit that executed the trading strategy that blew up] in the first quarter from $67m to $129m

“Restating” greatly underplays the significance of what happened. VaR is a prospective risk metric. From ECONNED:

…the objective was to come up with a single figure that captured all the risks in a simple statistical fashion: what was the risk that the bank would lose a certain amount of money, specified to a threshold level of probability, in, say, the next 24 hours? The model output would say something like: “We have 95% odds of losing no more than $300 million dollars in the next 24 hours.”

It took seven years of refinements to reach that goal, which should have been seen as a warning that it might not be such a good idea.

While firms look at VaR over a range of time frames, daily VaR (what is the most I can expect to lose in the next 24 hours) to a 99% threshold is widely used.

So get this: VaR’s real use is prospective. The VaR for a big risk taking unit was found to have been nearly double the level reported two weeks ago (hat tip Joe Costello). Remember, this was the risk incurred in the first quarter; this change has nothing to do with the losses incurred in the last six weeks. It means the risk originally reported by the folks in risk management (in real time, for use in management decisions) was grossly off.

The fact that VaR is a lousy metric should not come as a surprise. Anyone who has paid much attention to financial firm risk management should know that it is not what it is cracked up to be. There is a tremendous bias towards scientism, towards undue faith in quantification and statistics (see a longer form discussion in “Management’s Great Addiction“) which leads to overconfidence. And when people are paid bonuses annually, with no clawbacks for losses, and banks show profits a fair bit of the time, who is going to question bad metrics when the insiders come out big winners regardless?

But VaR is a particularly troubling example, more so because it is sufficiently, dangerously simple minded enough that regulators and managers a step or two removed from markets have become overly attached to its deceptive simplicity.

For newbies to this site, JP Morgan created the widely used risk management tool Value at Risk (note to Felix Salmon: JP Morgan did NOT invent risk management, investment banks were doin’ it in the stone ages of the 1970s and 1980s. And the pioneer among banks wasn’t JP Morgan, but Bankers Trust, with its RAROC, or Return on Risk Adjusted Capital model). VaR set out to create a single risk measure across an entire firm. As we wrote in ECONNED:

….the objective was to come up with a single figure that captured all the risks in a simple statistical fashion: what was the risk that the bank would lose a certain amount of money, specified to a threshold level of probability, in, say, the next 24 hours? The model output would say something like: “We have 95% odds of losing no more than $300 million dollars in the next 24 hours.”

It took seven years of refinements to reach that goal, which should have been seen as a warning that it might not be such a good idea….

Using a single metric to sum up the behavior of complex phenomena is a dangerously misleading proposition…

The output formulation was designed around statistical convention, that of probability distributions. But the part of the distribution that the analysis cut off is the very part that will kill a leveraged firm. It was almost as if the team that produced VaR had drawn a map that simply marked the edge of the world with the legend “Beyond here lie dragons,”when the treasure seekers will inevitably venture into those uncharted waters.

That discussion actually understates how misleading VaR is. As mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot discovered in the 1960s, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb popularized in his book Black Swan, risks in financial markets do not have normal (Gaussian) distributions. Taleb, in his article The Fourth Quadrant, pointed out there are many situations where statistics are at best questionable and at worst unreliable: where you have non-Gaussian risk distributions (as you have in financial markets) and complex payoffs. Even if you have comparatively simple businesses, aggregating risk across businesses creates complex payoffs. And the risks in these business aren’t simple. Taleb indicative list of “very complex payoffs” includes:

Calibration of nonlinear models

Leveraged portfolios (around the loss point)

Derivative payoffs

Dynamically hedged portfolios

Kurtosis-based positioning (“volatility trading”)

JP Morgan and every big dealer bank is stuffed to the gills with risks like that.

Now VaR isn’t the only risk model JP Morgan is using, but it has served to allow the inmates to run the asylum. The fact that Dimon dwelled on VaR was likely not just to assign blame; it’s guaranteed to be a major tool in communicating with senior management and the board.

The good news is the regulators seem to be a step ahead of Dimon in turning their backs on VaR. FT Alphaville last week reported on the latest missive from the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision on capital requirements for bank trading operations. They said they don’t like VaR and want to move to other metrics:

….the Committee has considered alternative risk metrics, in particular expected shortfall (ES). ES measures the riskiness of a position by considering both the size and the likelihood of losses above a certain confidence level. In other words, it is the expected value of those losses beyond a given confidence level. The Committee recognises that moving to ES could entail certain operational challenges; nonetheless it believes that these are outweighed by the benefits of replacing VaR with a measure that better captures tail risk.

Note that this change will not win with Taleb’s approval. He has also written about the difficulty of measuring tail risk. He has shown in many markets how tail risk estimates are often (statistically) based mainly on one or two data points, and how fraught that is. His main point still holds: the type of risks embodied in trading books aren’t suited to statistical measurements. The best approach is likely to be to use a variety of measures and models and (gasp) apply judgment. But the authorities, and Dimon along with them, have not given up their hunt for a philosopher’s stone to turn lead into gold.

This post originally appeared at naked capitalism and is posted with permission.

5 Responses to "JP Morgan Loss Bomb Confirms That It’s Time to Kill VaR"

  1. halfacanuck   May 11, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Real mathematicians have known this for ages.

  2. Curt   May 11, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    The problem that exists in all the markets I can think of is a measurement problem. We who are trying to understand these systems do not have accurate accounting systems. We really don't know what the rate of inflation is. We really don't know the state of the Chinese economy. We don't know the long range value of internet companies. We don't know what kind of information hedge funds use to trade on and how close it is to inside information. I could name 10 more important statistics we don't have an accurate measurement of. But if you have a more accurate measurement than others you can make huge sums of money thru leverage.

    What if we paid 10 economist 1 million a piece to cover this story, would not it be worth it to the public? But the market place has no mechanism for this to happen.

    Instead we have well intentioned people expressing shock at the outrageous behavior and publications like the NY times giving puffy pieces. This has the effect of making some people think that something is being done, but in reality the game goes on. The Roubini blog at first seem to give better information, but it appears in the end it was just a means for special clients who pay the fee to get rich along with Roubini. The asymmetric information system acts as a tax on the non rich and encourages the rich to engage in behavior which is either unproductive or counter productive.

    How many hours of talented economists would it take to cover this story in depth, because we know the NY times has not the talent or the will. I would suggest the author here gave some insight and I would be bold enough to say he did not spend three days on this article.

  3. Curt   May 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    Sorry for cut and paste and calling you a he.

    It is a judgement call that these mathematical are insufficient here. It is also a judgement call that a bank losing 2 billion is something to be avoided. I would agree with these. The next judgement is that many of these financial organizations are so large that economies of scale allow them to do bad things very efficiently. Since these organizations are formed under the law created by humans I suggest that they prohibited under the law also created by humans. I suggest that some of the smart human economist on this blog suggest five alternative financial market systems for raising capital and distributing it. What we got is one, please give me four others.

    Here is my quick one. Anyone can create a fund with a purpose such as raising ladybugs in Manhatten. They give a prospectus as usual. Then they go about raising capital. The fund is sold off in small chunks. Anyone who owns a share must make public who they are. They can only buy a small amount before everyone else has a chance to buy some. This would mean that instead of the fund selling off over a day it sells off over a week. This means that it would be much harder for centralized organizations or rich people to dominate a fund and tax the little guy.

    We could even do this today with the stock market. We just force individuals to disclose when they buy and sell a stock and limit how much they buy or sell in a day.

    That way if Buffet thinks it is a great idea to buy a public railroad I can watch buffet in real time and go along for the ride. If he starts to dump, I can dump too. This goes for everyone buying the stock.

    This is just a variation on the current rules for corporate officers. All I propose is that we consider everyone an insider, make them report in real time, and limit the size of ownership change in real time. No real changes just a matter of degree. Computers make this very easy to do technically.

  4. barf   May 12, 2012 at 8:33 am

    the problem is not "scientism" but i would argue "modeling" as "that's all these risk analytics are": MODELS. Each is forming a probablistic outcome based upon the data inserted and the various assumptions made within. What is lacking in this missive is the OTHER half however 'called the media." They exist DETERMINISTICALLY in the American capital structure to serve as the "outcomes based agent" to measure the effectiveness of the various modeling structures employed. I would agree given Jamie Dimon's response HE has failed…but i'm not sure i would agree that the BANK has failed however. Simply put "there are not suppose to be surprises" and "saying so in and TO the media shows how little he in fact understands about the outcomes based agent." He will need to gain that understanding…or admit that it is beyond him and be replaced. Frankly the biggest problem with the current variant of American Capitalism is its "rock star approach" of the CEO in dealing with the outcomes agent. "Since the media already knows what exactly are you admitting to AND TO WHOM Mr. CEO" would be my question. There is no choice but to talk to…"them"…given the awesome power of the "quarterly capital structure" and all the trading on…ahem…"inside information" that is going on at lightening speed and with "mass effect." Anywho…"just some thoughts on a slow day."

  5. Ed Dolan
    EdDolan   May 14, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Great post. Instant "must read" for students in my banking class.