Here’s a classic example of how corporations manage expectations. A couple weeks ago, on the same day as the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act, the New York Times reported that JPMorgan Chase’s losses from the Fail Whale trades could reach as high as $9 billion. Their sources were “people who have been briefed on the situation.” I wrote at the time that “I could see how the PR strategy would be to leak a high number and back into the lower (but still awful) one, and taking that as a ‘win’ in the markets.” I wasn’t totally convinced that would be the case, but was offering it as a possibility.
We’ll know more on Friday, when JPMorgan Chase announces their earnings. But this scene setter from the Wall Street Journal certainly suggests that as the case:
J.P. Morgan is expected to announce Friday that the trading blunders will cost the company just over $5 billion in the second quarter, in which the bank is expected to show a profit, according to people familiar with the situation. The company’s future losses on the trade are projected to stay below $1 billion, the people said, and could result in profits of that much if the market turns in the company’s favor.
J.P. Morgan is confident that the losses have been capped because 80% to 90% of the botched bets already have been closed out, these people said. The bank also is expected to report that its internal investigation found that the risk failures were isolated to the CIO unit.
It’s possible that JPMorgan is just minimizing their losses again, booking $5 billion but inaccurately describing how much of the trades have been unwound. But the percentages are relatively in line with previous reports.
Now, $5-6 billion would be between 2.5 and 3 times what JPMorgan Chase initially reported in losses. But because it comes in smaller than the $9 billion worst-case scenario, and because of the assurances that the losses have been covered and announced and are behind the company, this revelation will probably provide them with a boost.
If so, this was a brilliant strategy. Leak a high number, come in with a lower one, and reap the rewards. If I didn’t know better, I’d say Jamie Dimon himself leaked to the New York Times.
What’s more, this flips the focus from the fact of a giant loss on a hedge fund-style bet to the raw numbers and how they might beat expectations which were artificially set low. None of this changes the enormity of the losses in a relatively docile trading environment. None of this changes how this would affect a bank with a weaker balance sheet. None of this changes the fact that Wall Street continues to gamble, boosted by the implicit and explicit assurances of a bailout if they get into trouble.
But at some level you do have to marvel at the PR.
P.S. In another deflection strategy, JPMorgan will apparently announce that they will claw back millions of dollars in compensation from the executives who performed and oversaw the Fail Whale trades. This measure of accountability will also overshadow the trades themselves, as well as the fact that the only people who stand to benefit from those clawbacks are other executives. It’s not like they will be used to pay out to shareholders or anything.