JPMorgan and the Necessity of Risk

I don’t know all the behind-the-scenes details of JPMorgan’s recent $5.8 billion (oof!) trading loss, but I know I don’t like the general tenor of reactions to it.

In spite of the fact that JPMorgan is a private company, and in spite of the fact that they actually turned a profit last quarter, people are acting like JP Morgan commandos rappelled into the giant vault where the government keeps our social security funds safe and sound (as if!) and absconded with grandma’s butter and egg money. The queue is starting to form for investigations and, of course, lawsuits.

But from my completely amateur perspective, this looks like a whole lot of nothing. Granted, $5.8 billion is a whole, whole lot of nothing. But when you take a position in an investment market, one of two things is going to happen: you’re going to end up with a gain or a loss. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

If you end up with a loss, that doesn’t necessarily mean there was some sort of foul perfidy involved, even if it’s a really, really big loss. It just means that somebody guessed wrong.

That’s why it’s called “risk”; because there’s a chance you might lose. And if we didn’t have it, then we wouldn’t have a chance to win. When you eliminate risk, then you eliminate opportunity. But more and more, it seems like people don’t understand that.

Anytime a transaction results in a loss, well, then, somebody’s got to be arrested! Or sued! Or otherwise held responsible in some career-ending and humiliating way. That kind of reaction only serves to distort and cripple financial markets.

The loss at JPMorgan is being described as a blunder or a mistake, but it was nothing of the sort. I don’t mean to diminish the significance of a $5.8 billion loss; not only have I never lost $5.8 billion, I almost hyperventilated when I thought I had given a gas station clerk a $5 when I meant to give him a $1. And clearly, somebody at JPMorgan got too big for his britches and will have to face the repercussions for that. (There are also reports that JPMorgan employees lied to cover up the size of the loss, which is a serious no-no for a publicly traded corporation.)

But when you pick investments, sometimes you pick wrong. Picking wrong is not a crime. If you think it is, then you should just keep your money under the mattress, or in that social security vault (ha!).

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