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‘London Whale’ taking big bets in debt market

Stephen Beard Apr 6, 2012

Stacey Vanek Smith: A financial trader known as the “London Whale” is making a splash this morning. Wall Street has been abuzz recently over the Whale, who has been making massive bets on complicated financial markets.

Today we’re learning more details about that trader, who works for the investment bank JPMorgan Chase. Marketplace’s Stephen Beard joins us live from London to discuss. Good morning.

Stephen Beard:Hello Stacey.

Vanek Smith: So Stephen, this all sounds very mysterious. What exactly has the Whale been buying?

Beard: Well it’s reported that he’s taken a huge bet worth possibly tens of billions of dollars on so-called corporate credit default swaps — these are essentially insurance policies against particular companies going bust. Now, this guy’s gone one step further and bet on an index of policies for 125 U.S. companies.

Here’s Andrew Hilton of the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation.

Andrew Hilton: What he seems to be saying is that he thinks these companies are in good shape, which means he is saying, ‘I don’t think the index is going to fall.’

So that on the face of it is good news — he’s betting these large American companies won’t go bust, so the U.S. economy is definitely on the mend.

Vanek Smith: Well, aren’t big, risky bets like this a lot of what got us into the financial crisis originally?

Beard: Yes, absolutely. It is the scale of the activity that’s getting people a bit worried. Now according to the Wall Street Journal, there seems to be no suggestion that this is a rogue trader at work; JPMorgan were apparently fully aware of these trades. But as you say, big financial bets by banks on their own behalf are controversial. They will be restricted under Wall Street reforms due to come into effect come July, and as you say, banks betting big time with their own money was a factor in the global financial crisis.

Vanek Smith: Marketplace’s Stephen Beard. Thank you Stephen.

Beard: OK Stacey.

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