Only on Wall Street Does Losing $2B Make You an “Expert”

by Jeff Reeves | September 15, 2011 6:59 am

We learned overnight that a “rogue” trader at Swiss bank UBS (NYSE:UBS[1]) bled out a stunning $2 billion at the company’s investment division in the third quarter. These are not clients working with UBS brokers, mind you, but one yahoo playing with house money to enrich this banking giant and its corporate overlords.

UBS shares are tanking this morning on news of the impairment charge it should book on the quarter as a result. It’s bad enough there are massive layoffs at the bank[2], bad housing loans that continue to take a toll, the specter of a sovereign debt crisis weighing on credit markets and all the other mayhem in the financial sector. Suffering a $2 billion loss at UBS thanks to one guy’s gamble couldn’t come at a worse time — and likely will force the company into the red for the quarter.

What really burns me up about this whole thing is the fact that traders like this are put in ivory towers during the boom times and treated like they are somehow smarter than the rest of us. But come on — if either you or I were picking stocks and just tracked the market from 2004 to 2007, our “genius” would have returned a hefty 40%. I certainly wouldn’t have refused the bonus check, but the reality is traders during these years were just in the right place at the right time.

This UBS debacle is a painful example of just how utterly run-of-the-mill many of these Wall Street “experts” really are. How much cash would you have to be playing with to lose $2 billion in a quarter? I’d like to think that I wouldn’t take such extreme risks to suffer a loss of every penny. And even if I was playing fast and loose, I highly doubt I could crap out so utterly fantastically. I’m sure you feel the same way — and probably have a shoebox of brokerage statements to prove the good calls you’ve made in your life.

The market flopped about 16% from its July peak to its August low, so I’m assuming that’s where the trouble came in. But even if you bought a triple-leveraged ETF — say, the Direxion 3X Bull Financial ETF (NYSE:FAS[3]) because you somehow believed banks were magically on the mend — you would have “only” lost 37%. (Lest you criticize my math, remember that 3X funds are never a true triple up or down due to fees and other factors.)

Think about that. If UBS gave you or me $3.2 billion, then allowed us to plow every cent into a leveraged investment that was predicting a surge in the financial sector, I would have tallied the same performance as this “rogue” trader.

Wow.

It’s times like this that make you wonder why the heck we care a whit about what Wall Street says about the overall market trend, earnings estimates or the political environment in Washington. “Experts” don’t make moves like this.

Lest you think this is an isolated incidence, I distinctly remember a Merrill Lynch trader getting in deep doo-doo for a roughly $450 million currency loss amid the financial crisis — and then trying to cook the books[4] and cover his loss after the fact. There are other tales, but these two are some of the most dramatic examples in recent memory.

On the plus side, perhaps there’s an opportunity for you and me in this mess. I’m photocopying statements from my brokerage account later today and sending them over to UBS as proof of my investing acumen.

I hear there will be a job opening on the trading floor very soon.

What’s your biggest investing triumph of the last few years? Share it here in the comment section below — and I’ll pass them on to UBS!

Jeff Reeves[5] is editor of InvestorPlace.com. As of this writing, he did not own a position in any of the stocks named here. Follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP and become a fan of InvestorPlace on Facebook.

Endnotes:
  1. UBS: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=UBS
  2. massive layoffs at the bank: http://investorplace.com/2011/08/hsbc-layoffs-financial-sector/
  3. FAS: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=FAS
  4. trying to cook the books: http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2010/03/17/f-s-a-bans-ex-merrill-trader-for-hiding-losses/
  5. Jeff Reeves: http://investorplace.com/2011/09/save-haven-stocks-ibm-v-vz-mcd-clx/2011/08/2011/08/2011/08/2011/08/hewlett-packard-hp-stock-buyback-autonomy-buyout-hpq/2011/08/author/jeff-reeves/

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