Commentaries

What banks can learn from hedge funds

November 9, 2009

Should the banking industry look more like the hedge fund sector? That’s the surprising suggestion made last week by two Bank of England officials.

Do banks really need to hoard liquidity?

October 7, 2009

That’s the provocative question posed by Willem Buiter. His latest, characteristically lengthy, blog post tackles the regulatory vogue for forcing banks to hold much greater reserves of liquid assets – in practice, government bonds.

RBS issue must be on commercial terms

September 21, 2009

Britain’s state-controlled banks appear to be playing a game of tit-for-tat. Lloyds Banking Group last week admitted it was looking for ways to reduce its exposure to the government’s insurance scheme for toxic assets. Now it turns out that Royal Bank of Scotland is also sounding out investors about tweaking its own involvement in the scheme.

The Fed’s phony war on bonuses

September 18, 2009

Any attack on bank bonuses is going to be a reliable crowd pleaser. So a Federal Reserve proposal to meddle in Wall Street pay would make a good deal of political sense.

Banking? Keep it simple stupid

September 10, 2009

In 1873, Walter Bagehot wrote that “the business of banking ought to be simple; if it is hard it is wrong.” He would have struggled to recognize today’s banking system.

The social cost of runaway bank pay

August 18, 2009

If only the economy were bouncing back as fast as banking compensation.

Even as the first anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers draws near, bankers and traders are now grabbing a larger share of their institutions’ net revenue than they did during the boom years. The leading U.S. banks are on track so far this year to pay their employees $156 billion — more than in sunny 2006.

from Margaret Doyle:

Lloyds calls bottom of loss cycle – early?

August 5, 2009

Lloyds Banking Group's outgoing chairman, Victor Blank, foretold "exciting prospects [and] long-term success" as the bank wrote off 13.4 billion pounds in bad debts, contributing to an overall 4 billion pound loss. The group's assertion that its loan impairments have peaked -- well ahead of when historical precedent suggests -- may also prove a hostage to fortune.
Blank's remarks and chief executive Eric Daniels' thanks to him for his "significant contribution" had an air of surrealism about them. Blank, after all, cooked up the hasty takeover of HBOS that scuppered the formerly cautious Lloyds last autumn, forcing it into government arms. Daniels did nothing to stop him.
Blank is bowing out after losing the confidence of UK Financial Investments, the body that looks after the government's 43 percent stake in the bank. However, UKFI's boss, John Kingman. still defends Daniels, whose old-style banking skills are seen as key to digging Lloyds out of this mess.
The extent of the damage of the HBOS deal is evident from the numbers. No less than 80 percent of the impairments come from its book, which was laden with overvalued real estate, both commercial and residential. Indeed, the cost of bad HBOS loans in the first six months of the year exceeds the amount it spent buying the bank.
In Lloyds' defence, it is dealing aggressively with Blank's unfortunate legacy. It is working through the loan book and identifying the real dross that will go into the Government Asset Protection Scheme (GAPS). Three quarters of the assets affected by the impairment charge are ear-marked for the GAPS.
Moreover, all of the group's new lending (which is significant -- gross mortgage lending, for example, is 18 billion pounds, maintaining its market share at 27 percent), is now done under Lloyds stricter criteria. The group is winding down the "specialist", e.g. self certified, and buy-to-let mortgage categories that proved so tempting to amateur property barons.
Lloyds is also crunching through the integration at top speed. It has always been known for being tight on costs. Indeed, it is a bitter joke in the industry that it drip-feeds job losses -- rather than declaring its target for cuts -- in an effort to avoid political fall-out. Staff numbers fell by 2,619 in the first half, to 118,207. More are surely to come with the group targeting an annual improvement of a full 2 percentage points in its cost income ratio for the next few years.
On the funding side, Lloyds is increasing the maturity of its funding -- despite the higher costs -- though are still concerns the enlarged bank remains overly dependent on wholesale funding which is currently being supplied by central banks and
government guarantees.
So far, each of these initiatives has been dwarfed by the sheer scale of HBOS losses. Normally banking losses peak a year or so after the trough of the recession, which suggests any turning point is at least twelve months away.
Lloyds reckons that the property focus of the HBOS books means that losses have peaked much earlier than they would otherwise have done. The GAPS should also help shield Lloyds from mounting losses.
However, general corporate defaults are likely to rise, as are nemployment-related defaults on unsecured debt. If Lloyds' prediction proves correct, it will have taken a step towards rebuilding its battered credibility. Who knows? Daniels may be able to keep his job after all.

Time for Britain to close the GAPS

August 4, 2009

Britain’s asset protection scheme, invented to protect the banking system, is morphing into a bureaucratic monster. It’s time to kill it off. Though state support is still needed, there are simpler ways for the government to prop up its ailing lenders.

Starting small

August 3, 2009

At least one country is grabbing the bull by the horns and pledging a radical overhaul of its financial system.

from Margaret Doyle:

HSBC tortoise will outpace Barclays hare

August 3, 2009

Barclays’ and HSBC’s interim results are a study in contrasts. Barclays has used the credit crunch to make a bet-the-farm move into the investment banking big-league, a bet that has so far paid off. HSBC, in comparison, chastened by its flawed move into the US subprime market, has returned to its conservative roots.