Davos Notebook

from Felix Salmon:

The negative-sum new reality

Remember those off-the record comments by "top executives from Goldman Sachs and Standard Chartered" which indicated that the era of contrition had come to an end? Well, they're on the record now, splashed all over the front page of this morning's FT. Goldman's Gary Cohn is coming out swinging, saying that the real danger to the global economy is now posed by unregulated non-banks, while Peter Sands of Standard Chartered reckons that most bank regulations will no more prevent another crisis than seatbelts on airplanes will prevent a plane crash.

It's true that bankers are not contrite these days: Bob Diamond is standing tall in the halls of Davos, seemingly emboldened by his performance in front of the UK parliament, at which he said that "there was a period of remorse and apology for banks and I think that period needs to be over".

Looking at the bankers as just one of the many species of plutocrats and power brokers in Davos, it seems to me that they're taking full advantage of their present profitability (thanks, Mr Bernanke) to consolidate their position as much as possible in a world which is evolving in a fast and unpredictable manner.

Nouriel Roubini had a nice little soundbite yesterday, which I think touches on something important:

“There is complete disagreement and disarray. That’s the sense of the G Zero,” Mr Roubini said, explaining the new buzzword at the World Economic Forum’s annual conference in the Swiss resort of Davos.

Italian CEO says retail banks need time to adapt

Yesterday I spoke to Antonio Vigni, CEO of Siena-based Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank. Below are two video clips of Vigni answering questions on lending in Italy and the hot topic of regulation.

In this first clip, Vigni says bank lending is holding up in Italy and he sees improvement.

In the next clip, Vigni says that retail banks may need more time to adapt to the brave new regulatory world.

George Osborne discusses banking

George Osborne, finance spokesman for the UK Conservative Party, relays his thoughts on the discussion of the banking system taking place at Davos.

Five themes for Davos

Top (L-R): Steve Clarke, Natsuko Waki, Gerard Wynn, Martin Howell
Bottom (L-R): Peter Thal Larsen, Felix Salmon, Ben Hirschler, Krista Hughes

Reuters will have a multimedia team of 20 journalists plus editors and three columnists on site covering the Jan. 27-31 World Economic Forum annual meeting.

This year we are focusing our news coverage around five global themes that are shaping economics, politics and investment opportunities in 2010.  Our in-depth reports will draw on the expertise of our specialist correspondents from around the world to help inform the Davos conversation. These reports will be complemented by on-the-ground coverage, exclusive text and TV interviews, as well as a live blog aggregating the best Davos coverage on the web and on Twitter. We’ll be exploring the probing questions behind efforts to rebuild the world economy and financial system two years after the credit crisis.

from James Saft:

Save capitalism from the banks – Nassim Taleb

Black Swan

Nassim Nicholas Taleb,  the author of  "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable", has a simple proposal to as he puts it, "save capitalism and free markets from the banks."

Nationalise the banks, limit the rewards to those who work in what he calls the "utility" part of the system and have a completely uninsured second leg that can take all the risks it wants and lose its shirt, he said in an interview in Davos at the World Economic Forum.

"They rigged the game. We pay them for their profits, there is no clawback so their incentive is to hide the risk they are taking."

The Pepsi challenge: avoiding guilt by association

One theme emerging out of this year’s Davos meeting is the corporate world’s annoyance with bankers. They feel that they have been brought low not by their own sins but by an out of control finance industry beset by greed and skewed incentives.

Not only are they struggling to access the money necessary to keep their operations going, as banks withdraw lending facilities and refuse to provide reasonably priced trade finance. But they have been dragged into a supposed crisis of capitalism not of their own making.

Take Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo. The first thing she did when speaking on a panel entitled “the values behind capitalism” yesterday was to distance herself, her company and the rest of the corporate world from the financiers. The capitalism of “main street”, she said, was being declared guilty by association “with the other street” – Wall Street. Clearly, she felt that was an uncomfortable – and unfair ¬ place to be.

from James Saft:

Shocker – Davosians vote against more regulation

Duncan Niederauer, chief exec of NYSE Euronext, told a panel here at Davos that rather than inventing a whole host of new regulations, we'd be better off focusing on existing means of bringing order to markets, specifically taking a page from the exchanges books by having central clearing and more price transparancy for derivatives and off-exchange structured products. I think he's actually got a great point about clearing and better price information, but I can't see this as being anywhere near bringing regulation up to scratch.

The response from others on the panel was similar.

Nourial Roubini of NYU - "The ideology of the last decade was self-regulation which means no regulation. Reliance on ratings agencies with massive conflicts of interest.

"If we don't want a backlash against trade we have to have prudential regulation of the financial system."

from James Saft:

Stephen Schwarzman’s hair of the dog

jimsaftcolumnSo what is Blackstone Group chairman Stephen Schwarzman's prescription for solving the banking crisis?

More leverage and less transparency, apparently.

Schwarzman told a panel at Davos that you can't mandate higher levels of bank capital at the same time losses are mounting and that mark-to-market accounting needed to be changed.

"You need lower capital. Do something with fair value accounting which is exacerbating things . . . We have to add more leverage to the system." He further took issue with what he described as a "fixation on transparency" and said "We have to use regulators to schedule out losses." By that I presume he means keep the bank on life support until they can make enough to absorb their losses. It did work in the 1990s with some prominent U.S. banks, but...