Regulatory arbitrage of the day, Barclays edition

By Felix Salmon
September 17, 2009
Nils Pratley and Neil Unmack both have good columns on the latest bit of regulatory arbitrage by Barclays. Essentially, the UK bank is taking $12.3 billion of toxic assets and replacing them with a $12.6 billion loan to some kind of special-purpose entity which exists to own those assets. By doing so, Barclays gives all the upside on that toxic debt to the new vehicle, called Protium; in return, it gets lower balance-sheet volatility, since the loan to Protium doesn't need to be marked to market every day. The total amount of capital that Barclays has at risk will go up; meanwhile, the degree to which Barclays' shareholders will have any degree of transparency will go sharply down.

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Nils Pratley and Neil Unmack both have good columns on the latest bit of regulatory arbitrage by Barclays. Essentially, the UK bank is taking $12.3 billion of toxic assets and replacing them with a $12.6 billion loan to some kind of special-purpose entity which exists to own those assets. By doing so, Barclays gives all the upside on that toxic debt to the new vehicle, called Protium; in return, it gets lower balance-sheet volatility, since the loan to Protium doesn’t need to be marked to market every day. The total amount of capital that Barclays has at risk will go up; meanwhile, the degree to which Barclays’ shareholders will have any degree of transparency will go sharply down.

The fact that the UK regulators are letting Barclays get away with this is very depressing — and yet another sign that in the world of high finance, we’ve learned nothing, and nothing has changed. For all the grand rhetoric which will be ladled on in Pittsburgh this weekend, the base-case scenario now is that nothing substantive is going to happen at all when it comes to regulatory reform.

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