Immoral bankers

By Felix Salmon
December 14, 2010
Institutional Investor Council has issued a blistering report on the excessive fees that investment banks charge companies to issue new shares -- fees which one issuer are "usually immoral".

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The UK’s Institutional Investor Council has issued a blistering report on the excessive fees that investment banks charge companies to issue new shares — fees which one issuer are “usually immoral”. It certainly seems that way, looking at this chart: fees have been steadily increasing over time, even as the discount at which the new shares are issued has got larger and larger. The bigger the discount, of course, the less risk taken on by the underwriter, since the more that the share price would have to plunge overnight in order for the underwriter to risk losing money on the deal.

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Yes, this chart includes the financial crisis, and it stands to reason that fees for rights issues would rise during a crisis. But we’re not in a crisis any more, and the fees aren’t coming down to their historical levels, even though the discounts are still enormous. And it’s notable that fees hit these highs on a percentage basis just as the amount of underwriting was surging:

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What we’re seeing here is a textbook example of banks squeezing every last dollar they can out of their clients just when those clients are most desperate for money. And it stands in stark contrast to legal fees, which were considered fair by issuers and which have not risen visibly at all over the past few years.

None of this is illegal, of course, but it’s fair to call it unethical, if ethics are fundamentally based on the principle of “treat others as you would like to be treated”.

Christina Rexrode had a long article on banking and ethics in Sunday’s Charlotte Observer, and she concentrated on the kind of behavior which steps close to or even over the line into outright illegality. Maybe it’s just so blindingly obvious that banks behave in a fundamentally immoral manner most of the time that her editors considered that not to be news — charging $35 for a $2 cup of coffee, slapping enormous overdraft fees onto those who can least afford them, pushing high-interest credit cards on desperate customers, locating credit-card operations in South Dakota where usury laws are at their laxest, encouraging people to use the bonkers anachronism that is signature debit, steering customers into the financial products which pay the highest commissions, etc etc. All of this is legal, and all of it is designed to funnel as much money as possible from the customers’ pocket to the bank’s bottom line, and none of it is in the customer’s best interest, which means that none of it can really be considered moral.

More generally, Wall Street is an inherently adversarial place, where players are constantly trying to benefit from the misfortune of others. I’ll happily sell this stock to you at $40, because I think it’s going down, and I think that you’ll be sorry you bought it. Ethics and morals are very narrowly defined, when it comes to finance, and generally just mean being honest. Of course there’s much more to morality than simple honesty — and in any event honesty in financial markets is never simple.

So the issuers are absolutely right that the bankers are immoral — and the bankers are going to continue to ignore such questions, because ignoring such questions is how they make the big bucks. Here’s Rexrode:

The Observer broached the topic of banking and ethics with more than 50 people, almost all of them bankers or former bankers. Only 10 of the bankers agreed to be interviewed on the record. Some said they would speak only under anonymity because they feared retaliation from their employers…

People who spoke up could be seen as disloyal. The units that churned out the most revenue held the most sway with executives and other decision makers.

“To throw a flag in the sand and say, ‘I’m not sure about this’ – you’re not having a philosophical discussion with your priest, you’re saying to the guy in the next cubicle, ‘I’m not sure you should be making as much money as you’re making,’” said William Atwood, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Investment, an investor in major banks.

Ethics are great, of course. But money? In finance, that’s always greater.

(HT Dealbook, although they neglected to link to the report.)

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