By Chris Hughes
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
By Kathleen Brooks. The opinions expressed are her own.
Standard Chartered is the latest UK-based bank that seems to be getting it in the neck from our friends across the water. Firstly, there was Barclays and the Libor scandal, then there was HSBC which was fined for allowing drug-trafficked money from Mexico to go through its system and now there is Standard Chartered which is charged with “wilfully misleading” the New York Department of Financial Services and clearing $250 billion of Iranian transactions through its U.S. operation.
Bob Diamond's promotion to chief executive of Barclays is no surprise. The driving force behind the UK bank's investment banking arm was a candidate for the top job back in 2004, and Barclays Capital's rise since then -- it contributed over 80 percent of the group's pre-tax profit in the first half of 2010 -- made him a shoo-in.
Regulators and bankers rarely see eye to eye. But at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the two sides were in surprising agreement about creating a global fund, financed by a tax on banks, to deal with future bailouts.
Mixed reaction from major European banks to appointment of Naoto Kan as new Japanese finance minister. ING is pretty scathing, saying the appointment sidesteps a process of change Japan must undertake to avoid further stagnation or a fate far worse.
So much for Barclays' ambitions to be a magnet for banking talent. When the British bank hired Frits Seegers, the Dutchman arrived with a big reputation and an even larger price tag -- the cost of buying him out of his previous job at Citigroup. Three years on, he's on his way, the main casualty of a management shake-up that leaves his main rival, Barclays president Bob Diamond, looking stronger than ever.
Barclays has come up with an interesting way to solve an optical problem. Concerned that the bank's shareholders are nervous about possible future writedowns of wobbly assets with a value of $12.3 billion, it has sold them to its own employees.
— Margaret Doyle is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own —
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 U.S. subprime market, has returned to its conservative roots.
John Varley, Barclays’ chief executive, gives the usual guff about “staying close to our customers and clients”. In truth, Barclays’ 3 billion pounds of profit in the first half owes much more to its investment banking division, enlarged by its opportunistic acquisition of Lehman Brothers’ North American unit last autumn, than to its traditional banking businesses.
Barclays Capital (BarCap) more than doubled revenues to 10.5 billion pounds, and doubled pre-tax profits to 1 billion pounds. As with rivals, the star performer was fixed income, currencies and commodities where banks are profiting thanks to their access to very cheap central bank funding.
This is just as well, because Barcap is still carrying plenty of toxic assets left over from the credit boom. These cost it 4.7 billion pounds in gross writedowns and impairments in the first half. Given that it still has other dodgy exposures, including assets worth more than 7 billion pounds guaranteed by ailing monoline insurers, further losses seem likely. Barclays cannot rely on other parts of the bank to come to its rescue: profits in traditional retail and commercial banking businesses all collapsed as impairments soared.
HSBC’s global banking and markets (GBM) division also delivered a record performance, more than doubling its first-half profits, to $6.3 billion. However, HSBC has long resisted the charms of investment banking, and runs GBM as a complement to its existing global commercial banking franchise. Despite the juicy returns currently on offer, this is unlikely to change.
HSBC has its own sizeable bit of historical baggage in the form of Household, the U.S. consumer lender that is now being expunged from the record, though not without considerable additional losses.
Many suspected that HSBC would use its bumper $17.8 billion rights issue this spring to acquire divisions of ailing rival banks at bargain basement prices. So far, it has resisted, instead bolstering its tier 1 capital ratio to 10.1 percent.
Rather, it is building on its position as the world’s leading international bank (especially now with Citi holed under the waterline) organically. While cash-strapped rivals retreat from China, HSBC is investing in its Chinese operations. It has been the first international bank to settle cross-border trade in renminbi (yuan). It is on track to have 100 outlets, including many in rural China, by year end, more than any other international bank. Such loyalty will not go unnoticed in Beijing.
Which bank is better positioned for the new environment? That depends partly on the speed of the recovery. Barclays has so far performed a dazzling high-wire act, avoiding state capital by spreading its losses over a number of years and by selling its Barclays Global Investors arm. But this is hard to sustain if the downturn turns out to be prolonged. Meanwhile, once banking conditions return to normal, central banks will cease to flush investment banks with cheap cash and investment banking profits are bound to tumble. The HSBC tortoise looks set to leave the Barclays hare far behind.