The Great Debate UK
–The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own–
It’s hard to feel sympathy when millionaires divorce. But after some mega-payouts in recent English court cases, a review of the law is welcome. While marriage isn’t a business transaction, the wealthy in particular could benefit from being able to agree legally enforceable pre-nuptial agreements.
England’s divorce laws are a mess. That creates huge uncertainty as to the division of assets when couples separate. Unlike the formulaic divisions of continental Europe, a London divorce can seem like a crapshoot. That really matters when the numbers involved are huge.
To anyone in business and finance accustomed to dealing with big money and thick contracts, pre-nuptial agreements look like the obvious solution. But until recently, these had little force. That changed in October, when a dispute between German heiress Katrin Radmacher and her French ex-husband, a former banker, led to a Supreme Court ruling that pre-nups would be decisive so long as they were “fair”.
-- Margaret Doyle and George Hay are Reuters Breakingview columnists. The opinions expressed are their own. --
European banks should suffer less than their American counterparts from the Obama administration’s proposed bank tax. The president’s proposed levy on banks’ wholesale funding requirements will hit all banks with a big presence on Wall Street. But assuming that U.S. banks will be taxed on their worldwide operations, the levy will hurt them more. This could be a major bonus for European investment banks -- as long as their own governments don’t follow suit.
– 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.
One of the challenges for bond investors over the coming years is how to deal with the enormous ballooning of government debt that is happening as a result of the credit crisis.
George Osborne’s plans to break the British addiction to debt have drawn protests from some business groups. He should not be put off. If a Conservative government with him as Chancellor can offer the quid pro quo of a cut in the rate of corporation tax, business should welcome the move.
from The Great Debate:
Germany's politicians seem to have rescued their bad bank. Pushing back the valuation date for toxic assets to before the Lehman collapse has made it more likely that banks will consign their dud investments to the voluntary scheme.
It had looked as if the banks might simply boycott it. However, while the government has scored a political goal, it is no closer to its aim of boosting lending to a credit-starved German economy.
The essence of the scheme is that banks will be able to transfer some 250 billion euros of toxic assets into "eine Bad Bank". In exchange they receive government-backed paper that they can count towards regulatory capital.
The crisis at Northern Rock marked the beginning of Britain’s slide into large-scale state ownership of the banking system. Returning the mortgage lender to the private sector would be a sign that normal service is being resumed. But rumours that the British government is poised to sell Northern Rock, are premature. Suggestions the government could do so at a profit are even more far-fetched.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown is apparently keen to offload the Rock, ideally “at a substantial profit” before the general election, which must be held before next summer. According to the Times, the prime minister “wants desperately to avoid a Conservative government taking the credit”.
Three months is a long time in the markets, and particularly for banks. Alongside the rally in bank shares, investors have also bid up bank bonds, especially so-called tier 1 bonds which rank just above the equity in the list of creditors.
Well-intentioned legislation often has the opposite effect. The European Commission’s new alternative investment directive threatens investment trust companies, an attractive form of pooled investment.
The Commission aims to “enhance investor protection.” However, in addition to hedge funds, the original French and German target, investment trusts would be caught in the new regulatory net. Unlike other pooled funds, investment trusts offer transparency, low fees, the discipline of a public limited company and a vote.