The Great Debate UK

The EU and Hedge Funds: silencing the dog that didn’t bark

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Laurence Copeland

- Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School and a co-author of “Verdict on the Crash” published by the Institute of Economic Affairs. The opinions expressed are his own. -

We could see it coming, couldn’t we? Those gigantic over-leveraged hedge funds were bound to come crashing down, as their massive bets turned sour, forcing them to default on their bank loans and bringing the banking system to its knees.

Except that it never happened. Instead, the system was destroyed by the greed and incompetence of the insiders, including some of the most blue-blooded investment and commercial banks in the world. Highly regulated as they were said to be, they were allowed in every country except Spain simply to move their riskiest investments off balance sheet, where they were free to bet the bank on investments in the notoriously toxic mortgage-backed securities.

Note the absence of hedge funds and private equity – Alternative Investment Funds or AIF’s – from this story.

Fears for bank rally overdone

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REUTERS — Margaret Doyle is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own –

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.

RBS and Barclays: not monolithic on monolines

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REUTERS– Margaret Doyle is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own –
Barclays thinks the insurance it has against its “impaired assets” is worth twice as much as RBS seems to believe. It’s hard to see how both could be right.
On May 7, Barclays said that it expects to get 76 percent of any claim made against its “monoline” insurers. The following day, RBS said fat chance — we think it’s 35 percent. They may not have the same insurers, but they are also coming from the problem from different angles.
Unlike Barclays, RBS is already attached to the government teat. Because RBS has taken a huge capital injection from the state, chief executive Stephen Hester had much less to lose than his counterpart at Barclays John Varley in admitting that things are looking grim.
For Barclays, it makes more sense to take losses only as fast as you earn enough to cover them.
Moreover, RBS has also already agreed to join the government insurance scheme. RBS said that around 75 or 85 percent of the 4.9 billion pound headline hit in the first quarter was to assets that will end up in the government’s Asset Protection Scheme (APS). RBS has to take 19.5 billion in losses before it calls on the government purse. These numbers show that it has already chalked up around 4 billion of that first loss.
Moreover, that huge figure excludes 755 million pounds of trading asset write-downs. That means the bank’s total losses for the quarter were 5.6 billion pounds.
RBS’s 51-page report also reveals the details of another banking farce. It has 31 billion pounds-worth of bonds outstanding. The market is sceptical about RBS’s ability to repay this, and has marked the bonds down accordingly. In this quarter alone, that market write-down equates to more than 1 billion pounds. RBS has taken this as a “profit”.
Hester himself rightly flags up that there are more headwinds to come. There will be further losses as the recession deepens.
Net interest margins are likely to remain compressed. While the banks may get away with what they term asset pricing (higher interest charges on our loans), it will be a while — if ever — before their funding costs return to pre-crunch levels.
Longer term, regulators will demand that banks set aside more capital against the loans that they make, thus depressing equity returns.
Hester may think there is mileage in being frank. But he should be careful. After all, RBS has not agreed final terms on the APS with the government. Having seen these numbers, it may decide that RBS should be forced to pay harsher terms.

Look to deal numbers for M&A green shoots

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alex-smithLONDON, April 23 (Reuters) – Volumes may be down, but there are green shoots appearing in the M&A market after the frozen winter of financial distress.
This doesn’t mean a return to the boom years of a few years ago. It could take years for deal values to reach the dizzy heights of the second quarter of 2007, given falls in asset prices. But the number of deals is recovering fast. This fell off a cliff in Q1 of 2009 and at just over 8,000 deals was the lowest global tally since Q3 2004.
The week starting March 29 was the busiest of the year in terms of deals announced, with 821 transactions, and the 5th busiest since Sept. 2008, according to Thomson Reuters data.
There are still some complications (the disappearance of loan-funding, equity market volatility to name just two), but investors seem to be back on the hunt for bargains.
M&A deals may tend to be pretty hit and miss (indeed the failure rate is high) but historically the best returns from deals have been achieved on those struck during economic downturns, when activity is low.
True, M&A has been fuelled so far this year by a spate of large deals in the pharmaceuticals sector, an area that has been least affected by the crunch, with healthcare accounting for 27 percent of the total of $472 billion of announced deals during Q1. Pfizer’s <PFE.N> $68 billion acquisition of Wyeth <WYE.N> and Merck’s <MRK.N> $41 billion takeover of Schering-Plough <SGP.N> were the blockbusters.
But this was only just ahead of the distressed financials sector at 25 percent. And it is this area of activity which will grab a significant share of deals (by volume if not by value) as banks, insurers and fund management companies rejig their portfolios and vulture investors pick off the walking wounded.
The restructurings resulting from the meltdown in financial services are just getting underway. Look at the businesses UBS <UBSN.VX> is  selling, Barclays’ <BARC.L> disposal of iShares, or indeed the auctions of Citigroup <C.N> and Royal Bank of Scotland <RBS.L> units in Asia.
Banking groups are under pressure to offload non-core businesses to strengthen weakened balance sheets and therefore are less sensitive to value. Add the assets which governments will have to repackage or offload once they have feel confident they have stabilised the sector and the deal pipeline starts to look positively healthy.
No wonder some investment bankers — especially those in boutiques and which thus have no conflicts with mainstream financial businesses — are rubbing their hands.
The main constraint on buyers (other than those lucky or sensible enough to still be sitting on cash) is obtaining financing. It is possible for companies to raise money for deals that seem to investors to make strategic sense. Roche <ROG.VX> of Switzerland, for instance, tapped the bond markets for a whopping $39 billion to fund its Genentech buy-out.
But stock market investors aren’t flush with cash and are wary of giving companies a free hand. UK’s Pearson <PSON.L> recently had to pull a small share issue that was designed to give it a cash pile from which to make opportunistic acquisitions. Meanwhile, it is still difficult to obtain loan finance from banks, and the bond markets are only really available to larger companies.
Even so, with debt-strapped companies being forced to sell off assets to meet covenants and prices relatively low, there should be plenty of action this year.
– At the time of publication Alexander Smith did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund.
(Edited by David Evans)

Never mind oil, BP runs low on directors

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REUTERS

– Neil Collins is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

LONDON, April 8 (Reuters) – BP has undergone a critical period of self-assessment over the last four years. The chairman, no less, says so in the oil company’s annual report.

Barclays’ conjuring trick

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– Margaret Doyle is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own –

REUTERSAbracadabra! Yet again, Barclays has pulled another rabbit out of its hat. With just days to go before the end-March deadline for the bank to apply for a government guarantee of its dodgier loans, it may again wriggle out of state control.

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