Opinion

The Great Debate

Are the big banks winning?

The Dodd-Frank Act to re-regulate the big banks was intentionally tough. It was passed in the wake of the 2008-2009 financial crash to end cowboy banking; require far more capital  and much less leverage, and rein in the trading-desk geniuses who pumped up serial bubbles. Since Congress is a poor forum for crafting such a complex statute, the details were left to the expert regulatory agencies.

The big banks pay lip-service to the goals of Dodd-Frank — but they’re mounting bitter, rearguard actions in federal courts to block meaningful constraints and regulations on procedural and other grounds. This is an ominous turn of events, since these banks have the legal firepower to overwhelm budget-constrained U.S. regulatory agencies.

While Dodd-Frank is aimed at preventing another cycle of bubble-and-bust, shrinking the financial sector is crucial for other reasons. One is a mass of evidence demonstrating that hyper-financialized economies have lower growth. Another is the appalling ethical record of large financial companies. The chance of making huge paydays by risking other people’s money, it seems, can sometimes derange moral compasses.

First, the pro-growth argument for clamping down on the banks: Once the financial sector achieves a certain size, its continued expansion reduces economic growth, according to a new study by two senior economists at the Bank for International Settlements, Stephen Cecchetti and Enisse Kharroubi, using a large international data base stretching back more than 30 years.

Their conclusions are unambiguous. No country can achieve a high rate of growth without a well-functioning financial system. China, for example, lacks a deep system of consumer finance, forcing it into a lop-sided development strategy. The result is the creation of dangerous imbalances that could threaten continued rapid growth.

from Stories I’d like to see:

Crash winners, the litigation world series, and Defense budget boondoggles

1. Crash Winners

Here’s a new entry for the lists of winners and losers that get published this time of year: The ten lawyers, bankers, consultants or accountants who reaped the most from the financial disaster of the last three years.

The poster-boy would likely be Irving Picard, a partner at the Cleveland-based international law firm of Baker & Hostetler. Picard is the court-appointed trustee responsible for recovering money for Bernie Madoff’s victims. From the sketchy clips I’ve seen, it appears that Picard and his firm have already received more than $200 million in fees for their work from the court overseeing the cases. Is that true?

Then there are the lawyers involved in bringing and defending all those multi-hundred million-dollar and billion-dollar claims against the banks that packaged and re-sold troubled mortgages and other securities. Or the accountants, lawyers and bankers sorting out the assets and liabilities in the wake of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and and other implosions.

How big banks can fix their leadership blindspots

By Katrina Pugh
The opinions expressed are her own.

In the jitteriness over the stock market’s worst quarter in two years, a racing volatility index, and protests spreading across the nation’s major cities, all bank leadership (and perhaps all corporate leadership) needs to ask a fundamentally new question: “What blindspots are dogging us?”  This hardly seems like a radical question. After all, most arbitrators make their money off of other people’s blindspots by seeing around corners where others can’t.

But often, leaders are unaware of blindspots in their own organizations.  And they are unaware that they are unaware.

At UBS, blindspots led to $2.3 billion in undetected rogue trading losses, and the ouster of CEO Oswald Gruebel. Analysts have widely criticized UBS’s lax accountability, and oblique, easily-gamed bank systems.  Corporate insider Sergio Ermotti brings a strong track record to UBS’s post of interim CEO. Entering this maelstrom, however, will put his leadership to the test.

Buffett cash won’t solve Bank of America’s problems

By Keith Mullin, Editor at Large, International Financing Review
The views expressed are his own.

Warren Buffett’s $5 billion injection will not stop the rot at Bank of America.

If anything, it proves that the bank’s naysayers were right to be wary.

In the aftermath of the news, dealers aggressively marked BofA’s CDS levels tighter, and the stock leapt from $6.99 at Wednesday’s close to an intra-day high of $8.80 Thursday. But the stock slid all the way back down to close at $7.65. Even at that momentary intra-day high, it was still down 38 percent YTD and 81.5 percent off the long-term high of October 2007. Hardly inspiring.

Taxing spoils of the financial sector

If you want less of something, tax it.

That truism is often used as an argument against a tax on profits, or health benefits, or employment, but in the case of the rents extracted from the economy by the financial services industry here’s hoping it proves more of a promise than a threat.

The International Monetary Fund has put forward two new taxes on banks to pay the costs of future rescues, one of which is a fairly conventional “Financial Stability Contribution,” with an initial flat levy on all banks, to be refined later into something with more precise institutional and systemic risk adjustments.

More interestingly, the IMF is also proposing a “Financial Activities Tax,” (FAT) a tax on bank pay and profits which, if correctly designed, could serve as a tax on rents — the unwarranted spoils — of the financial sector.

from James Saft:

Learning from Ken Feinberg

Sometimes it's what doesn't happen that is most illuminating.

When Pay Czar Kenneth Feinberg first slashed executive compensation at U.S. firms that benefited most from a government bailout the cry was that this would hurt these weakened firms when they could least afford it, as the best and brightest would leave for better money elsewhere, where the free market still ruled.

Well, the door didn't hit them on their way out, but mostly because they stayed rooted to their desk chairs.
Feinberg evaluated the compensation of 104 top executives at affected companies in 2009, reducing pay for most to levels far below financial industry norms and their own former earnings.

Yet here we are in 2010 and about 85 percent are still working for the same firms, still toiling for the kinds of wages that may well make them wish they'd gone into the law rather than finance. Remember all those articles in glossy magazines about how impossible it is to make it in New York City on $500,000 a year?

UK takes right step on too-big banks

jamessaft1.jpg(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

So it can be done after all.

Britain is poised to take tough steps to break up the large banks it rescued, setting it in stark contrast to the United States, which seems set on a policy of shoring up the unfair advantages it grants its too-big-to-fail banks while regulating around the edges.

It is quite a change for Britain, which has a sorry history of self-serving self-regulation in financial services combined with limp and outgunned official control.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling on Sunday told the BBC that Lloyds, RBS and Northern Rock would be partly broken up and assets sold to new entrants into the banking market. Large existing competitors such as HSBC are expected to be blocked from making bids for the assets.

from DealZone:

Should Ken Lewis get his payday?

Ken Lewis started at Bank of America 40 years ago, working his way up from junior credit analyst to the CEO suite. His employment contract at the nation's largest banks obviously predates the government's bailout of Bank of America. Yet pay czar Kenneth Feinberg may have a say on whether he cashes in on retirement benefits and accumulated compensation worth $125 million.

Some argue it is simply inappropriate for Feinberg to try to tackle Lewis' retirement package.

"A fair reading of the situation would be he is getting what he is entitled to and game over," said Alan Johnson, a Wall Street compensation consultant.

from Rolfe Winkler:

Rakoff throws down the gauntlet

Judge Rakoff has rejected the settlement deal between the SEC and Bank of America. He clearly wasn't happy with it to begin with, and subsequent briefs from the two parties did nothing to allay his concerns. At the end of the day, he hated the idea that B of A shareholders, on whose behalf the SEC actually brought the case, would end up paying the fine for executives' wrongdoing.

So what's the next step? According to the Reuters story, "Rakoff directed the parties to prepare for a possible trial that would begin no later than February 1, 2010."

That doesn't mean there will be a trial. The parties could come back with a settlement more to Rakoff's liking.

from Rolfe Winkler:

Bailout “profit” is taxpayers’ loss

Charging a bank for an implicit government guarantee to absorb losses? According to the Wall Street Journal, the Federal Reserve and Treasury are demanding that Bank of America pay $500 million to exit a bailout deal that was never actually signed.

That's a nice chunk of change, but taxpayers shouldn't be fooled into thinking this -- or any other bailout -- is a good deal.

A very dangerous misconception is taking root in the press, that in addition to saving the world financial system, the bank bailout is making taxpayers money.

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