Opinion

The Great Debate

from Hugo Dixon:

EU needs more non-bank finance

The European Union needs more non-bank finance. Banks are on the back foot. On their own, they won’t be able to fund the jobs and growth the EU is desperate for. Non-bank finance needs to take up the slack.

The European Central Bank and Bank of England have made a good start by identifying the importance of reviving securitisation - the process of packaging loans into bond-like securities which can then be traded on the market. The two central banks have just published a joint paper describing blockages in the system which have all but killed EU securitisation since the financial crisis.

But securitisation is only one piece of the non-bank finance landscape. Similar leadership is needed to invigorate venture capital, equity investment, bond issues for small companies, shadow banking and so forth.

Following the financial crisis, securitisation – in common with other types of market-based finance - has had a bad name. This is only partly deserved. Securitisation certainly shares the blame for the U.S. subprime crisis that triggered the global credit crunch. Banks didn’t just originate mortgage loans and sell them off to third-party investors – something sometimes described as “plain vanilla” securitisation. They engaged in increasingly exotic and wild practices.

Not only did the banks lend to borrowers who were unable to service their loans. They constructed opaque financial instruments – sometimes securitisations of securitisations – in the hope of jacking up promised returns.

from Breakingviews:

Rob Cox: The worry now is a brewing M&A bubble

By Rob Cox
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Stop worrying about the tech bubble – there may be an even bigger one inflating beyond the confines of Silicon Valley. The corporate urge to merge has gone into global hyper-drive this year. Deal activity has surged as investors egg companies on and bid up the shares of acquirers well beyond mathematical explication, or prudence. As new metrics from interested parties are trotted out to justify the irrational, it’s time to exercise caution.

So far this year companies have announced some $1.3 trillion worth of transactions around the world, according to Thomson Reuters data. That’s nearly double the level of activity a year ago. European corporations have fueled even greater increases. Much of this is pent-up demand and a delayed response to the past year’s remarkable runup in stock market values.

In the Netherlands, bankers turn to God — by law

 

Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs, once famously said he believed banks were doing “God’s work.” Now, the Netherlands is going one step further: starting later this year, all 90,000 Dutch bankers will have to swear an oath that they’ll do their “utmost to maintain and promote confidence in the financial-services industry. So help me God.”

It’s part of a major attempt by regulators and banks to clean up after the financial crash of 2008, and put behind them scandals that continue to blacken the financial service industry’s reputation. Just last October, the big Dutch cooperative bank Rabobank paid a $1 billion fine to settle charges in the Libor rate-fixing scandal.

Board members of the banks have already been required to swear the oath since last year, but now it’s being expanded to cover everyone who works in the sector. It consists of eight statements, including promises not to abuse knowledge and “to know my responsibility towards society.” There’s also a new banking code, a special declaration of moral and ethical conduct that all board members are required to sign, a “treat your customer fairly” initiative, and a “suitability” test for executive and non-executive directors of supervisory boards.

Transforming Post Offices into banks

The U.S. postal service inspector general put out a report last week suggesting an intriguing way to shore up the ailing institution’s finances: Let the mailman double as a bank teller.

The plan? The post office would offer services designed to appeal to America’s unbanked and under-banked — the more than 50 million adults who either have no checking or savings account, or use high-cost, predatory services like payday loans to supplement traditional banking needs.

This sounds like a win-win. Americans — particularly low-income Americans — clearly need greater access to low-cost financial services. At the same time, many financial institutions have been complaining for years that providing banking services to low-income Americans is costing them money. So much so that they can barely bring themselves to open bank branches in anything less than well-heeled neighborhoods.

What’s your bank worth?

Half a decade has passed since the financial crisis, and yet the behemoth banks that caused economic chaos remain much as they were before – influential, opaque and potentially dangerous. It doesn’t have to be this way. Radical transparency could not only boost the industry, it could safeguard the economy. Forget “mark to market” and quarterly filings. Require every bank to report the value of its assets and liabilities on a daily basis. Don’t believe it can’t be done. Realize that it must be.

Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts and newly established on the Senate Banking Committee, has already started asking tough questions of the bank regulators. She used to oversee them in her role as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel that was created to oversee the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Among her most pointed questions is this: Why are so many publicly traded banks valued by the market at less than what they report to investors every quarter as their tangible book value?

Tangible book value is a bank’s assets minus its liabilities. It should be what you could sell the bank for, were you as fortunate as It’s a Wonderful Life’s Mr. Potter and owner of the whole shebang.

How to do PR for banks

Big banks — at least in Europe — are putting on a new, highly branded, and more contrite face.  Barclays is embarking on something it calls “Project Transform”’; Deutsche Bank has announced its “2015+” strategy and is pushing for what its CEO has called “deliberate” “uncomfortable change”. UBS has its own 2015 strategy, and the head of its investment banking unit publicly proclaimed that the industry has become “too arrogant, too self-convinced”.

Should we buy any of this? William Cohan, for one, isn’t a fan of Barclays CEO Anthony Jenkins’s “new morality”. Cohan’s right to point out that all of this hat-in-hand talk comes after a long period of transgression at Barclays:

Among other indiscretions, the good folks at Barclays manipulated the London interbank offered rate, shredded unflattering reports about the U.S. wealth-management division and, according to British authorities, may have fraudulently loaned money to Qatar to invest back in the bank to help Barclays avoid a government bailout in 2008.

Banks thrive, while homeowners still suffer

A year ago the federal government and 49 states completed a $25 billion agreement with the nation’s largest mortgage servicers to settle claims of “robo-signing” and unlawful foreclosure practices. President Barack Obama announced the creation of the federal-state mortgage securities working group in his 2012 State of the Union address. The nation seemed on the verge of transforming the way banks treat struggling homeowners ‑ particularly those with “underwater” mortgages, in which a homeowner owes more than the house is worth.

These promises, however, have yet to be fulfilled. The latest interim report on the national mortgage settlement is due out this week, and banks will likely again declare that it offers proof that they are fulfilling their obligations. But the communities hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis have yet to see any meaningful relief.

Time is running out to ensure that these communities receive their fair share under the settlement. But it is not too late to provide meaningful assistance. The settlement monitors need to demand greater transparency from banks, and they need to see that banks comply with the fair-lending requirements set out in the agreement. They also need to aggressively police the servicing reforms to ensure that all homeowners get a fair opportunity to save their homes.

Occupy the mortgage lenders

By Simon Johnson
The opinions expressed are his own.

Participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement are right to argue that the big banks have never properly been investigated for the mortgage origination, aggregation, and securitization behavior that was central to the financial crisis – and to the loss of more than eight million jobs. But, thanks to the efforts of New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, and others, serious discussion has started in the United States about an out-of court mortgage settlement between state attorney generals and prominent financial-sector firms.

Talks among state officials, the Obama administration, and the banks are currently focused on reported abuses in servicing mortgages, foreclosing on homes, and evicting their residents. But leading banks are also accused of illegal behavior – inducing people to borrow, for example, by deceiving them about the interest rate that would actually be paid, while misrepresenting the resulting mortgage-backed securities to investors.

If these charges are true, the bank executives involved may fear that civil lawsuits would uncover evidence that could be used in criminal prosecutions. In that case, their interest would naturally lie in seeking – as they now are – to keep that evidence from ever seeing the inside of a courtroom.

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.

Housing double-dip threatens banks

Another dip in U.S. housing looks likely, bringing with it difficulties for banks and for their government guarantors.

What is perhaps worse: having chucked money at supporting asset markets in order to support banks the past two years, the policy options for handling another housing downturn and banking crisis would be greatly circumscribed.

If you think the debate about more fiscal stimulus is heated, wait until you see the venom which the prospect of another housing and banking bailout brings.

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