Opinion

The Great Debate

In praise of smaller banks, less volatility

– James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

If we want a world with safer banks, we need to be prepared for the consequences; lower growth over a painful medium term but the promise of making it up over the long run as we suffer less devastating financial blowups.

A banking system forced to operate with more capital and a higher proportion of safe, liquid assets is one that will shrink and charge more for credit, potentially retarding growth as we transition to a different mix of financing.

This may also imply better returns to credit investors outside of banks, but perhaps lower returns for equity.
The prize for most thought-provoking speech by a central banker of 2009 quite possibly goes to David Miles, of the Bank of England, who this week delivered an address considering the implications for the economy and monetary policy of changes in the financial landscape.

“The result of pursuing policies that significantly reduce the chances of another banking crisis like the one we have seen is likely to be a smaller banking sector,” Miles said.

Easier jawboning banks than leery borrowers

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

Jawbone all you like, but we are in a private sector de-leveraging, and bank lending and demand will remain weak, making interest rates unlikely to rise any time soon.

Monday’s two big economic news events dovetailed neatly, if not entirely happily; Citigroup  announced plans to repay $20 billion to the government and President Obama called banks together to inform them of their obligation to support the recovery.

“My main message in today’s meeting was very simple: America’s banks received extraordinary assistance from American taxpayers to rebuild their industry,” Obama said after the meeting. “Now that they’re back on their feet, we expect an extraordinary commitment from them to help rebuild our economy.”

UK bonus tax both cynical and justified

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

A cynical election maneuver it may well be, but Britain’s plan to impose a punitive tax on bonus payments is also reasonably well crafted and in broad terms justified.

Facing a monumental budget deficit and an election in months, British Chancellor Alistair Darling announced a plan to slap a 50 percent payroll tax, payable by banks, on their bonus payments in excess of 25,000 pounds to a given employee.

Banks can pay what they like to whom they like, but every pound a banker gets above the threshold means an additional 50 pence for the public purse. The tax will only raise about 550 million pounds, compared to a public sector borrowing requirement of 178 billion, and will expire in April, leaving delayed bonuses subject to a new higher 50 percent personal tax rate previously announced.

from The Great Debate UK:

When firms “Too Big to Fail” fall

Amid the turmoil of the 2008 financial crisis a myriad of events unfolded that the general public knew nothing about, writes New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin in a new book titled "Too Big to Fail."

Wall Street fell from the dizzying heights of good fortune to calamity in a matter of months. To a large degree it's still to early to tell whether financiers and politicians involved made the right choices.

"At its core 'Too Big to Fail' is a chronicle of failure -- a failure that brought the world to its knees and raised questions about the very nature of capitalism," writes Sorkin in his behind-the-scenes account.

from The Great Debate UK:

It’s all over: The banks have won

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. -

There is so much talk of a new regulatory framework for the financial sector, anyone would think it was an important issue.

Unfortunately, it is almost irrelevant, for the simple reason that, however sophisticated the new regime, experience shows it will be bypassed and/or captured by banks of one kind or another, possibly by novel types of institution invented specially for the purpose.

from Rolfe Winkler:

Ending the off-balance sheet charade

Investors have more than one reason to celebrate two new accounting rules. Besides forcing banks to fess up to the risks they are carrying on their books, new standards for off-balance sheet assets will make it harder for companies to inflate earnings artificially.

The new rules - FAS 166 and 167 - are desperately needed to prevent banks from hiding assets to increase leverage. Lending that isn't supported by capital is a main ingredient behind unsustainable credit bubbles, and banks' off-balance sheet games played a big role in the most recent one.

But another reason banks like off-balance sheet structures is that it enables them to manufacture profits.

from Rolfe Winkler:

Break up the big banks

President Barack Obama pledged on Monday "to put an end to the idea that some firms are 'too big to fail.'"  Though he outlined some worthy prescriptions, he failed to face up to the very size and power of the financial institutions that makes "too big to fail" possible.

For the big have gotten even bigger since the start of the financial crisis. At the end of 2007, the Big Four banks -- Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo -- held 32 percent of all deposits in FDIC-insured institutions. As of June 30th, it was 39 percent.

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In total, they had $3.8 trillion worth of deposits as of June 30th. Compare that figure to the FDIC's Deposit Insurance Fund, which showed a balance of just $10.4 billion on the same date.

from Commentaries:

Securitization survives the fall

A year after the government's seizure of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and AIG , not to mention the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers that sent the global financial system into a tailspin, very little has changed to prevent debt from being sliced and diced, again and again.

This is a mistake. Although there were many factors contributing to the downfall of the global financial system, the repackaging of toxic debt into esoteric financial products was at the heart of the credit crisis when it erupted in 2007.

It's easy to forget, particularly when many are focused on anniversary tick-tock accounts of the last days of Lehman Brothers, how nasty CDOs -- or worse, CDO squareds -- became so incredibly popular in the first place.

China’s banks, running hard to stand still

wei-gu.jpg– Wei Gu is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own —

Chinese banks are like enthusiastic runners on an accelerating treadmill. The weakening economy means poor lending decisions are threatening to catch up with them, but the banks are sprinting ahead by expanding their loan books ever faster. They cannot keep this up for ever.

For now things still look fine. China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) this week claimed that Chinese banks were managing credit risk sagely, pointing to record low non-performing loan ratios. Given the massive increase in the number of loans outstanding — up 24 percent since the start of the year — it’s not surprising that the proportion of them that are non-performing at large commercial banks, which accounts for 60 percent of the lending, has declined from 2.4 percent to 1.8 percent in the past six months.

from Commentaries:

Geithner of Oz

Earlier today I wrote that Sheila Bair is one of the few financial regulators who gets it. And by getting it, I mean not sucking up to the banks and the big money interests on Wall Street. You know, the guys (and most of them are guys), who got us into this financial mess. Tim Geithner, on the other hand, is a regulator who just doesn't get it.

It's not that the Treasury secretary isn't smart--he is. And it's not that he's not up to job--he is. It's that Geithner is too much of a politician and his views have been molded by people who work on Wall Street.

So, that's why we have Geithner telling The Wall Street Journal today that Wall Street isn't reverting back to its old ways--even though everything indicates that's exactly what is going on. In Geithner's world, things are getting better and the banks are becoming better citizens:

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