Opinion

The Great Debate

from Breakingviews:

Why Citigroup would be better in bits

By Rob Cox

The author is a Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. 

Nine years ago, Breakingviews proposed an “extreme idea” to Citigroup’s then-leader Charles Prince. The $240 billion New York bank’s market capitalization was lower than the worth of its parts valued separately. By splitting into three separate units, the idea was, Prince could hand shareholders an extra $50 billion or so, the equivalent of one entire U.S. Bancorp at the time.

As it turned out, Citi had bigger concerns ahead. The housing crash exposed spectacular losses, wiping out capital and necessitating a government bailout. Prince was sent dancing onto the golf course. With the crisis now fairly distant in the rear-view mirror, however, it’s time for current Chief Executive Michael Corbat to revisit the case for a breakup.

Now cleaned up and well capitalized, Citi’s market cap today is about $160 billion – though any loyal shareholders are still nearly 90 percent worse off than in 2005. Despite the revamp, the bank is still prone to the stumbles that have proved characteristic since Sandy Weill, Prince’s predecessor, stitched the behemoth together.

This year, for example, Citi revealed an embarrassing fraud at its big Mexican subsidiary, Banamex. While not material to Citi’s capital, the $400 million swindle rekindled concerns that sprawl makes it too complex to manage. That’s one reason the Federal Reserve subsequently thwarted Citi’s plans to increase its dividend.

Slicing Citi into more manageable pieces would be one way to soothe regulators at home and abroad, not to mention U.S. taxpayers fearful of being on the hook for another bailout in the future. For any voluntary breakup to gain support, though, it would need to reward shareholders well beyond breaking the dividend logjam. Some arithmetic on Citi’s component parts suggests that’s possible.

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.

How Citi sank itself on the Fed’s watch

By Nicholas Dunbar
The opinions expressed are his own.

Much of the financial crisis can be blamed on bankers who created complex products that allowed them to exploit and monetize less sophisticated investors, borrowers and bank shareholders. However, no account of the financial crisis is complete without an account of the inept regulators who permitted these activities to flourish, causing the crisis to become much worse than it might have been. Among these regulators, most surprising is the story of the New York Fed, supposedly the most sophisticated in its approach to risk. As I recount in this excerpt from my book, The Devil’s Derivatives and as staff at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington DC discovered, the New York Fed was in thrall to what in 2007 was the largest US bank – Citigroup – with disastrous results. -Nicholas Dunbar

The Federal Reserve may have been at the top of the U.S. regulatory pecking order, but within the Fed itself, the New York branch was top dog when it came to regulating banks. This was hardly surprising given the dual importance of Wall Street as the engine room of the bond markets and as the base for the largest multinational U.S. banks. It was only natural that industry risk-management innovations like VAR were first identified by staff in the New York Fed’s markets divi- sion, such as Peter Fisher, who transmitted the ideas to the rest of the regulatory community.

Ever since the regulatory blessing of VAR in the mid-1990s, the New York–based multinational banks had been growing rapidly. By 2003, when William McDonough retired as New York Fed president and was replaced by Timothy Geithner, an ambitious former Treasury and International Monetary Fund bureaucrat, bank supervision was equally important to markets.

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.

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?

Michael Lewis’ Big Short an unsettling experience

Henry Paulson didn’t see it coming. Nor did Timothy Geithner foresee the meltdown of the financial markets. According to Standard & Poor’s President Deven Sharma, testifying before Congress in the fall of 2008: “Virtually no one – be they homeowners, financial institutions, ratings agencies, regulators, or investors – anticipated what is occurring.”

Why? Perhaps “it took a certain kind of person to see the ugly facts and react to them – to discern, in the profile of the beautiful young lady, the face of an old witch,” says Michael Lewis, author of numerous best-sellers including 1980s Wall Street memoir  Liar’s Poker and now The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (W.W. Norton, $27.95).

Lewis’ new volume is an entertaining and very edifying look at several such insightful people — the tiny handful of investors “for whom the trade became an obsession.” These were unusual, “almost by definition odd” folks, soon to make big money on the cataclysm: There is Steve Eisman, the former Oppenheimer analyst who regularly demonstrated a prodigious “talent for offending people,” notably in a tendency to trash subprime originators as early as 1997.

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.”

from Commentaries:

Giving props to Wall Street’s risks

Wall Street would like you to believe that when investment banks take on risk they are largely doing it for the benefit of investors -- maybe even you and me.

Bankers say much of the capital that their firms put at risk each day is to complete trades for big corporations, mutual funds, pension funds, hedge funds and university endowments. And contrary to the conventional wisdom, proprietary trading -- bets made for a bank's own behalf -- is really just a small part of their business.

Lately, Wall Street's captains of capitalism have been aggressive in pushing the "we take big risks for our customers, not for ourselves" line of argument.

from Commentaries:

Time to get tough with AIG

It's time for someone in the Obama administration to read the riot act to Robert Benmosche, American International Group's new $7 million chief executive.

Since getting the job, Benmosche has spent more time at his lavish Croatian villa on the Adriatic coast than at the troubled insurer's corporate offices in New York.

And in the short term, Benmosche's vacation strategy appears to be paying dividends.

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