Opinion

Hugo Dixon

How to clean the banking cesspit

Hugo Dixon
Aug 6, 2012 08:29 UTC

Five years after the credit crunch erupted in August 2007, banking still looks like an industry running amok. Scandals keep tumbling out of the closet: an alleged ring of banks including Barclays that attempted to rig interest rates; money laundering by HSBC; insider tips passed by Nomura to its clients; and terrible risk management by JPMorgan, where traders have so far lost $5.8 billion.

True, some of these scandals date from the rip-roaring days of the bubble. And the industry is now being reformed. But the public is growing impatient with the slow pace of change, especially as recession bites in large parts of the industrialised world. Some observers therefore want to clear out the entire old guard. The idea is that only new teams can clean the cesspit. There are also increasing calls to break up banks into supposedly low-risk retail banks and casino-style investment banks. Even Sandy Weill, the man who created Citigroup, now advocates splitting up financial conglomerates.

Something must be done. The financial industry has made a mockery of capitalism. Despite endless bailouts, bankers are still paid far too much. Profits are privatised, while losses get socialised.

The regulatory noose around the industry is tightening. After the credit crunch, there was a global push to jack up capital and liquidity buffers, while reining in risk-taking. If lenders get into trouble in future, the idea is that they will be wound down safely rather than bailed out. Bankers’ compensation is also being modified – for example, allowing pay to be clawed back in future years if there are losses.

This battery of new regulations is putting pressure on the industry’s profitability – and its pay. Banks are reviewing their business models. They are cutting back on proprietary risk-taking, slashing jobs, and even pulling out of some business lines.

Can Super Mario save the euro?

Hugo Dixon
Jul 30, 2012 08:45 UTC

Can Super Mario save the euro? Mario Draghi said last Thursday that the European Central Bank’s job is to stop sovereign bond yields rising if these increases are caused by fears of a euro break-up. While this represents a sea-change in the ECB president’s thinking, it risks sowing dissension within his ranks. He will struggle to come up with the right tools to achieve his goals.

Draghi seemingly stared into the abyss and had a fright. Spanish 10-year bond yields shot up to 7.6 percent on July 24 while Italian ones rose to 6.6 percent. The high borrowing costs are not simply a reflection of the two countries’ high debts and struggling economies. Investors also fear “convertibility risk” – or the possibility that the euro will break up and they will get repaid in devalued pesetas and liras.

The central banker’s statement that dealing with convertibility risk is part of the ECB’s mandate is therefore highly significant. He rammed home his message, saying: “Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.”

Confidence tricks for the euro zone

Hugo Dixon
Jul 23, 2012 09:31 UTC

The euro crisis is to a great extent a confidence crisis. Sure, there are big underlying problems such as excessive debt and lack of competitiveness in the peripheral economies. But these can be addressed and, to some extent, this is happening already. Meanwhile, a quick fix for the confidence crisis is needed.

The harsh medicine of reform is required but is undermining confidence on multiple levels. Businesses, bankers, ordinary citizens and politicians are losing faith in both the immediate economic future and the whole single-currency project. That is creating interconnected vicious spirals.

The twin epicentres of the crisis are Spain and Italy. The boost they received from last month’s euro zone summit has been more than wiped out. Spanish 10-year bond yields equalled their euro-era record of 7.3 percent on July 20; Italy’s had also rebounded to a slightly less terrifying but still worrying 6.2 percent.

Who will watch the Bank of England?

Hugo Dixon
Jul 16, 2012 08:19 UTC

A year ago Rupert Murdoch was probably the most powerful unelected person operating in Britain. The media baron could seemingly choose prime ministers. Then came the phone hacking and police bribery scandal, after which politicians sought to distance themselves from him.

The title of most powerful unelected Briton now probably belongs to Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England. Witness the way he dispatched Barclays’ chief executive Bob Diamond two weeks ago in connection with the Libor rate-rigging scandal. Whoever succeeds King next year will have even greater powers. After all, responsibility for financial stability and banking supervision is about to be added to the central bank’s main task of running monetary policy. It’s vital for democracy that this authority is exercised effectively, transparently and fairly.

Who will be King’s successor when he steps down? And how will the new governor be made accountable? These questions have been brought into sharp relief by the Libor scandal. The front runner for King’s job has seen his chances knocked, while doubts have been raised about the central bank’s effectiveness and transparency.

The perils of an indispensable boss

Hugo Dixon
Jul 9, 2012 09:59 UTC

Was Bob Diamond really irreplaceable? Barclays’ board operated for 15 years on the assumption that he was. As a result, the UK bank’s chief executive became more powerful – and ever harder to replace. Now that he has been kicked out in the wake of the Libor rate-rigging scandal, Barclays is struggling to find new leadership.

This is an object lesson for all companies, not just banks. Think of two other UK-listed groups which have recently provoked shareholder anger over their bosses’ high pay packages: WPP, the advertising giant; and miner Xstrata. In both cases, the boards paid their chief executives so much because they thought they were indispensable.

Barclays is now in a mess. Not only has Diamond quit, his chairman, Marcus Agius, has also said he will resign. Both men ultimately had to go: Diamond had come to epitomise the worst of the City of London’s greed, while Agius seemed unable to hold his chief executive in check. Neither man responded to requests for comment.

Successful summit didn’t solve crisis

Hugo Dixon
Jul 2, 2012 09:27 UTC

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí. “Upon waking, the dinosaur was still there.”

This extremely short story by Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso sums up the state of play on the euro crisis. Last week’s summit took important steps to stop the immediate panic. But the big economies of Italy and Spain are shrinking and there is no agreed long-term vision for the zone. In other words, the crisis is still there.

The summit’s decisions are not to be sniffed at. The agreement that the euro zone’s bailout fund should, in time, be able to recapitalise banks directly rather than via national governments will help break the so-called doom loop binding troubled lenders and troubled governments. That is a shot in the arm for both Spain and Ireland. Meanwhile, unleashing the bailout fund to stabilise sovereign bond markets could stop Rome’s and Madrid’s bond yields rising to unsustainable levels.

The revolution will be organized

Hugo Dixon
Jun 29, 2012 11:35 UTC

This piece first appeared in Reuters Magazine.

Is it possible that rebel leaders are overrated? In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and other populist uprisings around the world against autocracy and corruption, geopolitical analysts are asking fundamental questions about what leadership means in such struggles. What sort of leadership is needed in nonviolent uprisings? And in this digital age, do rebellions even need leaders?

The romanticized answer is that nonviolent struggles no longer require a charismatic leader – they can emerge spontaneously as oppressed people rise up and communicate through Facebook and Twitter. This lack of organization or hierarchy is said to be well suited to the goals of such movements. Where insurgents are fighting for democratic rule, it is appropriate that nobody is bossing anybody around. What’s more, this alleged lack of leadership has a side benefit in that it precludes the authorities from destroying a movement by rounding up the ringleaders. You can’t lop off the head if there is no head.

A year ago, in the stirring aftermath of the Egyptian revolution, that paradigm had resonance. But the Arab Spring has run into trouble. It took a long and bloody struggle in Libya to depose Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and Syria is being inexorably sucked into a civil war. Even Egypt no longer looks like a clear victory for the Facebook revolutionaries: The Muslim Brotherhood, which has a more traditional hierarchy and respect for authority, is poised to scoop up the fruits of the populist occupation of Tahrir Square.

How 50 bln euros might save the euro

Hugo Dixon
Jun 25, 2012 10:16 UTC

The break-up of the euro would be a multi-trillion euro catastrophe. An interest subsidy costing around 50 billion euros over seven years could help save it.

The immediate problem is that Spain’s and Italy’s borrowing costs - 6.3 percent and 5.8 percent respectively for 10-year money - have reached a level where investors are losing confidence in the sustainability of the countries’ finances. A vicious spiral - involving capital flight, lack of investment and recession – is under way.

Ideally, this week’s euro summit would come up with a solution. The snag is that most of the popular ideas for cutting these countries’ borrowing costs have been blocked by Germany, the European Central Bank or both.

Euro banking union won’t come fast

Hugo Dixon
Jun 18, 2012 08:58 UTC

Some European policymakers are talking about a “banking union” for the euro zone as if it was around the corner. Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, for example, told the Financial Times last week that such a union – which would involve euro-wide supervision, bailouts and deposit insurance for the banking industry – could be achieved next year.

But this is not remotely likely. Parts of the zone’s banking industry are so rotten that taxpayers elsewhere can’t reasonably be asked to bear the burden of bailing them out. A massive cleanup is required first. The crisis in Greece, Spain and other countries may provide the impetus. But even then, as Germany suggests, banking union should proceed in stages.

The appeal of a euro zone banking union is understandable. Governments and lenders are currently roped together in what has been dubbed the sovereign-bank doom loop. Weak banks – for example those in Spain, Ireland and Cyprus – can drag down their governments when they need a bailout. Equally, weak governments, such as Greece’s, can drag down their banks when those are stuffed with their own sovereigns’ bonds. By shifting responsibility for bailouts to the euro zone as a whole, the loop could be cut. Or, at least, that is the hope.

Greeks face a Homeric dilemma

Hugo Dixon
Jun 11, 2012 09:19 UTC

Odysseus would recognise the dilemma faced by today’s Greeks as they must choose either the pain of sticking with the euro or the chaos of bringing back the drachma. The Homeric hero had to steer his ship between the six-headed sea monster, Scylla, and the whirlpool, Charybdis. Avoiding both was impossible. Odysseus chose the sea monster, each of whose heads gobbled up a member of his crew. He judged it was not as bad as having the whole ship sucked into the whirlpool.

As Greece heads to the polls on June 17 for the second time in just over a month, none of the options it faces are attractive. The economy has shrunk about 15 percent from its 2008 peak, unemployment stands at 22 percent and further austerity and reform are required as part of the euro zone/IMF bailout. But the lesser of two evils is staying the course.

Some of this misery was inevitable. Greece’s current account and fiscal deficits each reached around 15 percent of GDP in 2008 and 2009, and had to be cut. But successive Greek governments have managed to make the situation worse than it needed to be.