Opinion

Hugo Dixon

Still too big to fail

Hugo Dixon
Sep 16, 2013 09:29 UTC

Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy five years ago crushed the global economy, turfed millions of people out of their jobs and left governments groaning under hefty debt burdens. Since then, policymakers have been beavering away to make sure that a similar calamity never happens again. Measures to address many of the key problems have been taken or are in the works. But if a Lehman went bust today, there would still be havoc.

The main success has been in building up the capital cushions banks have to withstand shocks. Since the end of 2009, the big global banks have increased their shareholder capital by $500 billion – the equivalent of 3 percent of their so-called risk-weighted assets, according to the Financial Stability Board (FSB), the organisation tasked by the G20 countries to fix the financial system. They are also on track to meet tighter global standards nearly five years ahead of the deadline.

But even this success has to be qualified. The amount of capital banks are supposed to hold depends on the riskiness of their loans. But lenders have too much freedom to decide for themselves how risky a loan is, giving them the opportunity to engage in monkey business. Meanwhile, inside the euro zone, the job of building capital buffers has not been properly done because of a tendency to sweep problems under the carpet. Thankfully, regulators are onto both these issues so there’s a reasonable chance they’ll be solved.

Less progress has been made in combating the “too-big-to-fail” problem. If a financial institution is too big to fail, governments have a terrible dilemma: either they let it collapse creating financial chaos; or they bail it out at huge cost to the taxpayer. Five years ago, they tried both methods: Lehman was allowed to go bust but, once they saw the mayhem, governments bailed out the other big institutions that were about to go belly up.

Beefing up shareholder capital should reduce the number of institutions that come close to bankruptcy. But there will always be some that fall through the net. The policymakers’ plan when this happens is to “resolve” the bust institution – effectively winding it down in an orderly fashion.

Financial reform must carry on

Hugo Dixon
Jul 1, 2013 08:20 UTC

After six years of crisis, much progress has been made in fixing the financial system. There was, for example, a landmark European Union deal last week to make creditors rather than taxpayers foot the bill for bust banks. But there’s a huge job still to do.

In the years running up to the crisis, the financial system ran amok on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the long litany of problems was a clutch of distorted incentives, which encouraged banks to take excessive risks by rewarding success but not punishing failure. These heads-I-win-tails-you-lose incentives skewed the behaviour of individuals, banks and the entire system.

A crackdown on bankers’ pay is starting to deal with individual risk-taking. Compensation can be clawed back from financiers whose bets ultimately turn sour. There are also plans, mainly in Europe, to pay a chunk of bankers’ compensation in “bail-in bonds” – which will get wiped out or turned into lowly valued shares if a bank fails. That should get bankers to pay more attention to risk.

Euro zone mustn’t flunk bank cleanup

Hugo Dixon
Jun 10, 2013 08:31 UTC

One reason the euro zone is in such a mess is that it hasn’t had the courage to clean up its banks. The United States gave its lenders a proper scrubbing, followed by recapitalisation, in 2009. By contrast, the euro zone engaged in a series of half-hearted stress tests that missed many of the biggest banking problems such as those in Ireland, Spain and Cyprus.

In recent years, the zone has started to address these problems on a piecemeal basis. But it is still haunted by zombie banks, which are not strong enough to support an economic recovery.

The European Central Bank now has a golden opportunity to press the reset button in advance of taking on the job of supervisor in mid-2014. It mustn’t flunk the cleanup.

Cyprus is edging towards euro exit

Hugo Dixon
Apr 8, 2013 09:17 UTC

Cyprus is no longer centre stage. Nicosia has agreed a 10 billion euro bailout deal with its euro zone partners and the International Monetary Fund. A visible bank run has been averted by stringent capital controls. International markets, which only ever suffered a mild bout of jitters, have calmed down.

But it would be foolish to forget about Cyprus. The small Mediterranean island is edging towards euro exit. Quitting the single currency would devastate wealth, fuel inflation, lead to default and leave Cyprus friendless in a troubled neighbourhood. Even so, the longer capital controls continue, the louder the voices calling for bringing back the Cyprus pound will grow.

President Nicos Anastasiades is against Cyprus leaving the euro. But the main opposition communist party wants to pull out. A smaller opposition group wants to stay in the euro but kick out the troika – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. The country’s influential archbishop is also critical of the troika.

Cyprus bank “resolution” a bad joke

Hugo Dixon
Apr 3, 2013 09:03 UTC

The “resolution” of Cyprus’ banks is a bad joke. Resolution is one of the new buzzwords in financial regulation. The practice is supposed to stop taxpayers having to bail out banks, while imposing pain fairly on shareholders and creditors.

In Cyprus, Greek deposits and favoured groups at home are exempt from haircuts, while other groups of depositor are hammered even harder. It’s anything but fair.

The resolution of Cyprus’ banks doesn’t matter just for those directly affected. It is one of the most ambitious cases of cross-border resolution since the financial crisis began. So a bad result here is hardly a good advertisement for the technique.

Cyprus leaves banking union up in air

Hugo Dixon
Apr 1, 2013 21:08 UTC

The Cypriot catastrophe shows just how far away the euro zone is from creating its much-touted “banking union”. There was no euro zone supervision of Cyprus’ big banks, no transnational approach to put them into controlled bankruptcy, no common deposit insurance and no flow of bank rescue funds from abroad.

Instead, there was weak supervision by the Central Bank of Cyprus and a mad scramble to carve up the banks’ assets on national lines. Nicosia was left to shoulder the whole cost of protecting small depositors and the euro zone said that none of its bailout cash could be injected into the troubled banks.

Optimists hope the fiasco will provide the euro zone with the impetus to complete its banking union. But it is equally possible that core countries such as Germany, Finland and the Netherlands will become even more reluctant to absorb the liabilities of bust peripheral banks.

Cyprus controls an “omnishambles”

Hugo Dixon
Mar 28, 2013 10:40 UTC

Cyprus’ capital controls are an “omnishambles”. If the Argentine-style “corralito” really can be lifted in seven days, the damage could be contained. But that doesn’t seem credible. Extended controls could spawn bribery, sap confidence, further crush the economy, spread contagion and ultimately lead to the country’s exit from the euro.

The lesson of capital controls elsewhere is that, once they are imposed, they are hard to remove. Iceland’s curbs are still in place five years after they started. In Argentina, they lasted a year.

There’s little reason to suppose it will be much different in Nicosia. After all, the restrictions – which limit both the amount of money people can take from their banks and the amount they can transfer abroad – have been imposed because the lenders do not have enough access to ready funds. If there’s not sufficient liquidity today, why should anybody believe there will be enough in a week, a month or even a year?

Cyprus deal best of a very bad job

Hugo Dixon
Mar 25, 2013 10:27 UTC

Cyprus’ economy is going to suffer terribly in the next few years. Some of that is inevitable given how bloated the banking system had become. But the disastrous handling of the crisis, especially in the past week, will make things much worse.

That said, the bailout deal that Cyprus reached with its euro zone partners in the early hours of Monday morning makes the best of an extremely bad job – both for the small Mediterranean island and its rescuers.

It establishes three important principles. First, there will be no losses for insured deposits. Last week’s aborted deal foolishly involved taxing them at 6.75 percent. Second, uninsured creditors rather than taxpayers will pay the entire cost of bailing out Cyprus’ two troubled banks – Cyprus Popular Bank (CPB) and Bank of Cyprus (BOC). Third, Cyprus’ oversized banking sector, which depended heavily on somewhat dubious Russian cash, will be slimmed down.

All Cyprus plan Bs look dreadful

Hugo Dixon
Mar 20, 2013 10:49 UTC

The Cypriots have an expression: eninboro allo. It means: I cannot take any more of it.

There was jubilation last night outside the small Mediterranean island’s parliament when every single MP either voted against a plan to tax depositors or abstained. The message was that people of Cyprus had had enough and weren’t going to let the big bullies, led by Germany, boss them around.

The plan to tax insured deposits was a dreadful mistake – I have described it as legalised bank robbery. But the deposit tax was part of an unpalatable but available 10 billion euro bailout, agreed with the euro zone. That plan A is now at risk. As Cypriots contemplate possible plan Bs, their jubilation may start to fade: all of them are also dreadful.

Banks must probe clients’ motives

Hugo Dixon
Feb 11, 2013 10:17 UTC

Should an investment bank worry about a client’s motive when it engages in a complex and potentially suspicious transaction?

Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS) has been just such a client. The Italian bank, which has just been rescued by the state, engaged in a series of fiendishly complex deals with Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan and Nomura which had the effect of giving a misleading picture of its finances.

One controversy relates to how MPS paid for its acquisition of Antonveneta, another Italian bank, in 2008. JPMorgan helped finance part of the deal by selling 1 billion euros in so-called FRESH notes, a type of bond convertible into MPS equity. But the Bank of Italy objected that they were not sufficiently loss-absorbing and insisted that MPS only pay money to JPMorgan to forward onto the investors if it made a profit.