Felix Rohatyn would, as the dustjacket of his new memoir notes, belong in any investment banking Hall of Fame. Yet the Lazard Freres old-timer, financial savior of New York and U.S. ambassador to Paris reveals surprisingly little of himself in the book—but he does exhibit a relatively unobtrusive ego, a love of dealmaking and strong distaste for the greed of the 1980s and 2000s.
According to the 82-year-old eminence grise the financial industry is at a turning point. To be of use to companies, investors and society, it needs a return to the principles and practices he learned under the legendary Andre Meyer at Lazard starting in 1949. In Rohatyn’s world— heavily populated with the great and good of finance and politics over more than half a century—that means recognizing that “investment banking is not a business; it is a personal service where bankers work hand in hand with their clients.”
Shorts just seem to try harder. Consider David Einhorn, the fund manager famous for his prescience about Lehman Brothers. The Greenlight Capital founder has gone negative on Florida real estate outfit St. Joe. His presentation — running 139 pages, more than St. Joe’s annual report — shows the thesis has been tested. If only bulls always dug as deep.
St. Joe’s market cap is only around $2 billion after investors dumped more than 10 percent off its value after Einhorn’s speech at a high profile investment conference. The Greenlight boss must be confident if he has put his money where his mouth is and bet big against the fortunes of such a relatively small company.
Google could put some wind at the back of a fledgling green energy venture. The Internet search giant is touting its involvement in a future Atlantic Ocean power transmission scheme that could encourage as-yet-unbuilt offshore wind farms. The idea is persuasive, but for now it’s still a long shot. Google’s presence could, however, shorten the odds.
The concept of the Atlantic Wind Connection has a sweep to it that is more compelling than piecemeal projects. An offshore backbone running from New Jersey to Virginia could serve future wind farms far enough offshore to be barely visible. It would also bypass an overloaded grid on land — and avoid the property-related roadblocks that sometimes scupper new onshore transmission projects. The price tag could run to at least $5 billion. But it’s too early to think in those terms.
By Rob Cox and Richard Beales
Crises have historically spawned great cinema. Wars brought “Apocalypse Now” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” for instance, and high-profile crime brought “The Godfather.” Business and economics have played their part. Without the Great Depression there would be no “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But the movies, fictional or not, have yet to capture the heart of the financial panic of 2008.
In the documentary department, Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job,” which opens in New York on Friday, comes closest yet. Narrated by Matt Damon, it pulls together many threads for understanding what went wrong and why. But it overreaches for polemical barbs, thereby undermining its credibility. At least it’s more effective than “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” — Oliver Stone’s sequel to the 1987 classic that introduced Gordon Gekko to the world — which opened in the UK this week.
The “flash crash,” or something like it, could happen again. There’s no real blame in a report last week from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission on the sudden plunge in stock prices on May 6. Some fixes can be made. The broader lesson is that markets will always have tipping points.
Waddell & Reed’s $4.1 billion computerized sale of E-Mini S&P 500 futures in the middle of that spring afternoon certainly hit with a thud. Sales were programed at the rate of 9 percent of the total market volume in the previous minute, with no adjustments for price or time, parameters that often are applied to such trades.
American International Group is throwing off its shackles. But taxpayers will be locked in for a while yet. The company’s deal with the government over its $100 billion of bailout funds makes the insurer’s finances simpler and healthier. That’s potentially good for shareholders. But initially the plan largely just rearranges the government’s interests. It is hard to see how it gets taxpayers cash back any sooner, while increasing their risk.
Bob Benmosche, the AIG boss, understandably likes the deal. It will remove the New York Federal Reserve as a senior secured creditor and swap the $49 billion scarlet letter of government bailout preferred shares for common stock. That should allow him to normalize a borrowing relationship with lenders right away and give him more flexibility. As for dealing with the government, the Treasury will take on the remaining New York Fed interests, leaving only one master for AIG to deal with.
There’s no quick way for the U.S. government to exit American International Group <AIG.N>. Converting $49 billion of preferred stock to common shares and selling them would, like the government’s exit from Citigroup <C.N>, take a while. And that’s assuming other share sales, needed for separate repayments relating to AIG, go smoothly.
As of June 30, AIG owed the government just over $100 billion — though a further $4 billion has since been repaid. AIG has also made progress offloading assets. Big examples include the IPO of AIA, the Asian unit currently expected to debut on the Hong Kong market in the next month or so, and the $15.5 billion sale to MetLife <MET.N> of American Life Insurance, or Alico, which is winding its way towards closing. The New York Fed converted debt into preferred shares in these entities worth $16 billion and $9 billion, respectively, and the deals will help pay that off.
Hedge fund types don’t have much to complain about. The latest evidence is Blackstone’s seeding of a new fund for commodity traders, led by George “Beau” Taylor, who are leaving Credit Suisse . With even foreign financial institutions in the U.S. wary of breaching the Volcker Rule, opportunities are coming the way of the non-bank system.
The writing is on the wall for the small groups of people who make bets with banks’ capital. Exploiting arbitrage opportunities in the commodities markets is an especially obvious form of proprietary trading. From Goldman Sachs down — or up, depending on how Wall Street’s top dog is viewed — prop traders, uncertain of their career paths thanks to the new U.S. rule, are on the lookout for fresh pastures.
The time for “bail-ins” may have come. The idea of rescuing banks with rapid, creditor-enabled restructurings has been overshadowed by a slew of other plans and some resistance. Regulators are now giving the scheme more attention. The practicalities would be fraught, but the concept ticks many boxes.
A non-financial company that runs into trouble often can invoke bankruptcy processes and restructure its balance sheet. Banks often don’t have any option other than liquidation. Even if they did, a run on deposits or credit can put them out of business in days, so months of restructuring negotiations won’t cut it. The idea of a bail-in is that a bank’s creditors agree in advance to have a restructuring imposed on them rapidly if the firm hits the skids, averting failure and any systemic fallout.
The blind self-belief of financiers can’t be abolished. Neither can cycles in the industry. But two years after the disastrous failure of Lehman Brothers, regulatory shifts have the potential to reduce the impact of a repeat. The challenge for politicians and watchdogs is not to go soft.
That’s what happened before. A munificent Federal Reserve helped stoke a leverage bubble that masqueraded as “the Great Moderation.” Meanwhile, financial regulators of all stripes dozed off, encouraged by lawmakers too cozy with Big Finance.