The Bankwatch

Tracking the consumer evolution of financial services

Archive for the ‘Banking Strategy’ Category

Derivatives remain a dark secret with undocumented risks to economies and consumers


Derivates were a hot topic during the height of the banking crisis and we all remember they were the specific reason that AIG went out of business because they had been speculating in those products to an extent that far exceeded business requirements.  When the markets froze AIG were unable to meet their off balance sheet commitments in the form of derivatives and went under. What followed in September 2008 was an $85 bn bailout.

The level of derivatives in the world was close to $700 Bn.  To place that figure in perspective, world GDP is around $60 Bn.  Derivatives which are in theory a financial hedge or insurance against shifts in markets or currencies are worth an astounding 10 times the value of world trade.

Even when we allow for secondary hedges (similar to re-insurance) there can be no good reason for derivatives at that level other than financial speculation. 

Which brings us to this piece in the New York Times that describes the method being used to manage that global risk in the wake of the crisis.  The regulators have delegated the responsibility to the group responsible for much of those derivatives, and the names will be familiar.

The NY Times piece focusses on the profits that come from the derivatiaves, and the extraordinary efforts to ensure that the trading in them remains with the banks and in a non-electronic form which appears to be related to retaining control of the market.  It refers to similarities with Nasdaq in the ‘90s when it was pressured to become an open electronic exchange and that fees dropped significantly.

A Secretive Banking Elite Rules Trading in Derivatives | NY Times

None of the three clearinghouses would divulge the members of their risk committees when asked by a reporter. But two people with direct knowledge of ICE’s committee said the bank members are: Thomas J. Benison of JPMorgan Chase & Company; James J. Hill of Morgan Stanley; Athanassios Diplas of Deutsche Bank; Paul Hamill of UBS; Paul Mitrokostas of Barclays; Andy Hubbard of Credit Suisse; Oliver Frankel of Goldman Sachs; Ali Balali of Bank of America; and Biswarup Chatterjee of Citigroup.

Mr. Griffin said last week that customers have so far paid the price for not yet having electronic trading. He puts the toll, by a rough estimate, in the tens of billions of dollars, saying that electronic trading would remove much of this “economic rent the dealers enjoy from a market that is so opaque.”

It remains unclear why the C.M.E. ended its electronic trading initiative. Two people with knowledge of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s clearinghouse said the banks refused to get involved unless the exchange dropped Citadel and the entire plan for electronic trading.

Relevance to Bankwatch:

There are two points to be made here.  The NYT makes the point that significant profits are being protected by a closed group, and you can bet those revenues are costs that end up costing consumers more for for underlying services and products such as petroleum.

The second point to consider is the larger need for a market that reflects 10 x world GDP.  The lack of transparency means that we cannot really explain that, and I still believe this to be a large and undocumented risk.

I am not expert enough to begin to quantify the risk associated with derivatives, and I am in good company on that score.  What I am qualified to state is the there can be no good associated with management of derivatives that amount for alongside your savings account.  The parts of the new regulation that separate investment and retail banking must have some merit on that score.

But we know regulators will never get it all right, and lobbying efforts to retain the status quo will likely be based on ideas that the tremendous risk associated with another freeze up with the credit markets as we had in September 2008 could re-occur in a heartbeat.

All we know is the risk remains, and in this respect nothing has really changed since September 2008 with one key exception.  The banking system has been guaranteed by governments implicitly since 2008 (explicitly in the case of Ireland) and this guarantee is the only thread holding it all together.  That is why the US in particular is so keen to ensure maximum liquidity for banks (Quantitative Easing).

Why does it still feel that all we are doing is postponing inevitable tough decisions.

Written by Colin Henderson

December 12, 2010 at 15:44

The real reason for maintaining artificially low interest rates – and what banks can do


A remarkable (if hard to read) piece from Martin Wolf highlights the underlying reason that artificially low interest rates are essential to prevent “uncontrolled collapse .. mass bankruptcy”

Why we have to live with low interest rates | ft.com – Martin Wolf

The deepest question is whether current policy risks generating huge disturbances in future. As both Ms Altmann and Mr Smithers note, encouraging spending by raising asset prices evidently risks creating another round of what Austrian economists label “malinvestment”. Credit may also surge, once more, generating another round of irresponsible behaviour in the financial sector and ultimately another wave of financial and economic crises, quite possibly in emerging economies. It would be foolish to ignore those evident risks.

Yet it would be just as foolish to ignore the just as pressing present dangers. Today, the UK and a number of other economies, including the US, are both excessively leveraged and have weak financial sectors. The low interest rate policy is designed to prevent an uncontrolled collapse of this mountain of leverage into mass bankruptcy and, instead, allow debt to be paid down and the financial system to return to health more gradually.

Thus, we have to choose between low interest rates on current assets or better returns on what would soon be shrunken assets: with higher rates, house prices would fall further, unemployment would rise, more loans would default and banks would fall back into difficulties. Ms Altmann argues that the bubble economy was partly an illusion. So, then, must be a big part of the financial claims on which savers now depend.

The question becomes whether this approach will prevent such events or will merely introduce delay.

Relevance to Bankwatch:

Martin is as close to the ‘powers that be’ as anyone.  The fact that there is a low interest rate policy indicates that it is temporary in nature with en eventual end.  This is where banks should come in.  When that end occurs obviously interest costs will rise and there will be people in a problem.  Banks if they were smart and thinking about their customers and also their own future bad debts, should be migrating loan products away from credit cards and lines of credit towards amortised loans.  This would take advantage of the low interest environment to pay down debt.  The alternative is to require customers to pay down debt when rates are higher – that hardly sounds like a smart alternative. 

Written by Colin Henderson

December 10, 2010 at 23:44

Black Swan events revisited – gas pipelines


This has to be one of those ‘say what?’ posts.  A couple of weeks ago we had that deadly explosion in San Bruno near San Francisco caused by a gas pipe explosion of some variety.  So now in the interests of transparency PG&E have been required to release details of any pipes that are considered potentially dangerous or requiring attention. Maps included.

Well if you focus in on the #44 on the map, there is an 18’ foot segment near Menlo Park that is being ‘reviewed’.

Just another consideration in crisis and black swan planning I guess  :-/

PG&E Planning

Segment(s): DREG4197, segment 801, Mile Points 0.00 – 0.00

Footage: 18′

Factor: Overall

Description: PG&E is conducting an engineering review of 18 feet of pipe near Dunbarton St. and Donahoe St. in Menlo Park. Based on this review, PG&E will determine whether any repair or replacement is warranted.

menlo_park_gas

Written by Colin Henderson

September 20, 2010 at 23:09

Posted in Banking Strategy

The value of patience | Haldane BofE


This is a remarkable paper from Andrew Haldane at the Bank of England.  There are lessons and direction here for everyone and it is not as dry as one might expect.  It is the more remarkable because it addresses human behavior and relates to economic context.  Not your typical Central Bank speech.  Lessons from Asia are being learned.

The most amazing for me is the HFT (high frequency trading) stat about Accenture in bold.

A few quotes to whet your appetite.

  • Take happiness. Studies have shown that happy people save more and spend less. Happy people also take longer to make decisions and expect a longer life. In short, they are patient.
  • Just as patience can self-generate, so too can impatience. And while patience generates self-improving cycles, its alter ego can create self-destructive cycles. Addiction is the classic self-destructive cycle. Drugs and alcohol chemically alter the balance of the double-self, increasing the value of instant gratification. This shortens time horizons, increasing further the value of instant gratification in a downward spiral. Unless arrested, this unfulfilling equilibrium becomes self-fulfilling.
  • John Maynard Keynes. He quipped: “markets can remain irrational for longer than you or I can remain solvent”.
  • By the time of the stock market crash in 1987, the average duration of US equity holdings had fallen to under 2 years. By the turn of the century, it had fallen below one year. By 2007, it was around 7 months. Impatience is mounting.
  • A decade ago, the execution interval for HFTs (high-frequency traders) was seconds. Advances in technology mean today’s HFTs operate in milli- or micro-seconds. Tomorrow’s may operate in nano-seconds.
  • HFT firms are believed to account for more than 70% of all trading volume in US equities
  • HFT is believed to account for between 5 and 10% of Asian equity volumes. This evolution of trading appears already to have had an effect on financial market dynamics. On 6 May 2010, the price of more than 200 securities fell by over 50% between 2.00pm and 2.45pm.32 At 2.47pm, Accenture shares traded for around 7 seconds at a price of 1 cent, a loss of market value close to 100%. No significant economic or political news was released during this period.
  • So disliking goods price inflation and liking asset price inflation suggests a potential time-inconsistency in preferences. It is leaving as a bequest for your children the mortgage but not the house.

Written by Colin Henderson

September 2, 2010 at 22:10

The fragility of the banking system – the final 2 days in the life of Wachovia in 2008


There is a statement today …

Statement of John Corston, Acting Deputy Director, Complex Financial Institution Branch, Division of Supervision and Consumer Protection, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation on Systemically Important Institutions and the Issue of "Too Big To Fail"

that contains some very interesting facts, and side from he bureaucratic commentary there is a real sense of incredulity that this is how big banks are managed.

The overall message is excruciating detail is one of rationalising insufficient regulatory oversight existed to permit the FDIC to adequately monitor the situation.  It describes the nature of onsite examiners at FI’s with greater that $10 Bn in assets (news to me) and how they were able to determine in 2008 with limited information that Wachovia was deteriorating do to increased bad debts but also doubts about derivatives which were being traded not as a hedge but for house benefit.

No surprises so far, and sounds like a regulator.  Then despite the bureaucracy no sooner than 11 + days before the demise of Wachovia, FDIC got excited that there was a problem despite earlier warnings.

In early September 2008, the FDIC became increasingly concerned with the liquidity condition of Wachovia. During the week of September 15th, following the Lehman bankruptcy, Wachovia experienced significant deposit outflows totaling approximately $8.3 billion, representing a mix of deposit types, but primarily large commercial accounts. On September 23rd, senior executives and staff of the FDIC met to discuss our elevated concerns with the institution, specifically noting liquidity concerns including considerable contingent funding risk and increasingly negative market views on the firm. The institution’s marginal and weakening financial condition made it vulnerable to this negative market perception.

This is the point where the detective work goes from years to minutes in detail.  Early September 2008, FDIC met with Wachovia executive regarding ‘elevated concerns’.

Liquidity pressures on Wachovia increased the evening of September 25th when two regular Wachovia counterparties declined to lend to the firm.2 Since the institution was a net seller of Federal Funds this signal was not viewed by the OCC as a catastrophic development. As discussed in the next section, the failure of WaMu was announced late in the evening on September 25th. As of the morning of Friday, September 26, the OCC indicated to the FDIC that Wachovia’s liquidity position remained manageable. During the day, however, market acceptance of Wachovia’s liabilities ceased as the company’s stock plunged, credit default swap spreads widened sharply, and many counterparties advised that they would require collateralization on any transactions with the bank.

So now over a 2 day period from Sept 23rd to Sept 25th Wachovia encounters counterparties to their commercial paper that will no longer lend to Wachovia, yet the OCC (Treasury) signaled all remains well.

Wachovia’s situation worsened as deposit outflows on Friday (26th) accelerated to approximately $5.7 billion, $1.1 billion in asset-back commercial paper and tri-party repurchase agreements could not be rolled over, and $3.2 billion in contingent funding was required on Variable Rate Demand Notes.

Then the final kicker.

On the morning of September 26th, before U.S. financial markets opened for the day, the FDIC Board approved both the systemic risk exception and the acquisition of Wachovia by Citigroup. This proposed acquisition included government assistance in the form of an asset guaranty on a portion of Wachovia’s assets in exchange for $12 billion in Citigroup preferred stock and warrants. The terms of the asset guaranty called for Citigroup to absorb the first $42 billion in losses on a $312 billion segment of Wachovia’s assets with the FDIC covering any additional losses above that amount.

… …

In the end, the Citigroup transaction was superseded by an unassisted bid by Wells Fargo to acquire Wachovia that was announced on Friday, October 3rd.

Relevance to Bankwatch:

The moral of this saga is the speed that a bank can disappear.  On September 23rd FDIC determined Wachovia was in serious trouble and September 26th Wachovia’s fate was sealed.  The speed of this is astounding and certainly speaks to the inability of the system to determine earlier that a problem was brewing.  But the FDIC already ranked Wachovia as being in trouble earlier in September (“FDIC became increasingly concerned with the liquidity condition”).  Surely some earlier activity could have occurred, especially since even this blog knew there was a systemic mortgage problem 18 months before Sept 2008!

For me this really speaks to the fragility of the banking system and the banks.  It also speaks to the lack of teeth that the regulators have, or are willing to exercise.  Its an obvious fact that banks operate at the convenience of government.  No legitimate enterprise could otherwise operate with debt to equity of 20 :1 +/- and survive. This occurs by virtue of the money markets and direct connection with the central bank who effectively manage the liquidity positions of banks. 

So long as that is the system there must be better co-ordination of information with the regulator so that banks are kept honest and do not get into the kind of house trading that made Wachovia a high risk market maker rather than a market participant.  This participation is high risk market activity not associated with basic banking is why Wachovia deserved to disappear.  The flip side is that banks create sufficient capital depth that they can operate independently.

Written by Colin Henderson

September 1, 2010 at 21:40

“Islamic finance is a medicine for economy” | Linar Yakupov in Tatarstan


I continue to be fascinated by product design in western banks and the sheer lack of innovation despite a clear permanently different business and consumer environment.  By innovation I don’t mean higher or lowers fees and interest rates.  What about the substantive design of products? 

The tile of this post is a provocative statement I located at Islamic Finance Expert that will likely meet mostly deaf ears in the US however when we dig beneath the surface , there is merit to the statement when we appreciate it speaks to the methodologies and product design employed by banks to fund business and retail loans.  So US readers, please bear with me.

The western capitalist and financial approach is naturally designed to be one of animosity.  It is a highly one-sided affair whereby the debtor has only one approach available to them which is maintain all the terms and conditions of the debt.  In contrast the creditor owns all the terms and conditions and is always in charge, particularly when the circumstances change and those new circumstances always add to the rights of the creditor.  Whereas there is no change in circumstances that could arise whereby the debtors position could be advantaged over the creditor. 

The opposing capitalist argument would be that positive changes in asset values or profits from business ventures all accrue to the debtor, with no advantage to the creditor.

The very design of this structure is designed to become animus immediately upon a change in circumstances.

What is it about Islamic Finance that it different?

The source of the statement in the title of this post came from someone I was listening to on BBC news.  Linar Yakupov is a financier in the central Asian country of Tatarstan, a state that is part of the Russian federation.  Most Tatars are Sunni Muslims.  The point of the BBC piece was to point out the dramatic shift in commerce here since the opening of Russia and the dramatic increase in importing and consumption of Halal foodstuffs.

The piece continued on to note the increase in consumption of Shariah or Islamic Finance – the financial version of Halal. 

I have noted here before some of the aspects of Islamic Finance back in the 2006 – 2008 period, and it fell off my radar during the credit crisis.  But my approach back then was merely noting the demographic shifts in western countries and the opportunity that created for western banks.  I see now this was a limited view of the opportunity.

Is the economy really that bad that we need innovation in product design?

This is a new normal.  I just do not see how traditional approaches to financing can be the only means to an end in this environment. 

The newer and deeper message promoted by Yakupov and others is that Islamic Finance is a better alternative and one that could navigate the gyrations of capitalist economies particularly as we look out at probably 10 – 20 years of economic re-engineering caused by:

  • western business & consumer deleveraging and the impact on asset values
  • unemployment absorption & geographic reshaping (think Detroit & Pittsburg)

These shifts are enormous and US, Canada, UK and Europe are all being impacted.  History tells us that post crisis periods create genuine industrial and business innovation.  This occurred in 1870’s and 1930’s.  Richard Florida points out that there is nothing like severe downturns to generate innovation in The Great Reset.  The 1870’s created heavy industry and railroads.  This was a dramatic change.  Innovation such as the assembly line and large factories really took hold post 1930 and the resultant consumer boom lasted until now based on continual growth.  Those innovations in the 1870’s and 1930’s were more than simply the equivalent of a new web model.  They involved systemic shifts in commerce and business.

Financial design worked well so long as everything grew reasonably steadily and bank product design followed along and supported that path.  But what happens now that that bubble is burst.  Does current product design support consumers and business effectively in times of continual doubt and the working out of structural unemployment and the new value of assets particularly housing which have average new price variances across the US of incredible proportions.  (Saginaw-Saginaw Township North, MI $59K to San Jose $630K).  The important note is that the average prices have taken a new form as industry and business changes produced dramatic unemployment where economies were strong prior to the economic breakdown.  I also note that the realtor.org link where I located the average prices above notes NA for Detroit.  Seems a bit ostrich like of them.  Trulia.com is closer to the mark displaying homes in the between < $28K up to >$65K ranges.

It is hard to imagine how banks can operate rationally with such shifts occurring.  The results are neither good for banks nor consumers.  Banks will simply exit the Detroits of the world and that sticks with the one-side model referred to above.

Some specifics on Islamic finance that could work for the post crisis world

Interview with Linar Yakupov.

Principles of investment that support local and infrastrucure: 

  • Firstly, according to Shari’ah principles – TIIC doesn’t participate in business connecting with gaming, alcohol and pork production etc. Yet another important moment, to which I would like to draw attention is the fact that TIIC will maximally distance itself from the oil patch. Generally, the investment company will be the additional lokomotive for the diversification of our economy – not only in Tatarstan but in other regions of Russia. 60% of investment will be for our Republic, the remaining is planned to be invested in projects of other regions of Russia.

Helping people help themselves:

  • In the Halal Industrial Park the facilities for successful completion of the cycle are provided in order to solve this problem – from the farmer to the consumer. HIP will unite the whole circulation of production flow: from the small and medium-sized businesses’ employers, engaging in manufacturing, to the consumer. Linova-Trade, the special company promoting the production of HIP, has been setted up yet. It will start the activity from the next year.

The main point:

  • Moreover, exactly the slant to the speculative instruments in the traditional finance sphere led to the grave crisis. On that score Islamic finance and banking, or ethical banks, how they started to be called nowadays, don’t allow to produce speculation and are turned out to be a sort of  anti-crisis instrument. We don’t say that Islamic finances are the panacea, but they could be the revitalizing factor for the whole economy. If this objective implements, we will be very pleased.

Sharing of risk is a core aspect within Islamic finance from International Shari’ah Research Academy for Islamic Finance (ISRA).

The nature of contracts, which requires that risk be shared by the contracting parties, exemplifies the principle of fairness and justice in Islamic Finance. For instance the partnership contract (musharakah) specifies that all the parties that share the capital in a particular venture will share the profit in proportion to their capital contributions. On the other hand, if there is any loss, all have to share the loss according to the portion of the capital contributed. This equity-based contract will also help to generate greater economic activities through the principle of profit-and-loss sharing; and the clearly defined risk-and-profit-sharing characteristic serves as an additional built-in mechanism to avoid any disputes and economic uncertainties.

Relevance to Bankwatch:

We are in changeable economic times, and everyone expects that to last for many years to come.  Today on Fareed Zakaria his topic was ideas as he seeks to understand what it will take to operate and thrive in this new world.  He interviews Robert Kaplan, Clay Shirky and Richard Florida.  (It is an hour that knocks it out of the park if the future interests you)

What struck me about the methodology espoused by Islamic Finance is not the adoption of Islam or Halal.  Rather it is the adoption of sound principles that avoid the bad and focus on the good (Umair would like that).  It is not a rhetoric argument to argue that gaming and alcohol business will not generate the innovation required to move us through these times.  Rather what struck me is the focus on non-speculative core business which in the case of Tatarstan happens to he Halal but there is no reason these finance principles cannot be applied to core businesses that operate in western economies. 

A core aspect of product redesign that banks can learn from Islamic finance is shared risk.  What if mortgages made during the period 2003 – 2007 had a proportion based on shared risk and benefit.  This would have limited the home ATM phenomenon, speculation would have been reduced, and frankly less risks would have been taken.  A product designed this way where the bank shared in the appreciation on homes would have had no interest in 2006, but what of such a product in the 2010 – 2020 timeframe?

Back in 2008 I noted the proposal by Niall Ferguson for a Jubilee as the only solution because he believes the deleveraging necessary is too large to absorb.  Jubilee means (amongst other things) debt forgiveness and Niall noted the many times this has been used in history to get past a bubble.  Islamic finance uses shared risk as a method of producing a softer landing than absolute debt forgiveness but achieves similar results.

It just strikes me that there are serious lessons to be learned from the world of Islamic Finance that can be applied to genuine innovation of western financial products that would work not just for Muslims for for western consumers, business and economies. 

Written by Colin Henderson

August 29, 2010 at 12:20

Ontario Canada is becoming the new California, and not in a good way


Canada continues to be held in high regard throughout the ongoing crisis but the devil lies in the details.  Ontario which represents about 40% of Canadian GDP is beginning to look like Nero … fiddling while Rome burns. 

Even at the Canada level the savings rate is going in the opposite direction of western economies, and adding to debt, ie not saving.  This perplexing environment is hard for Canadian Banks to formulate a credible strategy around.

The Boeckh Investment Letter

While Canada has deservedly had a good ride in recent years particularly through the global recession, due to strong Federal Government finances and a strong balance sheet, all is not quite as rosy as meets the eye. Chart 16 shows that, while the U.S. savings rate has gone from 2% to 6.5% since 2007, the Canadian savings rate, after a brief rally, has collapsed to about 2 1/2%.

Canadian households have continued to add to their debt, oblivious to the changed world environment. House prices rose to new highs during the recovery, while U.S. house prices are down over 30% from their peak.  Moreover, while federal debt levels and trends are good by world standards, provincial debts are disastrous. There is even some talk of Ontario going the way of California. Its per capita public debt is ten times that of California whose bonds are rated slightly less risky than Croatia’s.

image

Technorati Tags: ,,

Written by Colin Henderson

August 27, 2010 at 17:27

%d bloggers like this: