11 Dec 2008

Spending no solution to debt problem

Jim Rogers - in-depth Bloomberg interview. In case you also wonder if spending more is the right way to reduce the debt mountain.

28 Nov 2008

Alan Greenspan - long on Words, short on Insight

That is what he produced for years, and Media and Investors were hanging on his every uttering. It went so far that the gullible Commentariat even tried to get a glimpse of his suitcase when he walked from the Fed to Congress and tried to devine what the 'Sage' might intend to say based on correlation with previous events.
We are grateful for this gem of a quote we found on the Marketoracle: I think further comment is not required.
“Innovation has brought about a multitude of new products, such as subprime loans and niche credit programs for immigrants… With these advances in technology, lenders have taken advantage of credit scoring models and other techniques for efficiently extending credit to a broader spectrum of consumers… Where once more marginal applicants would simply have been denied credit, lenders are now able to quite efficiently judge the risk posed by individual applicants and to price that risk appropriately. These improvements have led to rapid growth in subprime mortgage lending,… fostering constructive innovation that is both responsive to market demand and beneficial to consumers.”-- Alan Greenspan, April 2005

Alan Greenspan - long on Words, short on Insight

That is what he produced for years, and Media and Investors were hanging on his every uttering. It went so far that the gullible Commentariat even tried to get a glimpse of his suitcase when he walked from the Fed to Congress and tried to devine what the 'Sage' might intend to say based on correlation with previous events.
We are grateful for this gem of a quote we found on the Marketoracle: I think further comment is not required.
“Innovation has brought about a multitude of new products, such as subprime loans and niche credit programs for immigrants… With these advances in technology, lenders have taken advantage of credit scoring models and other techniques for efficiently extending credit to a broader spectrum of consumers… Where once more marginal applicants would simply have been denied credit, lenders are now able to quite efficiently judge the risk posed by individual applicants and to price that risk appropriately. These improvements have led to rapid growth in subprime mortgage lending,… fostering constructive innovation that is both responsive to market demand and beneficial to consumers.”-- Alan Greenspan, April 2005

26 Nov 2008

Rating Agencies - only radical reform will do

An interesting interview with the CEO of Assured Guaranty (Bankstocks.com, 24 Nov 2008) reminded me that - despite all the hot air from regulators, politicians and industry practitioners - the problem of rating agencies and their role in the financial markets is as far from solution as ever.
The Number 1, 2 and 3 Priority must be to prohibit the issuers to pay the rating agencies. That will introduce a major reality check and clip their wings substantially - apart from helping to prevent more abuse.
90% of the ratings process can be based on numbers anyway and with the ease of access to number-crunching software most investors should be able to do most of the research themselves. After all, that is what they get the management fees for in the first place and any self-respecting investment institution has a credit research department in place already to do this task.
Credit research basically follows a 'margin of safety' approach. So calculating various key rations should be a great first step to filter out suitable investments. Subjective Analysis belongs more to the equity analysts and investors.
Most current reform proposals are just a waste of time, for example registering agencies in Europe - a favourite pastime for the Commissars in the EU and their hangers-on. It suits their Stalinist mindset.

22 Nov 2008

Paulson as market indicator

Paulson - A Bumbling Giant - every time he speaks it seems to pay to short the market

Dangers of Derivatives

Martin Mayer wrote this article in 1999 and it shows that the risks associates with derivatives was not only foreseen by Warren Buffet. Now it is up to the regulators to make sure that this cannot happen again.

19 Nov 2008

Iceland to get $10 Billion in bail-Out loans - who is to benefit?

Only four weeks ago we learned - already in disbelief about that number - that the IMF would give a $2 Billion bail-out package to Iceland. Latest announcements in the press have - again - raised this number to an even more staggering 10 (!!) billion US Dollars. We are not surprised by anything anymore. Who said that you could never go wrong underestimating the intelligence of civil servants (especially when they spend other people's money)?
Iceland has a population of just 320,000 inhabitants. Now that the IMF has generously decided to give a $6 Billion loan to the country it is worth putting these numbers in perspective: a simple calculation tells you that every man, woman and child in the country will have to bear the burden of about $20,000 in debt which translates to around $75,000 for the average family.
Just imagine - if the United States would be the recipient of this bailout it would translate into the staggering sum of $6 Trillion - that is $6,000,000,000,000 for those not yet too familiar with trillions - as the population of the US is about 1000times larger.
Anna Schwartz just raised serious doubts about the US rescue package - in particular about its transparency and efficacy. We agree with her and would raise the same question: who really benefits from the Iceland loan? Does it benefit the country or is it supposed to bail out imprudent lenders that advanced more loans to the country than it could ever have serviced in the light of level-headed credit appraisals?

10 Nov 2008

Hats off to Peter Wuffli

We salute Peter Wuffli at UBS for turning down a Sfr 12 million bonus entitlement out of solidarity with the bank's staff and shareholders. Would it not be nice if Chuck Prince and Stan O'Neal showed similar contrition?

27 Oct 2008

Lack of Disclosure

'There's clearly not enough disclosure to show if [the policymakers] are approaching the problem in a systematic manner or are playing favourites' (Anna Schwartz, Barron's, 27 Oct 2008)

Values in Banking

'Banks must rediscover their Victorian values' (William Rees-Mogg, The Times, 27 Oct 2008)

100% retention bonuses for Brokers

It seems strange that BofA is ready to offer substantial retention bonuses for the retail brokers at Merrill Lynch. Apart from the image-problem that this generosity might create in the present political climate one has to ask the following questions: where would all these brokers move to if they would not receive a retention bonus of this magnitude? Would clients be comfortable moving their funds in these uncertain times? Does Merrill Lynch not have any adequate no-compete clauses in its terms of employment that prevent the brokers from taking their clients with them? And if the financial advisers get these juicy retention payments, what will their customers thing most of whom probably have lost a lot of money?

26 Oct 2008

Are Banks on the way to become Utilities?

This weekend's reports that some major international banks may be interested in joining the bidding for Gatwick Airport here in the UK raises an interesting question: will the regulators allow banks to put their equity capital at risk in proprietary investments that are basically unrelated to their main business?
The lesson of the past 14 months should be that banks (and their cousins, in particular the major investment banks) have strayed too far from their raison d'etre which is intermediation in the credit or securities markets.
Instead, managements have pursued a strategy of gambling their capital on ever-rising asset values in a variety of asset classes - be it in property or 'private' equity.
If the banking and securities industry is to be put on a more stable footing it will be necessary to for both sectors to behave more utilities. If banking provides the basic 'plumbing' for a market economy the similarity between the banking and utility sector should be obvious.
26-Oct-08

20 Oct 2008

Who calls the regulators to account?

'When the going gets tough, the tough in commerce, industry and particularly finance get going -- fast as their corporate jets will carry them to Washington, begging to be rescued' (Alan Abelson, Barron's, 20 Oct 2008) Lehman executives served with subpoenas - but when will the regulators be called to account?

Hank Paulson under fire

Paulson is an 'incompetent surgeon who continues to apply bandages to a haemophiliac' (Philip Manduca, ECU Group)

Double Standards of Regulators

'When the going gets tough, the tough in commerce, industry and particularly finance get going -- fast as their corporate jets will carry them to Washington, begging to be rescued' (Alan Abelson, Barron's, 20 Oct 2008). Lehman executives are served with subpoenas - but when will the regulators be called to account?

18 Oct 2008

Employment Outlook Bleak

When even Goldman Sachs has to cut its workforce by 10 pct the prospects for firms that are less successful must be truly bleak

15 Oct 2008

London Financial Centre

'The international competitiveness of Britain's banking industry is being destroyed' (Tim Congdon, The Times, 15 Oct 2008)

UK Banking competitiveness under threat

'The international competitiveness of Britain's banking industry is being destroyed' (Tim Congdon, The Times, 15 Oct 2008)

Lessons from the Credit Crunch

It is too early to fully understand how it could happen that the World's Financial System got close to a global meltdown during the past 12 months. Some blame greedy bankers, others lay the blame squarely at the foot of the (US) consumers. Institutional Investors also appear entangled as they allowed managements too much leeway and even egged them on to pursue ever-more risky expansion plans. However, we tend to think that regulators - and their paymasters the politicians - may have to take a large part of the blame.
Unfortunately they are the party that is the least likely to bear the full cost of their mistakes. Shareholders have to suffer from dramatically shrunken share prices, scores of bankers have lost their jobs, or are about to in the near future. Bureaucrats are happily engaged in the blame game and are joined by academics and media people who often are also less than objective in their judgement.

14 Oct 2008

Impact of taking the King's Shilling

It is too early to assess the impact of the various bank rescue packages on the future structure of the banking and securities industry. The obvious inconsistencies, however, will put a serious spanner in the works for all those firms that will take the King's Shilling. While we are not condoning the excesses of the financial service industry we think that the way the regulators handled the developing crisis since the summer of 2007 was disgraceful and added fuel to the fire instead of containing it.

13 Oct 2008

Inept Regulators

Every Age has his prophet, but 'Houdini' misses the key point: the Credit Crunch is a bush-fire where inept regulators allowed a bank-run to develop.

12 Oct 2008

Iceland gets $2 Bio bailout from IMF

But who bails out homeowners pushed out of their homes?

10 Oct 2008

Mortgage Reform - one aspect overlooked by George Soros

While I agree with most points that Soros makes today (Wall Street Journal, 10 Oct 2008) I think that he should have focused more on one important aspect: there have to be limits on the amount mortgage providers are allowed to lend against property. In previous times it was just inconceivable that anyone - let alone 24 year olds barely out of school - was able to borrow more than a conservative amount (60-70%) against the value of a property. In addition there were strict limits on the multiple of income and this income was also much more carefully documented. These lending policies would be simple to monitor by senior bank management and regulators alike - no need to rocket scientists or highly paid risk managers! It would also be appropriate if similar regulations would be applied to commercial property lending where (near) 100% mortgages were also available to persuasive property 'tycoons' during the height of the asset bubble.

7 Oct 2008

Short Selling - Argument against

Several Hedge Funds and their industry representative today make thinly-veiled threats that they might consider to move their business away from London if the ban on short-selling the shares of financial service companies is not lifted soon. We had quite a lively reaction from a number of readers and business partners. They argue that this may mean that national regulators would let themselves be pushed into a 'race to the bottom' in terms of regulatory standards. The consequence might then be that international regulations will be introduced to avoid this. In addition, one correspondent pointed out that the argument about the pros and cons of short selling could only be resolved by a detailed forensic analysis of all the transactions involving the shares of banks during the past 14 months. This would have to include equity and credit derivatives and all related off-balance sheet instruments.

5 Oct 2008

Maturity Mismatch - obvious starting point for reform

Regulators are running around like head-less chicken, applying completely arbitrary principles when deciding on an ad-hoc basis what to do in each individual problem case and therefore just fanning the flames of the credit bushfire.
A key feature of the ongoing banking crisis is the fact that institutions that may well have balance sheets that in the long run would turn out to be more than viable are facing the equivalent of a 'run on the bank'. Is Hypo Real Estate, to pick just one example, really ready for the knackers yard or is the fact that it cannot roll over short-term financing nothing but a short-term liquidity problem?
Whichever way this sorry saga ends one simple lesson must be learned: it is just not enough to force banks to finance themselves if possible with more genuine retail deposits but they must be made to finance their assets with liabilities that are matching by maturity. Only small deviations from this principle should be allowed. Monitoring this should be a relatively simple task for regulators and therefore eminently practicable. It just is lunacy to finance long-term mortgage lending with funds raised in the Inter-Bank market on an overnight basis.

4 Oct 2008

Inept Regulators allow bank run

Every Age has his prophet, but 'Houdini' misses the key point: the Credit Crunch is a bush-fire where inept regulators allowed a bank-run to develop.

30 Sep 2008

London and New York after the Credit Crunch

Both Cities may well remain the dominant financial centres after the credit crunch has been consigned to history. The common language will continue to be the language of commerce for decades, the financial, legal and accounting brains will not decamp en masse, but the shine will be less intense than before. Just looking at a financial portal in India - a country that we know very little about - the other day brought home the fact that in that country alone forces are at work that will create a marketplace that will dwarf most other domestic markets in the near future. Who will be a big beneficiary? While London may well be one of them we would also give good chances to Singapore and Dubai as they are much nearer to the action and possess more cultural affinity. In a similar vein China and Russia will develop internal markets that will pull business away from the old centres and in Europe we can envisage a multi-polar network of regional centres that can stand their own against the gravitational pull of London and New York. Property Developers take note: with communication costs at rock bottom you should not bank of continued expansion in these two cities.

29 Sep 2008

Short Selling - Argument in favour

Arturo Bris argues (Wall Street Journal, 29 Sept 2008) that the ban on short sales of financial shares should be lifted. We think that the argument is not convincing. The real question that would have to be asked is: what would have happened to the shares of financial companies if there would have been no short selling? The level of short interest that Bris quotes in the article is truly enormous (19.1 % of outstanding shares in March 2008!). We just cannot accept that this amount of short selling did not have a substantial influence on the level of share prices of banks and investment dealers.
That the market in shares where short selling has been banned after the Lehman collapse is now less liquid should not surprise anyone. It is only to be expected - and maybe desired - that there will be less trading when short sellers are out of the market. They are likely to be the most active market participants - some of them are reputed to have turned over their portfolio up to two times (!!) EVERY DAY.
For an interesting detailed rejoinder to Bris' argument you may wish to read a post on www.deepcapture.com. The blog also exposes the incomprehensible - not to stay stupid - attitude of the SEC with respect to abusive short selling.

28 Sep 2008

Lenders still don't get it

InBev is borrowing $45 billion to finance its $52 billion acquisition of Anheuser-Busch. How can the banks justify this sort of lending given what is happening in the credit markets? One has to wonder on what planet management lives.

27 Sep 2008

Third Runway at Heathrow

Every time I see the expression 'City Grandee' I must cringe as it immediately produces the image of a worthy but not very effective person that may well be past his prime. The recent newspaper ad in favour of another runway at Heathrow Airport that was sponsored by an assortment of businesses created a similar effect. Worthy but way off mark. If the price mechanism rations traffic at Heathrow there should be more than enough capacity to cater for business passengers. In the age of higher fuel costs and limits on pollution there is no need to accommodate cut-price shopping flights to New York.

Credit is always scarce

With respect to the current credit crisis Ann Pettifor claims (Financial Times, 30 Sept 2008) that 'there are no intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of capital'. The quote is taken from Keynes' General Theory. The quote may make sense if read in context but it makes little sense when applied like this to offer a solution to the credit crisis. It just panders to the public's general desire for free - or nearly free - credit when the economic problem is just the opposite: allocation of scarce resources to their best use. Interestingly, when trying to find out more about the author we spotted that in 2006 she wrote a book entitled 'The coming First World Debt Crisis' - now that might be an interesting read!

Rational Lending reappears

Lenders refuse mortgages based on City bonuses. Is sanity finally returning to the property caroussel?

23 Sep 2008

Should Private Equity Funds be allowed to buy into Banks?

Desperate times call for desperate measures. That seems to be the thinking behind discussions whether or not it should be made easier for Private Equity (PE) firms in the US to invest in regulated banking firms.
But given the fact that Private Equity essentially is a way to generate returns through leveraged investing in assets it appears illogical to allow Private Equity players to invest in banks at the current time.
The present credit crisis has demonstrated that the banking sector is more than others dependent on the confidence of investors and depositors. Excessive leverage is one key factor that contributed to the current malaise in credit markets. If it would be a pre-condition for allowing Investors access to bank shares to invest on an un-leveraged basis how would they make money? How much could PE Investors improve the management and profitability of banks without recourse to financial engineering? Do they really have superior management skills to offer?
The ultimate investors in the private equity funds could easily invest directly in the shares of banks directly on an un-levered basis - and save themselves the high fees at the same time.
And how committed are Private Equity firms to their investments? Their 'funds' are constructed in such a way that each investment is held in a separate legal entity (often domiciled in offshore tax havens) which allows them to walk away at any moment from any investment that does not 'perform' as expected.

12 Sep 2008

Lehman: Short Raiders 1 : Regulators Nil

That is the score in the game of chicken played between the band of short sellers intent on pushing another Investment Bank over the brink and the regulators - in particular the SEC - who fiddle while Rome burns.
Last July the SEC imposed a ban on 'naked' short selling of bank shares which in our opinion was much too weak a measure given the pervasiveness of short selling and the fire power that the raiders have at their disposal. Naked short selling was illegal in any case, so to finally enforce it was just a pathetic gesture.
Financial Institutions are critically dependent on public trust as ALL banks would be bankrupt in a second if all depositors and creditors would demand repayment at any point in time. There was a time when short selling was limited to a small group of sophisticated investors and to market professionals such as NYSE specialists. Now this cottage industry has morphed into a monster that threatens the stability of whatever target the 'shorties' decide to take aim at.
Recent trading volumes in the shares of Lehman Brothers are so enormous that they cannot be simply the result of long-term shareholders deciding to sell. Activity in the shares is more akin to the frenetic buzz normally limited to betting shops. The SEC so far has failed to call an end to this and we fear that the taxpayer will have to pick up the bill when the music stops.
This shall not be construed to be a defense of the actions of Lehman management. That huge bets were made on property-related holdings is testimony to a serious lack of discipline on the part of top management.

15 Jul 2008

Wipe out Fannie Mae Equity and profit handsomely!

Anyone who still has doubts about the ability of the authorities to deal with the fall-out from the sub-prime credit crisis would have been convinced otherwise if he had the chance to watch Bill Ackman pontificating about his proposal to 'recapitalise' Fannie Mae.
It is amazing that CNBC gives a fund manager who happily admits that he is short the common stock and subordinated bonds the platform on which to promote his financial self-interest at a time when the American Banking System (and British?) experiences a severe crisis of confidence.
At least the FSA in the United Kingdom has made a first step towards the restoration of fair play in the markets by making the practice of short selling shares in companies that are in the process of a rights issue subject to (very weak and ineffective) disclosure rules.

Short Selling is a valid practice - but like any good thing it becomes a danger if carried to extremes. Temple Associates is a fervent proponent of Free Markets but this practice can now be turned into a 'weapon of financial mass destruction'. Short Selling in the good old days was confined to market professionals (Jobbers or Specialists) and maybe a few savvy speculators who had very small amounts of money to play with. Now Short Sellers can muster billions, even tens of billions and as a consequence the practice has to be seen in a fresh light.
Short Sellers can initiate a vicious cycle and cause a downward spiral in confidence which is very difficult to reverse. Of course, where there is smoke there is fire. But that does not mean that a business that can be nursed back to health should be pushed over the brink just to satisfy the greed of a few market players.

9 Jul 2008

Does the FSA have the right priorities?

We were recently trying to find the site where the FSA publishes the Disclosure Reports about Short Positions in the shares of companies that are staging a capital increase. The keyword 'disclosure' returns a staggering amount of entries from its website, more than a mere mortal can digest in a lifetime. But one item caught our attention. It is named 'Disclosure Requirements for the Accounts of Working Men's Clubs' (dated 4 July 2008) and runs to a full seven pages.
We did not know whether to cry or laugh about this gem that was penned by a faceless Civil Servant. With the whole structure of British Banking teetering on the brink, - do the regulators really have nothing better to do than concern themselves with the affairs of Working Men's Clubs? (by the way, we never met anyone who was a member of such a club and never heard that any such Club was causing major problems for the financial structure of the Kingdom).
Anyone who suffers too much stress in the markets and wants to relax for a moment can read the details on the FSA Website, Ref R/FS/AR 41D (and lest I forget, there are Notes attached!)

30 Jun 2008

Compensation: what now for cash vs stock split?

Some recent commentators have predicted that in the future the Securities Industry will pay a higher proportion of total compensation in the form of shares and options in order to stimulate a more risk-conscious behaviour pattern among staff. While this may sound plausible it does not necessarily make sense for the majority of employees in a securities firm.
Why should the government bond trader whose P&L is clearly visible at the end of each day and whose book does not contain any long-term risks be paid in instalments that only become due many years after he has produced the goods?The recent - and ongoing collapse - in the share prices of most brokerage firms and banks is in the majority hitting employees who did not have any influence on the poor decisions made by the senior management of those firms. To add insult to injury one could say that the top executives who have been asked to leave have done much better than those employees that are left behind and have to suffer the consequences of a rapid decline in the value of their company stock or share options that the ineptness of the departing senior managers has caused.

28 Feb 2008

Kerviel Case: Where has all the money gone?

In all the excitement about the huge losses made by Soc Gen's Monsieur Kerviel and the bank's management one thing never gets mentioned: someone out there has made a whopping big profit out of all of this. Futures in particular are the ultimate zero sum game and where there is a loss there always is a profit. This is no consolation for Societe Generale and its shareholders who are left holding the proverbial bag but it should calm the nerves of politicians, economists and other commentators. Economically not much has happened except that a substantial sum of money has passed hands. Society as a whole is not poorer as it would be if the same sum of money would have been spent building pyramids - or steel plants that turn out to be surplus to requirement once they are finished.

18 Feb 2008

Northern Rock - two key questions that need to be answered

The first question - and it has hardly been receiving attention in all the discussions of the Northern Rock saga that we are aware of - is the question of how it can be that in a so-called 'democracy' emergency legislation can be passed where the executive and legislative branches of government are in collusion and decide to 'nationalize' private property. The emergency support that the German Government has just decided to give to IKB Deutsche Industriebank in Germany (thanks to an obliging taxpayer that has no say in these arbitrary spending decisions) is just a less blatant form of nationalisation (where private wealth is taken away from its rightful owners and spent by politicians to spend on their favored constituencies).

The second question is again an indictment of Government, more specifically the quasi-governmental agencies that masquerade as 'banks' and are more commonly known as 'Central' Banks. In recent months untold (literally) billions of confetti money have been spent by these curious 'banks' in providing liquidity to the World's Banking system. No one will deny that Northern Rock used the leeway that is given by banking regulations to an extent that could with some justice be described as imprudent. But this is no excuse to provide all other banks with liquidity but let this particular bank hang out to dry. This was the crucial decision (mistake?) taken by the authorities back last summer and that has to be the point of departure when assessing the correct compensation for the Northern Rock shareholders. It simply is not good enough to destroy a business first and then base compensation on the situation that has been created by one's actions.

4 Feb 2008

Non-Dom Taxes - Nail in the Coffin for London's City?

Ill-conceived taxes were instrumental in the development of the Eurocurrency and bond markets during the late 1960s and early 1970s. First the American Government in its wisdom introduced the so-called Interest Equalisation Tax in 1963 in order to make it more expensive for non-US borrowers to access the US capital market. Then the Swiss authorities levied penal tax rates on transactions involving Eurobonds and other securities. As a consequence, most business involving international securities decamped to London during the 1970s. Now Gordon Brown has decided to make his own mark on the history of the Euromarkets by introducing a special levy on foreigners involved in the international capital markets. Not only is the per-capital levy of £30000 per person highly arbitrary and unfair but the detailed regulations introduced are so complicated and wide-ranging as to provide the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. The London City should take note that in the intervening years the authorities in Switzerland and the USA have learned a lesson or two and that financial institutions - once gone from the City of London - are unlikely ever to return again.