This post is a guest contribution by Niels Jensen*, chief executive partner of London-based Absolute Return Partners.
Many of today’s policy proposals start from the view that “greed” and “incompetence” and “poor risk assessment” are the ultimate source of what went wrong. In fact, they were not the true cause at all. Moreover, even if they had been, it is fatuous to think that we will now create a post-crash generation of bankers and traders who are not greedy, much less a new generation of quants who will be able to assess and manage risks much better than “the idiots” who have brought us to the current abyss. Greed cannot be exorcised. Nor can the inherent inability of any quants to determine the “true” probability distributions of all-important events whose true probabilities of occurrence can never be assessed in the first place.”
Woody Brock, SED Profile, December 2008
Policy mistakes “en masse”
The last few weeks have had a profound effect on my view of politicians (as if it wasn’t already dented). All this talk about capping salaries for senior bank executives is quite frankly ridiculous. It is Neanderthal politics performed by populist leaders. That Gordon Brown has fallen for it is hardly surprising but I am disappointed to see that Barack Obama couldn’t resist the temptation. The mob wants blood and our leaders are delivering in spades. The stark reality is that we are all guilty of the mess we are now in. For a while we were allowed to live out our dreams and who was there to stop us? Policy mistakes – very grave mistakes – permitted the situation to spin out of control. From the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank under the stewardship of Alan Greenspan being far too generous on interest rates to the British Chancellor of the Exchequer – who now happens to be our Prime Minister – advocating ‘Regulation Light’.
Policing must improve
If you really want to prevent a banking crisis of this magnitude from ever happening again, the focus should be on the way banks operate and not on how much they pay their staff. And, within that context, any discussion must start and end with how much leverage should be permitted. The French have actually caught onto that, but their narrow-mindedness has driven them to focus on hedge funds’ use of leverage which is only a tiny part of the problem. It is the gung ho strategy of banks which brought us down and which must be better policed. And guess what; if banks were better policed – and leverage restricted – then profits, even at the best of times, would be much smaller and there would be no need to regulate bankers’ compensation packages.
It is pathetic to watch our prime minister attacking the bonus arrangements of our banks when the UK Treasury, on his watch, spent £27 million pounds on bonuses last year as reward for delivering a public spending deficit of 4.5% of GDP at the peak of the economic cycle. Even my old mother understands that governments must deliver budget surpluses in good times, allowing them more flexibility to stimulate when the economy hits the wall. What Gordon Brown has done to UK public finances in recent years is nothing short of criminal.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the European banking industry. The following is not pretty reading. I have rarely, if ever, felt this apprehensive about the outlook. So, if the crisis has made you depressed already, don’t read any further. What is about to come, will make your heart sink.
More leverage in Europe
Let’s begin our journey by pointing out a regulatory ‘anomaly’ which has allowed European banks to take on much more leverage than their American colleagues and which now makes them far more vulnerable. In Europe, unlike in the US, it is only risk-weighted assets which matter to the regulators, not the total leverage ratio. European banks can therefore apply a lot more leverage than their US counterparties, provided they load their balance sheets with higher rated assets, and that is precisely what they have been doing.
That is fine as long as you buy what it says on the tin. But AAA is not always AAA as we have learned over the past 18 months. Asset securitisations such as CLOs proved very popular amongst European banks, partly because they offered very attractive returns and partly because Standard & Poors and Moodys were kind enough to rate many of them AAA despite the questionable quality of the underlying assets.
Now, as long as the economy chugs along, everything is dandy and the AAA-rated assets turn out to be precisely that. But we are not in dandy territory. Many asset securitisation programmes are in horse manure to their necks, so don’t be at all surprised if European banks have to swallow further losses once the full effect of the recession is felt across Europe. The two largest sources of asset securitisation programmes are corporate loans and credit cards. Senior secured loans are still marked at or close to par on many balance sheets despite the fact they trade around 70 in the markets. The credit card cycle is only beginning to turn now with significant losses expected later this year and in 2010-11.
Not much of a cushion left
Citibank has calculated that it would only take a cumulative increase in bad debts of 3.8% in 2009-10 to take the core equity tier 1 ratio of the European banking industry down to the bare minimum of 4.5%. By comparison, bad debts rose by a cumulative 7% in Japan in 1997-98. One can only conclude that European banks are very poorly equipped to withstand a severe recession. Seeing the writing on the wall, they are left with no option but to shrink their balance sheets. Despite talking the talk, banks will use every trick at their disposal to reduce the loan book. No prize for guessing what that will do to economic activity.