Friday, October 23, 2009

Is Bigger Really Better In Banking?

As I mentioned in this recent post, Charles Calomiris of the Columbia Business School wrote an editorial defending 'too big to fail' banks in last Tuesday's Wall Street Journal.

Calomiris clearly states his contention thus,

"Yet the challenge of coordinating the efforts among different countries' regulators can be met through prearranged, loss-sharing arrangements that assign assets to particular subsidiaries based on clear rules. This would make it possible to transfer control over the assets and operations of a large international financial institution in an orderly fashion, in case of its failure. This process could be handled by the courts for nonbank failures and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for banks. With such arrangements in place, governments will have no reason (or excuse) to bail out large, international institutions.

But is it worth the trouble to preserve large financial institutions? Emphatically, it is."

It's worth noting that Calomiris postulates an entirely new, trans-national financial regulatory and accounting structure, after and on which he then bases his contention.

Realistically, what he envisions would be a good decade away from implementation, never mind that the sorts of accounting data supporting it would be gamed to high heaven by the smart financiers who would have time to discover and exploit the inevitable loopholes.

And, ironically, last year Calomiris claimed, in the Journal piece on which I wrote a post which is linked in that recent post, that the Basel accords' risk management prescriptions were the reason for the recent meltdown!

So, prior international financial regulatory attempts were bad. But now, Calomiris believes, they will magically become good.

Remember, modestly-paid civil servants write these sorts of regulations and procedures, while much smarter, better-educated sector practitioners, with plenty of capital behind them, immediately begin working to subvert, avoid and evade these same regulations.

Calomiris' vision will never be created, much less work as planned.

"This underlying reality is the background factor that helps explain why some financial firms also need to be large.

First and foremost, they need to be large to operate on a global scale—and they need to do so because their clients are large and operate globally.

Second, there are economies of scope when financial firms combine different products within the same firm (lending and foreign-exchange swaps, for example). A financial firm able to offer multiple products to a customer means savings in marketing costs and in the costs of information production (about the creditworthiness of clients, for example). Economies of scope among products also imply economies of scale within finance suppliers, since small financial firms cannot afford the overhead costs of building platforms with many complex products."

This is a rather common fairy tale in banking. The truth is, until the mid-1970s, the business of correspondent banking was alive and well. I didn't happen to include Calomiris' cite of Ollie Williamson's recent Nobel for his work on networks among businesses, but correspondent banking was the original implementation of this notion.

Simply described, regional and local banks across the US would use New York- or California-based money center banks for various financial markets activities, such as securities lending, upstreaming loans for risk layoffs, taking part in large loans from the money center, institutional trust, letters of credit, and so forth. There was no particular need for a regional bank to be everywhere, when it could basically share customer activities with a money center bank.

However, as money centers grew more complex, there was no accompanying increase in the skills of senior management in those banks, and the increased risks began to result in heavy losses. For example, recall Chase Manhattan's Drysdale Securities fiasco in securities lending, and the Penn Square energy lending debacle in the correspondent banking division.

If anything, finance has proven to be a sector where focused execution of fewer functions tends to result in greater wealth creation per invested dollar. Old line investment banks and brokerages were partnerships which only went public when the allure of cashing out to an unwitting public proved too great a temptation for the older partners.

Third, many of the gains of consolidation accrued to customers, not banks, in the form of cheaper and better financial services. For example, my research shows that from 1980 to 1999, after controlling for changes in the mix of firms, the underwriting costs of accessing the public equity market fell by more than 20%. These declining costs encouraged an expanded use of the market particularly by young, growing firms.

One study of bank productivity growth during the heart of the merger wave (1991-1997), by Kevin Stiroh, an economist at the New York Federal Reserve, found that it rose more than 0.4% per year.

This is hilarious. I would just love to know how the Fed's economist's study defined "bank productivity." I worked at Chase Manhattan for quite a few years, in many areas of the bank, including IT. One thing which is nearly impossible to do is provide a meaningful, cross-bank measure of productivity that has any sort of functional meaning.

As for Calomiris' finding of lower equity underwriting costs, this is precisely what my old boss at Chase, Gerry Weiss, predicted. However, Calomiris separates that cause from the effect it triggered on Wall Street, meaning investment banks. This loss of profitability in underwriting is what drove Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Bear Stearns, Lehman and the capital markets portion of Citibank to pile into mortgage banking and securitization. Thus, the causes of the ensuing bubble of poorly-originated and securitized mortgages by 'too big to fail' investment and commercial banks stemming from the ability of diversified financial institutions to move into product/markets with which they were not well acquainted. And whose risks with which they were inexperienced.

Fourth, global financial institutions also have made stock, bond and foreign exchange markets globally integrated and more efficient. Global financial institutions are the institutions that provide the funds for arbitrage across markets, which ensure global market integration.

But such "integrated and more efficient" "stock, bond and foreign exchange markets" can be accessed by smaller, single- or limited-product line firms, just as well as by financial utilities of unimaginable size and scope. That's the point of exchanges. They require counterparties to post collateral and stand between the counterparties, allowing small and large entities to safely trade with each other.

It was the old telephone markets which allowed large firms, in their day, like the old Salomon Brothers, to dominate specific markets, such as fixed income trading and origination, to the detriment of smaller rivals.

Today, we see thriving privately-owned M&A, hedge fund and private equity concerns. All primarily focused on specific niches in the financial services markets.

Until large commercial banks embarked on their buying spree, of dubious value, of standalone credit card issuers, that segment, too, had its own focused, skilled competitors.

Limiting the size, complexity and global reach of financial institutions is fraught with downsides for the international economy. We can solve the too-big-to-fail problem without destroying global finance. It certainly is worth a try."

As in his piece in October of last year, Calomiris avoids providing empirical evidence for his sweeping contentions. By contrast, merely observing which firms went under last year tells you a lot about how wrong Calomiris' positions are.

Merrill Lynch, Wachovia, WaMu, Bear Stearns and Lehman were all large financial institutions. They were either needlessly diversified, or growing into new areas at their peril. Citigroup and AIG came near dissolution, but were "saved" by government intervention. Morgan Stanley nearly failed, but found a gullible Asian savior just before the feds closed and merged them, as well.

One of the most memorable lessons I took away from my Chase Manhattan Bank experience was the manner in which executives in businesses that are part of a large, diversified financial institution lose a sense of individual risk-taking, assuming that poor performance or outright losses will be borne by the institution and its shareholders, while the near-term profits of risky and/or ill-conceived strategies will drive bonuses for the unit's management.

Financial services skills tend to be focused on and in particular products. Very few senior managers, CFOs and CEOs actually understand the intricacies of all of the businesses which report to them, and for which they are responsible and accountable. Notice how unprepared Vik Pandit was as he was given the CEO job at Citigroup, and how many months he took before claiming to have the slightest idea of what to do with the collection of businesses he inherited from Chuck Prince.

Among the most admired financial service firms, for their ability to generate consistently superior total returns, do not appear large, publicly-owned diversified banks. More often, firms such as Goldman Sachs, Blackstone, Blackrock, and a few hedge funds, are mentioned. Those firms operate in fewer, more focused collections of businesses.

As I wrote in that recent post concerning Mervyn King's and Paul Volcker's calls for the effective rebuilding of the Glass-Steagall wall between deposit-taking institutions and risk-taking investment banking institutions, it's simply unwise to allow large, diversified banking concerns to have a conduit into government-insured deposits. This allows them to essentially take risks with taxpayer-insured money, knowing that this will also prevent the firms from failing without some form of government-directed intervention or rescue.

In short, until and unless such insured activities are split from risk-taking ones, the moral hazard against which the two central bankers warn will continue to loom large.

Calomiris simply ignores this fact, provides no persuasive empirical evidence for his contentions, and then dreams up a non-existent international regulatory regime on which to base his conclusion that we need gigantic financial utilities.

Business Odds & Ends

Quite a bit of flap has arisen in business circles over the administrations "pay czar" slapping 90% salary cuts on a number of executives at firms which requested or took government aid, e.g., GM, Citigroup, AIG, BofA.

If anything, this illustrates the point of this post back in April about a lack of boundaries between government and business. I wrote,

"In my opinion, as well as others, such as William McGurn of the Wall Street Journal and even liberal Nobel Economics Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, the bankruptcy option has been avoided far too much in the past twelve months.

Bear Stearns, Lehman, BofA, AIG and Citigroup, upon appealing to the federal government for assistance, should all have been referred to bankruptcy court or the FDIC for closure. GM and Chrysler, too, should be in Chapter 11.

Somehow, corporate executives have come to expect their government to play favorites, pick winners, and temporarily prop up failing companies, rather than admit their own mistakes and close up shop.

By failing to observe the boundaries of responsible corporate behavior, boards of directors and CEOs unwisely opened a Pandora's Box of problems by requesting government financial aid.

This left them open to having their operations and decisions overseen and scrutinized by political officials who have used the excuse of looking after taxpayer money in order to move our economy down the road of fascism.

At the same time, government officials, beginning with the Bush administration, and continuing into the current one, have unwisely consented to helping private corporations, rather than declining, and sending them to their fate in the financial markets or bankruptcy courts.

By failing to observe the clear line between private and public spheres of activity, our government officials have compromised our economic system and given into the temptation to begin manipulating companies for political purposes and pet political agendas."

Right now, the political agenda on display is liberal America's desire to limit executive compensation. And, frankly, the companies involved right now deserve this treatment.

They ran themselves into a condition worthy of bankruptcy court. They begged for government aid. Now, having availed themselves of taxpayer funding, they have no excuse for having compensation become a political weapon to be used against their employees.

But I don't think there is any room for such government intervention in the rest of business.

You don't see the administration suggesting that entertainment or sports figures have their compensation limited, do you?

On another topic, I saw a laughable little piece on CNBC the other day. The topic was women in business, featuring some female MD from Deutsche Bank's derivatives unit.

Hilariously, the woman, whose name I cannot recall, blathered on about how a woman can now take time out of her career to have children, return to the workforce, and still reap substantial corporate success.

Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a CNBC co-anchor, laughed and retorted that the only truly successful executives of either gender of whom she knew basically slaved like dogs, worked unending hours for years, sacrificed their family lives in order to climb to the top of the executive ladder at an investment bank. The other CNBC on-air personnel bobbed their heads in agreement.

The Deutsche Bank woman protested that this was wrong, and here she was, an MD at DB, to prove them wrong.

Look, let's be honest. DB is no Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, or Blackstone. It's simply not a first-rank US investment bank or asset manager. DB is one of those second-rate-at-best, large European universal banks which bought a US bank, usually in distress. In DB's case, that would be the old, self-crippled Bankers Trust.

I don't think anyone equates rising to MD rank at DB with being a senior executive at Goldman, a first-rate private equity shop, or a hedge fund.

It's not clear just why CNBC even aired this segment. I guess they really wanted to focus on the notion that women can now rise to the top of an investment bank while happily and successfully juggling a family, too.

Unfortunately, I don't think women in senior management at truly first-rate investment banks, private equity groups or hedge funds would waste their time appearing on CNBC to crow about how much time they didn't work while rising to the top.

It seems to be very much a Groucho Marx sort of topic. Anyone foolish enough to self-identify as a successful female financial services exec who has it all probably either a) doesn't have it all, b) isn't that successful, or c) is about to have her career limited by appearing on CNBC to state that she has it all and is successful.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

More Regulatory Pressure To Separate Commercial & Investment Banking

Way back in 1996, my friend B predicted that, going forward, US banks would become increasingly like utilities, with core lending and deposit-taking functions eventually separated from riskier investment banking. The former would become federally-insured activities, with lending subject to fairly rigorous standards in order to qualify for federal guarantees.

Otherwise, he noted, the few, large deposit-taking banks would subsidize risky investment banking with insured deposits and a "too big to fail" condition that would only lead to increasingly riskier trading and underwriting activities.

This week, Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, and Paul Volcker, former US Fed chairman, once again called for separation of investment and commercial banking. For pretty much the same reasons B prophesied over a decade ago.

Both central bankers identified the increasingly risky behavior of commercial banks which have bulked up proprietary trading and underwriting activities.

Yet, one only has to look at this week's mortgage loan delinquencies at Wells Fargo to see that my old Chase Manhattan boss, Gerry Weiss, was prescient when he observed that money center banks didn't need to enter investment banking to lose money. They could do that in their regular businesses through the usual abandonment of credit standards in pursuit of market share as various product/markets exhibited strong growth in demand.

Is a return to an era of a Glass-Steagall type of separation of investment and commercial banking possible?

If the current administration and Congress have their way, quite possibly.

Given the quick return to risky trading activities at Chase this past quarter, it's clear that the combination of the two types of banking is going to once again, in time, lead to risk-based profits for shareholders and compensation for employees, while heavy losses will once again tax the FDIC and result in federal rescues.

Just a few days ago, on Tuesday, Columbia finance professor Charles Calomiris authored another flawed editorial in the Wall Street Journal, on the subject of universal banks combining investment and commercial banking. The last one one which I posted, here, was exactly a year ago.

Because Calomiris' piece was so long, and contains a number of fallacies, I'll touch on it in a subsequent post.

But, for me, King and Volcker represent far more objective, reasoned positions on the subject of separating riskier banking activities from those of insured deposit-taking institutions.

Wells Fargo's Mortgage Woes

My friend B predicted this at lunch late this summer.

As we discussed the expected continuing bank loan losses, he mused that Wells had bought a truckload of trouble via Wachovia's purchase of Golden West Financial some years ago.

You may recall that the Golden West acquisition was a material cause of Wachovia's slide into insolvency, leading to Ken Thompson's ouster.

When Wells swooped in to take Wachovia out of the arms of failing Citigroup last year, many thought it to be a clever purchase.

However, Wells' own California-focused mortgage business, coupled with the Golden West loans, is now stressing Well's loan loss reserves. California was certainly among the most over-priced areas in the US during the mortgage finance excesses of the past few yeas, and Well's mortgage portfolio's delinquencies are now reflecting that.

As the unemployment rate continues to remain high and probably go higher, expectations for these delinquencies to not become defaults are low.

And just this morning, the Boston Fed's president expressed his view, on CNBC, that the economy is still very fragile, and interest rates will have to remain low for some time.

This doesn't look like economic recovery to me.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

FHA Mortgages: Buckle Your Seatbelts For More Defaults

In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Nick Timiraos wrote,

"Some 59% of new home buyers are using government-backed loans from the FHA and other agencies, according to a survey of home builders by John Burns Real Estate Consulting, an Irvine, Calif.-based consultancy. The FHA accounts for nearly half of all mortgages, while loans from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs account for another 10% of all loans for new homes.

The government’s share of the market rises even higher in certain areas. In Northern California, for example, builders said that the government accounted for 76% of all mortgages, while the government share stood at 65% in the Midwest and 62% in South Florida."

Further, FHA mortgages may be had with as little as a 3% downpayment!

Mind you, FHA was originally intended to be the government-backed housing finance program for lower-income Americans. How in the world did it morph into accounting for more than half of new home loans? With the VA coming in for another 10%?

A few days earlier, on last Friday, to be precise, Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute wrote a piece in the Journal entitled, "Barney Frank, Predatory Lender."

Wallison details Frank's push for governmental support of questionable mortgage lending, including requiring the GSEs to make 55% of their mortgage purchases "affordable," meaning lower-quality.

He notes, regarding the presumption that Wall Street firms cavalierly originated and securitized bad mortgages of their own volition,

"There was always a problem with this theory. Mortgage brokers had to be able to sell their mortgages to someone. They could only produce what those above them in the distribution chain wanted to buy. In other words, they could only respond to demand, not create it themselves. Who wanted these dicey loans? The data shows that the principal buyers were insured banks, government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the FHA- all government agencies or private companies forced to comply with government mandates about mortgage lending."

Wallison's last sentence is a clear warning about a rerun of the past few years' mortgage mess,

"If the financial crisis was caused by subprime mortgages and predatory lending, the government's own policies made it happen."

Buckle up!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Amazon's Kindle's Coming Competition

Yesterday I wrote a post concerning the coming, unanticipated and unintended consequences of high volumes of high-bandwidth multi-media wireless communications applications.

Along the same lines, the colleague with whom I discussed that topic has led me through the logic behind another coming unanticipated consequence of a recent technological development.

Amazon's Kindle ereader is on its second or third version by now. And other entities are hot on their heels with competing products. It's clearly another opportunity for an iPod and iTunes sort of system competition.

My colleague then observed that, now, about the least-used and simplest of iPhone applications is voice communication. The screen, fonts, and apps on the iPhone are all superior to other multi-media phones and communications appliances. In fact, it appears that Steve Jobs' relentless focus on special fonts for his products is bearing fruit on the current generation of small, hard-to-read screens.

But my colleague noted that, soon, all Apple has to do is put the iPhone on steroids and produce it as a tablet-sized reader.

When that arrives, Amazon's Kindle is toast. It will be a one-app device in a new, multi-app world.

How attractive will a Kindle be in a world in which an iPhone and its competitors, with rich communications applications, including voice, text, video store and messaging, cameras, all contain ereader apps, too?

My colleague showed me how reasonably clear the type and presentation of a current iPhone are. Apparently, the Kindle still has clarity issues. It's weak on actual readability, but alone, for now, in providing electronic access to material.

That is probably going to change in a few years.

Jeff Bezos might well be enjoying the halcyon years of his firm's ereader right now. Because once Apple arrives with a competitive product, I don't think Amazon's core skills will allow it to keep pace with the dominant US consumer technology firm.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Unanticipated Consequences of Wireless Multi-Media

I recently had a long talk with a colleague on the subject of the evolving world of wireless multi-media communications and devices.

Of particular interest to us was the relatively new wireless cellular modem card for use in laptops. Verizon has been advertising its MiFi service and gear relentlessly in past weeks.

Essentially, this device allows a user to take 4-5 users through one cellular router up to a cell system, bypassing an initial wireless step into a conventional WiFi hotspot router and onto the wired internet.

Instead, internet connectivity is totally wireless through the cellular carrier, until it accesses the internet backbone.

Pricing, of course, can quickly reach hefty levels if more than one person is using this in a full-blown multi-media mode. But the capability never the less now exists, practically, for several people located in the middle of nowhere, in terms of wired internet access, to have reasonably high-speed wireless access to the internet.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal noted iPhones and similar non-Apple devices being used for this sort of multi-media application, consuming huge amounts of wireless capacity. So much, it contended, that two local wireless slingbox users could effectively consume a neighborhood's total wireless bandwidth capacity.

Thus, pricing is probably going to move, rapidly, to a bandwidth-usage basis. After the initial pricing plans incenting large volumes of text messaging for fixed prices, the subsidizing of larger-bandwidth hogging video viewing is finally exhausting existing wireless system capacity.

The logical consequence is to move to usage-based pricing in order to both effectively ration bandwidth usage and fund further capacity increases in existing wireless systems.

Ironically, this might actually overshadow any similar move to wired internet usage pricing, as that begins to look like a comparative backwater.

As I'll mention in an imminent post about coming generations of wireless reader devices, this is just the tip of the iceberg for wireless usage, pricing and capacity issues. It's going to get much more interesting, as the Journal piece noted, for companies like Google.

In fact, the article observed how quickly Apple went from fighting Verizon's possible encroachment on applications on the iPhone to a partnership to make sure iPhones can work on the latter's network. Apple is evidently seeing that getting others to pay for the infrastructure that the iPhone requires is far cheaper than being forced, through a closed system, to pay for one itself. Thus, the article mused that Google, Yahoo and other non-network-owning content providers could soon find themselves in a difficult pricing situation.

They will be using large amounts of bandwidth to serve their customers, but won't own any pipes, and, thus, will be vulnerable to applications-based pricing from their servers.

This could get quite interesting in a hurry, causing some business models to become much less profitable almost overnight.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Jamie Dimon's Chase Increases Risk To Generate Earnings

After the celebrations over JPMorgan Chase's recent revenue and earnings announcements which exceeded "expectations," more sober analysts are noting the increased risks the bank took to generate those results.

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal's Heard On The Street column called it "J.P. Morgan's Chilling Win."

The article detailed the decline in profitability of the bank's core businesses. Loan volume was down, while loan loss provisions went up, and credit card past-due volumes were up, as well.

According to the Journal, the bank's VAR measure rose as it relied on bond trading for its juiced-up profits.

But, wait!

Isn't excessive risk-taking in trading and non-core banking business precisely what Congress, the administration, regulators and the banks themselves all swore was what caused the recent financial meltdown? That such short-term, excessive risk was to be sworn off by our "too big to fail" financial titans?

Gee, that didn't last long, did it?

Here's a memo- short term fixed income trading isn't a core retail or wholesale commercial bank business. It's what investment banks and brokerages use to boost earnings, but not without accompanying increased risk.

Of course, this country no longer has any large investment banks. They either failed, or begged for commercial bank holding company licenses last year, the better to get access to the Fed borrowing window.

So Chase is basically following Goldman Sachs' lead in relying on risky trading to generate revenue and earnings surprises. Guess how long that's going to last?

So much for anyone having learned from last year's debacle. So much for regulators being serious about oversight and risk management.

Nothing essential has changed about the US financial services sector in the past year, other than a few badly-managed firms were left to fail, while a few others were kept on government-supplied life support.

Nor has anything changed about Jamie Dimon's lack of management skill. Those surprising earnings came courtesy of some fixed income traders and the risk they were allowed to take, not from core lending businesses.

But the Journal is correct. Chase isn't making its money on conventional commercial banking. It's taking extra risks by wagering its proprietary capital at the tables in that little casino we like to call the US fixed income markets.