Friday, June 17, 2011

Banks, Capital Requirements & The S&P500

CEOs of large US banks have raised an alarm recently due to the recommendations by several regulators, including members of the Fed and FDIC, for higher capital requirements. Some have suggested an extra 3%, bringing the large-bank level to around 10% of risk assets, while others have mentioned 14%.

Predictably, the CEO of at least one large bank, Chase, has warned that higher capital levels will result in higher lending rates and overall operating costs, as well as lower profit levels. These comments are meant to scare regulators away from imposing higher risk capital levels.

However, Chase' Jamie Dimon, aside from having an obvious interest in lower capital requirements, also lacks perspective. He spent the bulk of his career assisting his one-time mentor, Sandy Weill, in the brokerage industry. The sorts of retail brokers at which Dimon cut his teeth didn't engage in much risk-taking activity, so they were highly-levered.

But a more appropriate perspective on the current debate involving large US commercial bank capital levels should take us back to the 1920s. The events of the 1930s, in which then-integrated commercial and investment banks, such as the forerunners of today's Citi and Chase, improperly sold questionable investments from one side of their bank to customers on the commercial side of the bank, resulted in the Glass-Steagal Act. The Act broke up banking into its investment and commercial pieces.

Up until the 1970s, commercial banks, the retail deposits of which were FDIC-insured, didn't typically engage in much risky activity outside of conventional lending. Even that resulted in the occasional large regional bank failure, such as First Pennsylvania, Seattle First and the like.

However, with the complete removal of Glass-Steagal, commercial banks were allowed to function as investment banks, but retained federal deposit insurance. This oversight effectively resulted in the federal government subsidizing, via deposit insurance, the risky activities of trading and underwriting in the investment banking side of these newly-integrated large US banks.

Earlier this week, I saw an analysis on Bloomberg predicting that as commercial banks divested or closed newly-prohibited trading businesses, their profits would fall, bringing down equity indices of which they comprise something in the neighborhood of 20%. This sort of statistic, combined with the specter of higher capital levels and resulting lower profits, is being trumpeted as the reason to reject such calls for more bank capital.

However, I believe this is incorrect reasoning. What I believe is correct is to ask why equity indices such as the S&P500 allocate so much weight to financials. As integrated, risky companies, financials may well have merited such weight.

But now, the large US commercial banks are more properly viewed as financial utilities. As such, they don't merit a large presence in the S&P, nor should they be expected to be engines of high and consistent total return delivery for their shareholders.

This may not be to the liking of Jamie Dimon and the CEOs of Citi, Wells Fargo or BofA. But it's reality.

After the tremendous cost to taxpayers of the financial crisis of 2007-08, in which large US commercial banks with insured deposits played a corresponding major part, even if they didn't initiate the crisis, it's understandable that capital requirements would be increased and risky activities prohibited.

As I have written in prior posts, the basic business of lending and safekeeping money, plus some ancillary trust and processing businesses, are the core of what large US financial utilities, a/k/a large commercial banks, perform. Those aren't a huge part of the American economy, nor should they be. Such businesses aren't high growth businesses, either.

Regarding interest rate levels, who's to say they should not be higher? Large bank profits rise with interest rates- why didn't Dimon mention that? Further, we didn't have a crisis three years ago because rates were too high- it was because they were too low. And still are.

Cries of 'foul' by large bank CEOs and analysts stem from a refusal to acknowledge reality- both recent past, current and future. The days in which banks such as Citi, Chase, Wells Fargo and BofA may be expected to rival Google or Apple as consistently high total return performers are over. They are now meant to be fairly safe, unexciting basic financial services firms which don't engage in overly-risky activities.

That's the reality of the new financial landscape. And it's consistent with such an environment that those large banks should carry more capital, the better to avoid needing taxpayer funds to rescue them from insolvency in the future.

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