Friday, November 11, 2011

Regarding Investing In Commercial Banks

This week's European government and financial tumult brings me to once again review the position of large US commercial bank CEOs, led by Chase's Jamie Dimon, that their firms should be allowed to take risks, presumably in order to drive high total returns.

At issue currently are two changes which bank managements despise: the Volcker Rule and higher primary equity capital requirements. The former strips large commercial banks of the ability to pursue riskier profits via proprietary trading, while the latter adds capital, which will depress returns on assets.

It's fair to say that, with recent hindsight, on average, the Volcker Rule will minimize societal costs of banks trying, but usually failing, to earn profits on risky trading with their own capital. The recent financial crisis demonstrated that those financial concerns capable of not losing on such risky trades are small in number, and often privately-held, while the larger US commercial banks carry deposit insurance, and, thus, indirectly, are themselves insured by the US federal government. The Dodd-Frank bill has made such insurance of firms explicit.

After several decades of US commercial money center banks cyclically posting large losses on everything from sovereign lending to credit cards, mortgages, and energy lending, requiring higher capital levels doesn't seem so harsh.  For example, as I noted in this recent post, fund manager Ron Baron declined to invest in Jon Corzine's now-failed MF Global in part because, with capital constituting only 3% of assets, the risk of total loss of equity from trading positions was too great. Today's US money center banks are fighting to avoid capital levels only a little higher, i.e., going from 7% to 9%. It seems like a lot when seen as a percentage of balance sheet assets. But it's trivial when seen as the potential loss in a trading position. What's another 3, 4 or 5 percentage points of loss once a derivative or badly-hedged asset goes wrong? It's rounding error.

But to CEOs of these companies, that means relegating them to a role much more like energy utilities than like investment banks or faster-growth firms.

Which brings me to the central point about this debate over permissible money center bank activities and their primary capital levels.

My now-deceased mentor at Chase Manhattan Bank, Gerry Weiss, observed decades ago that since banking is a derivative industry, it can't, in total, grow faster over time than the economy which it serves. Thus, shorter-term, faster growth typically comes by taking more risks. Which pays off for management when it works, and leaves shareholders with losses when it doesn't. Only, in reality, those losses now become spread to taxpayers, as well.

So long as a bank is allowed access to taxpayer money for insuring deposits, and is allowed to become sufficiently large that its collapse would create counterparty problems for the nation, it has to be restricted to a role as a financial utility. Much as CEOs like Dimon want to have the latitude to chase total returns that match the US equity market's best, doing so as a money center bank simply isn't in society's interest.

Time and again over the past several decades, US money center banks and their managements have exhibited poor judgement and incompetence at avoiding bank-collapsing risks. When enough commercial bank assets pursue similar risks, which typically occurs, the resulting systemic risk endangers the US economy.

Dimon and his fellow CEOs like Vik Pandit at Citi or Brian Moynihan at BofA may grouse about being shackled and prohibited from pursuing brisk income growth which outstrips that of their markets. But to allow them to talk their way out of both measures- restraint of proprietary trading and higher equity capital requirements- will more quickly and certainly lead to the occasion of another taxpayer-rescue of a US money center bank.

No comments: