Bank Scandals: Is This Just The Tip Of The Iceberg?

From accusations of interest rate manipulation, to charges of illegally hiding transactions with Iran, the spotlight is well and truly on the banking industry. Institutions appear to have been operating right at the edge of what’s reasonable where the line between right and wrong can become blurred. Crucially, it highlights how issues can occur outside ‘investment banking’, and therefore attempts to classify one part of the industry as bad and one part good is flawed. Nevertheless, public opinion is against the banks and it’s up to them to earn back respect. We’re entering a tough new paradigm of tighter regulation, greater demands for transparency and less incentive to lend. Vindication, conviction and takeovers are all possible but one thing we can be more certain of, the regulator is watching closely and further turmoil is likely.

Working On The Border Between What’s Right And Wrong

Standard Chartered has been accused of illegally hiding transactions with Iran. The aggressive attack of money laundering charges came as a shock to investors, who punished the bank’s shares with a sell-off of more than 16%, wiping $6bn from its market value. So what can we take away from this latest scandal? Is this a one-off or an indication of an industry wide shortfall?

The complication seems to arise from the claim that the bank was already working openly with US agencies and 99.9% of this business complied with legislation.

However therein lies the shortfall, the opaqueness. Investors maintain these discussions should have been better highlighted in their last annual results. The confusion surrounding whether they did or did not do wrong may signal that they could have been operating right at the edge of what’s reasonable.

With a focus on profits and market share, the line between right and wrong can become blurred. Indeed previous fines have merely moved not mitigated risk. As other banks closed their doors on these types of transactions, Standard Chartered, it has been argued, may have instead welcomed the new business. Changing this culture may prove prudent.

Issues Aren’t Black & White But Murkier ‘Shades Of Grey’

An interesting aspect of this investigation is the type of bank business it is targeting. This is not an investment banking scandal. Instead commercial banking dealings are under attack. Could this have been avoided by having investment banking and retail banking separated? Arguably no.  It is not as binary as one part good, one part bad and not all banks overall are the same as each other either.

Indeed, investment banking can help subsidise the cost for running other banking operations and although transgressions may have been made, not all who work in the industry can be tarred with the same brush.

A New Paradigm

There is huge political capital in ‘bank bashing’, finding a common ‘enemy’ to engender sympathy and support.  But the pressure is on the banks to earn back trust. Likewise, whilst banks have to get used to tougher regulation, we must accept that fines could erode their reserves and reduce their incentive to lend. A tougher ‘new paradigm’. Furthermore, whilst financial institutions must accept greater demand for transparency, both banks and regulators must improve the way they communicate with the public to avoid unnecessary panic.

What’s Next?

Vindication? Conviction? Takeover? Next Wednesday we’ll hear Standard Charter’s response to these accusations. Analysts admit that at this stage it’s hard to know which way the case will go. An unintended consequence could be a potential takeover, with JP Morgan already mentioned as a possible buyer (source: John Kirk at Redburn). As some hope to split banks up so they are easier to control, this would not be a welcomed outcome. Meanwhile the LIBOR scandal continues as additional institutions are investigated. Further turmoil is likely. And the regulator is watching…


IMF Revelations: The End of European Dominance & The Rise of Emerging Markets?

As “super-injunctions” are labelled “pointless” by the rise of ‘new’ social media sites, the world seems a smaller place for those wanting to hide potential transgressions.  Indeed, such accusations can have broad ramifications as the head of the International Monetary Fund this week steps down from his leadership position. Could this trigger the end of European dominance at the IMF and even pave the way for Emerging Market leaders to acquire a more appropriate size of the power pie?

Jurisdiction Arbitrage: The Super-Injunction Flaw

Last week, an anonymous twitter user exploited a ‘jurisdiction arbitrage’ to name celebrities whose identities are being protected by a series of ‘gagging-orders’. The Twitter site is based in the US and therefore “outside the jurisdiction of the British courts”. Furthermore, not only would the user himself be “difficult to trace” but the number of other users who forwarded on the names and could be charged represented a “mass defiance” and “unlikely” any of them would be pursued. Therefore potential wrong-doers can, for the moment at least, be named and shamed in some form of media. Just how dangerous can these revelations be?

Revelations at The IMF

This week legalities are once again in the headlines as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, (now the former) head of the International Monetary Fund, stands accused of politically damaging indiscretions. Regardless of the outcome of the case, the political impact has been made and focus is on identifying his potential successor.

The European Bias

Historically the IMF Managing Director has been European and the World Bank President American but nowhere in the “Articles of Agreement’ is this mentioned. So where did this bias come from? It dates back to the Bretton Woods conference, where the fund was formed and this informal agreement struck. In the aftermath of World War II, European economic stability played a large part in the health of the world’s economy and voting power reflected the balance of power. The US has a 16.7% share, Germany 5.9% and the UK & France 4.9% each; leaving the ‘door open’ for ‘behind the scenes’ negotiations. Unsurprisingly, since this time, there have been 10 Managing Directors, all of them European.

Flaws of a European Successor

Proponents of a continuation of European dominance point to the IMF’s crucial role in stemming the European Sovereign Debt crisis. A German government spokesman, Christoph Steegmans, maintains that the leader needs to understand “Europe’s particularities”. Interesting then that there has been no talk of electing an official from the Middle East as Egypt requests a $4bn loan to ‘fill its budget gap’. With all the turmoil, doesn’t a leader need to understand the ‘particularities’ of this region too? Instead, focus is on German candidates (including Axel Weber, the former head of the Central Bank who recently withdrew from the race to succeed Trichet as head of the ECB). A favourite amongst pundits is French finance Minister Christine Lagarde. Bank of Canada Governor, Mark Carney has even been given odds of 10-to-1 by a British bookmaker. Gordon Brown’s name has even been thrown into the ring but was quickly opposed by our PM Cameron due to the record budget deficit which continued to build during his tenure. Here lies the crux of the issue, since the EU and ECB have yet to solve the debt crisis, is it time for someone else to have a go?

Opportunity for Developing Markets

The economic balance of power is changing. China has overtaken Japan as the second largest economy and it has been argued that it will surpass the US’s share of global GDP in a decade. Back in 1973, the developing nations asserted more of their power as a group led by Indonesia and Iran vetoed the nomination of a Dutch candidate (seen as too closely aligned to the interests of wealthy nations). With this in mind, candidates from South Africa, Turkey, Singapore, Indonesia, Mexico and a Chinese official who advises the IMF already have been mentioned in the press. Brazil too has contributed to the discussion, as their Finance Minister argues for a “new criteria”. Indeed changes to IMF governance were decided in 2008 and last year, shifting 5.3% of the voting share to emerging markets. Although nothing has yet taken effect. However, with the increased contribution of funding coming from these regions and the negativity within these countries expressed against too much focus on the developed world, change is warranted.

Investment Conclusion

As ever, economic issues can often lie opposed to equity market movement. But changes (or continuation) of dominance could affect short-term sentiment for various country’s financial markets. Exploit any over-reaction in the short-term whilst remaining focused on quality in the longer-term. The shift of economic power is well underway, let’s see if the political powers play catch up….

Our Macroeconomic thoughts… Something has to give…

Tzanetatos Capital Management LLC

The US Equity market in less than two years, as measured by the S&P500, has doubled from its post crisis March 2009 low. Volatility has sunk. US Unemployment remains high. The Fed is fueling a speculative boom with the riches accumulating to the few. US Labor struggling to get back to a decent or any work and the geopolitics paint a complete opposite picture to the market euphoria. All the while clouds in the global geopolitical sphere continue to gather pace. While in the west we measure progress many times by the rise or fall of the markets alone on a daily basis – For the people of Egypt the long struggle for jobs, social justice has only begun. On Feb 13th, the military council abolished the constitution… timetable to nowhere is all we can see… as the military positions to further consolidate its stranglehold on the people. Unrest potential is building in the Arab world. From the lands north of Sahara- Northern Africa. From the Nile to the Euphrates. From the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia. The two ‘I’s, Israel-Iran, eyeing each other and global players are taking positions. China has a new world status and it could test its newly found powers, all the while weaknesses are building into its own economic system that risk world destabilization. Change in the status quo in the middle east and elsewhere where pressures have been building for some time now can have seismic implications for growth of the world economy. Rather growth stalling at best with uncertainty keeping long term investment plans at bay and hungry jobless populations or democratically starved plutocratic nations citizens pressuring for reforms. Global aggregate demand on the government side is pressured to collapse as spending at current intervals is unsustainable. The pace of implementation of structural reforms is slow and major structural reforms measures are still to be taken. Will the Fed stimulus policies continue to keep the economy from faltering? We take the view that the higher you are the greater the fall and the highs we are now are not compatible with the struggle to put bread on the table for most families. Even in the most affluent of Nations. Ours. The Baltic index has closed at near quarter century lows. Ship oversupply? Yes. Australia flood impact? Yes. Trade used to be the life blood of world economy. Now it is finance. Speculative flows of money looking for a quick domicile for short term gain. Capital has always ruled the world but money movements of such intensity is a relatively new phenomenon that our econometric models do not have much historic data to go by. All is so synchronized now around the world. The supply of funding for excess speculative building abundant from the central authorities. Yet Trade the heart pulse of human global endevours and interactions since time in antiquity- trade- global trade- is telling us otherwise. Something is happening. Something big. The amount of trade is clearly going down as things look up in government, central banks and brokerage house reports. The Greek ships have been taking much to China but lately they come back many times empty. Yet the forward looking equity markets of our Western World…measures of progress in the eyes of many.. vain quests of financial engineering yet once more.. have been marching higher. Fundamental and technical traders follow the same momentum of a rising tide on stimulative action not structural reform. This is not healthy. The system has yet to cleanse itself. Something has to give…..

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