Jobs

Reading Between The Lines: Why Eurozone Improvement is Being Ignored

Published on the Front Page of Huffington Post Business

Markets have shrugged off improvement in the Eurozone because more is needed for stability. Rising demand for German goods, an improving business climate and stability in Spanish housing should have given markets cause for celebration. However, after the substantial rally we’ve seen, and the headwinds yet to be tackled within the region, caution has crept back into markets.

Absence of Growth and Currency Risk

There is deep concern over Europe’s ability to kickstart growth, as austerity measures dampen economic expansion and a strong euro stifles exports. The increase in demand for German factory goods interestingly was driven by demand within the euro area. Domestic demand was weak and the currency still source of concern abroad. Furthermore, despite an overall improving business climate, uncertainty in the political and economic landscape going forward is causing delay in hiring and investment.

Spain Precarious and Firepower Lacking

Once again hitting the headlines, Spain could derail European stability, as corruption charges are directed at the government while they continue to grapple with a large budget deficit. The latest data points to a possible floor in Spanish housing prices but defaults on bank loans due to the real estate bubble remains elevated and there is only limited further financial aid available directly from the rescue fund. In order to meet its main obligation of lending to struggling countries, additional direct bank aid has been rumoured to amount to less than €100bn, nowhere near enough to contain future turmoil!

Reform and Unity Needed

With France expected to have slipped back into recession, Draghi, the European Central Bank President, is right to warn that the region is not in the clear yet. What’s needed now are structural reform and closer fiscal and political unity. Only with a return of confidence, based on improving fundamentals, can stability return.

rafa-sanudo-euro-crisisstock market

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Banks: Why We Can’t Use a Sledge Hammer to Correct a House of Cards

Watch this as a 1 minute clip on Newsnight

 

While banks need to earn back our respect, moves to strengthen the system should be handled sensitively.

The challenge is that a low level of regulation hasn’t worked while too heavy handed regulation could be just as damaging. Elevated regulation costs could be passed on to the consumer in terms of higher borrow costs and lower credit availability. The ‘man on the street’ may be the ultimate victim as a tougher environment leads to job losses as companies struggle to finance themselves.

The misunderstanding is that it is not as binary as ‘retail good’, ‘investment banking bad’. Ringfencing and protecting one part of the industry from its perceived higher risk other half is a flawed strategy. Good assets can go bad, as we’ve seen in Europe as certain government bonds have become less and less credit worthy, with the likelihood of default increasing. Retail banks have gone bankrupt, far from worthy of their halos. Furthermore there’s the issue of funding. Retail banks are subsidised by investment bank revenues. Therefore again, those with a high street bank account could be hit with fees to have a deposit account. Although it may be argued this cost is preferable to the possibility of greater losses from instability. Nevertheless, instead of a focus only on separation, the issues to tackle run deeper.

It’s about mitigating the risk not just moving it about. We need interests to be brought back inline & not incentivise  excessive risk taking. Nonetheless, while banks remain fragile, complex & different to each other, the situation needs to be handled carefully.

Banks Slash Jobs but Severe Headwinds Remain

As banks all over the world slash jobs, we ask ourselves – will this produce more streamline firms ready to generate significant profits, or a sign of the poor outlook for the sector? Unfortunately, stifling regulation repressive and a false bubble has driven this move and severe headwinds remain through exposure to struggling economies and substantial funding needs.

The 50 largest banks around the world have announced almost 60,000 job cuts. UBS are laying off 5.3% of their workforce, blaming stricter capital requirements and slowdown in client trading activity; Credit Suisse cutting jobs by 4% to save SFr1bn and Lloyds a whopping 14%.

Restrictive regulation make banks more stable but less profitable

Stricter capital requirements were just the type of new regulatory measures the Chief Executive of Standard Chartered feared at Davos back in January, would “stifle growth”. At this time we saw banks such as Credit Suisse missing earnings targets and downgrade their expectations severely going forward (from above 18% return on equity to 15%, which turned out to still be too high).

UBS has seen costs in their investment banking division soar to 77% of income and net profit fall almost 50% from a year earlier. Stricter capital requirements mean banks have to hold a higher amount of capital in order to honour withdrawals if hit with operating losses. Furthermore, restrictions on bonuses led to increases in fixed salaries and an inflexible cost base.

Backtracking on a false bubble

Job cuts should also be set within the context of occurring after a ‘false bubble’. Post the 2008 financial crisis and bank bankruptcies and proprietary trading layoffs, the fixed income, currency and commodity business of the remaining players boomed as competition dropped. Banks began expanding. UBS’s proposed cuts of 3,500 jobs comes after an expansion of 1,700 to the workforce and incomparable to the 18,500 job losses experienced during the crisis.

Exposure to struggling economies is a key threat

Crucially, these cuts do nothing to solve the biggest problem these banks are struggling with. They have substantial exposure to struggling EU economies. In Germany, bank exposure to the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Spain) amounts to more than 18% of the countries GDP. Just last month Commerzbank suffered a €760m write-down from holding debt that is unlikely to be repaid, which all but wiped out their entire earnings for the second quarter of the year. Further fuelling fear of the spread of the crisis from periphery to core is that French banks are among the largest holders of Greek debt.

Here in the UK we’re by no means immune. Our banks have £100bn connected to the fate of these periphery economies. RBS, 83% owned by the British taxpayer is so heavily exposed to Greek debt that it has written off £733m so far this year.

Severe funding needs and fear of lending exacerbate the problem

90 EU banks need to roll €5.4tn over the next 24 months. This will be funded at higher rates and with disappearing demand as investors become more wary, exacerbating the problem. In addition these banks need to raise an extra $100bn by the end of the year. An inability to borrow to satisfy current obligations, not withstanding any expansive moves, is a serious obstacle to profit generation. 

Moreover, job cuts do nothing to boost confidence to encourage banks to lend. Just two weeks ago, EU banks deposited €107bn with the European Central Bank overnight than lend to each other. If banks are not even lending to each other, losing out on a valuable opportunity to make money, then how encouraged are we as investors to get involved?


Hedge Funds – The Root of All Evil?

“We cannot forget how in 1997-98 American hedge funds destroyed the economies of poor countries by manipulating their national currencies.” – Dr. Mahathir Bin Mohamad, (former Prime Minister of Malaysia, during the emerging market crisis).

The Hedge Fund industry has come under major scrutiny in the past few years. Blamed for stock market crashes, manipulating the markets and threatened with a ban on short selling, if a scapegoat was needed, they were ‘shortly’ targeted (!). Chargers of high fees and notoriously opaque – people naturally fear the unknown, and an expensive unknown even more so. Nevertheless, as Richard Wilson pointed out in his blog – back in 2007 the head of the Financial Services Authority (FSA) said that:

hedge funds were not the catalysts or drivers of (that) summer’s events.”

Hedge funds trading in the financial markets can increase liquidity and aid price formation. Jed Emerson wrote a great piece at the end of last year taking he argument away from a debate between “good” and “evil” and instead concluding:

“fundamental fund of hedge fund investment strategies, when managed appropriately, may represent an emerging though as yet not realised opportunity for investors to pursue both full,  commercial  rate  returns  and  affirm  relevant  aspects  of  Sustainable  investment practice.”

Although I question the assertion the fund of hedge funds industry is emerging – since in some cases it seems to be retracting, I agree they offer an opportunity for returns and the claim of affirming sustainable investment practice balances the opposition’s argument.

What seems to be a rarely discussed topic is the value the industry provides the wider economy, outside the financial markets. Below I highlight some impressive information, sourced from a great article by Open Europe….

BOTTOM LINE: Job and tax contributions should not be under-estimated.

Benefits of PE / HF Industry to EU Economy

  • Contributed ~ 9 billion (£7.9 billion) in tax revenues in 2008 – could fund the EU’s overseas aid budget for twelve years, or the regional budget for Poland,
  • Directly employ 40,000 people in the EU – 18,000 of whom are employed in the UK (before taking those involved in real estate funds or dependent on the industry)

Benefits to UK Economy

  • €6.1 / £5.3 billion tax income raised in the UK alone
  • Enough to pay for over 200,000 nurses or 165,000 teachers.
  • Tax revenues generated over 2 years could pay for the entire 2012 London Olympics.
  • If the revenues were lost, would take 20% increase in av. council tax bill to make up

SK