standard chartered

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…

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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?