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Wednesday, 11 August 2010


If, in our western capitalistic economies, we think of profit-hunting (a concept beloved of some fund managers) as akin to lions hunting, then non-financial industry is like the female lions who do the chasing while banks are like male lions who lie and wait but get first servings and second helpings if they want.
Bank lending is as essential to businesses growth as male lions are to the reproductive role of females, but the latter do nearly all the work while the former get to take what they want whenever by virtue of seniority, droit de signor.
This is the kind of analogy we are used to if discussing governments taxing of the 'real economy', but it is today undoubted by most people that banks, generally speaking, enjoy similar powerful privileges but, unlike government, without political democratic checks and balances, or a marketplace to be relied on to assert limits - a problem perceived when banks' profits appear too large a share of all corporate profits.
The question is whether, as banks seek to reproduce again the high net returns they enjoyed in the immediate pre-credit crunch years, the problem of banks was not taking excessive risks but imposing excessive risks on their customers by taking too much of the whole of an economy's profits? It has become as if established fact that banks led us into the credit crunch because they took excessive risks? What would that mean in our analogy - the male lions ate too much of the kill leaving too little for others, or decided they could do the hunting themselves and decided to care less about the rest of the pride, or perhaps they sat forever by the water-holes charging too high an attrition rate for access to the liquidity?
There can be little question but that lions (banks) were kings of the economic jungle pre-crunch. Now post-crunch the elephants (government regulators) have stepped in to reassert authority and dictate to the male lions new rules of behaviour, and maybe listen to the complaints of herbivores unable to risk drinking at the watering holes.One of the biggest stories of the Credit Crunch has been the two-way exchange of ideas between UK and USA elephants, the respective central banks and other financial authorities. The US Federal Reserve following the Frank-Dodd Bill has special responsibility for supervisory regulation of the biggest banks and non-bank financial institutions - those that have been branded "too big to fail" or "too big to bail" and "to big to feel".
The Fed's FDIC board approved creation of two new divisions under the regulatory overhaul: The Office of Complex Financial Institutions to oversee bank-holding companies with more than $100bn in assets and non-bank firms deemed systemically important by the new Financial Stability Oversight Council. The OCFI will be responsible for liquidating failed bank- holding companies and non-bank firms. The FDIC is also establishing a Division of Depositor and Consumer Protection to enforce rules of the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. The rest of the FDIC will be responsible for policing several thousand small banks with less than $10bn in assets.
The Bank of England will have similar responsibility in the UK, but also a lot more, covering all banks and systemic risk, but not yet planned to cover all major (systemically important) financial institutions.
The basis for the Fed's supervision should be the Basel II Capital Accord, and to take its template from the FSA's Prudential Sourcebook, which inevitably in spirit it appears to, but actually not in all fundamentals.
The Fed's supervision manuals are a groaning bookcase worth written by legislators for other attorneys into a jungle of verbiage impenetrable except by the most intrepid legalistic risk experts, geeks, nerds like myself and my colleagues.
US regulation currently is oriented to Sarbanes-Oxley, and its legal system to questions of insider trading, saying one thing in public and the opposite in private, for example. There is also the question of insider lending, and for every $ of incestuous lending how many $ are to 'outsiders' with over-close connections that negate standard pricing and risk assessment, a commonplace issue in property development lending, as all in the property industry know well - the type of matters that brought down Anglo-Irish Bank and fatally threatened many others?
Governance is important including all codes of practise and moral issues, but these are only a part of the much bigger technical risk landscape. Sarbox is not wholly fit for purpose.
Where the FSA's main, and very comprehensive, guidance to risk management, calculation and reporting, for financial firms is a thousand pages, the Fed's is two thousand pages, mostly of ethical imperatives, and each page far more densely worded, and, astonishingly, almost totally without graphics, charts or equations, except a few daft ones like this one that suddenly pops up but only after 230 pages into the supervision manual:After the Credit Crunch it became axiomatic to blame regulations as well as regulators for being dilatory. But, much of this criticism originated first in the USA, and some in UK because of N.Rock, because risk regulation there was more governance oriented post-Enron with Sarbanes-Oxley (Sarbox) that is not nearly as comprehensive or systematic in risk accounting and risk analysis as well as in governance and risk culture as the Basel II Accord. For example, this checklist graphic for supervisors, which comes up after over 500 pages of Sarbox style requirements: It took 80 pages of explanatory material before summarising what US Fed supervisors must first do before anything else when risk auditing a financial services firm: "Consider whether the financial-contract activities are closely related to the basic business of banking; that is, taking deposits, making and funding loans, providing services to customers, and operating at a profit for shareholders without taking undue risks."
If this defines a bank then a lot of trading companies who insist on advance payments (deposits) and who then offer 'trade credit' also qualify. If such a starting point question is needed, which I doubt, it should be, "is this business properly and fully registered in all its parts as a regulated bank; if not why not?" e.g. should AIG and GE Capital be classified in large part if not wholly as banks? GE capital with over $500bn assets has 100m financial customers and owns banks, but is not 'a bank'. AIG is more than an insurer and behaves like a bank but is not one, yet has over $800bn financial assets and in the last 3 years booked $62bn gross in realised losses and $39bn unrealised losses (that summed to almost the same in net losses).
Further on this: AIG is regulated by the Fed, but GE Capital is not. GE capital is shrinking its assets from $650bn to $400bn after credit crunch losses of about $10bn only for which it had to rely on funding support from its parent GE and on US government guarantees to stay technically solvent. GE Capital Loss ProvisionsGE Capital wrote many $billions of mortgages including tens of billions in UK, but is now a tiny fraction of that volume, cutting back far more than regular banks. But, despite losing its AAA rating, GE Capital is supremely sound because of its massive industrial parent, as part of a grouping that is expected to benefit from $100bn in engineering contracts alone from the Obama fiscal stimulus package to boost US recovery.
Looked at in context, GE is better risk-diversified than banks with too little exposure to industry, manufacturing and trade. If GE Capital was a bank it would be be among the top 10 of the USA's biggest.The Fed is now acting tougher than before, not least over stress-tests of the banks, following the rather weakly and narrowly defined European example this year that followed after the similarly vapid tests of US banks last year. It was perhaps fair enough to let the banks etc. get away with mickey-mouse quality scenarios and stress-tests given the urgency required and inexperience of all involved. last year the urgent question was halfway through the budget year what might the banks need before the end of the budget year. The results were:The get-tougher stance is similar to the more intrusive approach adopted by the UK’s Financial Services Authority from last year following The Turner Review and earlier knuckle-wrapping over Northern Rock and by implication other cases.
There is an abiding problem for regulators, which is budget and skilled manpower retention, especially when any with risk-audit experience inside regulators are prime recruits for banks who pay more for the privilege - a doubtful one in my opinion since 'regulators' and 'bankers' are still on the same steep learning curves.
There is, especially in the wake of Credit Crunch, a large dollop of mutual mistrust and fear between regulator and regulated. One result can be that a bank offers up a best effort account of itself and its risk accounting only to be told the result is not enough or not acceptable, when of course ultimately banks' reports are never entirely perfect.
But the banker might ask why a report is unnacceptable, only to be told to read the manuals again or that the regulator does not have to explain himself? Regulators, perhaps out of depth themselves, sometimes resort desperately to asking more questions instead of providing answers or solutions to a bank's apparent difficulty. If risk reporting and analysis is top-down more than bottom-up the regulator can insist it should be more the other way, and if vice versa then vice versa to that too!
There are internal (micro-prudential) benefits to becoming sophisticated and ever more realistic in stress testing, and external (macro-prudential) benefits to the whole banking sector, as last year's and this year's stress tests have shown in lowering of credit default spreads. One of the FSA's strongest cards is or was its ARROW reviews where regulators would interrogate senior management individually to determine if they understood the basics of risk management and risk accounting - if not, then it was questionable if the interviewees should sit on any of the bank's boards or risk committees including ALCO and ALM committees. Nowadays similar rigour is applied to the numbers and the less than wholly adequate systems for calculating them. But, it remains that the biggest question is not just where banks are now but where they will be if there is another major downturn shock anytime soon?
The EU stress tests of 91 banks didn't show problems as uncovered a year ago by the US tests on 19 of the top banks. The worse-scene scenario for 2009 & 2010 (economy to shrink 3.3% in '09, unemployment at 8.9% and home-prices fall 22%). Based on this, 10 of the banks were required to raise their capital to maintain solvency.Fed regulators have since then increased scrutiny of USA’s largest banks, digging deeper (audit-trailing from lower to higher 'granularity') into 'riskier' activities and pushing firms to conduct more rigorous “stress tests” of their 'risk appetites' and checking the veracity of governance statements.
Tighter oversight is justified by the genuine fear of another financial crisis as devastating as the current one - to close regulatory gaps that permit unsustainable risk-taking exemplified by Lehman Brothers, AIG and Bear Stearns, to which may be added WaMu, Wachovia, and Merril Lynch, and factors necessitating government funding loans to JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Bank of America.
Some experts suggest the stress tests are no more realistic than 30mph head-on car crash tests, adding that sadly the most appropriate and realistic aspect of the exercises are 'dummy variables': So, as we experts have always said, eventually regulation of banks would focus centrally on stress-test scenarios, the very aspect that banks dragged their feet on and ignored, preferring to complete everything and anything else first.
The tougher policing focuses on stress tests and this time also on details of banks’ realised and unrealised profits. What that means is that simple discount factors cannot be crudely applied to headline figures.
Federal examiners are asking banks for more details on the P/L of each line of business and per asset class, especially securities and capital markets and investment banking, rather than focusing only on group balance sheet totals as before. Lifting the carpet to check what's underneath, begs some questions, mostly about how risk-taking could be hidden among layers of risk aggregations and how these risks are more exposed when disaggregating?
It seems to me that the real risk measures are those that understand the external financial markets and macroeconomic context factors, because riskiness is rarely obvious in a balance sheet however detailed only by looking at it in the context of itself.
Apparently, 'deeper analysis' we learn has informed the authorities that before the credit crunch rising bank profits were coupled with a hidden increase in risks!
Well, gee, knock me over with a feather!
Before the turmoil, the finance sector worth perhaps at most 15% of US GDP was generating 45% of all corporate profits in a massively fast-rising segment of GDP i.e. roughly fluctuating at or near to banks' total share of 9%/GDP:and doing so with decelerating equity prices (falling p/e)and to anyone looking at stock market values could see that, with corporate profits rising higher, securities were over-optimistic about timing of the economic cycle: and something was surely hugely amiss in profit-accounting by the financial sector reliant on booking unrealised profits that were unsustainable. The data shows finance sector at up to35% of all US corporate profits pre-crunch, and these profits are after the high staff bonuses of up to half as much again! From a government's point of view unrealised profits and bonuses are taxable so there is a possible niggling disincentive to question the banks' sagging bottom line even if it looked very like a casual hang loose attitude to risk?
Data on finance sector as a whole is imprecise because the sector includes a lot of business services, investment funds, asset management, insurance, accountancy, corporate law, real estate and not just 'financial intermediation' the term for banking. Looking at the broader sector data that has grown very dramatically in the last 1 and 2 decades as a share of GDP and that would explain a lot of the sector's share of corporate profits, but which still seems excessive. Perhaps, financial authorities thought corporate profits are merely a counterpart to the yield on Treasuries and naturally banks take the pride-leader's lion's share of that kill? Regulators before the credit crunch paid little attention to the increase in the amount of mortgage-backed securities on banks’ books. It is also not the job of auditors to audit banks' risk statements in reported published accounts. Auditors sign off the solvency of a bank for the next twelve months, but that is not based on risk or economic analysis, but only on the current solvency of the balance sheet.
Now, bankers complain that regulators are putting pressure on them to be much more pessimistic in stress tests about their ability to respond to economic shocks. That is hard in the absence of precise details, models, templates and without knowing who and how or exactly when that will be externally audited.
What they are complaining about is that regulators are edemanding more detailed realism, but unable to explain what precisely they mean by that? This is new, relatively unknown territory, poorly understood, where blue-sky thinking is required to be populated by all dark clouds imaginable.
None of the stress tests and results show a capacity to reproduce the events of the recent past, of 2006-2009 for example, and that should be the first test of the realism of stress-test forecasting models.
If any bank can show me that it has macro-models that can roughly emulate the events of the the shocks of the past four years I will buy its shares and its bonds.

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