Posts tagged ‘regulators’

Banking Surgery or Amputation?

Photo Source: (c)iStockphoto.com Artist: Powerofforever

Deciding whether to sever the proprietary trading arms of the commercial banks, rather than instituting regulation, seems a lot like deciding whether amputation is a healthier path for those suffering terrible frostbite cases. Even if this legislation is unlikely to pass, I find the recommendations severe in relation to other measured alternatives. I’m no right-wing conspiracy theorist, but I don’t think the timing of the Obama administration’s announcement is coincidental. Why is this proposal surfacing two years into the financial crisis and a whole year after the President entered office?

Politicians have always been masterful at introducing coincidental distractions at opportune times, in order to generate patriotic voter sympathies. Some examples include, Margaret Thatcher in the Falkand Islands; George Bush #41 in the Iraqi war; and President Obama’s current ant-banker populist brigade. Perhaps miserable and declining approval ratings and a healthcare bill on the verge of collapse may have something to do with the timing? I want President Obama to succeed, and he may have good intentions, but let’s not rush to an overzealous knee-jerk reactions before other less-draconian solutions are thoroughly explored.

Glass-Steagall Redux

Theoretically, the argument of forcing banks to adopt lower risk sounds great on paper. Overall, I think this initiative is a worthy one Americans could buy into. As a matter of fact, investment guru Jeremy Grantham makes the same argument in my Investing Caffeine article (“Too Big to Sink). However, I think a more relevant question is, “How do we implement more responsible risk taking by the banks, without a massive overhaul to the system?” Certainly there were some regulators asleep at the switch, and some financial institutions that pushed the envelope on risk assumption, but I’m not convinced a return to Glass-Steagall (or Glass-Steagall Lite) is going to bring miracles. If the regulators cannot adequately curb risk taking by the banks, then cross the more dangerous bridge later. The economy is presently in the midst of a fragile recovery and we do not want to change the airplane engine during mid-flight.

Political Pendulum Swings

This isn’t the first time Washington has reversed previous decisions. If the cries of voters reach a feverish pitch, and these wishes coincide with a politician’s re-election agenda, then the probabilities of sub-optimal, rushed legislation increases. Consider AT&T (T), which because of antitrust concerns was forced to split operations in 1982. Lo and behold, some twenty years later, we witnessed the re-consolidation of the “Baby Bells” back into AT&T. Now, Glass-Steagall is the topic of conversation and with an unambiguous scapegoat needed by politicians, Washington is targeting the banks with taxes and operations splitting.

Hasty legislation is nothing new with the populist flames fanning in the background. Sarbanes-Oxley is another example of less-than-ideal legislation introduced in the wake of  relatively low number of corporate scandals, such as Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco (TYC).

Regulation Reform Solution

Here are 3 constructive steps:

1)      Institute transparent trading of derivatives (i.e., Credit default Swaps) over exchanges with adequately capitalized clearing houses.

2)      Require higher capital requirements for banks conducting proprietary trading and mandate adequate disclosure.

3)      Consolidation of regulators, thereby creating a more simplified, accountable structure (see also Regulatory Web article). Savings from redundant costs could be used to hire additional regulatory oversight staff.

Blood is in the streets and with mid-term elections just around the corner, the Obama administration is looking to salvage anything they can bring back to the voters. Frost bite (and greedy bankers) is a painful and horrible predicament, however if healthy functioning limbs can be saved with targeted surgery rather than amputation, then I vote for this solution.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including VFH), and at the time of publishing had no direct positions in T, TYC. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 22, 2010 at 1:30 am 2 comments

China Executes Wall Street Solution

China is taking an innovative approach to white collar crime…execution. Yang Yanming, a rogue securities trader, completed his death sentence this week for embezzling $9.52 million (a daily rounding error for Goldman Sachs, I might add). Not exactly a cheery topic for the holiday season, but nonetheless, apparently an effective technique for cracking down on illegal behavior. Last I heard, there has been no mention of a $65 billion Chinese version of the Madoff Ponzi scheme? I wonder what kind of risks the financial division of AIG would have undertaken, if involuntary death sentences were considered as viable options in the back of their minds? China in fact carries out more annual executions (via lethal injection and gun) than any other country in the world.

Part of the recent financial crisis can be attributed to the culture of Wall Street and the investment industry, which centers on exploiting “OPM,” an acronym I use to describe “other people’s money.” Often, industry professionals (I use the term loosely) assume undue amounts of risk in hopes of securing additional income, no matter the potential impact on the client. The thought process generally follows: “Why should I risk my own capital to make a mega-bonus, when I can swing for the fences using someone else’s?” And if OPM cannot be secured from individuals, perhaps the capital can be borrowed from the banks – at least before the bailouts occurred.

OPM does come with some caveats, however. Say for example the OPM comes from the government. When TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) funds got crammed down the throats of the banking industry, the auspice of reduced bonuses didn’t sit very well with many of the fat-cat Wall Street executives. Financial institutions prefer their OPM with few strings and little to no accountability. Goldman Sachs (GS), JP Morgan (JPM), and Morgan Stanley (MS) weren’t big fans of the government’s pay scale, so these banks paid back the TARP funds at mid-year. Citigroup (C) is still negotiating with the U.S. Treasury and regulators to remove the scarlet phrase of “exceptional assistance” from their chests.

This subject of accountability brings up additional doses of blame to distribute. Not only are the gun-slinging bankers and advisers the ones to blame, but in many cases the clients themselves shoulder some of the responsibility. Either the clients’ start drinking the speculative “Kool-Aid” of their advisor or they neglect to ask a few basic questions for accountability. Just as Ronald Reagan stressed in his conversations with the Soviets, it is also imperative for clients to “trust but verify” the relationship with their advisor (read how to get your financial house in order).

One thing we learned from the crisis of 2008-2009 is that trust is a scarce resource. Investors can “luck” into a trustworthy relationship, but more often than not, just like anything else, it takes time and effort to build a worthy partnership.

The suppliers of OPM have gotten smarter and more skeptical after the crisis, however the managers of OPM haven’t discarded risk from their toolboxes. In addition to the general rebound in domestic equities, we have seen emerging markets, commodities, high-yield bonds, and foreign currencies (to name a few areas), also vault higher.

Regulatory reform for the financial industry is a hot topic for discussion, although virtually nothing substantive has been implemented yet. Incentives, accountability, and adequate capital requirements need to be put in place, so excessive risk-taking (like we saw at the AIG division handling Credit Default Swaps) doesn’t compromise the safety of our financial system. Also, traders need to be incentivized for making responsible decisions and punished adequately for participating in illegal activities. I know the President has a lot on his plate right now, but perhaps the Obama administration could set up a brief meeting with the capital punishment committee in Beijing. I’m confident the Chinese could assist us in “executing” a financial regulatory system solution.

Read Full Reuters Article on Rogue Chinese Trader

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (VFH) and BAC, but at time of publishing had no direct positions in GS, AIG, JPM, MS and C. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

December 10, 2009 at 1:45 am Leave a comment


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