Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Banks KIlled The Golden Goose... What Next?

The crisis in the financial system reached epic proportions over the last few weeks. The collapse of Lehman, Bear Stearns going, AIG bail-out, Goldman and Morgan changing status and the "RTCII" bail-out being discussed at the moment has changed the landscape for the industry, but how will it look after this?

Whether you agree with the recent government moves on short sellers or not, we have to get used to the fact that this is the tip of the iceberg for knee-jerk regulatory moves, or should we say 'political moves'.

The situation is not just US based, it world-wide. German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck told parliament the turmoil would leave "deep marks" on both sides of the Atlantic, but called it primarily an American problem.

"The world will never be as it was before the crisis," Steinbrueck, a deputy leader of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), told the Bundestag lower house.

"The United States will lose its superpower status in the world financial system. The world financial system will become more multi-polar," he said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, says "the days of laissez-faire capitalism are over".

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, has called for a global summit to overhaul a "crazy" financial system.

So what have the politicians got on their minds? Steinbrueck proposed eight steps to prevent a recurrence of the turmoil, including an international ban on "purely speculative" short-selling, new rules to hold individuals accountable for financial missteps and an increase in capital requirements for banks in order to offset credit risks.

Higher capital adequacy I can live with and is a good idea, but the other stuff just shows the mentality of politicians who don't really understand the financial world.

How would you identify 'purely speculative short selling' and how would that 'fix' the financial system?

Just a few pointers to Herr Steinbrueck:

When is short selling not speculative? Would this be when a company is, in the eyes of some faceless bureaucrat, actually over-valued?

Would there then be a 'list' or a warning system saying it’s now OK to short this company? Wouldn't you like to be the first to get that list!!!!

Perhaps it’s not speculative if it’s a 'hedge'. But then you are allowing some speculators to short but not others. How would that work and who would you decide this? Would you have to submit your trades to a regulator before you placed the trade?

Let’s face it, it is a silly, naive suggestion, but remember, this is coming from a politician who actually has the powers to do this, at least in Germany.

How scary is that?

Also, shorting, far from being a 'financial weapon of mass destruction' is a way to limit risk. Lest say I am trading in the banking sector. One bank looks good to trade, the other looks a little over valued. So you 'pair-trade' them. You go short on one and long on another. If the sector as a whole takes a dive while your trade is on you win on your short and lose on your long, this risk based trading stops people losing more money than they normally would.

The problem is that short selling is an easy thing to point at for a politician. Something that is easily digestible for the average non-financial guy. The simple message is 'short sellers profit from your pension fund going down'. Easy sell n'est pas?

But if you believe in banning short sellers who profit from driving prices down, then you must ban buyers when shares are driven to unrealistic prices.

The issue that is being missed on the short selling rules is this. If a company has been driven down to a point where its shares price is way below its asset value then the market will correct it. If I saw a stock trading at a discount to its assets then, all things being equal, I would be buying like crazy. The shorts would have to cover and 'hey-presto' we have priced the stock.

The ban on short selling does not address the wider market and fundamentally avoids the real issue because saying it would be the death knell to a politician. That is that credit was too easy, people borrowed too much and now they are feeling the pain... It is not a popular story but it is at the crux of this mess.

If you want to stop this happening again, restrict credit to people who can actually pay it back, make mortgages a mandatory 20% deposit and no more than 3 times single or joint earnings.

Problem is this would hit the housing market, hit first time buyers and make property less lucrative. Is that a bad thing?

What politicians also fail to grasp is that creating or changing rules that open the doors to the creation of huge banking and trading institutions is, frankly DUMB!!

How many times have you heard this phrase in the past 6 months; 'Too big to fail'. Hello, McFly is there anybody there?

The latest round of consolidations is needed but not desirable. The easiest way to regulate this situation is not to change the law and investigate every merger/acquisition. All the regulators need to do is increase capital adequacy. Basically if you want to go ahead and merge yourself into a giant firm then the risk you pose to the market should be minimised.

Have the banks in a situation where they can only leverage once over their asset base.

Whoah! Have you any idea how much liquidity that would take out of the market? I hear you say.

The answer is yes I do. But the one thing we know about the financial system is that where there is a gap another firm will move into that space. What is wrong with spreading the liquidity/risk across 1000 firms instead of one giant one? It would be easier to manage and it would be less of a risk to the system.

But the firms wouldn't make as much money.. I hear you, but they were the ones who killed the Golden Goose, why should they be allowed to dominate the market once again?

What about hedge funds, will we see and end to them? I don't see how. Maybe they will be called something else but the genie is out of the bottle now. How will you stop them?

OK, tomorrow they ban 'hedge funds'. How do you define that? A hedge fund is simply a company that issue shares and then invests its capital. Are you going to ban investment companies?

Increasing capital adequacy for banks and traders would limited hedge fund borrowing, limit bank trading, and, ultimately make the system less volatile. Limiting credit to the credit worthy would end the ponzi scheme of the housing markets and credit cards, this is where the focus needs to be.

Think about it. How can a 20 year old straight out of university get 50k in credit from the card companies? How was that going to end well?

It is not a popular thing to say. We have all got used to the fact that we can have a slice of the dream of wealth and it was housing that drove this. The game should be over, but it is such a political hot potato. Who will be strong enough to tackle it? If Obama gets the US Presidency and the Tories win in the UK and make the painful moves necessary to restrict credit, then there will be a back lash from the public, why? Because standards of living will go down.

More expensive credit and less of it, for traders, banks and the public alike, is the key to solving this problem, anything else will be a political band-aid aimed at pulling the wool over the public’s eyes and the game will just start over again.

If we really want to change the financial system it does not mean bankers and traders will be thrown to the dogs and told they have salary caps. It will be everyone buying a cheaper house, a cheaper car, saving more, buying less and returning to a society where credit is something you earn, not simply something that is given to keep the merry-go-round going.

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