30 May 2015

Anti-Money Laudering measures bark up the wrong tree

Prevention, detection and prosecution of money laundering has become big business during the past 20-30 years. And it will keep on growing and feed an ever-expanding army of regulators, compliance officers and assorted consultants. By definition the term money-laundering can be applied to nearly all business transactions and it taints everyone - even innocent parties - that is involved in commerce. For who can with 100 percent certainty say that someone he transacts with is not in some way associated with a proscribed activity? As re-iterated on this site for a few times money-laundering legislation is only a get-out for poor legislation and poor government. If the crime (and quite a few of the proscribed activities do not rank as crime in everyone's eyes) would have been prevented, detected or prosecuted, or even better, bad laws would not have been enacted, the need for anti-money laundering would vanish. High and arbitrary taxes (tobacco, alcohol, VAT), discriminatory subsidies (EU agriculture), moral crusades (drugs, prostitution) are all imposed on upright citizens and cannot be justified by any standard. It is also noteworthy that money-laundering accusations are regularly added to accusations that are not really involving any money laundering. One example would be where the someone is accused of tax fraud. Naturally there will be some financial transactions involved but to claim that money laundering was involved is not grounded in any rational sense of justice. But it suits today's political class to create a climate of all-pervasive supervision and fear among the citizens they are supposed to serve.

16 Apr 2015

We are an Earnings Machine

Claims Steve Schwarzman (CNBC) - but is it very diplomatic to boast so openly about the profits Blackstone makes off its investors? Maybe a little bit of PR coaching might be appropriate - one still remembers a birthday he celebrated that was supposed to cost $ 1 million.

London the global Bitcoin Hub?

Pull another one would be my first and only reaction. I may be of the wrong generation but would still stake my reputation on the fact that this will end badly. In an age where Central Bankers are close to act like petty criminals and steal money from Savers all over the World it is unlikely that a Bitcoin will ever provide a reliable store of value. A gambling chip maybe, and we all know that people want the excitement of rolling the dice, even if statistically they are playing a losers game.
London stakes its claim as global bitcoin hub (Reuters)

15 Apr 2015

The 'fun' (ugly?) face of the City

The one thing that surprises me - given the amount of ever-more sophisticated technology that is available - is the survival of the voice-based interdealer brokers. As this incident demonstrates the level of sophistication needed to fulfill the role of go-between is not all that great. So may the level of 'client entertainment' have a significant role to play? Sooner or later the penny will drop and another source of generous income for many staffers will be rationalised away, or fall foul of tightening regulation.
City traders make new recruit eat 8 quarter pounders (Mail on Sunday)

9 Apr 2015

Jamie Dimon clings to outdated business model

No surprise that Dimon defends the status quo, bigger is better and the banking department store model is best (Reuters). But I wonder if he reads the trends in financial services the right way. Specialist providers may well be the way of the future, especially if they make good use of technology. Payments, Fund Management, Investment Banking Advice, Securities Trading all can easily - and cheaply - provided by standalone providers. One only has to wonder why there are still so many bank branches on the High Streets. The only - and probably the real - reason that gives JP Morgan and other super large banks an edge is the (sad) fact that customers - and unfortunately politicians and the regulatory minions - consider them too-big-too-fail. That still pushes clients their way that would otherwise consider cheaper and more nimble competitors. The growth of new product providers is therefore stunted which gives the large banks the opportunity to cling to their outdated business model.

27 Jan 2015

Single Capacity to protect counterparties - notes on Goldman/LIA dispute

Not a question of being smarter, though that may well be the case. It is a question of morality - or lack thereof. When firms are feted as being the 'most powerful' investment bank this may go into the head of staff and senior management. That success is only measured by the size of the pay packet shows that morality is unlikely to be top of the priorities in the organisation. The setup of financial markets invites problematic relationships between firms and their customers (client would be an inappropriate term though it is used ad nauseam by staffers). A lawyer is smarter than the average user of legal services, but only in this narrow field of expertise. No one would need a lawyer unless he has an informational advantage, i.e. knows the law better than the client (here the term can be applied with justification). Goldman and other financial service providers WILL know more than the client, that is their job. But the (moral) imperative is not to abuse this advantage. This particular case will make its way through the courts but it appears from the outside that the Libyans were in all likelihood even more in need of being protected as a client and not just considered a counterparty in an equal exchange. A system of single-capacity, splitting market making and 'advice' would go some way in preventing similar scenarios. It would not automatically eliminate conflicts of interest, maybe a code of practice for the protection of customers would also be appropriate. Self-styled 'Business principles' devised by the firms themselves are not sufficient.
Goldman Sachs profit on disputed LIA trades back in focus (Financial Times)

21 Jan 2015

QE - should you laugh or cry?

More and more desperate calls for all-out QE in the Eurozone make me laugh and cry at the same time. Laugh because it is not very likely that the hoped-for revival of the economies in the weak member states of the zone will happen. One has to look at the micro-economic aspect of the problem: why would any business invest/hire just because the rate of borrowing has declined by some small fraction? Given high tax rates - and they are going up all the time, openly or in stealth fashion (think 'fees' and 'charges' by public bodies) it should be expected that the entrepreneurial class will cut back on its work load. Why not take it easy if the larger part (60, 70pct if one adds in tax on taxed income, i.e. VAT, stamp duties etc etc) of additional income is confiscated by a parasitic caste of politicians, bureaucrats and their favoured beneficiaries? And why would I cry? Because the chances that the march into ever-higher control of our lives via the permanent avalanche of ill-thought-out legislation and higher taxation/spending is not going to be reversed anytime soon.

20 Jan 2015

Does Bini Smaghi pass the competency test?

Lorenzo Bini Smaghi may have many (too many?) fine qualifications, but he is basically an academic and bureaucrat who never in his life made a loan or traded a security. So it is not clear whether he would pass the newly-introduced tests that are now de rigueur under the UK 'senior persons regime'. It may well be that he would not want to undergo this water-boarding by anonymous and unaccountable regulators - understandably so as it is nothing but a new version of a black-balling that belongs to a long-gone area. But if he is seen as competent enough to supervise one of the largest banks in Europe one wonders what all the ink and paper worth on banking regulation has really been wasted for.
Regulators must check all senior bankers (Daily Telegraph)

5 Dec 2014

Being a 'Global' Bank brings extra Risks

One has to wonder if being a 'Global' Bank is really an intelligent business proposition. It requires Superman/woman to manage far-flung empires and activities that can span more disciplines than any normal human can realistically be expected to fully understand. And a particular risk factor are differences in business culture that senior management - be it located in New York, London, Frankfurt, Zurich or Tokyo - can hardly be expected to appreciate to the extent that would be required. Deutsche Bank lending money to build another hotel/casino in Las Vegas? Citigroup lending money secured by warehouse receipts in Chinese Ports? An Austrian Bank lending money to a steel business in Russia? Do these activities make sense or would concentration on a geographical area one understands and is familiar with be more profitable in the long run?

16 Oct 2014

Illiquid Bond Markets? Brace Yourself!

Recently there are more and more reports about a perceived lack of liquidity in secondary bond markets.

For example Fund Traders dig deep for bonds (WSJ, Paywall)

Most Commentators blame the tide of regulation that has forced market makers to drastically reduce their bond inventories.

This may be a valid point but one should not forget that some other aspects could be more relevant.
The bond trading business has expanded enormously during the past 20-25 years. Until 2007/08 volumes and staff levels increased to what in retrospect can only be described as unsustainable levels. Some retrenchment was inevitable, with or without added regulation. This naturally has an effect on the volumes that the dealer community can handle.

Technology may play an incremental role but many more complicated transactions still have to be done over the telephone, albeit with the aid of messaging or email services. Full automation is still a distant prospect, especially when there are tens of thousands of different bond issues outstanding. 'Do you want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?' asked the head trader of the erstwhile Credit Suisse White Weld in the late 1970s in a note to a colleague who wanted to introduce technology into the bond trading business. In my opinion he still would not need to worry too much.

The level of interest rates has - and will - have to play an important part in the lack of liquidity. The big bull market in bonds has played itself out, rising markets create turnover. At best markets from now will move sideways - creating less and less profitable trading opportunities. At worst they will enter bear territory and declining bond prices traditionally mean lower profits and lower volumes. Only the best traders will be able to prosper in a climate of fear and pessimism.

The explosion in the amount of outstanding bond values and the corresponding expansion of the buy-side (who would ever have thought that a fund manager less than 30 years old would control billions in assets?) make it virtually certain that there will not be enough liquidity to allow a smooth exit through a (very) narrow door when markets turn. Is any trading venue going to be able to take the other side when the likes of Pimco or BlackRock want to implement a drastic shift in their investment strategy?

So the old saying holds: Markets will fluctuate, this will create opportunities for those who are a step ahead of the crowd. Expect sharp moves and review your risk management process to be able to cope with extreme volatility if and when it arrives - as surely it will one day.