16 Feb 2011

Arbitrary Bonus Awards - potential for contentious litigation

A recent court judgement illustrates again that arbitrary bonus awards and redundancy decisions should be avoided at all costs. Not only do they demonstrate poor judgement by the managers responsible but they also put their employers into a bad light. We have argued for a long time that it is just not good enough to make bonus or redundancy decisions on the basis of 'whose face fits in'. The secrecy surrounding bonus decisions is a contributing factor to this problem. Bringing qualitative judgements into decisions which ultimately revolve about hard numbers and money allow abusive practices to flourish. In addition, the revenue potential that an individual employee has is also dependent to a large extent on the client base he is allocated or the product he is assigned to trade (and the dealing limit he is given). It would therefore be much better if a large part of all bonus payment would be allocated on a firm-wide basis (or based on departments). In addition the much maligned percentage basis (related to profits, credits or whatever) would also put bonus decisions onto a more objective (and less contentious) basis.

Profitability of Commodities business disappoints

The headlong rush into the commodities business may not be as profitable as banks and brokers expect. Each commodity requires special skills and it is expensive to support teams in all of these distinct market niches. But the focus of attention shifts from on product to the next and it is tricky to anticipate the next hot market. Playing catch-up is a futile game as a bank may have hired expensive teams only to see the specific sector to cool down and prevent lucrative business from paying for the new hires. There is also regulatory risk as authorities may clamp down on what some describe as a casino that is not serving the real economy as much as investors and speculators. It is quite conceivable that commodities may be declassified as eligible investments and treated more harshly by tax legislation. Business volumes could drop precipitously if that would ever be the case.

13 Feb 2011

Barclays: Protium deal worries shareholders

A look at the longer-term performance of the shares of some of the leading 'universal' banks confirms that shareholders have largely been left out of the party when it comes to sharing the wealth generated by the explosive growth of financial markets during the past two decades. So it should not be a surprise that more than one eyebrow is raised about the cosy deal that was struck between Barclays Bank and a number of its employees when $12.3 billion of toxic assets were sold to the Protium off-balance sheet vehicle in September 2009. It is not obvious why this transaction was necessary as the amount is quite insignificant compared to the Bank's total balance sheet. As is often the case when banks dispose of unwanted assets one has to ask why outside parties should get the upside. Surely the price of any such deal reflects what should be a realistic market price. Why would a bank - once it has accepted market reality - not stick to an asset that has been marked down to a new - and more attractive - price level? The only explanation we can come up with is bureaucratic inertia or intellectual lazyness thus opening an opportunity for outsiders with an eye for value

12 Feb 2011

UK banking regulators: lunatics at the controls?

When 'bank regulators are launching a new type of "stress test" that forces banks to consider unlikely but potentially disastrous scenarios like a flu pandemic or disruptions to the country's food-supply chain' (Wall Street Journal, 11 Feb 2011) one has to ask if regulatory creep has reached the lunatic stage. I wonder when banks are asked to plan for the possibililty of an asteroid impact.

8 Feb 2011

Forced Ranking: UBS falls for Management Fad

The 'forced ranking' human resource management tool introduced by CEO Oswald Gruebel at UBS has created bad blood among employees at the bank. The instrument that can at best be called controversial (and inhuman at worst) has attracted massive criticism as a quick Google Search will demonstrate. Top of the list are negative references and it can only be seen as a sign of desperation that a company that traces its roots back over more than one century finds itself compelled to reach out for such a measure in order to improve its inadequate - and at times catastrophic - performance. It is quite difficult to understand why a CEO who has always led from the front - Gruebel started out as a bond trader and was for a while the star of the nascent Eurobond market - would fall for a concept that has been abandoned by other companies. The cost-income ratio in the investment bank may well be too high at 80% but it would be better to cut the fat in one fell swoop rather than drag out the agony. Regular reviews are in any case now an over-hyped fad that waste much employee time, create bad blood and serve only to boost the sense of self-importance in the human resource departments.

5 Feb 2011

Andrew Smithers on Banking Equity Ratios, Competition and Pay

We heartily recommend Andrew Smither's latest comments on the failure of banking regulation. Smithers argues that higher capital ratios would limit public subsidy to banks and pose no threat to lending volumes - if anything, banks would lend more than under the ill-considered Basel III capital ratios that come into effect in 2018.

4 Feb 2011

Raiffeisen buys 70 pct of Polbank - valuation more realistic than pre-crunch

News that the Austrian Raiffeisen International buys a 70 pct stake in the aptly named Polbank in Poland confirms that the market for banking assets in the emerging markets is still decoupled from the market valuations in many developed markets. The price paid to the former holder of the stake, the Greek Eurobank EFG, represents around 12.7 pct of Polbanks balance sheet of Euro 5.5 billion (per Sept 2010). This is a much less aggressive valuation than those seen applied to banks in Eastern Europe a few years ago but still puts a lot of hope into the possibilities of reaping economies of scale from merging the business with Raiffeisen's existing network in Poland.

2 Feb 2011

Tax burden in UK becomes problematic

A simple calculation in the sports section of a British newspaper came to the conclusion that a football player who would move to England on a total compensation of Euro 3 million would take home only around half that amount after the deduction of all taxes. In Switzerland his take-home pay would be nearly 2.4 million. Obviously this also has clear implications for Britain's standing as a global financial centre. With discrepancies as large as this the decline in London's relative attractiveness - especially for foreign professionals - becomes evident.

1 Feb 2011

Smaller players will win market share in Investment Banking

We agree with Chris Whalen, MD of Institutional Risk Analytics, when he predicts that smaller firms will gain market share in investment banking and fill in the gaps left by the demise of several large firms during the Credit Crunch. Regulation will also to a certain extent clip the wings of the dominant firms and force them to reduce their activities in certain business segments.