31 Jan 2013

Deutsche Bank - Vorwaerts mit Achleitner?

The write-offs published in DB's results show that despite all the market-leading positions the Bank may have in certain business segments the size of the company makes it inevitable that some major air pockets are hit in various parts of the far-flung empire. This is a problem that all banking behemoths face. Add the incentives to make more profits every quarter (and a corresponding bonus) and you have nearly guaranteed that some transactions will lead to losses. So it is problematic when an institution such as Deutsche Bank finds it necessary to put Paul Achleitner into the role of chairman of the supervisory board after he has managed to display less than excellent flair for managing the finances and investments of Allianz AG. Do I need to mention Dresdner Bank to anyone?

Derivative Trading - prone to abuse, fraud

As little - or even no - cash changes hands when transactions in derivatives (especially those conducted " Over-the-Counter") are executed they require even more oversight than transactions in securities that are cash-settled within a very short time span. Malpractice can easily be hidden from compliance and audit departments - even if these are not complicit in any misconduct or fraud. Often staff in these units are of lower status, less well paid and less well versed in the intricacies of the instruments involved. OTC derivatives are by nature traded by appointment and the correct pricing is not easy to verify - even with the best intentions of any supervisors. So it is quite easy to build in a margin for those that want to skim some money off the transactions they conduct. That the dealing community fights every proposal to bring all transactions online and onto exchanges raises doubts about the sincerity of their motives in doing so. Reports about the conditions in the dealing department of Monte dei Paschi di Siena illustrate these problems poignantly. (Reuters)

Nomura - profits still weak

The 9-month results for Nomura Holdings offer a slightly more positive picture but given the generally favourable market conditions experienced in the 3 quarters to the end of 2012 one would have to say 'could do better'. The after-tax profit margin is just a tiny fraction of total revenues - and the gap between pre- and after-tax net points to somewhat ineffective tax management.

23 Jan 2013

Derivatives: Instruments of Mass Destruction?

Another day, another disclosure of a massive derivative loss. Given the astronomical amount of outstanding (OTC) derivative contracts (and even astronomers that are used to think in big numbers might have trouble relating to the relevant numbers) it is no wonder that these 'accidents' pop up on a regular basis. Low or non-existent capital requirements make these off-balance sheet exposures attractive for treasurers and CFO's. They require little or no cash up-front so give the somewhat false impression that entry to the great casino is free and profits will flow like manna from heaven. Sometimes they are sold as hedging instruments - and they might well be fit for the purpose but the iron discipline needed to stick to that narrow use is not given to all market participants. And many users are easy prey to the salespeople that are highly incentivised to peddle ever-more exotic schemes that resemble a 'heads I win, tails you lose' game. And given the fact that derivatives are ultimately a zero-sum game it is only natural that those offering these products are above all interested in making sure that they are not on the losing side of any derivative deal. Derivatives may well have a place in the arsenal of any financial market participant - but have to be supervised by experienced experts who can give an objective assessment of the risks and rewards involved.

16 Jan 2013

Goldman: plays a simple game better than most

Quarterly figures just released by Goldman Sachs this morning demonstrate (again) that the firm plays - what should be a simple game - better than most competitors. No need for expensive consultants to figure that out, just common sense and experience.

JP Morgan: Review of the 'Whale' Trades

Nothing but a very thorough review of the losses made by the 'Whale' was to be expected but one still has to wonder how much good this report will do. Its recommendations certainly will keep a lot of regulators and JP Morgan staffers very busy in the future. But looking at the quite unstructured text in the 18 pages it contains hints at the main problem any financial institution faces: complexity and human frailty combined with a good mix of fear, risk and greed. Setting up ever more complex procedures and review bodies will only go so far and never be a perfect substitute for common sense and competent, honest and modest people.

11 Jan 2013

UK: Hellbent on destroying its banks?

Readers know my scepticism with respect to the LIBOR witch hunt (and the PPI/payment protection insurance brouhaha that is completely blown out of proportion and turns all notions of individual responsibility on its head). But if there is any truth to it that the regulatory jobsworths (and their political puppetmasters) put pressure on Royal Bank of Scotland to get rid of two senior executives than one really has to say that the 'Coalition' here in the UK is hellbent on destroying what is left of indigenous UK banking institutions. Cameron and Osborne (and with a little bit of luck Nick Clegg as well) will find themselves cushy jobs with their Etonian or City friends and hangers-on after (as I would expect) they lose the next election. But the taxpayer and citizens of the country would have seen their (involuntary) investment in RBS go down the tubes.

10 Jan 2013

Libor Trades - Simplistic Calculations

Reports about the profits that Deutsche Bank is supposed to have made (where can we finally expect to see a hard copy of dollars and cents?) are simplistic to say the least. Of course, ALL trading houses will (hopefully) have made money from 'Libor trades'. The alternative would have been to have lost money in these trades. But as even any intern serving in an investment firm knows, that does not mean that any profit has been made in an improper fashion. Have any of the critics in the media, politics and regulators even had a good look at the acres of office space trading desks occupy? do they know how many different desks and investments are linked to Libor? Then they would understand that even the efforts of a group as large as the (supposed) group of UBS staffers can hardly have shifted the actual Libor rates produced collectively by ALL the contributing banks by more than a tiny amount. And even within UBS, for example, there would have been winners and losers on any given day, just that the people responsible for Libor quotes may have gained a small advantage at their expense. But for that I still would like to see actual proof and not general displays of shock, horror etc