8 Dec 2015

ABP to introduce 'Climate Budgets'

Does it really make sense to introduce 'Carbon Budgets' as a constraint on the mandates for Asset Managers? First of all, the calculation of carbon usage for all investment options is expensive and it is also more than likely to be imprecise or liable to be gamed. And why not a Carbon budget for fixed income investments (even more complicated and expensive, how much Carbon usage to you allocate to a bond?), and before we forget, I hope there will be Carbon budget for 'Private' Equity and Hedge Funds? And last not least, don't forget the HFT firms. And what about Bank lending?
Nevermind that there is a simple solution at hand (Tax Carbon if you are hell-bent on limiting its use). Why not act according to the principle, what is good for the Consultants MUST be good for the Consumer (here in the shape of hapless end investors in Mutual and Pension Funds, Private Banks and Insurance Companies).
And while we are on the subject of Climate Hysteria, has any political or business 'leder' ever received a democratic mandate for imposing ever-more 'green' taxes, costs and regulations on the citizen/consumer/investor anywhere in the world?

19 Nov 2015

Illiquid Bond Markets? Brace Yourself!

Not much has to be added to my post from October 2014. Maybe the move to automated bond trading has accelerated a bit, but I would not expect that to be of any help when markets become stressed. But the issue is not off the table, and given the voices of prominent market pundits it is obvious that no one really knows what will happen if a major bear market in bonds arrives. But investors should remember that bonds are a conservative investment, or at least they should be. That means investing with a view to hold to maturity, so there is no real need for liquidity.

From October 2014:

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.

18 Nov 2015

Hard to believe: Competition Inquiry into Fund Management

Bureaucrats are hard-pressed to find enough to occupy the enormous number of people working at the UK's regulatory body, the FCA. The irony is that the roughly 4000 employees themselves put a large burden on the industry and by extension on the British (and international) savers who ultimately pay for the costs of this neo-totalitarian construct.
Sloppy supervision led to the so-called abuses in the financial sector (Forex, Libor, 'mis-selling' of payment protection) and even more sloppy prosecution led to the imposition of arbitrary fines that bear no relation to the 'crimes' committed. In any proper court of justice there has to be concrete proof that harm was done but these enquiries are nothing else than vindictive persecution of an unpopular and quite often hated minority.
And the bureaucrats take their time. The final report is not expected to be published before early 2017 (who wants to open a book on that?).
There may be problems in the UK asset management industry but only a fool (and a regulator with time and money on his hands) would say that there is not enough competition. Any distortions are more likely to be the outcome of ill-considered tinkering by politicians (and I am sure Chancellor Osborne is busily working on some more schemes that will aggravate an already non-sensical legal and tax framework).
FCA launches competition study of UK asset management industry (IPE)

15 Oct 2015

Capital Markets Union

The muted plans for CMU will always remain half-baked without a common legal landscape. Only when buying shares in any company sited in the EU is as simple/safe/painless as buying shares in an Oregon company by an investor in Alabama will we reach this Nirvana. Pie in the Sky?

Capital and Chutzpah: Why US has more than Europe

15 Sept 2015

Dark Pools - who brings light into them?

News that Credit Suisse has reached a settlement on the 'dark pool' probe may bring relief to its shareholders, management and some market professionals. But it still leaves open the question how the practice of executing orders in these pools is policed. By definition the transactions are designed to provide a certain (total?) amount of privacy and anonymity. Market impact is (hopefully in the eyes of the users) lessened. But are the prices achieved fair - especially for the ultimate owners of the assets bought or sold, the investors holding the mutual funds or pension funds that are using dark pools? Are all transactions logged and published so that the end investor can check them against a consolidated tape (price, amount and exact time?). If not then this leaves too much leeway and encourages trickery that would rival the abuses that came to light in the foreign exchange and interbank (Libor) markets.

29 Aug 2015

Money Laudering: what is a 'suspicious' transaction?

Apart from finance professionals being clairvoyants it is extremely tricky to safely fulfil the regulator's insistence to report all suspicious transactions. With hindsight it is always possible for authorities to hit banks and asset managers with a big club and claim a transaction should have been reported. The only really safe procedure would be to report ALL transactions and put the burden of compliance on the shoulders of the regulators. Alternatively there should be an EXHAUSTIVE and detailed checklist giving details of any signs that should arouse suspicion. As always we want to remind readers that in our opinion poor and unnecessary legislation or sloppy work by police authorities are the real reasons for the anti-money laundering hysteria. There was no more crime before the politicians invented the need to control citizens more and more in a costly, intrusive - and ultimately ineffective - way.

10 Aug 2015

Credit Suisse: Old wine in new bottles?

Sad as it is to see a proud Swiss institution (again) unable to find a local candidate to fill the vacancy at the top of the organisation I watch with interest the first pronouncements of its newly-installed CEO. But apart from the unresolved question of whether or not it is wise to combine the business of banking with asset management (there is a strong argument in favour of independent asset managers) it is quite an irony that Credit Suisse is now supposed to find salvation in asset management - after having shed quite a few parts of the business during the past few years. And do the private banking clients really want to be 'cross-sold' the goodies that the investment bankers are 'incentivised' (to put it mildly) to create for them?
Tidjane Thiam may have done a creditable job at Prudential but he was promoted in March 2009, at the very bottom of the bear market. Talking of good timing!

31 Jul 2015

Buying a Hedge Fund is not so easy

Hedge fund firms are difficult to sell/buy as they depend - in general - too much on the style of a few individuals running the show. Quite often their mentality is not well suited to build a lasting institution. One of the main reasons - apart from the possibility of greater financial rewards - of starting a hedge fund was to be free of the bureaucratic constraints they experienced during their previous employment with a larger institution. So I am not surprised that Carlyle's acquisition of Vermillion asset management has hit rocky shores. (Wall street Journal, Paywall).

10 Jul 2015

Future of 'Universal' Banking Model in doubt

The sudden exit of another Bank CEO - now at Barclays Bank - is a stark reminder that managing a 'Universal' Bank requires near-superhuman skills, and a good portion of luck (or friends in high places as JP Morgan's Jamie Dimon or Lloyd Blankfein at Goldman Sachs would probably confirm).The business model did work quite well in a period of slow technological change, markets that were quite insulated and regulation that kept unwanted competition out.But a universal bank is basically nothing but a financial conglomerate and the conglomerate model - while offering certain advantages - is not one that has demonstrated that it is likely to be successful in the long run. Who still remembers names such as LTV or Gulf+Western? Both were high-fliers on the stock market until they hit the buffers as they become unmanageable, their mastermind retired or they hit unfavourable economic headwinds.

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)