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Back on the Good Ship Lollipop

Banks are showing major profits again, bad debts are reducing fast, emerging markets are growing fast and bonuses are good, so all things are back to normal on the Good Ship Lollipop.

Or are they?

Not quite.

Certainly profits are looking positive as Societe Generale, UBS, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs etc all posted great returns in the last week or so (ignore ING and Credit Suisse), but profits and returns aren’t the whole picture.

There’s a few murky waters underneath.

First, are the profits real?

Some might say that a large chunk of these profits reflect the overly cautious write-offs of debt that the banks made in 2008 and 2009, when the crisis was at its worst.

Mortgage defaults and corporate bankruptcies haven’t been nearly as bad as the scaremongers feared and so debts are now being revalued and re-evaluated.

Such revaluation reflects a leap in profits from written off debts to written back revenues.

Second, the world has changed.

There is a big fear amongst the large banks with investment arms that those investment houses will be shut down.

Between Dodd-Frank, the Volcker Rule, the European Commission and the Independent Banking Commission, everyone is starting to hint that ‘casino capitalism’ – a term I hate but used widely in the media – is going to be outlawed.

This reflects a future where the investment world is run by hedge funds and private equity, as trading off their own book of business is no longer allowed in banks.

Third, banking hasn’t changed (yet).

The reporting season we are seeing right now is one where banks appear to have returned to some sort of normalcy. A kind of pre-2008 sense of success has come back and, even with all of these rumours of new regulations, where are they?

Sure, there are moves afoot amongst the USA, EU and G20 to clamp down on too big to fail risky practices, but I’m at a loss to point to one piece of effective new regulation introduced since the crisis hit three years ago.

And if any of you can show me one, then you’re a better person than I Gungha Din.

Which brings me to my final thought: bonuses (again!).

During this reporting season, there’s been some interesting analysis of the bonus issue and maybe the real pressure to resolve this one will come from shareholders.

For example, Barclays are awarding almost £2 billion in bonuses on their £6.1 billion profit whilst only awarding £570 million as the pool for shareholder dividends. In 2007, shareholders received £2.23 billion in dividends whilst bonuses were £1.3 billion (admittedly BarCap only had 16,200 investment bankers back then compared to the 25,000 they have today!).

Compare this with 2009, when bonuses rose to £2.2 billion whilst shareholders received just £285 million in dividends.

And there’s the rub.

As a proprietary trading firm, Barclays cannot keep throwing the finger at their shareholders whilst giving their elite traders Porsches and Yachts.

However, as banks tend to do, there are ways around this.

First, pay higher salaries in order to reduce the bonus pot … which they are.

For example, whilst Barclays announced that bonuses were down 12%, their average compensation rose 24% after you include payments from previous years, pension contributions and other income.

More interesting may be the move towards CoCo packages.

CoCo’s are bonuses paid in “Contingent Core Tier-1 capital”, which mean that the investment bankers get much of their bonus paid in the longer term and only if the bank’s Tier-1 capital remains above a certain level.  If the bank’s capital falls below that level then the guys get shares in the bank, rather than cash.

Credit Suisse, Lloyds and other banks are all going down this route and it does change things.

For the better?

Not sure.

For the overly complex discrete coverage of what’s being paid to whom, when?

Possibly.

So, all in all, what we are now seeing emerge is banks back to doing well, but with far more complex remuneration, taxation and accounting structures.

Does this ensure that those who invest in, regulate and supervise them, are left wondering what’s going on?

It certainly makes me wonder.

 

About Chris M Skinner

Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, the Finanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here...

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  • As Barclays has demonstrated, being first out of the block for the UK banks, you need to look behind the headlines to see what is actually going on. Certainly, as you point out, the reduction in impairments compared to last year flatters the results, but the rate of the rise in costs versus the growth in income has to be a major concern (and Bob Diamond recognises this otherwise why would he be saying that he wants to strip £1bn of costs out). Income up 8%, costs up 19% Cost:Income ratio up to 64%. Externally imposed additional costs are only going to go one way as more regulation and the focus on increased capital can only increase the cost of doing business. So while it may at first glance look like business as usual, I’m far from convinced that it is and that there is still a lot of pain to be felt.

  • Fritz Thomas Klein

    New regulation successfully being implemented: Mandating the use of Central Counterparties in (any) sort of trading.

  • tonyw

    Good Ship Lollipop? Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone doesn’t see it as sweet at all and asks
    “…
    Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail?
    Financial crooks brought down the world’s economy — but the feds are doing more to protect them than to prosecute them
    Over drinks at a bar on a dreary, snowy night in Washington this past month, a former Senate investigator laughed as he polished off his beer.
    “Everything’s f*cked up, and nobody goes to jail,” he said. “That’s your whole story right there”…
    “You put Lloyd Blankfein in pound-me-in-the-ass prison for one six-month term, and all this bullshit would stop, all over Wall Street,” says a former congressional aide. “That’s all it would take. Just once.”
    http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/why-isnt-wall-street-in-jail-20110216?page=1
    Meanwhile let them profit from their collective crimes, to the tune of a record $135 billion in pay and benefits last year. Where’s the handcuffs or at least the rage?