by Mitch Feierstein about 10 months 1 week ago
Hogging the headlines: In recent years, financial news has dominated the front pages – most recently the scandal at Barclays
You know, there would have been a time when a financial contributor for the Daily Mail was restricted to the little stuff. Share tips, muttering about monetary policy, that sort of thing.
Not any more. Over the last few years, there’s been no breaking news like finance news. No war, no election, no natural disaster has long been able to displace finance from the front pages. This new emphasis makes perfect sense. When your job is threatened, your pension demolished, your child’s prospects seriously impaired, you need to know why these things are happening. The answers all revolve around matters financial.
So: another week, another row. Hot on the heels of last week’s news – another banking scandal, another repentance-free resignation – we have this week’s headline. Ed Miliband wants to force the big banks to sell up to 1000 branches each. He wants a specialist financial unit inside the Serious Fraud Office. Vince Cable has lambasted the banking sector’s ‘anti-business’ culture and accuses it of ‘throttling’ an incipient British recovery.
And they’re right. Bang-on-the-money, hole-in-one, jackpot-hittingly right.
Take each of those points in turn. Should the big banks be forced to sell branches? Of course they should! How is there even any argument? The mergers, acquisitions and bank failures which took place during the 2007-09 period have left British high streets with a dangerously oligopolistic industry. That means less competition. It means aworse deal for borrowers, a worse deal for savers – and a much-reduced capacity for corporate lending. It’s a market gone badly rotten. Competition from sizeable, properly funded institutions is essential for us all.
As for a specialist finance unit inside the SFO – I’m frankly astonished there isn’t one already. What’s more, such a unit needs to be lavishly funded. It needs to be able to employ professionals who understand the nuances of the financial markets. If that means paying top dollar, so be it. The money would easily be recaptured from the fines that would result.
And after all, how much more evidence do we really need that these banks have utterly lost touch with their ethics? They are happy to mis-sell a wide array of products to consumers. They are happy to fiddle interest rates. They are happy to sell totally inappropriate derivatives to corporate users. They will help an entire country, Greece, fiddle its books so it can enter the Euro.
I was about to write that there is nothing these people won’t do, and then I wondered. Mass murder? Genocide? Are there perhaps some limits still prevailing? Some matters a board of bankers would still not countenance? I don’t know. Maybe. But until those bankers find their ethics again, we need a fraud unit with as much finding and as much investigative authority as it plausibly needs. The hard truth is that until we see a fair few bankers serving long jail terms, these people will continue to feel immune. And no wonder. They have been immune. Bob Diamond may have resigned last week, but he hasn’t apologised, he hasn’t handed back any of his £100 million pay, he hasn’t indicated that he intends to waive his £20 million odd serverance package – and he isn’t facing jail. (Incidentally, Barclays stock price has declined 52% since February 2011 and 75% in the past five years. So how exactly does he think he earned that money?)
Blame: Vince Cable has slammed the banking sector’s ‘anti-business’ culture and accused it of stifling the chances of a speedy British economic recovery
As for Vince Cable’s comments about the anti-business culture of these firms – well, duh! Of course they have an anti-business culture. Banks have made money over recent years by (i) acquiring lousy assets (Greek bonds, American subprime debt, over-leveraged domestic mortgages), (ii) mispricing them on their books (so they don’t recognise the true impairment in value), (iii) waiting for the Bank of England to print more money as a way to support creaking asset markets and, when in dire straits, (iv) waiting for a handout from the taxpayer. None of these items have anything at all to do with real, ordinary banking business. None of them supports the broader economy. You’ll also note that the last two items involve massive support from the state, yet that support is somehow not inconsistent with the payment of massive bonuses. Explain that one if you can.
The trouble is that many banks are a zillion miles from becoming responsible citizens again. Their balance sheets are rotten. They may not admit that rottenness in public – there would be a bank run if they did – but they know perfectly well that their balance sheets are in a desperately weakened state. Because of that, they flinch from offering corporate loans – which involve real business risks in a difficult climate – and prefer to trade government paper. That way, their capital ratios look alittle better, no matter than no real banking work is being done.
You don’t have to take my word for these things. A strong bank will have a stock market ‘price to book’ ratio of more than one. That is: the stock market regards a given bank as being worth more than the collection of financial assets (less debt) on the bank’s balance sheet. A ratio of one exactly would mean that the bank was worth its financial assets but that its actual franchise – its ability to generate additional profits from those assets – was worth zero.
Action: Labour leader Ed Miliband wants to force the big banks to sell up to 1000 branches each
Most of our banks are today rated at far less than one. Barclays Bank, for example, has a price to book ratio ofjust 0.36. That is: the market regards the bank’s valuation of its own assets as laughably optimistic. While that continues to be the case, the bank willhave neither the strength nor the outlook needed to finance recovery.
So Miliband is right. Cable is right. The Tories are, on the whole, lamentably silent on this issue. (The worst offender is the bankers’ own apologist, Boris Johnson.) That’s not to say the Labour record has been glorious – very far from it. Ed Balls’s recent Oscar winning performance in front of the LIEBORgate enquiry was a frightening reminder of how useless and responsibility-evading his party was when in power. Until we have politicians ready to accept accountability and transparency while in power, we will continue to have a government that is wholly ineffective in the face of the banking lobby.
Nevertheless, and that said, Miliband and Cable are currently seeing these things more accurately than George Osborne and his colleagues. So here’s what has to be done. Break up the banks. Stop printing money. Deflate the housing bubble created by QE. Punish fraud. Force banks to publish honest balance sheets. The solutions are obvious. But will they happen? Of course they will: a Brit just needs to win at Wimbledon first…
Mitch Feierstein is CEO of Glacier Fund and author of Planet Ponzi: How politicians and bankers stole your future
I published this in the Daily Mail.