Finance

Andrew Hill

If you’re on Twitter, you’ll know by now that Warren Buffett is – to quote his first and (at time of writing) his only tweet – “in the house“.

His appearance on the social media service is apparently linked to a Fortune forum in which the Sage of Omaha is due to participate. It has already garnered him (again, at time of writing) 40,000 followers and prompted some Twitter wit from his bridge partner, Bill Gates. Read more

John Gapper

The chaos over the rescue of Cyprus – under which insured bank deposits were initially threatened but have been reprieved – has raised questions about whether depositors in other eurozone countries will feel safe.

But I wonder if the bigger long-term effect will be on offshore banking centres in general, rather than the eurozone. After all, Cyprus shows that a small financial centre that becomes overwhelmed by financial difficulties cannot stand behind a banking system several times the size of its economy. Read more

John Gapper

I struggle to see any logic behind the European Parliament’s latest initiative to crack down on financial industry pay, beyond a dislike of bonuses. The idea that investment funds should be treated similarly to systemically important banks has even less merit than the original idea.

The basis on which the EU proposed to rein in bank bonuses – despite UK opposition and criticism from supervisors including Andrew Bailey, the incoming head of the Prudential Regulation Authority – was that excessive bonuses gave bankers a perverse incentive to take risks. Read more

John Gapper

The article by Erin Callan, former chief financial officer of Lehman Brothers, on how she lost herself in work, is an interesting reflection not only on women on Wall Street, but also on how relentlessly many bankers work.

Ms Callan, who lost her job in 2008 “amid mounting chaos and a cloud of public humiliation only months before the company went bankrupt”, writes in the New York Times of the extreme work culture at the top of the former investment bank: Read more

Andrew Hill

There are plenty of interesting ironies raised by the news that investment banks are charging asset managers up to $20,000 an hour for access to chief executives, often unbeknown to the executives themselves.

One is that chief executives themselves are no strangers to “cash for access”. It’s a perennial political “scandal” that big corporate donors to political parties get to rub shoulders with the prime minister or his cabinet at private parties and dinners. The last time such a hoo-ha erupted, in 2012, the FT wrote that prominent City figures were “bemused at the outrage” surrounding the affair, describing it as “a healthy part of the democratic process”. One said: Read more

Andrew Hill

What strikes me about the findings of the UK Competition Commission’s inquiry into the audit market is that in a world of ever more rapid change, a company’s relationship with its auditor is now often the oldest fixture in the boardroom.

Think about it. The commission says 31 per cent of blue-chip FTSE 100 companies have had the same auditor – almost invariably one of the “Big Four” – for 20 years or more. During that period, on average, most companies will have changed their chief executive at least four times, their non-executive board members (assuming replacement at the nine-year mark, when they lose their independence according to UK guidelines) twice, and their computer systems probably five or six times. Read more

If I were a mastermind seeking to undermine the City of London, I would shift Germany’s financial centre from Frankfurt to Berlin, just as the country moved its political capital from Bonn in the 1990s. Then it would be part of a cosmopolitan city where foreign bankers and lawyers might actually want to live.

John Gapper

Getty Images

As an old student of HSBC – or, as I prefer to call it, Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation – I found Stuart Gulliver’s remarks about the inadequacy of its structure following the Mexico money laundering scandal fascinating.

HSBC’s chief executive told the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards on Wednesday:

“Our structure was not fit for purpose for a modern world. Our geographic footprint became very attractive to transnational criminal organisations, whether they are terrorist in origin or criminal in origin.”

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It has been a vintage week for old remains. A skeleton beneath a car park was confirmed as that of Richard III and the US Department of Justice exhumed Standard & Poor’s emails from nearly a decade ago. Neither was a pretty sight.

Andrew Hill

Adam Posen’s attack on the management and culture of the Bank of England may be the strongest yet, but it is by no means the first – and won’t be the last – criticism of a persistent and dismaying lack of robust governance at the UK central bank.

What is astonishing is that despite countless warnings – three independent reviews, several newspaper editorials and sundry MPs’ warnings – the central charge that the governor is over-mighty and under-governed still stands. Read more

John Gapper

The showdown between Bill Ackman and Dan Loeb, two activist fund managers, over the value of Herbalife, the US health supplement company, is entertaining for bystanders. It presages more such splits.

Traditionally, hedge funds have tended to hunt in packs – lining up to sell shares short or to arbitrage securities. One recent example was at JP Morgan Chase, where a set of hedge funds, led by Saba Capital, traded against the bank’s derivatives position.

In Herbalife’s case, Mr Ackman’s Pershing Square Capital and Mr Loeb’s Third Point, are arrayed against each other. Mr Ackman has accused Herbalife of being a Ponzi scheme, which it fiercely denies; Mr Loeb is on Herbalife’s sideRead more

John Gapper

Lehman Brothers collpsed in 2008. Getty Images

The demise of London’s merchant banks, which were sold to US and European banks in the mid-1990s after the collapse of Barings in 1995, showed they could no longer exist in the modern world of finance.

Was the US much different, though? Looking back at the 2008 financial crisis, the collapse of Lehman Brothers had roughly the same effect on the Wall Street investment banks as the collapse of Barings in 1995. Read more

“If you see a Swiss banker jumping out of a window, follow him. There is sure to be a profit in it,” Voltaire is once said to have remarked. These days, no action by a Swiss banker should be taken on trust.

You have two weeks until the end of the quarter – which, for many companies, is also the end of the financial year. Instead of developing strategy, or working on long-term plans – let alone buying gifts or dressing the Christmas tree – you’re locked in a windowless office. Your sole objective: to hit your targets for 2012.

Bob Benmosche, the amiably loud-mouthed chief executive of AIG, took his victory tour to London this week. “We are free at last,” he rejoiced to his fellow bosses as the US Treasury sold the last of its AIG stake.

John Gapper

The $2.6bn in fines levied against HSBC and Standard Chartered indicates that what used to be regarded as these banks’ biggest virtues – their exposure to emerging markets and new growth economies – are also weaknesses.

Foreign banks have been having a tough time at the hands of US bank regulators recently, and these fines have a hint of protectionism. There is clearly a feeling that foreign banks have destabilised the US financial system and systematically breached laws.

One indication of the mood in Washington is a proposal by Daniel Tarullo, a senior Federal Reserve regulatory official, to top up capital requirements on foreign banks to ensure they are in line with domestic banks. Read more

John Gapper

The Deutsche Bank case, in which three whistleblowers have accused the bank of hiding up to $12bn in derivatives losses during the financial crisis, is complex, confusing and opaque. But the underlying principle is simple and important.

Banks used to have a lot of leeway in how to treat bad loans at the bottom of the cycle. That allowed groups to avoid taking losses immediately, and instead to wait for the assets to rise in value again.

But the rules for recognising bad loans have tightened over the past three decades, while a lot of credit instruments are now carried on a mark-to-market basis instead of on the loan book. Their old freedom of manoeuvre has largely gone. Read more

John Gapper

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Image by Getty

On the day of the US presidential election, we are witnessing a perfect antithesis of those who believe in intuition and those who trust in data. That has implications not only for political observers but for finance.

Nate Silver, the New York Times’ polling guru, who crunches the state and national polls and feeds them into a unified model that spits out a probability of who will be elected president, has Barack Obama as the 91.6 per cent favourite to win.

Meanwhile, Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist and former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, feels something in the air: Read more

John Gapper

Standard and Poor's HQ. Image by Getty

The Australian court judgment against Standard & Poor’s for misleading investors in a complex, structured derivative is a worrying development for rating agencies that face growing legal risks.

The judge found S&P negligent in having accepted a false estimate of volatility given to it by ABN Amro, the issuing bank, and thus assigned the securities a triple-A rating in 2006. In practice, these securities collapsed in value within two years.

As Jayne Jagot, the judge in the case, ruled:

“S&P believed ABN Amro’s assertions that the actual average volatility of the Globoxx since inception was 15 per cent. S&P did not calculate the volatility for itself although it could easily have done so and, in my view, was required to do so as a reasonably competent ratings agency . . . This assumption as to volatility was unreasonably and unjustifiably low.”

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John Gapper

Having become accustomed over the years to the calm, soothing, “don’t panic” talk of financial regulators, it was a shock to read Andrew Bailey, the senior UK banking supervisor, bluntly describe banks’ risk models for commercial real estate as “bogus”.

Mr Bailey clearly has very little, if any, time for banks’ internal risk models, which calculate how much they might lose in stressed market conditions, and therefore how much they need to put aside in capital.

As Brooke Masters reports:

After two decades of working with failed and failing institutions including Barings, HBOS and Royal Bank of Scotland, he was openly sceptical of bankers’ ability to police themselves.

Their commercial real estate risk models are “bogus”, he said, and their internal stress tests “are not stress at all, they’re mild, it’s a failure of imagination”. As a result, banks “never should have been allowed” to use their own models to determine capital requirements as currently permitted under the Basel rules.

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