The New York attorney-general’s complaint against Barclays over the way it ran its dark pool seems to contain clear evidence of institutional investors being misled about the amount of “toxic liquidity” provided by high-frequency traders.
More broadly, however, it raises the question of how the original purpose of dark pools – to allow institutions to make block trades away from public markets where they would move the price – was subverted by investment banks.
No-one emerges well from the legal battle between Goldman Sachs and Deeb Salem, its former mortgage trader who claims that his $8.25m bonus for 2010 amounted to severe underpayment. It is no wonder that Goldman tried to seal the documents in what it calls an “utterly ridiculous” case.
The problem for Goldman and other Wall Street firms is that they have encouraged that sense of entitlement among employees – one that strikes almost everyone outside Wall Street as delusional. Mr Salem’s claim is merely an extreme example of a much wider problem.
Colin Fan, co-head of Deutsche Bank’s investment bank, is about to become very famous. His short video sternly admonishing traders for their online conduct and warning them that being “boastful, indiscreet and vulgar” will have “serious consequences for you personally” is certain to go viral.
Doubtless, plenty of investment banking and trading veterans will say he is trying to sap trading floors of their very lifeblood. Where would the City, Wall Street and even Frankfurt be without a certain amount of boastfulness, indiscretion and vulgarity? Well, not as deep in the reputational hole they currently find themselves, I would say.
A speech by Lionel Barber, Financial Times editor, at Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge, May 1, 2014. An accompanying video can be viewed here.
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, I am delighted to be here tonight at Hughes Hall in the University of Cambridge. This is the prestigious City lecture, but sadly I will not be providing slides. As Lord Acton might have said, power tends to corrupt, PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.
Tonight I want to talk about bankers and banking. These days, bankers are widely viewed as greedy, self-serving, amoral or actually dangerous. Estate agents, even journalists, are held in higher regard.
This past week’s kerfuffle over bonuses and remuneration at Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland is a reminder that bankers continue to be held responsible for the financial crisis and the economic calamities which followed.
Bankers appear to be living in a parallel universe, where the rewards are far out of kilter with what the rest of society can expect. This speaks to a deeper unease about inequality which explains the unlikely best-seller on economics, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
My questions tonight are: Can bankers mend their ways and their reputations? Is there a path to rehabilitation?
What is Goldman Sachs up to? The bank has been behaving strangely this week. When Michael Lewis unveiled his book Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt , in which he alleged the equity market is “rigged” by high-frequency traders, the bank discreetly lent him support. Then it emerged that Goldman is leaving the New York Stock Exchange floor, selling Spear, Leeds & Kellogg, a broker it bought for $6.5bn in 2000.
Antony Jenkins’ efforts to change the culture of Barclays by cutting bankers’ pay are on hold. At its investment bank, it is paying bonuses that are 13 per cent higher to “compete in the global market for talent”. The bank’s chief executive wants to reform the pay of US and Asian investment bankers but it is beyond his contro
Credit Suisse is the latest investment bank to issue an edict aimed at protecting the work-life balance of its junior employees – and it is getting roasted for it by bankers themselves.
Bloomberg reported (and the bank confirmed) that Jim Amine, global head of investment banking, had decreed in a memo that “analysts and associates in the US investment banking division should be out of the office from 6 pm Friday until 10am Sunday unless they’re working on an active deal”.
So ordered. Except that commanding your ambitious junior employees to limit their workload – Bank of America, JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs have taken similar action – is quite likely to be useless, if not counter-productive. To change working practices requires a profound cultural shift, and judging from the reaction to the latest news that is not likely to happen soon.
How well is Wall Street doing? That depends on whether you are looking at their results as a casual observer, or a shareholder.
This is turning into one of the best earnings seasons on Wall Street since 2009, when banks made a rapid recovery from the 2008 crisis. Not only were they bailed out but supported by ultra-low interest rates and official backing for troubled assets.
I’m intrigued by the possibility that the civil trial of Fabrice Tourre, the former Goldman Sachs banker, may hinge on whether an email to his girlfriend was a love letter or an injudicious admission that he was misleading investors about the complex mortgage-related securities he was selling.
The lead attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commission said at the opening of the civil hearing on Monday that it was the latter. Mr Tourre’s lawyer asked the jury to put the language of the communication down to “youthful arrogance” and said it was “an old-fashioned love letter” to his girlfriend, who was a Goldman co-worker.
SAP’s striking decision to hire people with autism to programme and test its products has already generated some sceptical commentary from FT readers. But it should be welcomed, and not only by sufferers of the condition.
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.
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.
Jeff Bezos is famously smart but I wonder whether he has thought through all the political implications of Amazon’s strategy of becoming back-office ecommerce infrastructure provider to the world.
The first part of FT colleague Barney Jopson’s series on the etailer was full of insight, but it was the comparison between Amazon and investment banks that struck me most forcefully. As Barney writes:
One investment banker says Amazon’s position is reminiscent of Goldman Sachs’ dual role as a broker and trader at the centre of capital markets. “People complain about conflicts of interest. But you still have to do business with them.”
Like Goldman and others, Amazon has set out to simplify the life of its clients, so they can concentrate on what they do best. One business identified by the FT investigation – RJF Books and More – has delegated the “selling, shipping, customer service, payments and complaints” functions to Amazon, which left me wondering what else was left for RJF to do. Simplification was a strong theme of my recent trip to Silicon Valley, where countless start-ups, and a few larger businesses like NetSuite and Salesforce.com, are offering businesses the opportunity to “plug in” their operations to outsourced back-office services and payment systems.
The conviction of Rajat Gupta, the former managing director of McKinsey & Co, the management consultancy, on insider trading charges is an extraordinary event – not just because it was a hard case to prove but because of his status at the apex of the business establishment.
The man who ran McKinsey and went on to become a board member of Goldman Sachs and Procter & Gamble, is very likely to receive a jail sentence in October. That makes him the most senior establishment figure to be convicted by a jury since the 2008 crisis.
He had already lost his reputation – silently disowned by McKinsey and discarded by Goldman. Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman’s chairman and chief executive, testified at his trial that leaking information from Goldman’s board – as Gupta was caught on tape doing to Raj Rajaratnam, was wrong.