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Robert Jenkins: Puncturing Bankers’ Myths

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Yves here. Perhaps because the Bank of England has institutional memory and is not afraid of being a regulator, you see members like Mervyn King, Andrew Haldane, and now Robert Jenkins, who sits on its Financial Policy Committee, regularly saying in no uncertain terms that they don’t buy what big banks are trying to sell them. They nevertheless have trouble getting through tougher regs (although they have made some progress on that front, like ring-fencing retail banking operations) mainly because the UK Treasury is so firmly opposed. Sound familiar?

Notice the synchronicity between the image Ian Fraser chose to accompany the article and this section of the Afterword of the hardcover edition of ECONNED:

By contrast, in 2007–2009, the major financial players were a danger to the public. The industry resembled a man with fifteen pounds of Semtex strapped to his waist. Not surprisingly, people in the vicinity become very attentive to its desires. The crisis was therefore an act of extortion.

Hat tip Richard Smith for the Semtex part.

By Ian Fraser, a financial journalist who blogs at his web site and at qfinance. His Twitter is @ian_fraser.

[Ian Fraser's introduction] In this speech, Robert Jenkins blows apart the self-serving myths that ‘old guard’ bankers and their lobbyists have been peddling since the financial crisis ripped apart the global financial system in 2007. He also explains that, unfortunately ‘captured’ regulators and politicians have swallowed the myths whole. The unsurprising consequence is that post-crisis financial regulatory reform is a mess that has little chance of ensuring the sustainability of the system going forward. In exposing the bankers’ three big lies, Jenkins, a member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee and a former chairman of F&C Asset Management, is performing a vital service. Hopefully, he is also charting a path towards defusing their suicide belts and towards saner reform.

[Robert Jenkins' speech: 'A Debate Framed by Fallacies'] The regulatory reform debate has suffered needlessly for having been framed by a series of false choices advanced by lobbyists and accepted as given. This is true at both the domestic and international level. One result is suboptimum regulation; another is to make global coordination more difficult than it need be. Remove these myths and one might more quickly agree than one fears. Perhaps that was precisely the worry of those who advanced the myths to begin with. Here are three such myths which lead to false choices which in turn create tensions both domestic and international.

(1) Myth one: “We must choose between safety and growth

The banking lobby would have us believe that higher capital requirements and lower leverage will damage economic growth and retard the recovery. “Increase our capital requirements and we will reduce our lending!” You have heard it before. I can hear now.

But take a minute to do the math. Bank “A” has a one trillion euro balance sheet supported by €50 billion of equity. Now, let’s double the equity required to €100 billion and retire €50 billion of bank debt. Has the balance sheet shrunk? No. Has the bank had to cut credit? No. Does more capital necessarily lead to less lending? No. So does society have to choose between safety and growth? No. So much for myth number one.*

But if you fall for this fallacy you will agonize between doing what is right for the economy short term and what is right for stability and your country long term. Bankers have exploited this fear. Depending on their political weight, the degree of banking recapitalization required, and the prospects for domestic growth, different nations will automatically have different views as to the appropriate levels of capital and the timing with which to reach them.

To the exposure of myth number one, bankers retort: “How dumb can you be?” “Equity is expensive. Make us double our equity and you will lower our Return on Equity, damage shareholder value and discourage the supply of bank capital.”

(2) Myth two: “We must choose between safer banks and profitable banking”

It is in two parts. First, short-term return-on-equity (RoE) is a poor proxy for medium-term profitability much less shareholder value. Just ask yourself: has this fixation on double digit RoE achieved it over time? No. Did the annual emphasis on RoE produce attractive and sustainable shareholder returns? No. So, does a short-term focus on RoE equate to medium term profitability and long term shareholder value? No. Why? Because it does not adjust for risk. The returns may come short term, but the risks come later. (Later came recently.)

Second, the prospective investor is no longer interested in promises of short-term RoE; he is interested in achieving attractive risk-adjusted returns. The higher the perceived risk, the higher the return required; the lower the perceived risk, the lower the return expected. Capital will flow in either combination but its price will be different. Banks with little equity and lots of leverage are more risky than those with less leverage and more equity.

Investors in both bank equity and bank debt will charge accordingly. That “charge” is the bank’s cost of capital. And given that markets reward more predictable earnings with higher multiples, even lower earnings need not lower the market cap, dividends or shareholder returns. Not convinced? Look at bank share prices. The market is attaching relatively higher valuations to the relatively less leveraged.

(3) Myth Three: “We must choose between a stronger banking system and one that can compete”

The third myth is that governments must choose between domestic financial stability and the competitiveness of their domestic financial centers. Clearly, if you believe that higher capital requirements damage bank profitability and shareholder returns then you must also fear for the competitiveness of your domestic banking champions, the attractiveness of your country as a global finanz platz and the tax take for your treasury. But as we have seen, one need not choose between safer banks and profitable banking. PWC underscores this point in its recent report entitled “Banking Industry Reform: a New Equilibrium”.

Less leverage will not only be rewarded with a lower cost of capital but also in lower costs for most sources of funding – from bank debt to wholesale deposits. And in terms of market share, the strongest banks are growing their clientele (e.g. revenue) at the expense of weaker competitors. In a world of increased risk awareness, letting your banks off the capital hook will likely damage not enhance their ability to compete.

Extend the analogy to your country as financial centre: where would clients and counterparties like best to do business? In a stable, well regulated regime? Or in one burying problems and ducking issues because regulators fear their banking system too fragile to fix? Needless to say, the tried and booed alternative – light touch/highly leveraged regimes proved devastating to gross domestic product, the taxman’s take and to public confidence in banking and its regulation.

It seems bankers are sorely deluded

Now at this juncture you will be asking: if these are in fact myths, why do bankers propagate them? Are they not working for their shareholders? Do they not have a paramount interest in financial stability? Do they not want their respective financial centres to be strong and confidence inspiring? Surely they would never dream of putting their personal interests ahead of those of society and their owners? I let you be the judge.

But I can think of a few possible explanations. First, it is conceivable that many bankers simply do not understand the basics. Have you met a single senior banker who understands his cost of capital? I have not — though I should probably get out more. Second, many do not understand fully the notion of risk-adjusted returns – witness their recent quest gone wrong of chasing returns without adequate understanding of risk. Third, many managements remain transfixed by the notion of RoE as the primary measure of profitability. They have promised it to their boards and to their shareholders. The targets were written into their remuneration plans. Results fed their bonuses. And there is no doubt about it, all else being equal, higher equity reduces the measure of short term RoE. Never mind that it is the wrong measure and therefore the wrong target.

Finally, it is possible that some bankers and boards actually wish they had more capital — but dare not admit it without putting their jobs at risk. This is partly because many have insisted throughout that they were “well capitalized” and partly because they demonstrably failed to tap the market for equity each time it could have been had more cheaply. Now on these points I have both good news and bad.

The good news is that there is progress to report. First, RoE targets are being revised downwards or de-emphasized. Two banking behemoths have done so in the recent weeks. More will follow – partly because their managements cannot achieve the old (non-risk adjusted) RoE targets and partly because the market would not reward their share and bond prices if they tried to do so.

Second, the structure of bank compensation is changing. The tilt towards shares, longer vesting periods plus the introduction of claw backs means that executive pay will be better tied to the risks that they take as well as the rewards that they claim. Third, balance sheet strength is increasingly understood to be a source of competitive advantage – by clients if not yet completely by bank management. And fourth, the change of leadership at the top of many financial institutions offers the new management a one time window to do what the market is demanding.

The bad news is that the old guard did such a good job of scaring the bejezzus out of politicians that the regulatory landscape still reflects the shibboleths of the last five years. Secondly, a few of the high-profile survivors of the trauma still believe in these fantasies – or at least want you to believe. Naturally these titans must be the smartest of us all right – subsequent scandals not-withstanding?

Last but not least is the fact that many western financial institutions have yet to come clean because to do so would reveal their fragility and trigger the very equity issuance which they maintain to be unnecessary. And here you would be right to ask: in such cases would the capital be available? Answer: for the viable firm yes — perhaps not at the price that current shareholders would like to see but most certainly at a price which new shareholders would embrace. At the right price, the money would come — although the management might have to go. If the equity is not available at any price then the institution should go as well. And there’s the rub.

In summary, governments and their regulators have been operating on the basis of a series of myths and false choices. This has produced suboptimum reform and complicated international coordination. In reality, one need not choose between better-capitalized banks and economic growth. One need not choose between safer banks and profitable banking. And one need not choose between a stronger banking system and one that can compete — on the contrary.

But as long as such fallacies frame the regulatory debate, decision-makers will think in terms of trade-offs both domestic and international. Trade-offs in turn imply winners and losers. And given the primacy of national interest and continued (albeit reduced) influence of the banking lobby, international cooperation will suffer – producing agreements at the level of the lowest common denominator and woefully insufficient to resolve the greatest regulatory challenge of our time. Remove the myths and better regulation and coordination will follow. It’s not too late.

One final observation: the degree to which the banking system is sufficiently capitalized is the degree to which we can absorb bank failures safely. The degree to which we can let banks fail safely is the degree to which we can reduce the ever-expanding rule book aimed partly at preventing the failure of banks.

In an earlier speech entitled “Let’s Make a Deal” I offered, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, to roll back the regulatory rulebook in return for sharply higher capital levels. And in his recent address [The Dog And The Frisbee, given at Jackson Hole on August 31st, 2012] Andy Haldane suggested that increasing the number and complexity of rules could well prove less effective than simply lowering levels of leverage. Needless to say, global regulators would have less to argue about if there were fewer rules to coordinate and fewer regulations to enforce.

Robert Jenkins gave his speech, A Debate Framed by Fallacies at the International Centre for Financial Regulation’s 3rd Annual Regulatory Summit in London on September 25th 2012. Image: WilliamBanzai7

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22 comments

  1. Ruben

    Best analogy I’ve ever seen about the TBTF banksters. I think it also applies to other cases, such the auto industry bailed out by Obama. Probably every major capitalist enterprise is oriented in this direction, they all are busy gathering pounds of Semtex to strap to their waists so they reach the category of TBTF.

  2. fresno dan

    Bankers were/are incompetent, or criminal, or incompetent AND criminal. They have not been punished one iota for the massive economic suffering they have caused.
    They are clever – the fact that disbanding the major money centers despite the overwhelming evidence that we are worse off for allowing their existence is remarkable – somewhat akin to the power of the church in the dark ages.

  3. Nell

    Just for information Yves, the enactment for ring-fencing retail and investment banking is scheduled for 2019 and while the concept is agreed, the details are not. As we know with finance, the devil will be in the details.

  4. Mortgage Brokers

    That was the best analysis I ever read, despite the cons and pros about bankers, I still believe that they have been too demanding, costly and slowly killing small investments .

  5. Lil'D

    B of E has brilliant statesmen yet UK banking is arguably in no better shape than the rest of OECD.

    I fear our best outcome is to praise the truthtellers while we all drown

  6. Jerry Denim

    Nice post. Sorry to jump way off topic but- Holy Crap! is anyone else on this post seeing a Rand Paul advertisment for a “right to work” union busting petition?

    Ayn Rand Jr. is really proselytizing deep behind enemy lines.

    I certainly don’t blame Yves for trying to generate a little bit of revenue with her site, but is it impossible to exercise a little bit of editorial control with the ads? Its like visiting James Dobson’s site and seeing ads for condoms and malt liquor. I’m not offended- just perplexed and amused. Is the far-right willing to pay more for ad space behind enemy lines?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      These ads are placed by my ad sales company, which sells NC and a bunch of finance blogs with similar demographics in a package. So I don’t control what shows up.

      You need to recontextualize this! The Romney campaign is wasting its money on this site! I think it’s really funny.

  7. papicek

    You missed one. A variation of the old “What’s Good For General Motors Is Good For America” myth, the notion that banking is now coupled to some kind of imperial dominance.

    What a sad-assed argument.

    1. Procopius

      I remember when “Engine Charlie” said that. At the time I was outraged, but I’ve since changed my mind a little. In those days GM was such an important piece of our economy that it really did affect, for good or ill, a large part of our working population. And those were the days before the executives were keeping all productivity gains in their own bonuses. When the company prospered, the workers got raises. Yes, they had to fight tooth and nail for them, but they did get raises. If some banking executive said it now I’d be looking for that piece of rope I stuck away in the storage room.

  8. Susan the other

    Assuming that reason prevails and banks are transformed into the proper size to fail by enforcing good regulation, that still leaves us here in the US borrowing from the banks to fund our deficits. The banks should be radically changed, not just rehabilitated. They should not be allowed to make their private profit from the Treasury. Especially in a new, prolonged era of industrial change where they are unlikely to find sufficient growth to invest in for at least a decade. And beyond the banks there are non-bank derivatives traders so entangled with the banks that they will keep the banks forever to big to fail. So that market needs just as much enforced regulation. Not to mention the stock market. It is obviously too big to fail too, as we have seen all the proceeds of QE pour in by design.

  9. Mrgeek

    It seems to me that a more fundamental shift in banking has been the shift since the 70s (?) from deposits as a source of bank capital — which allows banks to serve an important societal function, and which is worthy of federal insurance protection — to investment as a source of bank capital. In the context of the latter, one could perhaps justify bank’s concern over higher capital requirements reducing their profits. However, in such a view, providing those banks with federal insurance or _any_ sort of public assistance is ridiculous, since their focus is not on providing a public service — it’s on maximizing return to their private shareholders. There is no human right to make a profit.

      1. YouDon'tSay?

        True that, although “the economy” and “economics” are such polluted terms – much as the word “God” is as well – at this point that it’s almost time to retire them from service.

        Banking really does deserve its own field of study, doesn’t it? Under the heading of criminal studies no doubt.

    1. YouDon'tSay?

      4. Bankers are smart, albeit in a very (purposely) narrow and conniving sense. Bankers are smart like crooks are smart. They’ve learned how to manipulate a system that they themselves have had a hand in creating to maximum advantage, and over generations at that. Trained monkeys do as much.

      5. Banking is complicated, and very purposely so at that. See #4.

      Banking, in short, trades on the idea that the “money masters” are smarter than you, which they’re not, generally. Specifically, yes. It’s a completely legal organized criminal enterprise, just as ALL successful western debt-based capitalism enterprises are these days. That’s the true BEAUTY of it!

  10. YouDon'tSay?

    WOW! I can hardly believe I’m seeing only twelve comments on this post at this late hour. That picture alone is worth a NC dissertation or two. Maybe the post merely belabors the obvious for this audience? It would seem so.

  11. RepubAnon

    Quick fix for the banking/finance industry: redefine “long term capital gains” as those held for a minimum of 5 years.

    It’s the gambling bug that’s doing the harm. Stopping the churn would go a long way to stabilizing the markets and rewarding investment over gambling.

  12. Chauncey Gardiner

    Sorry, came to this article late. This is a most interesting post. Thank you.

    I agree that more aggressive and intensive identification of risk, regulatory action to limit risk of losses that would be born by the public, and increased capital requirements are certainly issues that need to be addressed if the TBTF banks are to remain privately held institutions and the existing institutional and regulatory structures remain in place.

    However, there are many other issues which I believe also need to be addressed. For example, one such issue has been the proposed reinstatement here in the U.S. of the Glass-Steagall Act that would require separation of the banks’ enormous derivatives trading books from the depository side of the banks (Perhaps this is what he means by “ring fencing of Retail”). Presently the banks can use derivatives as a potential tool to threaten the depository side of the banks (FDIC) with huge losses and systemic disruption, and thereby force continuation of the status quo which effectively enables them to speculate with Other Peoples’ Money.

    Further, I believe the definition, issuance and method of distribution of Money itself should be reconsidered and publicly discussed. It is my belief that the issuance of money is a duty and responsibility of government, and should not be delegated by national governments to a privately owned global banking cartel.

    Essentially what we have now, in my view, is a gigantic closed loop that has been termed “The Credit Cycle”. Among other things, this cycle essentially enables and perpetuates asset stripping of the many by the few. This dynamic has gone woefully under-acknowledged and under-discussed IMO.

    Btw, I feel it is noteworthy that the Bank of England has roughly quadrupled its balance sheet since 2008: http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/markets/PublishingImages/images/balance_sheet_assets.JPG

    . . . Why?

    1. enouf

      because only in this insane FIRE world, full of psychopaths and sociopaths can one deem “debt” = “asset”, and we all know how toxic that debt they hold is, after all, they designed and sold it that way – which shows just how insolvent they truly are.

      Love

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