In today’s lead story at the Financial Times, Big US banks defy calls that they should be broken up, American megabanks make clear that they don’t think much of the financial savvy of investors or the business press. In quarterly earning calls, bank analysts were pressing executives on the news reports that former Goldman exec, now director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn told senators last week told a group of senators that he was in favor of Glass-Steagall break-up-the-banks style legislation.
Wake me up when this gets serious. Cohn made it clear that he supported a breakup bill. While Trump has also said he wanted to revive Glass-Steagall, he didn’t say that very often on the campaign trail and there are many things he did say often and pretty consistently, like questioning why the US is carrying so much of the cost of NATO, he’s either reversed himself or is now backing a weak-tea version that his base regards as a sellout, such as Trump’s promises about NAFTA. Plus any Glass-Steagall type bill gets passed only over rabid anti-regulation House Financial Services committee chairman Jeb Hensarling’s dead body.
Don’t buy Jamie Dimon’s Brooklyn Bridge. Big complicated banks are not good for investors, no matter how much banks put their hands on their hearts and try to convince you otherwise. Here was the argument, per the pink paper:
The biggest banks in America are defying calls to break themselves up, arguing that the benefits of size and diversity were on display during a very mixed set of first-quarter results.
At JPMorgan Chase, finance chief Marianne Lake said on Thursday that the bank’s universal model was a “source of strength” for the broader economy, as she unveiled a 20 per cent drop in quarterly profits from consumer banking.
In the investment-banking part of the business, however, profits were up 64 per cent from a bleak period a year ago, boosted by a surge in bond trading and plenty of sales of debt and equity by big companies.
Anyone with proper finance training can tell you this is nonsense. Investors should be making portfolio diversification choices, not corporate execs asserting “synergy” on their behalf. Investors love earnings streams that are not much or better yet negatively correlated with the stock market; that’s one of the reasons they were willing to pay hedgies their inflated management and carry fees. Hedge funds promised returns that didn’t synch with stock market averages. When that proved to be less and less true and the results weren’t so hot generally, investors started beating a major retreat from the strategy.
If banks have all sorts of interesting return profiles hidden away in their various business lines, it would be much better in terms of the overall returns for investors owning those stocks to break them up.1
However, big complicated banks are good for securities analysts, since the complexity gives them more to do and thus creates the appearance that they are adding value to investors. So don’t expect any critical scrutiny of this bank PR from them.
The idea that bigger banks are better is a flat-out canard that we’ve debunked regularly since the inception of this site. Suffice it to say that every study ever done of US banks shows that they have a slightly negative cost curve once a certain asset size threshold is passed. Translation: bigger banks are actually have higher expenses per dollar of bank assets than smaller banks.
Now you might say, “But what about those bank mergers where they fire lots of people! Doesn’t that prove bank consolidation saves costs?”
No. The cost curve issue means the banks that were combined could have gotten those expenses lowered all on their own, and maybe some more. However, mergers provide an excuse to do what managements normally are too nice or too lazy to do, which is get ruthless about headcount.
Finally, the one real synergy is one that is dangerous to the public: the use of bank deposits to fund derivatives. Yes, Virginia, a whole lot of derivatives are booked in bank depositaries. For instance, to a bit of outcry, in 2011, Bank of America moved derivatives from Merrill Lynch into Bank of America NA. And why was that? The banking subsidiary had a better credit rating, meaning lower costs, because that’s where the deposits sat. As we wrote at the time:
Even though I’ve expressed my doubts as to whether Dodd Frank resolutions will work, dumping derivatives into depositaries pretty much guarantees a Dodd Frank resolution will fail. Remember the effect of the 2005 bankruptcy law revisions: derivatives counterparties are first in line, they get to grab assets first and leave everyone else to scramble for crumbs. So this move amounts to a direct transfer from derivatives counterparties of Merrill to the taxpayer, via the FDIC, which would have to make depositors whole after derivatives counterparties grabbed collateral. It’s well nigh impossible to have an orderly wind down in this scenario. You have a derivatives counterparty land grab and an abrupt insolvency. Lehman failed over a weekend after JP Morgan grabbed collateral.
But it’s even worse than that. During the savings & loan crisis, the FDIC did not have enough in deposit insurance receipts to pay for the Resolution Trust Corporation wind-down vehicle. It had to get more funding from Congress. This move paves the way for another TARP-style shakedown of taxpayers, this time to save depositors. No Congressman would dare vote against that.
And in case you think I’m exaggerating, the FDIC objected to the move, but the Fed took the position that it would “give relief” to the bank holding company. Bank of America took the position it has the authority to make this move, and since JP Morgan then had 99% of the notional value of its $79 trillion of derivatives booked in its depositary, JPMorgan Chase Bank NA, there was ample precedent. 2
And as we’ve also written regularly, over the counter derivatives are the biggest source of interconnected among too-big-too-fail banks. So getting derivatives out of depositaries would shrink the derivatives market by making them more costly and reduce systemic risk.
Keep your eye on the ball of the real reason for bankers wanting ginormous banks: executive pay. Bank CEO and C-suite pay is a function of bank size and complexity. Simpler, smaller banks mean much less egregiously paid top brass.
Thus bear in mind the incentives for banks to bulk up: The bank that buys another bank gets to pay everyone at the top more, and the execs of the gobbled-up bank get huge consolation prizes. And all sorts of other people are feeding at the trough too: merger & acquisition professionals, lawyers, accountants, and all sorts of consultants and integration specialists. Our reader Clive will probably tell you the folks that have it the worst who still stay on the payroll are the people in IT.
Fortunately, even without all understanding the sordid details, the great unwashed public understands that overly large banks are hard to unwind and will therefore always be propped up, and separately exercise too much political power. But whether popular support will ever become important to Trump is very much in doubt.
1 Absent, of course, breakup costs, but don’t expect banks to give you an honest idea about that if the threat starts looking more serious.
2 Yes, most of these are plain vanilla swaps. But still, no subsidy of this sort is warranted. Taxpayers should not be backstopping capital markets activities.