Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Is forgiveness the answer to the financial crisis for Greece?

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
~ William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice. Act IV, scene i

I recently listened to a lecture by Professor John Geanakopolos, James Tobin Professor of Economics at Yale who argued using Shakespeare's 'Merchant of Venice' that the solution to both the US and European financial crisis was forgiveness.

He laid out the situation in the US, based on his detailed research, that there are a very large number of house owners with negative equity i.e. their loans are higher than the value of their properties. Many of these home owners had been encouraged by the banks to borrow large amounts on the basis of the rising property prices, put up very small deposits, as little as 2% of the property value, based on little evidence of their earnings, the so-called 'lo doc' loans or self-certification, as it is called in the UK, and often interest-only i.e. paying only the interest and not any of the capital back. The argument being that with property prices rising so quickly when the property was eventually sold there would be more than enough profit to pay back the original capital. Professor Geanakopolos reasonably argued that this was irresponsible lending on the part of the banks.

He then went on to make the case as to why it would be in the banks' best interests to forgive 50% of the loans for those who were struggling to make mortgage payments. He demonstrated that when the repossession process is started (which can take up to two years to complete), the home owner ceases to make any attempt to pay back the loan, stops taking any care for the property and may even damage the property. As the neighbourhood deteriorates due to the unkempt properties the value of not only this property but others in the area declines further. He demonstrated that by the time the costs of the repossession and the sale of the property were totted up that the return that the banks got was 25% of the value of the loan. Given that, Professor Geanakopolos argued that the banks would actually be better off if they forgave the home owner 50% of the loan thus giving the home owner the chance for reduced mortgage payments and an ability to continue to live in their property and to contribute to the US economy. This is an argument that he has taken to both the Obama administration and the financial regulators in the US, but has not yet, not surprisingly, received full popular backing.

Clearly this raises the question of whether people, some of whom have unwisely over-stretched themselves, who could be regarded as having been over-greedy in aspiring to buy properties beyond their means and, possibly even been dishonest in their reporting of their income (for those taking out lo-doc or self-certification loans) should be rewarded for their avarice by having their loans written off, while other more honest and risk-averse people who work hard to pay their mortgages despite rising costs get no such forgiveness? The counter argument being that the banks and their agents are guilty of being irresponsible in lending to these people who clearly could not afford these properties if the property boom faltered and deserve to be punished for their behaviour.

Whilst there is clearly some merit in the argument for the write down by the banks for the US housing market, particularly since this is impacts millions of households, the argument became more tenuous when Professor Geanakopolos, an American of Greek descent, argued that the Germans should forgive the Greek debt in a similar way to resolve the Euro crisis, which is having an impact on the US economy and globally. 

Whilst some similar financial arguments could be made for the Greek situation in terms of it is better to get some money back than none, there is a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed and that is that the proportion of Greeks that pay tax, pay the appropriate level of tax and the proportion of tax that is actually collected and finds its way to the Greek Government is woefully low. This particularly applies to the wealthy and middle class Greeks. For instance there is a swimming pool tax in Athens, which following a flyover the city it was clearly demonstrated that only a very small proportion of Greeks were paying. Whilst the Head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde's comments suggesting that Greeks were avoiding paying taxes caused a very angry reaction from politicians in Greece, she has a valid point.

In Russia Putin understood this. He lowered taxes and increased the number and effectiveness of tax collectors. The result was an increase in tax revenues.

Unless the level of tax collected is raised and a higher proportion of Greeks share the burden of taxes to pay back the debts that have been racked up then forgiveness will only be seen as a reward for tax evasion.  Forgiveness needs to come with strings attached - something that Shylock would certainly have agreed with. 

Friday, 18 May 2012

RBS forced to go down under for Retail Banking chief



RBS has announced that its new head of Retail Banking will be Ross McEwan. Despite the Scottish name, which undoubtedly is helpful at RBSG, Mr McEwan is from down under. He replaces Australian Brian Hartzer who is returning to his homeland to take up a similar role at Westpac (see http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2011/11/wanted-ceo-for-uk-retail-bank.html ). It is not only native Australians that are making the journey down under, but there has been a flood of banking executives working in the UK who have decided to up sticks and move to the Southern Hemisphere (see http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2012/01/trickle-becomes-flood-as-bankers-leave.html ).

Whilst a number of UK banking executives were approached and interviewed for the role that Ross McEwan will fill none of them were interested. This has to raise the question why? Certainly for executives with successful careers at banks free of government shareholdings such as HSBC and Santander there are clear reasons why a move to RBSG may hold little appeal. Given the turgid time Stephen Hester has had with his compensation and personal life discussed very publicly in the press and in Parliament to the point where even he considered resigning, why would anyone put themselves into that position when they don't need to? With the level of government implicit and explicit interference in the running of RBSG, there have to be better places to work. For the ambitious executive who sees heading Retail Banking at RBS as a career stepping stone the question is what would be the move after that? Almost certainly not into the CEO role of one of the UK banks as RBSG is a damaged brand and there are no obvious CEO roles coming up at the UK banks in the next few years. The probability is, as evidenced by Brian Hartzer, that the next move after heading up Retail Banking at RBSG would most likely be a CEO role in Australia. Not all UK banking executives or their families would see that as attractive.

With the Vickers ICB (Independent Commission on Banking)  recommendations coming into law including the ring-fencing of retail banking, the increased scutiny of bankers' compensation and the antagonistic attitude of British politicians towards bankers, the UK Government has made a career in UK banking very unattractive. For the state-backed banks, RBSG and Lloyds Banking Group, this has been made even more unattractive which means that these organisations are finding it even more difficult to attract top talent. The time it has taken for Lloyds Banking Group to find a replacement for Truett Tate, the head of Wholesale Banking is just one example of this.

Yet it needs to be recognised that to turn around these banks top talent is needed because these are some of the toughest challenges.

RBSG and Lloyds Banking Group are not alone in struggling to hire and retain top talent, it appears that having recruited Rumi Contractor from HSBC to become the UK Retail  and Business Banking COO in January that they have already parted company.

With HSBC CEO Stuart Gulliver suggesting that, with the increased cost of conducting retail banking, that pulling out of the UK is a real possibility, resulting in significant layoffs, reducing the number of  quality UK banking executives dramatically, there is a serious threat to the sector.

For the UK to retain its position as one of the key the Financial Services centres of the world, the sector needs to be able to attract the right talent. This is critical to the recovery of the UK economy. Isn't it about time that the politicians took the lead and put an end to the relentless bashing of the banks?

Friday, 4 May 2012

Why Lloyds shouldn't dismiss selling Scottish Widows



Following the rumour that private equity vehicle Tungsten, formed by Duke Street founder Edmund Turrell and his brother, was preparing a multi-billion bid for Scottish Widows, Antonio Horta-Osorio, CEO of Lloyds Banking Group, stated that the Group was 'absolutely' not selling Scottish Widows. Should Horta-Osorio have adopted the Sean Connery line regarding his return as Bond and said 'never say never' - was he over hasty in his response? Is there no price at which Lloyds should sell Scottish Widows? There are many reasons why the disposal of Scottish Widows should not be dismissed out of hand.

Scottish Widows was bought in 2000 for £7bn by the then Lloyds TSB CEO, Peter Ellwood, ably assisted by his deputy Mike Fairey. At the time many thought that Lloyds TSB had overpaid for  Widows, but it was a major plank in Peter Ellwood's strategy to build a major bancassurer. He was not alone at that time having a vision of creating a money supermarket, a one-stop shop for retail financial services from a bank. This vision was shared across the globe with the likes of Citibank acquiring Travellers and ING and AXA all pursuing this vision. However that was with the optimism of the new millennium and now in 2012 following the financial crisis most, if not all of those who adopted this strategy have abandoned it.

Certainly one reason that bancassurance has proved not to be successful is the fundamental difference in culture between a retail bank and a life assurance company. Retail banking is all about transactions, taking a short term view - daily interest charges, leveraging the differences between the deposit and the lending rates, taking and managing risk, whereas life assurance is much more focused on the long term with low volumes of transactions and risk aversity. Bringing the cultures of these two types of business together is like trying to mix oil and water, as has been shown in the market.

Apart from the cultural differences there are other reasons why Lloyds Banking Group could be better off without Scottish Widows. With the impending imposition of  Solvency II regulation, insurers are going to be required to hold higher levels of capital than they currently do, which will make doing the business of life assurance more expensive. Layer on top of that, for the likes of Lloyds Banking Group, Basel III and the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Banking (ICB) and the capital requirements are even higher. Long gone is the efficiency of being able to apply the same capital to both the insurance company and the bank. With the cost of acquiring capital being a lot higher than it was at the beginning of the century this further increases the cost of simply doing business.

It is surprising that Antonio Horta-Osorio is defending the bancassurance model, since the bank he came from, Banco Santander, one of the banks that has survived the financial crisis better than most, despite being headquartered in Spain, has always vehemently argued against both the bancassurance model and investment banking and could justifiably say that they have been proved correct. It was most commentators' expectations that given his experience and training that Antonio Horta-Osorio would see the disposal of Scottish Widows as one of his highest priorities.

Another reason to be shot of Scottish Widows is the introduction of the rules coming out of the Retail Distribution Review (RDR). RDR fundamentally challenges the bancassurance model, makes the cost of selling life assurance and investment products much higher. It has seen Barclays and HSBC amongst others, withdraw from selling mass market assurance products and subsequently laying off thousands od staff in the process. Lloyds Banking Group  is almost a lone voice on the high street still offering assurance and investment advice to the mass market. This may be a smart decision on the part the Group or could it be that the others are all correct?

Certainly if there is someone prepared to make a good offer for Scottish Widows then it could be in shareholders' (and that means UK tax-payers and the UK Government) best interests that LBG makes the deal as this would be a rapid way of paying down debt and should see a significant increase in share price.

The cost and difficulty of separating Scottish Widows from the rest of Lloyds Banking Group is far lower and far simpler than that of separating the 632 Verde branches that LBG is negotiating with Co-Operative Financial Services. The reason for this is that, despite Lloyds TSB acquiring Scottish Widows in 2000, the level of integration between Scottish Widows and the rest of Lloyds Banking Group is relatively low. It has been managed largely at arms length and therefore carving out would not be that difficult, so this is a deal that could be executed relatively quickly and the benefits achieved faster than other disposals.

Certainly if Scottish Widows was sold that would give Antonio Horta-Osorio and his team the chance to focus on the core issue of restoring what was a great and much-admired bank not just back to where it was before it was forced to buy HBoS, but to be even better and even more a bank for customers of the 21st century.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

NAB withdraws to the north - the end of innovation?



The announcement by National Australia Bank (NAB) that they are to close 29 of their business lending centres in the south-east of England and withdraw back to their northern roots, abandoning 80,000 customers, marks the end of an experiment initially started by John Stewart, then CEO of NAB, and more recently Lynne Peacock, until last year CEO of NAB in the UK.

John Stewart and Lynne Peacock worked together for many years at the Woolwich Building Society, where they were responsible for launching the UK's first flexible mortgage, the Open Plan mortgage, combining a savings account with a mortgage account, offsetting savings interest against mortgage interest. Ironically the Open Plan account was based on Australian flexible mortgages. Such was the success of the Open Plan account that Barclays decided to acquire The Woolwich and centre their mortgage business around their acquisition.

John Stewart was seen as an entrepreneur,leading Financial Services industry development and was subsequently hired by NAB to lead the business in Melbourne. He brought Lynne Peakock along, initially in Melbourne and then to lead the UK business consisting of Clydesdale Bank and Yorkshire Bank.

Once again, looking at how he could make a small player in a crowded market stand out from the crowd, he and Lynne Peacock came up with a strategy to take the strong Yorkshire Bank brand down to the sout-east and take on the Big 4 banks in their traditional territory. They came up with an entrepreneurial model where banks managers were allowed to operate like a franchise, to be directly rewarded for the performance of their branches, or Business Lending Centres, to be able to make lending decisions with less referral to the centre and therefore quicker decisions for customers. Their Business Lending Centres look like airline lounges, customers could use them to conduct their own business when in town, creating a very different customer experience. They even went so far as to organise 'speed-dating' for buinesses, whereby SMEs could meet other SMEs in order to do business with each other introduced by NAB. At the time  NAB was, once again, seen as leading the way in terms of a new banking model, of a new customer experience and indicating where the banking industry needed to go. The model was successful with the lending book growing at above market rates.

Many of the ideas that he and Lynne Peacock came up with have been emulated by other banks such as Handelsbanken (see http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2012/02/who-said-branch-banking-was-dead.html , http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2011/06/forget-virgin-money-or-metro-bank.html ), where the bank manager is master of his own business. NBNK in describing the type of banking they want to launch also describes something that is very similar to the NAB model. Metro Bank has gone some of the way towards this as has Virgin Money.

The reason that this has not worked for NAB is twofold. Firstly the focus was on commercial property lending. Since even before 2008 the commercial property market was overheating and finally burst, but like HBoS, NAB continued to lend and has, as a result, got a disproportionate amount of bad loans. Undoubtedly one of the reasons why the book grew so fast was because of the franchise model where the managers were paid in direct relation to the loans they made, which encouraged lending and discouraged caution. The second reason is that whilst NAB provided an excellent customer experience the customers were not prepared to pay for that. This is something that many banks face in a heavily commoditised market where there is the perception of 'free banking'.

In many ways it is a great shame (not least for all the people who will lose their jobs), that what NAB set out to do has failed. Certainly a number of the players, such as JC Flowers and NBNK, who have stated that they want to enter the UK banking market should consider whether acquiring the UK southern assets of NAB should be an option, rather than acquiring all of NAB UK.