Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Mezzanine CoCo Means Even Fatter Banking

Two recent funding initiatives not only fail to introduce openness and transparency in the credit markets, but also add complexity, shroud risk and perpetuate the enormous fees and bonuses inherent in the 'fat banking' model that many are complaining about.

Of course, I'm referring to the new form of 'contingent convertibles' or "CoCos" issued by Lloyds Banking Group and the 'mezzanine' product to be offered by the "Growth Capital Fund".

The £7bn worth of new "CoCos" issued by Lloyds Banking Group pay interest, but convert into equity if the bank's core tier one capital ratio falls below 5%. The tier one capital ratio is itself under a cloud, given its lack of predictive value in 2007 and recent analysis by Standard & Poors that "every single bank in Japan, the US, Germany, Spain, and Italy included in S&P's list of 45 global lenders fails the 8pc safety level under the agency's risk-adjusted capital (RAC) ratio." Furthermore, the ABI says it doesn't like these CoCos being included in bond indexes, because this would "effectively require some bond investors to buy these instruments and subsequently to become forced sellers if and when they convert into equity." It's worth noting that the UK government has had to invest £5.7bn (net of underwriting fees) just to avoid dilution of its 43% shareholding amidst the wopping £13.5bn in new shares. That underwriting fee must be enormous, no doubt made more so by the complexity of the new instrument.

CoCos are a type of convertible bond and are not really new. They started life as bonds that paid interest, but converted into equity if the issuer's share price hit a certain number. Apparently they were first issued by Tyco in 2000. They were popular because CoCos were not included in the diluted earnings per share calculation. However, their favourable treatment was removed and they more or less died out. Some also expressed concern about adequate disclosure of the risk that the contingency would occur, and the future impact of the conversion into equity... seems nothing has changed.

Meanwhile, Messrs Brown and Mandelson have also welcomed the recommendation for new "Growth Capital Fund" to allow medium sized businesses to publicly offer "mezzanine" debt - lending that is often unsecured, and ranks behind bank debt but ahead of equity on insolvency. Apparently, this product "would help address demand side aversion to pure equity, and provide a return above regular bank lending to reward investors". You can guess the reason for the premium to regular bank lending, and why it ranks behind banks. The Growth Capital Fund is designed to plug a "permanent gap" existed for up to "5,000 businesses" looking to raise between £2m and £10m in growth capital." It is noted that "neither banks nor equity investors were likely to fill this gap in the near future." They know that where you rank in an insolvency without security is largely academic, and there remains the very real issue as to how to effectively monitor the ongoing creditworthiness of a mid-tier company. Perhaps the proposed 'single fund manager' might find a solution. But I'll bet it will just sit there gathering money and sending statements to forlorn investors confirming the steady deduction of its fee as a percentage of gross funds under management. Already, Lloyds bankers say they are interested, no doubt hoping to recover some of their recent underwriting fees.

So it's clear that neither of these relatively complex instruments do anything to promote openness and transparency in the financial markets, but instead continue to funnel investment opportunities to intermediaries who can rely on their privileged regulatory position to charge enormous fees.

There are alternatives. At Zopa, for example, we helped figure out an invoice discounting process that is an easily understood, low margin alternative for SME trade finance, open to all - as is the Receivables Exchange. The challenge is marketing such low cost alternatives to busy SMEs amidst all the noise of the usual banking and investment marketing. Low margin financial services providers can't afford fancy advertising campaigns or to arrange open endorsement by Messrs Brown or Mandelson. Yet, to put an end to 'fat banking' and concentrated, poorly understood risk, we need to promote such open investment marketplaces, using instruments that are more easily understood and widely accessible.

Surely that's a challenge the government could help address, rather than lining bankers' pockets.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Internet Regulation Won't Stop Black Swans

I enjoyed Professor Michael Froomkin's recent "Golden Eggs" lecture on internet regulation. He foresees the future regulation of the internet being shaped by the tension between the 'Cypherpunk' vision for a distributed, democratic , libertarian environment - and 'Data's Empire' - where established institutions respond to the perceived threat of the internet by trying to create a centrally controlled environment. He cautions us not to be complacent or 'technologically deterministic'. There are opportunities for us to make real choices to avoid "killing the goose that is giving us golden eggs of innovation, decentralization, and personal empowerment".

This model does not only describe the two broad forces at work in the online regulatory environment. Generally, our individual desire to control our own experience tends to be opposed by institutions' desire to retain control of how they deal with us. Indeed, it might be said that explosive Internet adoption occurred because individuals pragmatically recognised and seized an opportunity for individual empowerment in the face of comparatively rigid institutional control in the offline world.

Yet institutions try to catch up, and the cycle continues. Michael hints at this when he notes "to a surprising extent both sets of trends have manifested themselves simultaneously. The question is whether those two trends can continue, or if instead we are witnessing the start of a collision between them." Of course, we are seeing collisions everywhere, all the time, between individuals and institutions each trying to control their relationships. Just consider all the markets, services and activities impacted by the Web 2.0 phenomenon, and the realisation that brands must become facilitators rather than institutions.

But we should also consider that 'control' is illusory. Human behaviour is not predictable and, while it may appear that people are acting in a controlled way in certain scenarios or under certain regimes, radical change is never far away. The fall of the Berlin wall and the credit crunch are two of many situations or activities which appear to be under fairly strict, central control but are in fact not - or at least not in any sustainable way. This is not a technologically deterministic view. It simply acknowledges the nature of the world. We are constantly exposed to the risk of "Black Swans" - surprise events that have a major impact which we rationalise by hindsight, as if they had been expected. Andy any inquiry into the why's and how's of such events is largely academic, albeit tantalizingly so.

So, while real regulatory choices of the kind Michael mentions may remain to be made, we should not count on those choices as having the intended effect of delivering 'control' for any sustained period of time. Regulation cannot possibly cover every eventuality, and is too slow to create, too blunt and too easily circumvented by anyone sophisticated and determined. Cryptography and the sheer volume of users and data make a mockery out of online access and content controls, centralised 'mining' and monitoring. We do rely increasingly on facilitators to find desired data and/or edit/adapt it in some way to make it more manageable for us or our devices - and these represent natural 'chokepoints' for regulators and commercial institutions, as Michael Froomkin points out. However, these chokepoints are also easily circumvented, either as described or by the rapid rise of the next facilitator or competitor, and related technological innovation.

This is not to say that those who purport to edit more actively what people see should not be subject to democratic controls over their exercise of editorial discretion. There seems to be (a somewhat surprising) acknowledgement of this in Google's decision to fund the Advertising Standards Association's efforts to regulate online marketing activity. The point is that new standards won't protect us from calamity.

The ultimate challenge, as Nicholas Taleb warns, is to minimise or avoid exposure to the potential downsides posed by Black Swans, while maximising one's exposure to the potential upside. To illustrate this in financial terms, it would be a mistake to borrow money to 'short' stocks, but worthwhile to invest a small proportion of your savings in Hollywood films. In the online world, Black Swans would seem to loom most obviously in the content arena - or perhaps fraud. Regulation is heavily focused in this area, but that is merely a signpost. We must take responsibility for our own practical choices. These include whether to share thoughtful or sordid content, to engage in copyright violation or to openly publish key personal financial data or photographs of your family. It's worth considering that the internet hasn't changed our propensity to behave well or badly, but may have amplified the outcomes.

To bring it down to a personal level, I maintain my anti-virus protection and avoid or minimise sharing what I'd regard as 'key' personal or financial data, even though there are comparatively fewer people out there who would use it to my disadvantage, since the impact their activity is so personally disruptive. However, I do acknowledge that the benefit to sharing certain limited personal transaction data - with credit reference agencies, for example, and some retail or social networks - can outweigh the downside of misuse. In these circumstances, you might think that more regulatory and commercial resource should be dedicated to quickly and efficiently restoring a person's control of their own identity once control is lost, rather than drastically limiting the availability of personal data or intervening too much in the exchange of information in social or retail networks.

Similarly, I post my thoughts and share others' because I hope they are better shared than consumed by me alone - and the (small) chance that millions might find such a thought worthwhile represents a very positive potential experience ;-). Conversely, I would not (even if I wanted to) create or share sordid content because it represents exposure to an extremely negative outcome. That said, I acknowledge a middle ground where (within reason) the assessment of what's merely in good or bad taste is hugely subjective and may change. For example, I recall being struck by the fact that 'topless bathing' was deeply frowned upon in Sydney one summer yet utterly commonplace on Bondi Beach the next. Similarly, we'll hear the last 'cautionary tales' of people losing their jobs over embarrassing photos of university hi-jinks once the 'Facebook generation' become middle managers.

The point remains, however, that we must take responsibility for our own personal vigilence, even if employers come to tolerate the odd embarrassing photo, or the government succeeds in tightening internet content controls. Those Black Swans will still be out there.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Ethical Funding: The Death of 'Fat' Banking

It's just cost Yell Group £80 million in fees to secure £660 million in funding. Apparently this is because there are over 300 lenders involved. So I guess you could say it cost about £284,000 per lender.

At the other end of the spectrum, over at Zopa, borrowers pay £118.50 to borrow directly from hundreds of people at the same time, with no bank in the middle.

Somewhere in there is the real cost of enabling people and businesses to obtain funding. And the longer the banks continue to insist on such enormous rewards for their role, the harder others will try to remove them from the process, or otherwise curb their perceived excesses.

Since steering Zopa through the maze of financial regulation, I've become aware of many others who are also implementing alternative funding strategies that take banks out of the process. It's complex and time-consuming, but less so now that starving advisers are starkly aware of their own need to provide a faster, more cost-effective service in this area. Recent figures reveal that Ireland and Luxembourg are reaping the rewards.

The fact that I can't really discuss these alternative funding sources without interfering with their marketing obligations underscores why the banks are able to charge such high fees.

Intensive regulation - ironically designed to protect the financial system and taxpayers from the kind of events we've seen occur regardless - has funneled the world's investment funds and opportunities into a cloistered environment in which only a privileged few are trusted to connect them. Enormous rewards for those few are simply a bi-product of that regulatory framework. It is unsurprising that those rewards should remain high as the flow of investment capital runs dry in the face of intensifying demand from cash-strapped banks and corporations.

So there is further irony in the European Commission's plans to regulate the alternative investment markets. This should simply concentrate the number of intermediaries who can arrange funding, allowing them to increase their fees, yet fail to deliver any incremental protection from the risk of financial failure.

The attack on 'excessive' fees and bonuses actually challenges the notion that matching investment capital and investment opportunities should be reserved for an anointed few. To remove the fat, you need to turn the situation on its head. The authorities should be fostering (not necessarily regulating) the growth of simplified, transparent marketplaces that are substantially open to all, linking investors and issuers of stocks and bonds in a direct sense, albeit still facilitated by skilled, lean operators.

Such a process of simplification, with increased openness and transparency, is entirely consistent with the rise of directly accessible consumer marketplaces for consumer goods, travel, betting, entertainment, personal finance and trade finance during the past decade. In those marketplaces, the role of the facilitator has been to enable consumers to seize control of their own experience and keep much more of the value that was previously retained by 'traditional' product providers.

In this sense, the "democratisation" of the financial markets may be seen as very much a logical step, rather than anything terribly radical. It will be important to get the rules right - just as that has been critical to the success of many other consumer platforms already out there. But openness, fairness, transparency, and both governments' and taxpayers' determination to get out of this mess, ought to be reliable guides.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Big Media Must Make Itself Useful

Rupert Murdoch thinks search engines are getting a 'free ride' on News Corp's content. He also sees little value in 'occasional' visitors who are attracted by a headline they see on a search engine and click through. He says so much content is freely available online because the traditional media 'have been asleep'. Clearly, he wants people to use - and pay for - each of News Corp's media properties as an activity in itself, as in "I want to read the Sun," or "I'm going to watch Fox News now" rather than as an adjunct to their every day activities. To achieve this, he proposes withholding content from the search engines.

He's not alone. Lots of newspapers seem to be planning to reintroduce subscription services online, and there's plenty of discussion about what content might attract a premium.

Of course, many businesses look at the world through their own products, rather than what people are actually doing, or would like to do. Banks, for example, offer 'personal loans' and 'mortgages' quite independently of the use of the processes involved in actually using the money they lend. As a result, people have come to see their bank as just a very basic utility, rather than an integrated part of their lives. 'News' already seems to have gone the same way.

What the media and the banks of this world don't seem to 'get' is why search engines have become so central to people's behaviour.

People don't 'read' search engines. They don't even spend much time there, compared to their destination sites. So why do search engines dominate the advertising world? Because they are key enablers or facilitators of what people are actually doing or want to do. Even if some links are sponsored, a search engine doesn't try to determine what you see or do. Unlike the 'traditional media' or banks. A search engine enables you to efficiently answer the vast number of often quite mundane questions that confront you every day - 'Where are their offices?' 'How do I get there?' 'Can I get this cheaper anywhere else?' 'How many goals has Blogs scored this season?' 'Why are Australian animals so weird?'

No matter how much different content any one provider offers, it will never answer all of everyone's critical questions. And the more it tries to corral people and dictate what they see, the less they'll trust it to give them the information they want.

So the challenge for traditional media is not whether or not they charge for their content. Instead, opportunity lies in becoming more integrated with people's actual or desired every day activities. The more integrated the media are, the greater share of the consumer value chain they might command.

Flight of Funds, FSA Registrations Down

When I asked Vince Cable recently what he thought of the alleged flight of hedge funds from the UK in fear of EU regulation, he said he wasn't aware of any such flight, but it would be "irrational". First, he said, the UK has not - and should not - pander to those in search of a tax haven. Second, he thought it likely the UK will be successful in removing certain protectionist elements from the EC's plans to regulate the alternative investment sector.

I thought this sounded very thin at the time. But I also thought it interesting that Vince went out of his way to mention the tax point.

So no surprise, then, that Lord Myners has just 'spoken in favour' of tax-effective regime for alternative investments on the back of a recent report "that £300bn of UK-managed funds have gravitated to Luxembourg and Ireland, at a cost to the UK of about £300m a year in lost revenues."

The fact that funds choose to remain in the EU suggests the regulatory fears are overdone. Either managers are resigned to regulation, or bullish about watering down the EC proposals.

It's also worth noting FT reports that "only 247 new banks, brokers and insurance firms sought authorisation from the Financial Services Authority in the three months to September 30, while 643 firms cancelled their registration, according to data compiled by IMAS Corporate Advisors."

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