Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Hey Eric: Lend Your Euros Directly To Other People

Like previous financial crises, this one won't end until individual and collective confidence in banks and the financial system is restored. And while it's all very well for the Eurozone's political masters to be demonstrating their 'political will' to hold the Eurozone together at individual taxpayers' expense, their latest attempt at restoring confidence has not exactly impressed Spain's debtors...

But such bail-out headlines merely the typically dominant institutional narrative. The real question is whether the Euro and EU institutions actually have the confidence of EU citizens - especially taxpayers. A recent poll suggests they do not: only 42% of Europeans trust the European Union - reflecting a general disenchantment with EU institutions over the past few decades. Meanwhile, in sharp contrast, bottom-up facilitators that enable citizens to participate in shaping and personalising their own services have done very well.

This is reflected in the behaviour of EU citizens on the economic front. The implications of the one-size-fits-all Eurozone monetary policy seem to be regarded as just as unfair by German taxpayers and the French savers supporting Eric Cantona's suggestion for mass bank-withdrawals on 7 December as by those hitting the streets of Greece and Ireland. The Guardian quotes Valérie Ohannesian, of the French Banking Federation, as saying Cantona's appeal is "stupid in every sense". Yet, crucially, she did not explain why people should feel more confident about leaving their money on deposit, or why it is fair that banks receive taxpayer bail-outs while taxes increase and spending is cut. In the absence of any other narrative, each bail-out undermines our confidence even further, to the point where we hit the streets and seriously consider suggestions like Eric Cantona's.

But it doesn't have to be this way. There is a bottom-up narrative emerging, and our politicians need to focus on it.

Eric Cantona's confident call for mass withdrawals hints at the fact that people are prepared to put their money where their mouth is. But it would be futile for those with surplus cash languishing in low interest savings accounts to withdraw it all and hide it under their beds. Instead, they should join those who already put their money to work helping others, by lending it directly on peer-to-peer lending platforms to creditworthy people and businesses at a decent rate that also represents a decent return.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Swiss Tailwind For Personal & Small Business Social Finance

Banks will find it more costly and less profitable to offer short term unsecured personal and small business finance under Basel III rules, according to a recent McKinsey report.

To comply with the new rules, Banks face a long review of their businesses and products to reduce risk, use capital more efficiently and minimise the need for market funding by the end of 2012.

Which is more great news for participants in the 'capital light' social finance business models, like Zopa and Funding Circle in the UK.

As I mentioned in the context of the proposals to regulate vertical shadow banking functions, people using these 'horizontal intermediaries' benefit from:
  1. Loan amounts being split into small one-to-one loans at inception, rather than having to wait for the slicing, re-packaging and grading involved in asset-backed securitisation;
  2. A direct, one-to-one legal relationship between borrower and lender for the life of the loan, enabling better control over debt adjustment and collection, where that becomes necesary;
  3. Lenders retaining day-to-day control of the management of their money and credit risk, minimising the capital required by the intemediary;
  4. The intermediary not needing to slice and re-package debt to alter loan maturities, since lenders can manage this by assigning loans of unwanted duration to other lenders;
  5. The intermediary having no balance sheet risk, and therefore no temptation to engage in expensive and complex regulatory, tax or other arbitrage;
  6. Transparency in the original underwriting decision and loan performance against grade - making lenders' due diligence easy, and removing the moral hazard of the kind we see in vertical intermediation models, where the endless slicing and re-packaging makes due diligence hard.
For these reasons, one might expect banks to allow their depositors to lend directly to their personal loan and small business customers. But it seems unlikely the banks could feed themselves on the scale of fees their nimble competitors can afford to charge. And they would soon face calls to allow the peer-to-peer approach for mortgages and larger corporate loans - by which time other nimble providers may well beat them to those segments too...

Image from

Friday, 26 November 2010

Usual Suspects Bottom Out EU Consumer Scoreboard

You may wonder why a blog focused on how we seize control of our consumer experiences devotes so much space to our frustration in the personal finance space.

Because, as the latest edition of the EC's Consumer Markets Scoreboard confirms, it's our biggest source of angst.

Bank current accounts and credit products, investments, pensions and securities all feature in the bottom 20% of the "Market Performance Indicator", with investments, pensions and securities coming in lucky last.

Real estate services, internet service provision and railways also get a pasting; as well as secondhand cars, clothing and footwear, meat, and house maintenance/ improvement goods.

An incredible 31% of consumers find it fairly easy to compare investments, although only 34% of consumers think they deliver what's promised. A naive 26% of us are as likely to trust investment providers as used car salesmen.

Yet 76% of us don't bother to switch providers...

As a result, until the usual suspects get their act together, we face an endless stream of edicts emanating from the Brussels bureaucrats, adding more and more to the complexity for both providers and consumers alike. A great deal more proactive work in this area by providers may help stem this tide. Switching providers might also help.

In the meantime, internet service providers and the "meat market" can also expect the joy of EC market study questionnaires.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

So What Happened To The Van?

We've all heard the story of how 10,000 students were too busy protesting about education fee increases to stop a bunch of photographers taking snaps of someone surfing on an old van the police conveniently abandoned in Whitehall on Wednesday. But where's the van now?

If in its coverage of Wednesday's generally peaceful demonstration the UK's biggest selling newspaper thought the van was so important that it should run the headline "Student mob in cop van rampage" the people should be told what happened to it.

Or is a poor old orphan police van set upon by a few nutters just another victim of lazy, sensationalist journalism?

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Call for Self-regulation of Limited Network Payment Schemes

The UK Treasury is calling for self-regulation to ring-fence funds relating to stored value in “limited network” programmes, citing examples such as store cards, coffee shop cards, fuel cards, transport cards, membership cards, and meal and other voucher systems. The call is part of the Treasury’s consultation on the second E-money Directive which imposes similar obligations on the operators of 'general purpose' stored value programmes. While limited networks will remain exempt from E-money and payment services regulation, the Treasury will consider “whether further [regulatory] action is warranted” if what it sees as adequate self-regulation does not emerge. Consultation ends on 30 November.

Potential reasons cited by the Treasury for segregating limited network funds from operators' own corporate funds include:
  • Apparent uncertainty as to the scope of the limited network exemption;
  • A large number of consumers/businesses rely on limited network programmes and may suffer if programmes fail;
  • A limited network failure may harm the reputation of other limited network programmes as well as regulated e-money providers; and
  • Limited networks enjoy a cost advantage over regulated general purpose stored value programmes, partly through not needing to ring-fence funds equivalent to the outstanding stored value.
Whether each of these is really a problem is very much debatable. Guidance can clarify what is considered in or out of the regulatory scope, and the existence of 'grey areas' at the perimeter is no argument for definitively expanding the scope by requiring self-regulation. Of course, not all customers or businesses rely on all limited network programmes, or even the programmes of the same type. Similarly, the failure of one programme does not necessarily reflect on them all. That's clear from the collapse of retailers that entirely rely on pre-payment Farepak (Christmas hampers) and WrapIt (wedding gifts) which have provided the genesis for concern in this area generally, though neither was a stored value programme. Finally, why shouldn't there be cost advantages to running a programme whereby value can only be spent within a limited network, rather than one where stored value can be spent anywhere? The latter is always going to be much larger in scale and purpose, and entail far more operational risk.

While the evidence of detriment is less than clear, positive reasons not to introduce requirements to safeguard customer funds in limited network schemes include:
  • The potential for additional requirements to be imposed in the course of the proposed self-regulatory exercise that needlessly increase the cost of operating the network;
  • No one operating a dodgy scheme would sign-up for stringent self-regulation;
  • It may be far more costly and onerous to ring-fence funds in certain types of limited network programmes than others, so some operators may be unfairly discriminated against by not signing-up on legitimate economic grounds; and
  • Increased costs associated with self-regulation may result in fewer limited network payment programmes for customers to choose from and higher retail prices for customers overall.
A proportionate alternative might be to focus on improving the management of operational risk in businesses that rely entirely on pre-payment for specific items, as Farepak and Wrapit did. A nice, long chat with their auditors might also be in order...

Image from

Animal Spirits: My £3 Billion Wedding

Hang on. This might just work. One hell of a Big Splash for the long-awaited wedding of William and Kate. Timed to occur hot on the heels of likely Spanish and Portuguese bail-outs. The more it costs, the better, since we're effectively paying ourselves to celebrate it, and it may also drag in £620 million. That's an impressive number, in terms of direct sales of copy dresses and cheap crockery, yet disappointing... unless the expression of public joy acts as a 'confidence multiplier' for a beleaguered populace.

Perhaps you can tell that I've been reading Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism. Worth reading. Boosts optimism ;-)

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Of Sunlight, Shadow Banking and Horizontal Intermediation

Huge thanks to Gillian Tett for pointing out in Friday's FT the report on "Shadow Banking" by staff of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It even comes with a handy map, which she points out:
" a reminder of how clueless most investors, regulators and rating agencies were before 2007 about finance. After all, during the credit boom, there was plenty of research being conducted into the financial world; but I never saw anything remotely comparable to this road map."
The NY Fed's report defines "traditional banks" as depository institutions that are insulated by public sector insurance from sudden 'runs' on deposits. Whereas "shadow banks" - finance companies, credit hedge funds, broker-dealers and an alphabet soup of intermediaries - operate without any such public sector insurance. I'll come to what shadow banks actually do shortly. But the fundamental problem, as the report makes clear, is that the shadow banking system has indeed gained access to the public purse during the financial crisis, via bail-outs of some of their subsidiaries (bank subsidiaries, in the case of 'financial holding companies' or retail/commercial banking groups; and industrial loan companies and federal savings banks, in the case of diversified broker-dealers or investment banks):
"The liquidity facilities of the... government agencies' guarantee schemes were a direct response to the liquidity and capital shortfalls of shadow banks and, effectively, provided either a backstop to credit intermediation by the shadow banking system or to traditional banks for the exposure to shadow banks."
In other words, public sector guarantees are necessary to stop 'runs' on the shadow banking system in the same way they avoid 'runs' on deposit-taking banks.

In these circumstances, you could be forgiven for thinking it crazy for the shadow banking system to go unregulated. But who are the shadow banks? What do they really do? Does each function really need to be regulated? If so, why? How? This has been the focus of the European regulatory agenda (including a focus on unregulated derivatives) during the past few years, and the harsher elements have met fierce resistance with allegations that the realities, wider implications and scope for unintended consequences are not well understood by legislators and regulators.

So the publication of the detail in NY Fed's report is very much worthwhile.

The NY Fed concludes that 'some' but not all segments of the shadow banking system are of "limited economic value". It says that "equally large segments of it have been driven by gains in specialisation" and would be more aptly described as a "parallel banking system." Nevertheless, the report concludes that "private sector balance sheets will always fail at internalizing systemic risk. The official sector will always have to step in to help."

So how does the shadow banking system work? Well, instead of making loans to hold onto them, like traditional banks, the shadow banking system involves the making of loans for sale through a series of intermediaries - "shadow banks" - each of which specialises in one step in "a vertically integrated, long, intermediation chain":
"These steps essentially amount to the “vertical slicing” of traditional banks’ credit intermediation process and include (1) loan origination, (2) loan warehousing, (3) [Asset-backed Security or ABS] issuance, (4) ABS warehousing, (5) ABS [Collateralised Debt Obligation, or CDO] issuance, (6) ABS “intermediation” and (7) wholesale funding... Typically, the poorer an underlying loan pool’s quality at the beginning of the chain (for example a pool of subprime mortgages originated in California in 2006), the longer the credit intermediation chain that would be required to “polish” the quality of the underlying loans to the standards of money market mutual funds and similar funds."
In reality, these chains could involve many more steps and "CDOs squared", depending on how many times the loans had to be "polished". The various exhibits in the report illustrate the eye-watering complexity very well.

Having studied the various processes, the NY Fed believes that "regulation by function is a more potent style of regulation than regulation by institutional charter." Figuring out which functions contain the root cause of our current financial woes is therefore necessary.

The NY Fed believes the current financial crisis grew out of mispricing of ABS CDOs, (steps 5/6 above), which caused problems up and down the chain:
"...the growth of ABS CDOs not only masked but also created an underlying pricing problem in the primary ABS market (Adelson and Jacob, (2007)). In particular, in the early days of securitization, the junior tranches of home equity deals were purchased by real money investors. However, these investors were pushed aside by the aggressive buying of ABS CDOs, which resided on the trading books of large broker-dealers. The mispricing of the junior ABS tranches permitted issuers to distribute loan pools with increasingly worse underwriting. ABS CDOs suffered from the same underlying problem as the underlying ABS, which required the creation of CDO-squared products."
In essence, poor quality debt was re-packaged again and again in order to remove the risk, but the risk was misunderstood and the resulting instruments were mispriced each time.

Notwithstanding these pricing problems, the NY Fed's regulatory vision is that vertical credit intermediation can reduce the costs of screening and monitoring borrowers in the traditional banking model, and facilitates investor diversification, by transforming credit quality, maturity dates and adding liquidity. And the grading of securities by a "credible rating agency" can reduce information asymmetries between borrowers and savers.

Yet this assertion meets a series of fundamental challenges, not all of which are explicit in the report:
  1. The separation of lender and borrower, and fragmentation of the original loan note makes it harder to adjust loans when borrowers get into trouble (explored in Confessions of a Subprime Lender and evident from the 'fraudclosure' and 'forced repurchase' problems in the US).
  2. The process of transforming 'maturity' (changing the date when loans or debt instruments are due to expire) creates balance sheet risk for the intermediary.
  3. It is unclear whether ratings, accounting and audit functions really do remove information asymmetry between borrowers and lenders. Do we have "credible" ratings agencies, when only three dominate the market and they are paid by the issuers of the securities they grade? Similar problems exist in the accounting and audit markets - hence the calls for reforms in these areas.
  4. There are huge challenges to undertaking adequate due diligence on large volumes of underlying original loans.
  5. Pressure to reduce the amount of capital required to operate this vertical chain of intermediaries results in a game of regulatory, tax, capital and ratings arbitrage that spans the globe and creates endlessly complex corporate structures.
  6. Various factors lead to underestimation of the capital required for the private and implicit public sector guarantees required to support it. This is further complicated by the fact that "...the performance of highly-rated structured securities... in a major liquidity crisis... become highly correlated as all investors and funded institutions are forced to sell high quality assets in order to generate liquidity."
  7. The knowledge that the market can ultimately 'put' problem securities on the taxpayer (whether this is explicit, implicit, direct or indirect) creates a moral hazard that seems to increase in line with the demand for the securities until the system irretrievably melts down.
These fundamental challenges and the length of time it is taking to confront them underscore the need to find alternatives to the vertical model for credit intermediation. The situation is all the more urgent, given that the huge taxpayer bail-outs of the past few years have only reduced the liabilities in the shadow banking system from $20 trillion in March 2008 to about $16 trillion in Q1 2010, when liabilities in the traditional banking system were about £11 trillion.

One alternative is horizontal credit intermediation, which is a feature of the new peer-to-peer funding platforms - like Zopa, Lending Club and Funding Circle - that each borrower's loan amount is provided via many tiny loans from many different lenders at inception.

That approach does deal with the fundamental challenges outlined above, mainly because the margin between lending and borrowing rates are too slim to support more than one intermediary. The one-to-one legal relationship between borrower and lender/loan owner is maintained for the life of the loan via the same loan origination and servicing platform (with a back-up available), allowing for ready enforcement. The intermediary has no balance sheet risk, and has no temptation to engage in regulatory, tax or other arbitrage. Loan maturities do not need to be altered to achieve diversification across different loans, loan terms and borrowers. The basis of the original underwriting decision remains transparent and available as the basis for assessing the performance of the loan against its grade, as well as for pricing the loan on any resale or refinance, making due diligence easy. To the extent that credit risk were to concentrate on certain borrowers or types of borrowers, those risks would remain visible throughout the life of the loan, rather than rendered opaque through fragmentation, re-packaging and re-grading. The scope for moral hazard is contained by the transparency around loan performance.

This also reflects a trend towards the democratisation of markets that impact consumers.

But I would say that, wouldn't I?

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Kick Out the Kick-out Bond

John Kay has seized upon the 'kickout bond' as an excellent example of how our creaking financial regulatory framework works against consumers.

John focused on the product as offered by RBS and distributed by Barclays Wealth, but even the Skipton Building Society is at it.

It is not possible to do the product any justice by summarising it in plain English. By all means study it yourself. But my reaction, like John Kay's, is to wonder why a retail bank or building society would offer an investment product with apparently massive bonuses when they can borrow money - or attract deposits - by offering very modest savings rates? If they've done their homework, this product should be very, very unlikely to cost them any more. In fact, the structure and layers of intermediaries involved should mean additional revenue based on fee and dealing charges and returns below the trigger for any 'bonus' payments. As Mr Kay says:
"Like so many structured products, these bonds are bought only by people who do not really understand what they are doing."
Why the FSA allows a product of this complexity to be offered to unwitting investors, yet refuses to provide guidance for the launch of simple, transparent, low cost funding platforms is utterly beyond me.

Remember: you're on your own - pay less, diversify more and be contrarian.

Avoiding The Irish Haircut

It seems that if you look into any property bubble you'll see the hollow remains of a British bank. Which explains George Osborne's offer of a direct loan from the UK to the Irish government.

It has been made clear by the German government recently that the holders of Irish bonds must take a 'haircut' - a reduction in the value of their bonds - to share the pain in the event that any European money is used to bail out Ireland or its banks.

To the extent that European money involves the European Financial Stability Fund, then the UK would be on the hook for £7bn. Chickenfeed, you say, compared to our own bail-out costs to date, though a sizeable sum in the scheme of recent budget cuts.

But that's not all that's at stake, because the usual suspects filled their boots with about £140bn of Irish assets, according to Channel 4 news tonight, of which RBS and Lloyds share about £80bn. So these positions don't need to take much of a haircut to exceed the UK's £7bn exposure via the ESFS.

Hence George's anxiety to avoid Ireland's trip to the Brussels barber.

What next? British banks were said to be 'tight-lipped' about the exposure to the PIGS. I'd say that's more like "white-knuckled" by now.

Image from Gals Rock.

Friday, 12 November 2010


Has a week gone already?! The distinct lack of posts has been due to my being buried by business-as-usual, plus:
Have a great weekend!

Image from PubSub.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Strength in Diversity

Following the discussion on the concept of a Social Finance Association, it was interesting to read the guest post on Zopa's blog by Rob Garcia, Senior Director of Product Strategy at Lending Club, attempting to classify types of social finance as 'crowdfunding', 'microfinance' or 'peer-to-peer lending or investing'.

Having had to spend far too long studying the distinctions between US and UK regulation in this area, I must respectfully disagree that 'crowdfunding' necessarily involves 'pooling' or a lack of nexus between 'funder' and 'fundee'. Similarly, any of these models should be capable of operation on either a for-profit or not-for-profit basis, or for any purpose, social or otherwise. The essence should be that each facilitator enables people - rather than the facilitator itself - to determine the allocation of their own funds directly to other people, businesses or projects, whether the businesses or projects are operated for-profit, social purposes or otherwise). In other words, people remain in day-to-day control of the management of their money, not the facilitator.

While precise distinctions between the various different social finance models may be important at one level, and a diverse range of business models is certainly good sign for the strength of the sector, the sector must also be ready to differentiate itself from traditional financial institutions and models - unless it wants to be regulated in the same way.

Social finance models were vital alternatives before the global financial crisis, let alone now and for the foreseeable future while traditional institutions adjust to new capital and regulatory constraints. But the existing regulatory framework makes it painfully slow and expensive to launch social finance platforms. To help foster confident innovation and competition, and enable the new sector to flourish quickly enough to provide much needed funding, financial regulators should clarify what is permissible within or outside the scope of regulation.

Image from the Trade Association Forum.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Long Now

The Long Now Foundation "was established in 01996 to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years." It has three main projects - "to construct a timepiece that will operate with minimum human intervention for 10,000 years... to preserve all languages that have a high likelihood of extinction over the period from 2000 to 2100... and to propose and keep track of bets on long-term events and stimulate discussion about the future."

The foundation also conducts "Seminars About Long-term Thinking". In fact, there's a Long Now "Meet-up" in London tonight, and Chris Skinner of the Financial Services Club recently compiled a great collection of blog posts, SIBOS discussions and comments in a document called "Introducing Long Finance".

It's quite liberating to think in terms of a 10,000 year framework, though one could get bogged down in the best way to go about it. I'm not sure it matters whether one thinks about how the world will be in the year 10,000 or 12,010 and what we might do today to ensure there actually is one, or whether you roll forward 10,000 years only to look back at what might then be considered to have been the big problems of today. In any case, it's at least a very different perspective on human existence to the one I was taught.

Of course, we already tend to this sort of analysis when we talk about landing our grandchildren with financial and environmental problems, but that's not very far in the future, and most of our institutions seem pressured for one reason or another to focus on the very short term.

For what they're worth, my own thoughts - partly reflected in earlier posts and partly in response to "Introducing Long Finance" (ILF) - are these:
  1. It is critical to bear in mind that almost all significant events in history are Black Swans - surprise events that have a huge impact and which we rationalise by hindsight. As a result we should maximise our exposure to the upside of such events, and minimise our exposure to the downside (see The Black Swan).
  2. We should focus on the total cost of our activities, rather than merely their immediate market 'price' - i.e. not only the retail price of petrol at the pump or the spread between savings and lending rates, but the cost of subsidies and cross-subsidies paid to each of participants in the supply chain.
  3. It doesn't seem worthwhile to get too caught up in debating the rate at which certain energy sources are 'running out', when it seems likely that it will come as a surprise that they have, in fact, run out or at least become unaffordable (see above). Given the implications of running out of energy on a mass scale, any degree of scarcity is reason enough to create viable, sustainable alternative energy sources now. Otherwise we are exposing ourselves to the massive downside associated with a surprise event. This is the sort of thinking that led the Dutch government to spend €450 million building the Maeslant barrier, for example (page 6, ILF).
  4. Education and health are more critical to our survival - and therefore of greater social importance - than the accumulation of wealth. But we have a tendency to let the accumulation of wealth dominate our activities from time to time. And then we get burned, either by military conflict or economic hardship (read in The Ascent of Money). We should therefore incentivise the pursuit of knowledge and good health above the accumulation of wealth. The process of accumulation of wealth should also be harnessed in favour of education and public health.
  5. Migration will remain a very significant source of conflict, since population imbalances - whether caused by social policies like China's one-child policy or declining population - must result in significant relocation of people, whether peacefully or by conquest.
  6. I agree that "commodities, capabilities, processes and capital" are key drivers of international tension (page 20, "Introducing Long Finance"). But I don't believe the long term issue is one of which nation will be the next global superpower. In fact, the trend may be towards the devolution of national power into regional and local power (see comment on page 26, ILF), Scotland and Wales being examples close to home, and commodities etc are not evenly distributed within most countries. So the economic challenge becomes one of matching regional/local strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in terms of commodities, capabilities, processes and capital (labour included). Hans Rosling's analysis of regional human development, the rise of the "Cheetah Generation" in sub-Saharan Africa and the aid-investment dichotomy illustrated by China's involvement in that region are illustrative of this trend. Issues of fairness, inequality (page 32, ILF) and the total cost of our activities (#2 above) arise to be resolved in this context. The ideas of Bernard Lietaer and the Japanese currency of ‘fureai kippu’, that enables families to exchange time and duties in support of each others' parents and grandparents (pp 37-40, ILF) are also attractive here.
  7. A focus on the eradication of "poverty" (see page 30, ILF) seems a futile as an end in itself. It should be a bi-product of prioritising education and public health over the accumulation of wealth, as well as meeting the challenges arising out of regional/local economics and migration, as discussed above.
  8. Industries naturally concentrate and fragment, while customer dissatisfaction and the competitive activities of players normally considered to be in other markets play a role. This dynamic has played out in the past decade via the Web 2.0 or 'social media' phenomenon in the retail, travel and entertainment industries, for example. I've covered this in the consumer finance context already. And there are signs the markets for audit services and credit risk ratings will be next. So I disagree with Chris's contention that banks have a future as "safe keepers of information", in the way that "Apple’s iTunes, Amazon’s Superstore (it’s no longer books) and Google are all data businesses who use the rich analysis of data as their key resource" (page 46, ILF). I disagree partly because that would buck the social media trend generally, and partly for the very reason that those social media based businesses developed their rich data capability first, and are implicitly more competent in this respect than retail banks (who actually have little such readily accessible data or relevant skills and resources). Instead, the functions associated with retail and commercial 'banking' today are likely to be subsumed and concentrated into other types of businesses more closely aligned with end-to-end retail and commercial processes. Those businesses are in turn likely to fragment to create new types of service provider aligned with the regional/local economic developments, new currency models, shifts in population and so on, discussed above.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Fundsmith: Low Cost, Diversified and Contrarian?

We didn't need Terry Smith to tell us that the fund management industry is 'broken', but at least he's put his money where his mouth is. His new Fundsmith Equity Fund will have no initial charge (where typical charges are around 5%), a 1% annual management fee, no performance fees, and he says it will try to keep stock trading/turnover low to prevent dealing costs eating into investors' funds.

All well and good, but Terry gives an interesting response to a query on diversification:
"All of the research shows the standard deviation on an individual stock is approximately 49%, the market is at 19%. On 20 stocks, the standard deviation is 20%. So if you buy 20 stocks, you get 19/20ths of the diversification benefit of being in the market, so you do not need to own 100, 200 or 300 stocks to get the market diversification benefit. But the great thing about 20 is that you know what they are doing. I know there is no chance that I would be able to, in significant detail, follow the details of 100 or 200 companies."
This sounds dangerously like Terry expects that the fund's returns will be normally distributed, when surely he doesn't believe that - even if he still clings to the efficient markets hypothesis. Holding at least 20 stocks might be a start, but one would need to know a lot more about the size of the holdings, distribution by industry, geography, correlation and where the herd is in relation to each stock/sector and so on to judge whether Fundsmith fully complies with John Kay's edict to "pay less, diversify more and be contrarian."

It would be more interesting to see Terry Smith turn his hand to a fund of Exchange Traded Funds, since they offer an opportunity to pay less, diversify more and be contrarian, yet retail investors need help figuring out and adjusting to how correlated the various sectors are from time to time, and what's in or out of favour.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Of Creative Destruction, Auditors and Ratings Agencies

Among the lessons to be learned from the financial crisis, so far we've rightly heard a lot about self-restraint and more effective financial regulation. But we've not heard much about how the market for external audit services and credit ratings will change to help protect taxpayers from footing the bill for future bail-outs.

There have been many significant accounting scandals in the decade since the the Dot-com bubble burst on 10 March 2000. Enron died in 2001, eventually taking accounting giant Arthur Anderson with it. WorldCom filed for Chapter 11 in 2002, the same year the Tyco scandal broke - among many others. In 2003, the Ahold and the Parmalat scandals broke. In 2004, it was AIG under investigation, which duly restated its net worth as being 3.3% lower. Madoff's activities went on unchecked until 2008. Meanwhile investment banks packaged the riskiest types of mortgages into allegedly low-risk bonds as due diligence methodologies became outpaced by the sheer scale of debt issuance, seriously undermining confidence in the standards set by ratings agencies.

More scandals and surprise losses are on the way. Only yesterday, internal auditors at 75 major UK corporations recently confessed in a survey conducted by a major accounting firm that they are failing to stem the rising tide of fraud, and are increasingly vulnerable to it:
"The three most common types of fraud were misappropriation of assets, suffered by 31 per cent of companies, improper expenditures (22 per cent) and procurement fraud at 16 per cent. Poor financial controls and collusion between employees and third parties were seen as important drivers of fraud."
In these cases one might conclude that accounting, financial controllership, auditing and the assessment of credit risk all succumbed to the same illness. In fact, there are more similarities than differences between the activities of ratings agencies and audit firms, so they ought to share the criticism of the state of the market for those activities.

There have always been arguments about where the scope of external audit responsibility begins and ends, and whether firms who offer audit services should continue to be free to also offer accounting, regulatory and risk management advice - or, indeed, credit ratings - where they make most of their money. But the fundamental reality is that auditors and ratings agencies purport to offer to external stakeholders some verification of a corporations' activities, yet their fees are paid by the corporations they audit or rate. So there are inherent conflicts of interest to be managed right from the start. We've also now reached the awkward stage where only four firms audit most of our major corporations, including banks. And only three ratings agencies assess the risk of default on most of planet Earth's 'investment grade' securities. Worse still, in May 2010, two of the 'Big Four' major global audit firms said they were planning to launching ratings businesses.

Little wonder that the Financial Reporting Council's Professional Oversight Board believes that the Big Four accounting firms outweigh their regulatory constraints (hand-wringing we've seen before). And that the G20 leaders wish to reduce their reliance on ratings (see the October Basel Committee report), while global regulators are calling for an alternative to single-grade ratings by rating agencies (note the particular frustration of the SEC and the FSA on this front).

Worryingly, however, we are only seeing expressions of frustration from the bodies we rely upon to control the situation. Certainly, the European Commission's dithering over the stranglehold of the Big Four suggests we won't see a more robust approach in the EU any time soon.

Experience suggests that these sorts of issues are only resolved after a crisis has occurred - the process of creative destruction traced in The Ascent of Money. It is also said that industries naturally concentrate and fragment, although customer dissatisfaction and the competitive activities of players normally considered to be in other markets play a role - e.g. social finance models involve parceling loan amounts into tiny loans at inception, rather than introducing layers of securitisation.

So, eventually, life will get pretty rough for the auditors and the ratings agencies. And for the taxpayer. Again.

Slim comfort.

Image from Critter's Crap.
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