Sunday, 30 October 2011

Of Credit Easing, SMEs And New Regulatory Models

Growth in Lending
Source: Bank of England
Good news that the Treasury is exploring the potential for using the London Stock Exchange's "Order book for Retail Bonds" or "ORB" as a platform for issuing bonds in small and medium sized businesses as a tactic in the government's credit easing strategy. But let's hope this is part of a wider solution that creates a broad 'safe harbour' for a range of instruments and platforms, rather than a nice cosy exclusive for the LSE and its member firms.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Banks Winning War On SMEs

The latest Bank of England "Trends in Lending" report reveals that a further contraction in funding available to SMEs, combined with unjustified hikes in the cost of finance, are causing small firms to conserve cash on deposit for 2012 - which in turn means free money for banks (my emphasis added):
"The major UK lenders stated that credit availability to SMEs remained unchanged or had eased. Most major UK lenders reported that their expectations for SME credit conditions during 2012 were less optimistic than their expectations six months ago. Under this outlook, which they attributed to current economic uncertainties, SMEs were expected to continue to have a reduced risk appetite and to be cutting back on investment and non-essential spending.

Concerns about credit availability have been reported, however, by business contacts of the Bank’s network of Agents. Contacts of the Agents reported that credit conditions continued to be tighter for SMEs compared to larger corporates. Small businesses and new business start-ups still found it difficult to gain access to credit. The Bank’s Agents also reported that some small firms were holding sizable cash balances because of concerns about the continuing availability of overdraft facilities. They reported that some small firms were reluctant to approach banks out of concern for an increase in the cost of existing borrowings, or reductions in overdraft limits, and sometimes had resorted to the use of personal loans instead."
Meanwhile, loan pricing by banks "continued to drift upwards", notwithstanding that:

"Default rates and losses given default were reported to have fallen for both small and medium-sized firms over the past six months, although some pickup in these quantities was expected in 2011 Q4 for medium-sized firms. Most major UK lenders, however, reported little evidence so far of deterioration in their existing SME credit portfolios."

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Delegation: The Pyle Principle

The Peter Principle is the name given to the notion that "in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to the level of his incompetence." In turn, Peter's Corollary holds that: 
""in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out their duties" and adds that "work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence". "Managing upward" is the concept of a subordinate finding ways to subtly "manage" superiors in order to limit the damage that they end up doing."
But the suggestion that "work is accomplished" in such an organisation implies successful delegation by management, itself a sign of management competence. That can't be true of an organisation governed by the Peter Principle, since surely it is incompetent from the top down. In such an organisation, therefore, it is more likely that issues are delegated to the level of incompetence and less and less is accomplished. Accordingly, either we should re-define Peter's Corollary or (acknowledging that delegation to the incompetent could be a tactic employed in otherwise sound organisations, e.g. to kill an unpopular project) we should proclaim a fresh principle. 

How about the Pyle Principle?

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Does Occupation Work?

Much is being written about Occupy Wall Street and similar expressions of mass dissatisfaction about our financial system. In particular, many are giving advice on more practical alternatives to occupation, which misses the point:
"Occupy Wall Street is [a] leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants."
In other words, this is what people do when their faith in all the immediately practical alternatives is exhausted. 

But why? Does mass occupation 'work'? I mean, is Egypt now a better place? Wouldn't it be better to withdraw completely and assume the foetal position under your duvet? 
While I don't believe these protests have any causal connection with the changes that are democratising the financial markets, they are critical insofar as they represent a peak in our society's dissatisfaction with its financial institutions. I mean, this is not intended to shock or wake people up, like a strike or a noisy protest march, or an attempt to get the attention of law-makers outside Parliament. Quite the reverse: pitching your tent in the beating heart of a giant city is a sign of utter confidence that every rushing passerby, every person who reads the paper or watches the evening news will understand exactly why you're there.

For this reason, such occupations are a sign that the majority of us have rounded the change curve. It means we've moved beyond 'shock' at how broken things are, through 'denial' and beyond 'anger and blame' - even though that appears to be what all the signs are about. Those people wouldn't be there if they instinctively sense that we all understand the world has changed for the worse. That something has to be done. In fact, the reason they're gathering is to figure out what is to be done.

Ironically enough, these occupations mean we're moving on.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

EU Rescue Fund: Build It, And "They" Will Come

Source: Allianz. Hat tip: Financial Times
The Zerozone's life and death struggle may be painfully slow, but it's weirdly entertaining. Comical proposals abound as to how far the dwindling European financial stability facility ("EFSF") - now eroded from 440bn to 250bn - might be leveraged to cover the risk of Zerozone countries going bust. Metaphors to date range from 'a burning building with no exit' to holding on to a 'rising balloon', and I've mixed a few more below. 

The latest instalment, as it were, involves a proposal from Allianz, the insurer, that the requisite leverage could be produced by guarantees (see diagram), so that the steadily shrinking 440bn could magically cover €2.9 trillion of shonky southern sovereign indebtedness. A previous proposal involved CDO-style leverage to €4 trillion. Both appear to suffer from the flaws outlined by Satyajit Das: that the credit risk is massively concentrated and the default correlation is high.

This is like watching turkeys fight over who's next at Thanksgiving. Mr Das is not alone in assigning a high probability to the guarantees being called, or 'CDOs' defaulting - the facility is also a giant magnet for recalcitrant Greek bureaucrats, hedge fund managers and bond traders alike. 

The vultures aren't so much circling, as landing and fastening napkins around their necks.

I guess you could say this makes the creation of the facility a self-fulfilling prophecy. And this just happens to be the reason leading Zerozone banks give for resisting requirements that they recapitalise on the back of stress-tests that factor in the risk of sovereign default (French banks complain they would be forced to raise capital at valuations that are too low, but who are they kidding?)

In truth, the banks are just playing for time until the EFSF gravy train finally rolls into town.

That seems to be what banking is all about. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

A Good Year For Innovation In SME Finance

Source: Bank of England
As the headwind for UK banks stiffened today, we have news from MarketInvoice, the UK-based online invoice discounting platform, that it has enabled SMEs to raise £2 million against their invoices since February 2011, with £500,000 raised through the platform in August alone.

"Buyers" of each firm's invoices are institutional investors (such as asset managers and private investment funds) - who we know have plenty of cash in search of a home. They bid against each other on the platform to ensure some competition to provide cheaper funding. The types of deals done to date, and how the process works, are described here. In effect, this puts the traditional invoice discounting, or 'factoring', process online.

Of course, MarketInvoice is not alone in providing small businesses with alternatives to bank finance. Funding Circle, the peer-to-peer platform for small business lending, has also reported healthy interest. And Crowdcube facilitates equity investments.

So far, each of these new entrants has chosen to innovate around a specific funding instrument or process. No doubt other alternative providers, and further innovation, will emerge while the banks remain in complete disarray. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

Bank Bonuses, Dividends Impact The Economy

Source: Bank of England
Banks were recently warned by the Bank of England to cut bonuses and dividends ("discretionary distributions"), rather than to reduce lending, when faced with falling profits.

Interestingly, Angela Knight, chief executive of the British Bankers Association, welcomed the news. She is reported to have said, "This is the first statement I’ve seen from [UK] authorities that recognises that capital levels and regulatory changes ... can have an adverse impact on the economy.”

By implication, of course, this is also the first acknowledgement from UK banks that their bonuses and dividends will adversely impact on the economy, unless they are cut before lending shrinks.

Let's hope they continue to bear this in mind as their rate of lending continues to shrink...

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Let Go Of The Rising Balloon

I recall being told the terrible story of some military personnel grabbing the ties on a hot air balloon that was threatening to leave the ground prematurely, only to be hauled into the air. One by one they faced the decision whether to drop off as it continued to rise, and some held on too long... I'm tempted to search for an accompanying YouTube clip. But you get the point, and Winnie the Pooh provides a more fitting illustration for the Eurozone politicians who face the same dilemma.

The latest proposal is that a €440bn European Financial Stability Fund be somehow swelled to €1 trillion, which in turn would be leveraged to €4 trillion using "distressed sovereign debt, and equity in distressed banks exposed to the very same sovereigns, as security".

That this is the equivalent of a rising balloon is not in doubt. Nor is it a surprise. Gillian Tett explained two years ago why sovereign debt could be "the new subprime". And the IMF's report on the subprime crisis has explained the problem with allowing the same $1 trillion in assets to be rehypothecated or 'churned' to 'secure' $4 trillion in borrowing by US banks in the lead up to the Lehman collapse... Noting the "surreal" circularity involved in the latest EU proposal, Satyajit Das also recently pointed out that the proposed structure is also flawed because it fails to recognise that the underlying bonds could lose 75% of their face value.

Martin Woolf discusses this process in terms of "How to keep the euro on the road" but I prefer the rising balloon analogy - as did Danny, the dealer in Withnail and I, when referring to the end of the '60s:
"Politics, man. If you're hanging onto a rising balloon, you're presented with a difficult decision - let go before it's too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope? They're selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black."
Time to let go. Greece first.

All Your Problems Solved - For Life

A new TV game show promises to solve all your problems for life - on the single toss of a coin.

A spokesperson for independent production company CoinToss Productions confirmed the show's ultimate promise, but refused to give further details. "We're still in stealth mode," she said, "and we don't know how this got out. But all will be explained in the launch."

Industry analysts were enthusiastic about the show's potential. One pundit, who preferred not to be named, suggested "this really captures the zeitgeist." Asked what he meant, he said, "it's a German word, and I'm not entirely sure what it means. But what's certain is this country is on its knees and the majority of people are employed by the government or receiving some kind of benefit. The entrepreneurial spirit, the get-up-and-go that created whole countries like America and Australia and... and... Fiji has been replaced by an entitlement culture the pinnacle of which is knocking a hole in a shop window to grab a telly, followed by a cheap lager and a bag of crisps down the local as a warm-up for the public sector strikes. I mean, a show like this will appeal to most people in the UK, of course, because it's just about basic human greed at the end of the day, isn't it? But it'll appeal particularly to those who expect it all on a plate and can't be bothered to take control of their own lives."

Sources say the show, which has the working title "Coin Toss", should be out in time for Christmas.

Image from Blackberrysites.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Of "Credit Easing" and P2P Finance

Source: Bank of England
The governments proposal to intervene directly in the corporate and small business funding markets shows how grave it is that lending to UK businesses is shrinking.

But it seems crazy for the taxpayer to prop up zombie banks - subsidising tax-free savings rates that allow banks an average margin of 11% - and then to use more public money to shunt aside nascent private competitors. Surely, the result will be a never-ending spiral of financial dependency on the public purse. 

As NESTA recently reported, there are more innovative ways to finance small business. But the current regulatory framework - ironically designed to protect us from the banks - makes it unduly painful in terms of time and money to start true competitors. Which is why the P2P Finance Association was formed to help inform the move to a new regulatory framework and pave the way for new entrants. Without any of the vast subsidies the banks receive, these new platforms will lend more than £100 million this year to individuals and small businesses - and they already account for over 2% of the UK personal loan market.

So why doesn't the government foster the growth and development of alternative means of finance, rather than use public money to put them at risk?

For instance, why not extend the ISA tax-free cash subsidy to lending via peer-to-peer platforms?


I believe that mainstream popular culture is a pretty good bellweather for the national state of mind. That's not to say there's necessarily a causative impact (apart from fads), merely reflective.

Last year, I was struck by Hollywood's happy ending to Money Never Sleeps, which celebrated the fraudulent success of one Gordon Gecko. Later, I wondered whether there is anything else we regard as socially more important than the accumulation of wealth?

This year, having already witnessed that greed and stupidity are winning, I've been struck again by greed-inducing TV programmes like The Million Pound Drop and Red or Black.

Maybe people need 'hope', but surely this sort of cheap route to fortune is merely setting us up for frustration.

What sort of film and TV would reflect a culture that has adjusted to our new economic reality?

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