Monday, 3 October 2016

Deutsche Bank: A Vertically Integrated Problem

Recent concerns about Deutsche Bank’s financial position highlight again that banking remains fragile. On Friday Deutsche Bank’s shares fell nearly 9% at the opening bell as investors panicked about news that hedge funds had started to pull business from the company.  This comes off the back of increased concerns about potential writedowns and the vulnerability of its coco bonds at the start of the year.

The immediate trigger for this most recent panic is a $14bn demand by the US Department of Justice to settle allegations related to the mis-selling of mortgage backed securities & CDOs during the 2000s boom. This comes after several other large banks settled similar cases with the DoJ: Bank of America paying a $16.65bn settlement for activities undertaken by it and its subsidiaries including Merril Lynch and Countrywide Financial Corporation, JP Morgan paying $13bn and Citigroup  $7bn. In some cases the fines eventually paid were significantly less than the original sum demanded by the DoJ. There is hope within Deutsche Bank that a similar deal can be struck and a lower amount paid, with recent estimates venturing that the figure could be closer to $3-4bn.

But Deutsche Bank’s bargaining position with the DoJ may be hampered by the specific detail of its activity in RMBS and CDO markets during the boom. Unlike US banks, Deutsche Bank ran a more vertically integrated model of securitization (Exhibit 1) which meant it occupied a different space in the market compared to its competitors. By integrating trustee, listing and other administration functions (which are provided by external parties in most US CDOs) the DoJ will have to consider whether Deutsche Bank’s larger footprint potentially gave it a knowledge advantage.

Exhibit 1: Deutsche Bank entities co-participation in CDOs. Line thickness = #of joint products (values given); size of node = #of CDOs involved with.

To illustrate the point, with the STAtic CDOs that featured heavily in the Senate report on the causes of the financial crisis (373 f. Footnote 1505), either three or four Deutsche Bank entities were usually involved in their structuration: DB’s Irish Deutsche International Corporate Services Ltd., its Cayman Deutsche Bank (Cayman) Ltd., its American Deutsche Bank Securities Inc., Its Luxembourgian Deutsche Bank Luxembourg S.A. and Deutsche Bank (Exhibit 2). These positions were mainly occupied by independent providers in the case of US bank CDOs. Not only that, but Deutsche Bank also sold these services to other market participants (Exhibit 3).

Exhibit 2: Deutsche Bank entities involved in START CDOs 

Exhibit 3: Comparison between Deutsche Bank entities and other major US banks involved in the CDO market

The DoJ will have to consider whether Deutsche Bank’s vertically integrated model gave it access to more information about the quality of the due diligence and thus the underlying collateral in the CDO market. If it believes Deutsche Bank’s structural position meant its employees did know more than their competitors, then - given the febrile context - it might now be financially prudent to consider jail time for the individuals involved rather than fines for the institution. 

Stanley & Tatu.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Tactics Without Strategy: Brexit And The Politics Of Conceit

With two million Conservative voters seemingly ‘undecided’ last week and Labour voters preponderantly pro-Remain but susceptible to no-shows at the ballot booth, it was tempting to presume before the vote that an event of this magnitude might be decided by something so quintessentially British as the weather. Come Friday morning, it was abundantly clear that was not the case. The gap between Leave and Remain was just under 1.3 million votes, far greater than can be explained by a June downpour. The outcome is humbling.

In due course the referendum defeat will become the textbook reference for political hubris. Cameron’s referendum campaign showed a fundamental underestimation of public mistrust with the political establishment when it committed taxpayers’ money to the production of Remain leaflets. Similarly an appeal to the eminence of its leading voices on the risks of Brexit – prescient though they were – might work when it comes to winning over fearful middle class swing voters in marginal seats, but alienated a large and sceptical cohort who had not done particularly well since the 1990s. This played to Leave’s strengths who were only ever going to run a populist campaign with immigration as the issue ‘the establishment wouldn’t touch’. The more establishment figures Remain wheeled on, the more remote they seemed.  

The referendum loss symbolises Conservative leaders obsession with tactics at the expense of strategy. They built a machine to be elected not govern, perfecting the art of winning small political skirmishes which embrangled them in increasingly intractable commitments. Eventually one intractable position was not going to hold.

So where does the referendum result leave things? Economically, we are in a difficult place. The EU will push for an early exit to reduce uncertainty in other EU countries. The longer negotiations are drawn out, the more turmoil will be inflicted on our major trading partners within the EU - there is a good chance they may move into recession, as seems unavoidable for the UK. It is sadly true that they also must make an example of us or risk giving hope to Leave movements elsewhere. Investment, already weak, will retreat until some certainty returns. This is happening in real time, with huge swathes of construction now put on hold. Financial markets are not as robust as we are led to believe and the £250bn injection promised by the Bank of England - presumably a bid to stave off a prospective wholesale run as bank stocks fell 30% – would seem to support that. We have yet to see the effects of a ratings downgrade and sterling devaluation on the economy. It is doubtful that the devaluation will benefit the export sector radically: in four of the last six major periods of devaluation there has been no impact at all. These are not the conditions under which the politics of optimism thrive.

This takes us to the Leave campaign. The campaign was built on an anti-establishment/anti-intellectual ticket led by an old Etonian and another Oxford graduate. It traded on the conceit that many of the UK’s problems could be solved by ‘taking back control’ – an organising metaphor abstract enough to galvanise a body of voters with quite different perceptions about what this meant. The usual accusations about Leave being ‘old, uneducated people in the North’ have already surfaced but the reality is much more complicated: 43% of ABs voted Leave, for example – that’s a lot of skilled workers and professionals. Similarly, the geography of the Leave vote is split between cosmopolitan centres like London, Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool on the one hand and smaller towns and rural areas on the other. The most important indicator of a Leave voter is value-based according to Ashcroft’s polling data: in other words, we are witnessing the reawakening of a particularly cynical, conservative English authoritarian personality which cuts across class and geography. ‘Taking back control’ in this context signalled a variety of things: release from the EU’s institutional sclerosis and immured power bases; rejection of the neo-liberal grip on policy formation; devolution and an improvement in accountability and sovereignty. But for many it primarily meant control of immigration. And the Leave campaign was happy to let people believe that this was precisely what we were voting for.

The problem now is that this puts Johnson and Gove in precisely the predicament of Cameron and Osborne.  The latter were outmanoeuvred tactically, but it is Johnson and Gove who have the larger strategic quandary. The flipside of the Leave campaign’s amorphousness is that all of its voting tribes will expect their vision of Brexit to be delivered: that is the risk with summonsing ‘end-of-truth-and-reason’ politics. Putting aside the inconceivability of honouring the £350m per week to the NHS pledge, they have a much larger problem regarding immigration. If they opt out of the pledge to stop free movement, as pro-Leave campaigner Daniel Hannan has already indicated, those who voted Leave believing it was a vote to control immigration will feel betrayed.

This is ultimately why I am pessimistic. If you lead a populist, anti-immigrant campaign on an anti-establishment platform, and then support an EFTA model that retains free movement, you will discredit yourself and the democratic process. Add to that a rapidly deteriorating economic climate and the resurgent nationalism you were complicit in stoking, and voters will begin to embrace the extreme right. It will take considerable political skill for Johnson and Gove to manage this next phase should they replace Cameron and Osborne. I am not sure it is within their capabilities. Both have a facility with the blunt instrument of populism, but they do not possess the political guile and sophistication to deal with the subtle intricacies of a perceived volte face in such a febrile climate. Farage, however, does have the necessary nous and aggression to point out their deceit.

Can the Left stop this? They are in a difficult position, not least because we are seeing the working out of the legacy of New Labour - its mishandling of the financial crisis and intransigence towards its heartlands. This instilled a sense of injustice, of powerlessness, of being cut adrift. Atavism fills the space left by the dismantled social and economic institutions that build solidarity and community. The Labour Party were correct to move to the left to reconnect with those communities as voters began to defect to UKIP, but they have the wrong leader to deal with the fight to come. The Labour Party needs a brawler, not a history teacher.

Whoever that might be, they will need to address some of the profoundly reactionary sentiments of their ex ‘core vote’. Anti-immigration is now a deeply ingrained and increasingly animating ideology that will be difficult to reverse. A politics of trust, tolerance and understanding to support vibrant communities of difference is needed. This requires a redistributive politics to fund the rebuilding of the economic and social institutions that embed harmony: better jobs, better public services, better social housing. That may grate with the business elites of London and other cosmopolitan centres, but social dislocation is not good for trade and growth either. As Duncan Weldon has pointed out: capitalism needs social democracy to function. The state now has a duty to stabilise capitalism by acting against the interests of its most vocal proponents and greatest beneficiaries. This is the challenge for Labour.


Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Panama Leaks In The Context Of Austerity

I always thought the austerity rhetoric had something of ‘the spirit of the Blitz’ about it. Austerity (the rhetoric) instilled a sense of togetherness and inclusion in the British public even if austerity (the programme) had a highly uneven impact on different groups, and was largely ineffectual in improving our country’s economic fortunes. In a country steeped in nostalgia for the Second World War, this kind of appeal to mass public sacrifice had a galvanising effect. The British public accepted the idea that some personal short term pain was necessary, even if they privately wanted to see more of that pain passed on to those they deemed less deserving. It conjured images of rationing, of a British public without heed to class distinctions responding stoically to a time of crisis - we were ‘all in it together’, showing our unity and our mettle in times of adversity. Even our cultural artefacts said ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’, before the Hoxtonistas got their hands on them.

It is perhaps because of the success of austerity (the rhetoric) that the Panama leaks are so potentially damaging. The unpalatable situation that confronts the Conservative party this morning is that at the time David Cameron announced the absolute necessity of austerity to UK citizens, his father had employed the services of Mossack Fonseca to avoid making the sacrifices perceived to be the duty of others less well off than himself. Time will tell if Cameron stood to gain personally from this arrangement, but it is now difficult to avoid the sense that we were never all in it together: it was always one rule for the privileged and another for the disabled, the homeless, the council workers, the nurses, the junior doctors and multiple others who were told that there was no alternative and that we all must give up something for the sake of the many. For a party steeped in family and other money, much of which may prove to be mobile, there will be nervousness amongst Tories tonight because that image is potentially toxic.

The British electorate do not like hypocrites and they don’t like to be taken for fools. It was, after all, the hypocrisy of the Back To Basics programme that undid the previous Conservative administration, as revelations about extra-marital affairs, romps and exotic sexual encounters undermined the party’s authority to wag its finger at ordinary people and preach the merits of self-discipline and the sanctity of the family unit. The routine scandals made the party a laughing stock and robbed them of power for nearly a generation. We are now potentially in Back To Basics Mark II. When asked to make sacrifices, we like to think it is not beyond those who stand to lose least proportionately to muck in; particularly when the financial crisis was in large part an elite debacle in the first place. What we learn from the Panama leaks is that for the rich, including allegedly a relative of our leader, even these modest sacrifices were unacceptable.

Cameron has said that this is a private matter, but it cannot be this time. The context of his own austerity rhetoric makes this new revelation unavoidably public. This can’t be handled like the pig-gate affair which was successfully starved of oxygen; his one-line response is of similar intent. Cameron now stands accused of something much worse: he is accused of being a hypocrite and of taking the British public for fools. And that is much more serious politically.