Swimming with Sharks – Joris Luyendijk (2015)

Related image

In the years before the crash, commercial banks and mortgage providers lent far too much money to people who could not afford such debts – primarily in the US and the UK, mostly for mortages. This continued for a long period of time because the easy money drove up houses prices, making many people feel richer than they were. Commercial banks had no reason to worry about the risk of default on loans because they could sell them on to investment banks, which the chopped them up and repackaged them into ever more complex financial products. Assets managers at pension funds were keen to buy them because interest rates were low and these new instruments offered better returns. For protection, pension funds and others relied on American insurance giant AIG. In turn AIG trusted the credit rating agencies’ triple AAA ratings.

In 2007, millions of buyers would not be able to meet their financial obligations. Financial products that contained their mortgages began to lose value. Investors had to take big losses but banks, too, had kept some of these products. They had to write off huge sums but how much was difficult to estimate: not only some of the products where mind-bogglingly difficult to value but the same was true for the ‘vehicles’ in off-shore tax havens where banks had placed many of them. At Leman Brothers the buffers were not enough and the bank had to announce bankruptcy. Other banks and financial institutions stopped lending to each others (as none knew the financial solidity of the others). Suddenly the financial world was gripped by a paralysing fear. In response, Governments reached deep into the state coffers and central banks lowered interest rates and pumped unprecedented amounts of newly created money into the economy.  They had saved the system.

For bankers, the crash of 2008 was a perfect storm, or rather a black swam: unique and literally unforeseeable. But isn’t it all the more alarming if virtually nobody in the sector realised how dangerous these complex financial products could be?

The salaries of those who manage the risks in banks has always come from the revenues raised by those taking the risks. Historically, investment bankers worked in small partnership where management and owners partly overlapped. Partners were personally liable. From mid eighties these partnership started to list on the stock exchange or were taken over by publicly listed commercial banks who wanted to take advantage of the deregulation and move into investment banking. Those commercial banks took over dozens of other banks and became ‘too big to fail’.  In listed companies, the risk lies with shareholders rather than partners, while bankers are paid partly in shares and options. And a good way to raise the share price is to take risk (which ultimately the taxpayer will bear).  It was genuinely eye-opening to realise just how recently the investment banks had mutated in this way. Those who take the risks are no longer those who bear them.

If you can be out of the door in five minutes, your horizon becomes five minutes. That was the essence of zero job security. Not only does all loyalty evaporates, but continuity does too. Nobody can built on anyone else, the best can be poached at anytime and meanwhile there are swords of Damocles hanging over everyone’s head.

We need to get rid of the idea of ‘the bank’: that term implies a unity of action and purpose. There is no such a thing.

Perverse incentives: rewards for undesirable actions.

Traditionally there were separate firms for trading, for asset management and for deal making (mergers,listing of new companies etc.) . Since the 80’s, all three activities have been brought under the roof of one bank, through mergers and acquisitions in the financial sector. This is a conflict of interest of the highest order and banks have been asked to set up Chinese wall between their divisions and activities to avoid leaking of information and pressure from one sector to another (e.g. investing in companies whose listing is done by the same bank…)

Corporations can be hit hard by currency fluctuations (with increasing volatility in the 1970’s). So banks invented derivatives that allowed parties to protect themselves. This was a good idea that perform a useful service to the economy and society. But fast forward 20 years and you see the British bank Barings collapse as a result of a rogue trader using advance foreign currency derivatives.  A company or government can go bust, meaning investors lose money. Banks developed an insurance of sort: the Credit Default Swap (CDS). This was a good idea but a good decade later (in 2008) CDS played a crucial role in the financial crisisMortgages are good long term investments for pension funds but as a pension funds you are not going to by individual mortgages. Banks found a way to package those in instruments allowing investment by pension funds. 15 years later, those products would sank Lehman Brothers.

In 2012, a trader at JP Morgan (and his team) run up a 6.2bn loss. The year before, his pay came to 7m. He did not break any law and has never been prosecuted. (Bruno Iksil)

While doing research there are sometimes points at which lines of investigation suddenly coalesce into an insight.

Around 2000, the dot-com scandal revealed fundamental conflicts of interest between activities that used to be done by separate firms; taking company public, trading and asset management. The regulatory response was not to prevent those conflicts, it merely forced the banks to install Chinese wall – policed by their own risk and compliance staff.

Tony Blair is making 2.5M pound a year as adviser to JP Morgan. Hector Sants, chief regulator in 2008, has a top job at Barclays. His estimated compensation was 3M pound a year. The three major credit rating agencies have kept their de-facto cartel; as have the four accountancy firms who continue to do lucrative consultancy jobs for the banks there are meant to audit independently.

After quizzing interviewees on their motives, greed seemed a highly inadequate explanation of their behaviour. I have come to believe that the focus on greed is the biggest mistake outsiders have made in the aftermath of Lehman’s collapse. (The Wolf of Wall Street kept this popular). [The system was to blame in more general term, short termism etc.]

To think that blinkered bankers will one day wake up and decide to change finance from inside is wishful thinking.

Andrew Haldane, number 2 at English central bank told that the balances of the big banks are the blackest of black hole.

Four changes the laws should bring: banks must be chopped up into units so that they are no longer too big to fail; banks should not have activities under one roof that create conflict of interests; banks should not build or sell overly complex financial products, the bonus should land on the same head as the malus.

Political parties, politicians, regulators have come to identify themselves with the financial sector and the people in it. The term is ‘capture’. Politicians started to believe the world works in the way that bankers say it does.

As put by interviewee: The left insists on solidarity across the nation, with higher tax rates for rich people to help their less fortunate countrymen. But this solidarity is predicated on a sense of national belonging, to which the left is allergic; national identity comes with chauvinism and nationalism and creepy right wing supremacists.

Nobody is helped more by cynicism about politics than cynical politicians.