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Monday, 9 July 2012

Will the latest banking scandals finally lead to segregation between bad banks and good banks.

The last few months have been a wild ride for the banks again. Excuse me…, for some banks:

The last few months showed the vulnerability of Bankia (BKIA), a Spanish banking conglomerate that was formed in December, 2010 from a number of local banks or ‘cajas’ (Caja Madrid and Bancaja were the biggest partners, effectively holding 90% of the available shares). These caja's had fallen into trouble earlier. In hindsight, Bankia was the closest thing to a black hole on our planet, sucking up billions of Euro’s in private and government money.

Private investors, often normal families and people that looked for a safe investment for their life savings, were lured into buying shares of Bankia to the tune of €3.1 bln. Institutional investors had earlier passed the poisoned cup, refusing to invest in Bankia. Therefore a smooth advertising campaign, full of empty promises from the government and bank management, needed to persuade the local José and Ana to buy these shares, only to see their savings vanish into open air. On top of that, the doomed bank needed already about €20 bln of government money in emergency loans to stay afloat.

Barclays PLC (BCS), Deutsche Bank AG (DB), BNP Paribas SA (BNPQY) and ABN Amro were the names that kept popping up in the Vestia scandal (this link, pointing to the last article in the series, contains links to the older articles): the case concerning the Dutch building cooperative that bought for €23 bln in speculative interest rate swaps, while it only needed to hedge €5 bln in investments. The swaps would yield to Vestia when the LIBOR/EURIBOR interest rate would rise, but would yield to the banks (the counterparty of this deal) when the interest rate would stay low. Of course, the interest did the latter.

During the investigation, it became clear that Vestia not only had bought an unprecedented amount of uncovered swap contracts (the earlier mentioned €23 bln), but it had also paid commission fees that were ten times higher than the usual fees. The (former) CFO of Vestia received, via a brokerage firm, large amounts of money in kickbacks from the banks, paid from this commission money. Also it was disclosed that the CFO of Vestia, Marcel de Vries, had been taken to London at multiple occasions for VIP-trips: visits to dinner parties in expensive restaurants and nightclubs with the finest foods, the most expensive wines and literally dozens of escort ladies to keep him and his entourage company.

The criminal investigation concerning the Vestia case is still fully in motion and some of the key players have not been prosecuted yet. Besides that, it might be hard to prove beyond reasonable doubt the condemnable role of the banks in this scandal. Still, it is very clear, in my humble opinion, that the banks involved in the Vestia case have operated very close to the edge, and I would even say over it.

In one case there seems to be little doubt on the guilt of the bank involved: Libor-gate. The case of the Libor (London InterBank Offered Rate) interest rate that had been rigged on multiple occasions by a group of traders from one of the main banks involved in setting this rate, sent shockwaves through the British society and the global banking industry. The name of the bank involved sounded surprisingly familiar:Barclays PLC (BCS).

While the amount of anger and disgust in the British society was soaring, the defense of former CEO of Barclays, Bob Diamond was the same ol’ same ol’: this was a group of rogue traders that started to make these deals on their own. And, while Bob Diamond could have and perhaps should have known about it, he just didn’t! Seriously! Barclays was the best bank in the world with tens of thousands of honest employees and only 14 rogue traders that spoilt it for the rest!

Now a parliamentary investigation committee from the House of Commons will investigate the rate-fixing at Barclays, while the rest of the global banking industry is shivering from tension and excitement: will Barclays be the Lonesome Wolf or will Libor-gate just prove to be the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

My take: if you start to dig deeper, you will find the same stuff as behind Andy Summers’ camel.

While the fourth story of this article does not at all have the impact of Libor-gate, the protagonist of it sounds also quite familiar: Goldman Sachs Group Inc (GS).

The Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad ( wrote on Saturday, July 7, that the Dutch pension fund for the transportation industry ‘Vervoer’ filed charges against Goldman Sachs, for ‘poorly executed property management’. Here are the pertinent snips of this story:

The pension fund for the transportation industry claims €250 mln from Goldman Sachs Property Management for poorly executed property management.

This is confirmed by Patrick Groenendijk, executive manager property management of the fund.

‘The claim concerns the mandate that Goldman had until 2010 to invest the pension money’, according to Groenendijk. Further he does not want to add much information, apart from the size of the amount which is €250 mln, not £250 mln, like it was written in the British newspaper The Telegraph. The claim is filed at the High Court in London.

Goldman Sachs Property Management states that it has operated cautiously. ‘We have fulfilled our mandate, and have met our obligations towards the customer. We haven’t seen a claim yet, but we are of the opinion that such a claim would be unfounded, when looking at the facts. We would certainly fight such a claim’.

Until April 2010, the pension fund had their pension capital of €9 bln at the time managed by Goldman Sachs. The fund left Goldman, after the bank became the talk of the town; it had been charged by the official American stock exchange watchdog SEC, as the bank had not been transparant about conflicting interests during trades with mortgage covered bonds. 

However, the fund ‘had already been dissatisfied for a longer period with the results of Goldman’s investments’. For the year 2008, the Pension fund Vervoer had received 14.1% in negative yields, while GS had promised earlier to beat the benchmarks. These benchmarks ended at a much higher -/- 8.7% for the same year.

To the objective listener, the case of the pension fund Vervoer against GS just doesn’t sound like a rockhard case. The sad fact, however, is that GS is one of those banks that have their reputation working against them. Just like most of the other banks mentioned in the earlier parts of this article.

It seems that the banking industry can roughly be divided into two kinds of banks:

  • The first group are the banks that learnt a hard lesson from the credit crisis and changed their life for the better. Perhaps not totally perfect, but trying hard to be fair against both their shareholders and their customers, the government and the taxpayers;
  • The second group are the banks that are still pursuing the high yields that are needed to keep their shareholders happy. The banks that are riding close to the edge, driven by the promise of high bonuses. Banks that are willing to take more risk than they should or that are not always operating prudently and in the interest of their customers; 
    • f.i. by selling their customers products that are too complex and/or poorly balanced out;
    • or by selling investment products that supply much more downward risk than the customer can logically anticipate; 
    • or by charging their customers too much fees for all kinds of futile administrative operations; 
    • Of course, there are also clearly banks that show upright fraudulent behavior. 
I have the (vain) hope that the latest list of scandals and the enduring credit crisis will finally segregate the bad banks from the good banks. I hope that the bad banks will not be rescued anymore at the expense of hundreds of millions of taxpayers and at the expense of the banks that play by the rules. 

There should be much more disclosure to the general public when banks have offended the law or the banking rules and regulations. People must have the choice to look for another bank, when they are well-informed on misbehavior of their own bank. 

When a bank misbehaves, its customers should have the right to end their contracts without being charged with extra expenses. When this would happen, something good would have emerged from the credit crisis.

However, this is probably a vain hope. During the 4-5 years that the credit crisis already lasts, many banks have walked between the raindrops without becoming wet. Knowing they had become too big to fail. When they received a penalty from the (inter)national supervisors, they paid it with an iron smile and charged it to their customers: openly or stealthly. When they threatened to fall down, they screamed ‘help’ and then the governments kicked in.

In spite of all brave words about new rules in the banking world, the scene remains the same. I hope that customers choose with their feet and their wallets, not only with words. At the other hand, I know that it is hard: the marriage with your bank is often much more steady and enduring than the marriage with your wife or husband. Banks know that. Something, however, has to change…

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