Thursday, September 15, 2011

The UBS $2 Billion Loss: This and the Banks Want Easy Capital Standards?

Here we go again. Another big bank, this time UBS AG, reports an elephantine loss attributed to unauthorized trading. In this instance, the big boo boo was allegedly made by a derivatives trader identified in the press as Kweku Adoboli. It seems just like yesterday that Societe Generale 'fessed up to a $6.7 billion loss from its own rogue trader, Jerome Kerviel. Then, there was Nick Leeson at Barings bank, Yasuo Hamanaka at Sumitomo Trust, and John Rusnak at Allied Irish, among others, who have attained notoriety for generating leviathan trading losses. The big banks just don't seem to move up the learning curve when it comes to risk management.

It's no surprise that both the UBS mess and the preceding scandals involved lightly regulated markets. Bad behavior is always more likely when there are few hall monitors. But the banks themselves have the primary obligation to watch over their people and preserve their assets. They keep failing.

One has to wonder if the inevitability of government support makes it easier for bank executives to short sheet the risk management budget. Top management knows that no matter how massive losses get, the government will not allow a major bank to fail. Experience teaches that top management will generally not suffer much from one of these financial tectonic events. Some embarrassment, yes, and perhaps a modest haircut off one's bonus. But loss of employment and legal sanctions seem to be out of the question. So, why invest large sums in risk management systems when that would only reduce the amount of net income used to determine executive bonuses?

In addition, truly effective risk management would likely mean lower levels of risk taken. That would probably reduce income. It would also reduce losses. But management compensation tends not to be diminished as much by losses as it is leveraged by gains. So top executives are incentivized to take risks, and collecting outsized gains if the risks pay off. And if the risks fry the bank's butt? That would be a shame for shareholders.

Risk management is not just a problem for trading. One sees weak risk management in recent mortgage-related problems. Alleged poor underwriting standards for mortgage-backed securities may cost some big banks tens of billions each. The robo-signing foreclosure scandal will cost yet billions more.

And then there's Europe's sovereign debt crisis. Europe's major banks were the doofusses that financed the profligacy of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, et al. How the . . . heck . . . did they manage to put the world's financial system and economy at the edge of the abyss? Didn't they have controls that suggested diversification--not exactly a novel concept--might be in order?

For the past half-decade or more now, the world's largest banks have repeatedly imperiled prosperity worldwide. At the same time, they are coddled with bailouts, subsidies, and explicit and implicit government guarantees. Yesterday's announcement by Germany and France of support for Greece, and today's announcement by the Fed and other major central banks offering emergency dollar loans to Europe's commercial banks, are just the latest in a long line of handouts. Europe's banks have been facing growing customer runs, and more government munificence was deemed appropriate. Banks are like kids that never lose a soccer game, no matter how far behind they fall. No wonder they don't act maturely.

The regulators' proposal to end this cycle of wealth transfer from taxpayers to bank executives has been to raise capital standards. The so-called Basel III standards, which are in the process of being implemented, may require major banks to more than double the amounts of capital they hold, compared to the ineffectual Basel II standards. Banks are pushing back as vigorously as they can. Increasing capital means downward pressure on executive compensation, and that can't possibly be, can it? Some regulators may be wavering. The $2 billion loss reported by UBS is a timely reminder that there actually is a purpose to increasing capital standards--and in fact it's a good purpose even though it may likely decrease bank executive compensation.

We must not be lulled into thinking that the $2 billion loss by UBS will motivate banks to clean up their risk management messes. Prior scandals didn't, and this one won't. There surely are more rogue traders who haven't been caught yet. When their losses get big enough, they will be. Bank shareholders will pay the price, and taxpayers may have to pony up another bailout. Even though the Volcker rule will, if ever implemented, make it harder for U.S. banks to self-destruct from unauthorized proprietary trading, international interbank linkages will preclude insulation of the U.S. financial system from the failures of foreign banks.

Truth is we'll never get rid of too big to fail. It's a tax on the citizenry that cannot be repealed, Tea Party or no Tea Party. The next best thing would be to proceed with increasing capital standards. Only when banks are forced to pay, at least in part, for the costs they impose on society, will they begin to stop acting like welfare queens.

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