Growing geopolitical risk and the rising toll of misconduct fines overshadowed what should have been a year of strengthening economic recovery.

On the face of it, 2014 was supposed to be a good year for the financial sector. The global economic recovery should have taken hold, concerns about eurozone asset quality were to be resolved by the European Central Bank (ECB), and regulators were to complete the post-crisis architecture to build a safer financial system.

In truth, those expectations have been largely fulfilled. When Ben Bernanke announced the tapering of quantitative easing (QE) by the US Federal Reserve in May 2013, markets were seized by uncertainty. And yet, the process was completed in October 2014 with barely a tremor. Speaking at the Institute of International Finance (IIF) annual meeting in October 2014, Morgan Stanley chief executive James Gorman said the normalisation of US monetary policy should not hold much fear for the market, because it signalled growing economic strength.

“Rates are going up in 2015, which has 12 months in it. Most likely they won’t go up before March or after October, so we are talking about six months. I marvel at how much markets are getting whipsawed by every statement from [Fed vice-governor] Fischer. Does it matter how we parse each word?” said Mr Gorman.

The ECB’s comprehensive assessment, completed in October, managed to provide an unprecedented amount of data on the state of European bank balance sheets without springing major surprises (see pages 40-42). Banks in the eurozone periphery are still weak due to several years of recession, but most of the worst problems are already being tackled with restructuring plans.

Meanwhile, the Financial Stability Board (FSB) has published a string of proposals aimed at ending the problem of too-big-to-fail banks. These include cross-border co-operation on resolving complex banks, and the concept of total loss-absorbing capital (TLAC) that includes a layer of debt that can be bailed in to recapitalise a bank. FSB chairman Mark Carney described this as a “watershed” moment ahead of the meeting of G20 government ministers in November, although the implementation is likely to prove harder than the ministerial handshakes.

Return of geopolitics

Hence 2014 should have been the year that the financial sector put the crisis behind it. And in a way it did, but not quite the way that was intended. Because financial crisis was replaced by a multiplying number of geopolitical crises that threaten to bring instabilities of their own.

Top of that list as far as global finance is concerned is the flair-up in relations between Russia, the EU and the US following events in Ukraine. Western governments welcomed the opportunity for a new start in Ukraine following the flight of president Viktor Yanukovych from Kiev in February 2014, after several years in which reform efforts had stalled and corruption intensified. But Russian president Vladimir Putin apparently saw this as a threat to his power and influence on Russia’s doorstep, resulting in an escalating intervention over the border.

In response, Western countries began imposing sanctions in March 2014. These intensified in July, when the EU – closely followed by the US – began to introduce bans on providing long-term funding to Russia’s largest state-owned banks, including Sberbank, VTB, Gazprombank, Russian Agricultural Bank and state development institution Vnesheconombank. Several of the country’s largest industrial companies including Rosneft, Gazprom and Nonatek are also affected, and have begun to turn directly to the government for refinancing. Prominent Russian economist Sergei Guriev, a one-time member of the Sberbank supervisory board who fled Russia in 2013 after a series of interrogations by the authorities, told the IIF that he did not expect an immediate financial crisis in Russia.

“Russia still has solid fundamentals, it still has foreign exchange reserves that will last for the next two or three years at this oil price, it can repay the foreign-denominated debt of the government and corporates for another two or three years. So even with this climate, even with capital outflows and a bad investment climate, we should not expect a disaster in the next couple of years,” says Mr Guriev.

Russia’s foreign exchange reserves fell about $100bn to $383bn in the year to November 2014, including a $30bn outflow in October alone. The Central Bank of Russia reacted by terminating its currency trading band and allowing a freer float of the rouble in November. In the wake of this move, the currency ended up more than 43% lower against the dollar than at the start of 2014, although in theory the freer float will reduce the drain on reserves.  

Mr Guriev thinks, however, that economic stagnation is inevitable and any idea of the Russian government adopting a pro-reform agenda is now an “illusion”. The long-term picture he painted at the IIF is not positive at all.

“Capital outflows have more than doubled from last year, we are talking about a forecast of 5% or 6% of GDP [gross domestic product]. That means the rouble is weaker, stock prices are lower and the less immediate effect is that a lack of investment today means less growth tomorrow. The consensus for 2015 is 1% which is a very low number by Russian standards, the oil price is lower than the Russian government thought, and Asian banks and funds are not as happy to lend to Russian banks and corporates as Russian banks and corporates thought,” says Mr Guriev.

It is an ill wind that blows no good. Russia is a substantial market from which Western institutions are disinvesting. All these funds need to find another home, and other parts of eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa may well benefit.

Roman Schmidt, head of corporate finance at Germany’s Commerzbank, says: “With the second round of sanctions on Russia we saw some of the capital market client base change their focus. Then emerging markets activities and international investor interest shifted to the Middle East, north Africa and Turkey. That was one of the reasons why we then saw so many transactions from this region. We have done transactions for Morocco and for several Turkish banks.”

Ultimately, that switch in financing could bode well for Ukraine itself if the new government of president Petro Poroshenko can deliver on the reform agenda demanded of it by both Western financial backers and the protestors on its own streets. But the road to recovery will be very difficult. National Bank of Ukraine governor Valeria Gontareva said in October that the Donbas region under the control of separatists constitutes about 10% of Ukraine’s GDP and 15% of its industrial output, and the destruction of infrastructure in the area has gravely weakened the economy. GDP is anticipated to contract as much as 9% in 2014.

Conduct costs escalate

Part of the reason for the sharp capital outflow from Russia is that the cost of sanctions breaches by Western financial institutions appears to be escalating. As a result, US and EU banks are unwilling to take any risks even with Russian institutions that are theoretically outside the scope of sanctions. And banks outside the US and EU seem unwilling to step in and take their place.

“A sanctioned firm could hold US dollar deposits at a foreign financial institution without impact from these sanctions, but those funds will generally have to transit the US financial system in order for the firm to utilise them. If the firm attempts to send any dollarised transaction to another entity, its bank will generally route the transaction through a US financial institution, which is obligated to block the funds. We find that financial institutions around the world tend to refuse to do business with individuals and entities placed on [the Treasury’s] Specially Designated Nationals List even if they are not obligated to do so,” a US Treasury spokesman tells The Banker.

In fact, fines for sanctions breaches and other forms of misconduct are fast replacing asset quality concerns as a potential risk to the balance sheets of the world’s largest banks. In June 2014, France’s BNP Paribas agreed the largest ever fine for sanctions-busting, a $8.8bn settlement with the US authorities that ultimately led to the resignation of the bank’s chairman Baudouin Prot three months later. Just weeks later, that sum was overshadowed by the largest ever corporate fine, a $16.5bn hit on Bank of America for the mis-selling of mortgage securities by its crisis-era acquisition Merrill Lynch.

“The banks are saying that they want to restore public and official trust in their institutions, but there is a serious question if the numbers are pointing in the opposite direction,” says Roger McCormick, managing director of the conduct costs CCP Research Foundation that he spun out of the London School of Economics in 2014.

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The CCP Research Foundation data shows that rolling conduct costs and provisions for 12 of the most-fined banks in 2009 to 2013 were £166.63bn ($261bn), compared with £154.96bn for 2008 to 2012. Shareholders are understandably starting to complain that they are paying the price for misconduct by executives, often of banks that no longer exist but have instead been taken over. Regulators have some sympathy with this argument, and the UK began consultations in July 2014 on a new senior managers’ regime, which would require executives to certify that they had done everything possible to prevent illegal activity in their bank. Bonuses would be subject to seven-year clawback provisions in the event of misconduct or heavy losses emerging in the bank.

The response from the City was very critical, claiming that the proposals effectively created a presumption of guilt unless managers could prove themselves innocent. The Employment Lawyers Association (ELA) warned that the whole idea could backfire.

“This is likely to drive up fixed salaries because of the level of risk individuals are required to assume, make recruitment more difficult and put individual and collective responsibility in conflict,” says Caroline Stroud, a partner at Freshfields law firm and joint chair of the ELA working group on the senior managers’ regime.

Such arguments, however, may find little favour with regulators or the general public. The collapse of Portugal’s Banco Espírito Santo in June 2014 was a stark reminder of the cost of serious mismanagement to the public purse as well as the private shareholders. The bank was put into resolution by the Portuguese government following the arrest of its former chief executive Ricardo Salgado on allegations of false accounting. One adviser to the Bank of England suggested in November that the pressure for measures to end too-big-to-fail banks could be eased somewhat if governments felt that bankers would be financially on the hook for failure alongside the taxpayer.

“The senior managers’ regime may appear harsh, but people are fed up with the argument that senior executives should not be held accountable for everything that happens in the bank. If executives cannot have confidence that they know what is happening in their own bank, then one has to ask if the bank is too large to manage properly,” says Mr McCormick.

Elusive European growth

The appetite for conduct fines may be undimmed, but the overall approach to regulation is showing signs of easing, amid concerns about restoring global economic growth. G20 leaders meeting in Brisbane in November agreed an action plan “to boost growth and create quality jobs” with a view to increasing global GDP by 2% by 2018.

Europe will remain central to those efforts. While peripheral economies such as Greece are finally showing signs of a turnaround, core countries Germany and France only narrowly avoided recession in two quarters in 2014. Inflation for the eurozone is running at less than 0.5%, and the clamours for a more dynamic response from the ECB grew deafening in mid-2014.

The central bank responded by announcing plans in September 2014 for an asset purchase scheme similar to QE in the US and UK, involving buying up asset-backed securities (ABS). The European Commission also relaxed liquidity rules in a bid to boost the ABS market (see Reg Rage, page 196) as a way to increase lending to the real economy.

Bankers believe the ABS purchasing scheme could enter operation as early as December 2014. But Mr Schmidt at Commerzbank is unconvinced about the impact of central bank buying in terms of facilitating a significant revival in ABS market activity. He says the financial system has plentiful liquidity and concerns about capital have eased following the ECB’s asset quality review (AQR) and stress test. Instead, banks will be conscious of the opportunity cost of passing on revenue streams from securitised assets.

“The focus has quickly shifted from assets to banks’ revenues, that’s the next topic for the banks. That is one of the reasons why the rally in the banking stocks was so short after the AQR. With ABS you have to pass on part of the interest income but through that you are freeing up some capital. If you act on the assumption that the problem around capital is resolved in the majority of the banks, the importance lies in the capital producing revenues and at the moment there are not many sources that can contribute to this. Corporate lending margins are one example,” says Mr Schmidt.

Into the shadows

The pressure of new regulations, such as TLAC, that require higher capital buffers, combined with a weak growth outlook that makes it more challenging for banks to increase that capital organically, is inevitably pushing borrowers to look for alternative sources of finance. Shadow banking is the term applied to credit activities that are less well regulated, but the industry has been on a concerted drive to encourage the use of a less sinister-sounding term – market-based finance.

This phrase was used by Mr Carney in his letter to G20 ministers, and it has been a rare bright spot for Europe in 2014. The financial markets are showing substantial capacity to absorb debt that is rated below investment grade that would otherwise carry heavy regulatory capital requirements for banks.

“This year we will reach close to €100bn in the high yield market in Europe. As a point of comparison, the US market is equivalent to €230bn or €240bn, so the European market is already trending towards half of the size of the US market, which is quite amazing, when you keep in mind that in 2008 only, the total supply in European high yield was zero. This is phenomenal growth,” says Demetrio Salorio, global head of debt capital market at Société Générale Corporate & Investment Banking.

But just as the banking sector approaches its watershed moment of increased safety, the logical conclusion is that shadow banking is becoming riskier. Nowhere is this concern more marked than in China, where the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that shadow banking is growing at twice the rate of conventional banking, to reach 35% of GDP as of March 2014.

“There is no question that shadow banking in China has allowed small and midsized enterprises to access financing that they would not otherwise have received and pressured local banks to innovate themselves, especially as banks are running their own trusts and wealth management products. The central bank is keen to avoid killing the sector altogether, but the risks need to be controlled,” says Markus Rodlauer, deputy director of the IMF’s Asia-Pacific department.

So far, the authorities have sought to engineer solutions to any problems with shadow banking products such as trust companies, to avoid outright defaults. An opaque January 2014 deal to save China Credit Trust, one of the largest trust companies, enabled repayment of its creditors. But it reinforced worries about moral hazard – the danger of investors failing to assess the risks in shadow banking adequately. Mr Rodlauer notes that much of the activity in the shadow banking sector is related to real estate. The underlying economic credit quality of some of these loans is poor.

“Regulators are on top of this, they know fairly well how much has been invested by trusts into non-standard products, but the legal mandate of regulators to go in and check credit quality is weaker than in the banking system,” says Mr Rodlauer.

In developed markets, the major concern about market-based finance is precisely the impact of bank deleveraging. Traditionally, the major broker-dealers held substantial inventories of bonds that could help to stabilise secondary markets during periods of volatility. Mr Carney noted in a speech in Singapore in November 2014 that the situation had changed radically since 2008.

“Dealer inventories in fixed income have declined by 70% since the pre-crisis period, while the stock of fixed income assets outstanding has doubled. The time to liquidate a given position is now seven times as long as in 2008, reflecting much smaller trade sizes in fixed income markets,” Mr Carney said.

Regulators have raised red flags about the apparent lack of market response to this change. Spreads on corporate bonds are still very tight, partly reflecting the depth of central bank liquidity in the markets. But that poses the risk of more intense market volatility if and when interest rates begin to normalise in 2015.

“The concern we have going forward is that there is a change in sentiment in the market and investors want to get rid of their holdings in bonds, but meanwhile the banks do not have the same amount of balance sheet as before to support the market. It’s uncharted territory,” says one fixed income banker.


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