Friday, 20 July 2012

For Want of a Nail, the Ship Was Lost

Imagine a great ship dominating the skyline on a distant sea. Imagine the complexity of that ship: keel, ribs, planks, masts, spars, and an infinite number of less readily named components. Each component was hand-crafted by a craftsman skilled in his trade, to precise requirements, and secured in position to take the stress and strain of a life at sea.

Now imagine a crew. They didn't build the ship. The crew are told that the one and only purpose of the ship is to realise a profit for every man jack aboard. Any hand not contributing a profit will be turned ashore. Down below in the ship are nails. Thousands and thousands of nails. Nails are useful. Nails are much sought after in every port the ship enters. Nails can be readily sold and never traced.

The crew has been told that their purpose is profit. They have taken the lesson to heart. In every port they assess the value of the nails, and compare it to their function in the ship.

They tell themselves that the lubbers at Admiralty have no idea of ships. They specified too many nails in the regulations for ship procurement and licensing. The ship will be just fine with fewer nails.

So the crew below starts sneaking out the nails and selling them in the ports. They self-certify to their warrant officer, who self-certifies to the midshipman, who self-certifies to the lieutenant, who self-certifies to the captain, who self-certifies to the admiral, who self-certifies to the Sea Lords that every nail is where it should be and the supply of surplus nails remains adequate to meet unexpected reverses. And they turn a profit, so everyone is happy and the crew are given bonuses.

Until there is a leak, no one bothers to check the inventory of nails still in the woodwork. And when there is a leak, it is taken by all involved to be a localised problem that can be solved with a local solution, stemming the flow into the bilges from that one leak.

No broader inventory of nails is ever suggested. The crew are asked to conduct a stress test scenario that confronts a gale, or an enemy warship, and they self-certify that they would remain sound.

When RMBS valuations and ratings were questioned in 2007, it was taken to be a localised leak. Bear Stearns, Lehman and Northern Rock were sunk, but surely the rest of the fleet was still sound with a bit of extra liquidity to keep them afloat.

But a crew that is accustomed to enriching itself selling nails is unlikely to stop just because the Admiralty takes an interest and orders more nails be provided to shore up the creaking woodwork. They will take all the nails Admiralty is generous enough to provide and keep selling them in every port. Their purpose is profit, and profit they must. The ships still creak, the water gets deeper in the well each watch, but the self-reporting of the ships' condition improves in every dispatch to the Admiralty.

This is where we are, and this is what the LIBOR scandal reveals. Self-certified valuations of fixed income, OTC derivatives and other instruments not traded and valued on exchanges should all be suspect. Even the exchange valuations should be suspect, as they are influenced by the OTC positions. Some of those ships are being held together by the collective greed of the crews, unwilling to lose the means of profit at the Admiralty's (and taxpayers') expense.

No one suggests that we can let them all sink to the bottom as a lesson to seamen who follow. The navy is critical to our image of ourselves as strong and resilient. The navy must be saved. But how, when every nail that is sent aboard is sold in the next port to the profit of a man with no loyalty to the crown or the ship?

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Lies, Damn Lies and LIBOR

I've been hesitant to write about the LIBOR scandal because what I want to say goes so much further. We now know that Barclays and other major global banks have been manipulating the calculation of LIBOR through the quotation data they provided to the British Bankers Association. What I suspect is that this is not a flaw but a feature of modern financial markets. And if it was happening in LIBOR for between 5 and 15 years, then the business model has been profitably replicated to many other quotation-based reference prices.

Price discovery is not a sexy function of markets, but it is critical to the efficient allocation of scarce capital and resources, and to the preservation of the long term wealth of investors and the economy as a whole. If price discovery is compromised by manipulation, then we will all be gradually impoverished and the economy will be imbalanced and unstable.

Over the past 25 years the forces of regulatory liberalisation and demutualisation of markets have allowed the largest global banks to set the rules, processes and infrastructure of global markets to their own self-interested requirements. Regulatory complexity and harmonisation benefit the biggest banks disproportionately, eroding the competitive stance of smaller, local banks and market participants. This has led to a very high degree of concentration in a very few banks in most markets that determine global reference rates for interest rates, currencies, commodities and investments. If those few collude with each other - as Adam Smith warned was always the result - then they impoverish us all.

We have allowed markets to evolve in ways that make supervision of markets almost impossible. Many instruments trade off-exchange or in multiple venues, making it nearly impossible for any single investor or regulator to supervise trading to prevent or detect manipulation or abuse. Many financial instruments are now synthetic compilations of underlying assets and derivatives, with multiple pricing components determined by reference to other prices or rates. Demutualisation and regualtory reforms stripped exchanges of the self-regulating interest in preventing manipulation and abuse by their members as mergers, profits and market share came to dominate governance objectives.

Off-exchange trading has been allowed to proliferate, creating massive ill-transparent and largely illiquid markets in almost every sector of finance. Pricing in these markets is based around calculated reference rates which, like LIBOR, are open to abusive quotation and data input practices. Many OTC derivatives are priced and margined using reference rates calculated against quotations unrelated to actual reported transactions. Synthetic securities such as ETFs are another example of an instrument that prices off a reference rate rather than the actual contents of an underlying asset portfolio. These instruments are open to consistent abusive pricing as a means of incrementally impoverishing those market participants who are the krill on which the global banks thrive.

How has it been possible for banks to grow from less than 4 per cent of the global economy to more than 12 per cent of the global economy without impoverishing others? How has it been possible for profits in the financial sector to be consistently higher than profits from other human endeavors with more tangible products or impacts on our daily lives - such as agriculture, transport, health care or utilities? How has it been possible that banks derive their profits not from the protected and regulated activities of deposit-taking and lending, but from the unsupervised and often unknowable escalation of off-balance sheet assets and liabilities? How has it been possible that pension savings have increased while pension returns have declined to the point where only bankers can expect a comfortable old age? Global banks have built the casinos and tilted the odds in the house's favour by rigging the data that determines the outcomes of most of the bets on the table. Every one of us that sits at the table long enough - whether saver, investor, borrower, taxpayer or pensioner - will be a loser. It is not a flaw; it is a feature.

There is a reason that financial infrastructure used to be dominated by mutuals. Mutual gain and mutual liability created a natural discipline on excess and on rogue elements that would impoverish their peers.

There is a reason why trading was restricted to exchanges, and exchanges and clearing houses used to be self-regulating, and even had responsibility for resolution and liquidation of their members. Direct responsibility, authority and financial control meant that they could exert very powerful and immediate consequences on those members identified as abusing the market or investors.

The investigations into market rigging are just beginning. Paul Tucker opened the box yesterday when he admitted that he could not know whether the abuses discovered in setting LIBOR had spread to other synthetically calculated reference rates. As events unfold, it may be that we begin to appreciate just how deeply vulnerable we have become to predation by bankers with no stake in a local economy or in the local quality of life of the people they impoverish. A reckoning is needed, and then a rebalancing toward more local and mutual provision of essential services and market infrastructure that serves markets rather than those few bankers on the board.

As a start, regulators should consider punitive restrictions on the sale of instruments which price on reference rates unrelated to reported market transactions or underlying asset portfolios. Pricing should reflect real market transactions rather than guesstimates talking the banker's book.

We need to rethink as a society what banks are for, what exchanges are for, and what clearing houses are for. If they are for the profit of the few at the expense of the many now, that is because it is the business model we have permitted. If banks, markets and clearing are protected because they have a social function, we should make certain that social function is adding value. If it isn't, then we need some new models and some new rules.