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The economy will grow again in 2010 but the upswing will be moderate at bestSNOWSTORMS and the longest cold snap since 1981; an unforeseen political attack on the prime minister’s leadership; a bad-tempered start to the general-election campaign: Britain began the new year in unexpectedly dramatic mode. But on the issue that matters most—the prospects for economic recovery—the portents are confusing rather than apocalyptic. Last year ended on a forlorn note, with Britain the only big economy still trapped in recession. Official figures published in late December brought no co
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mfort to those hoping the recessionary tide had turned. They confirmed that GDP in the three months to September had fallen for a sixth successive quarter (see chart). The contraction of 0.2% was smaller than the 0.4% first estimated, but other revisions to earlier data pushed up the cumulative decline in national output since early 2008 from 5.9% to 6.0%. It is Britain’s deepest and longest recession since the second world war. ...
Europe has raced ahead of America in dealing with its dud banks. But there is more work to be doneIN FILMS zombies are dealt with using anything from automatic weapons to kitchen implements. In banking few countries seem to have the guts to tackle their walking dead.An unlikely figure, however, is now waving a frying pan at them: Europe’s competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes. While national regulators debate the finer points of moral hazard, she has walloped some of Europe’s biggest recipients of state aid, including Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), ING, Commerzbank and WestLB. Part
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ly as the price for European Union approval of their bail-outs, and partly under their own steam, these banks are poised to shrink their balance-sheets dramatically—typically by 40% or more from the peak. More banks are expected to follow (see article). ...
Decisive action on zombie banks from…the European CommissionNEELIE KROES has, according to one analyst in London, “cut through all the bullshit”. Europe’s competition commissioner has trod where national regulators dare not, by imposing harsh penalties on the banks that received the biggest bail-outs in Europe. On November 3rd Britain’s two monsters, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Lloyds Banking Group (LBG), got the treatment. In the preceding week ING, a Dutch insurance and banking conglomerate, surprised investors by announcing a break-up and a capital raising
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. Over the summer Germany’s Commerzbank and WestLB both agreed to tough penalties. Several more banks, including Dexia and KBC, both based in Belgium, and Germany’s Hypo Real Estate, are next in the commission’s line of fire.Ms Kroes is acting under a generous interpretation of her mandate. The objectives of reversing the damaging effects of state aid on competition and of ensuring that bailed-out firms have viable business plans are not controversial. But the commission’s apparent desire to address concerns over moral hazard by punishing firms that have been rescued by the state is much more provocative. National governments have so far done precious little to tackle this issue. That partly reflects their defence of national champions, but also a reluctance to start messing about with big banks while the supply of credit to the economy is still under threat and while they still need to raise more equity from private investors. ...
Lloyds is first out of the gate with a new kind of capitalMENTION hybrids these days, and most people think of fuel-efficient cars. In banking, however, the word has less pleasant connotations. Hybrid forms of capital were meant to combine the cheapness of debt with the support that equity offers to banks in times of crisis. Yet they proved to be less well-bred than originally planned. When an extra capital cushion was needed to protect depositors and other creditors, these hybrid instruments could not provide it without the bank first defaulting.Now a new version is emerging. On November 3rd
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Lloyds Banking Group (LBG), Britain’s biggest retail bank, said it would convert existing debt into about GBP7.5 billion ($12.3 billion) of “contingent core Tier-1 capital” (dubbed CoCos). This is a kind of debt that will automatically convert into shares if the bank’s cushion of equity capital falls below 5%. LBG is not the first bank to issue contingent capital, but it is the biggest to do so just as many regulators are looking at ways of giving banks access to equity when they need it and forcing creditors to share the pain of financial distress. ...
The latest chapter in the banking rescue is less novel than it seemsJUST over a year ago, as Britain’s banking system suffered a near-death experience, the government resuscitated it with an emergency infusion of capital. This week Alistair Darling pumped in yet more money, leading to accusations that policy failures had brought about another big bail-out. The chancellor of the exchequer, for his part, made much of moves to create a more competitive banking market, forcing the two big banks that have gobbled up state aid—Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Lloyds Banking Group (LBG)&#
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8212;to pay for it by shedding branches and customers. In fact, this latest chapter in the banking rescue is neither a new bail-out nor the dawn of a new competitive era. The government’s sudden interest in opening up the market was in any case the result of pressure from Europe (see article). And despite much hoopla before this week’s announcement about breaking up the banks, it amounted to precious little. ...
Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland are forced to sell businessesAT THE height of the banking crisis, restoring financial stability was paramount for the British government. Worries about limiting the taxpayer’s exposure came second. Ensuring that banking customers continued to enjoy a competitive market was a distant third. Indeed, the government waived competition rules to let Lloyds TSB take over Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS), Britain’s biggest mortgage lender, in what proved to be a disastrous move for Lloyds, as the merged group then required a massive state bail-out. Now that
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the crisis has abated, fostering a competitive banking market is becoming more significant again, though mainly because of the intervention of Neelie Kroes, the European Union’s competition commissioner. Last week she forced ING, a rescued Dutch bank, to split its banking and insurance operations. She also imposed restrictions on lending and deposit-taking at Northern Rock, a nationalised mortgage lender which the British government is splitting into a “good” bank, to be privatised, and a “bad” part, to be wound down. ...
Why are banks so averse to raising equity?THE usual laws of corporate finance do not seem to apply to banks. Almost all big industrial companies—and decent analysts of them—are subject to a tight mesh of proven rules, backed up by decades of financial theory. Everyone agrees, for example, that accounting values are often flaky and that cashflow matters most when valuing a firm or trying to work out if it might go bust. The profitability of any activity, too, must be assessed before the magnifying effects of leverage are taken into account. In bank-land, however, anything goes. Acco
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unting, not cash, is king. And most common yardsticks for measuring performance are all in some way distorted by leverage, not least return on equity (ROE). The peculiarity of the banks is not some arcane matter. Regulators are furiously trying to find ways to prevent taxpayers picking up the tab for banking crises. The latest bill passing through Congress aims to hit the industry for the cost of bail-outs, for example. Their main weapon, however, is forcing banks to have bigger equity buffers. Bankers complain that equity is too expensive and will have a knock-on effect on the price of credit, damaging the economy. But this contradicts a cornerstone of corporate finance, set out by Franco Modigliani and Merton Miller in 1958, that a firm’s value is unaffected by its capital structure (at least in a perfectly efficient, tax-free world). ...
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