Category Archives: Banking

Should the Euro Survive?

Spanish Euros

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There’s been an enormous amount of ink used on the ‘veto’ that David Cameron used in Europe last week, with warnings of dire consequences if the UK doesn’t help to support the Euro.

Frankly, I don’t understand this as the Euro has been doomed since introduction in January 1999. In fact, the 10th anniversary of the release of Euro banknotes and coins on 1st January, 2002, would be a great time to announce its departure as a central currency.

“Heresy” I hear being loudly cried… But the facts are simple – for a central currency to work, it needs central control, and Europe doesn’t have this. Sure, it has a hideously expensive, large, bureaucratic parliament that shuffles (at even more expense, thanks to French Government insistence) between Brussels and Strasbourg every month, but all this body does as far as I can – apart from ensure regal lifestyles for its members at taxpayer expense – is create complication in everyone’s life, and silly rules that have clearly not been thought through. What the Eurozone doesn’t have is central fiscal control. A United States of Europe, if you like, where the member countries have the status that individual states have in the USA.

Of course, the reason for this is simple – no member country’s politicians want to be answerable to a (central) higher authority. You can see this in the choice of the European President – a nice enough chap, apparently, but basically invisible, and certainly no “leader of Europe.”

Unlike the USA, Europe is not united in a common history/language/culture. It’s a very diverse set of countries and should remain as such – celebrating the differences, rather than trying to blend them into a murky sameness. It could never support a central government, and shouldn’t.

What it SHOULD be is a free-trade zone, as originally envisaged. The Euro should be simply a currency that exists to facilitate this free trade – similar to the ECU of pre-1999, but actually existing as a currency. Legal tender in all EU countries, it would operate alongside those countries’ own currencies, with a rate of exchange that floats against each, allowing that country to determine its own fiscal policy (as they all do to a large extent anyway – which is what caused the mess) and have the relative value of its currency determined accordingly. Like trade, loans could be made or sought in Euros or a country’s own currency, depending on the will of both parties to the transaction.

The dissolution of the current Euro would be simple – start with each country having its currency at par with the Euro, and let them float from that point. Market forces would soon determine the real value of each currency.

As a considerable side benefit, this would also facilitate the dissolution of the European Parliament saving us all a great deal of money and aggravation.

There would be no need to try to prop up a fatally flawed system and countries could celebrate their individuality while sharing in what should arguably be the biggest and wealthiest free trade zone in the world. This would also mean an acceleration of growth at country level.

Given the Euro cannot survive unless all in the Eurozone abrogate power to the centre – which I can’t ever see happening – isn’t it best to ackowledge the role the Euro should play and move to individual currencies; the sooner the better?


When Will Interest Rates Rise?

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With the Bank of England having revised the growth rate down to 2.7% this year (from a previous forecast of 2.9%) and inflation rate up to peak at 5% in the fourth quarter (previously 4.5%), expectations are again growing for an interest rate rise in the near-term.

Of course, the classic economic theory is that a rise in interest rates reduces inflation as spend decreases and so demand-driven price rises are no longer a factor.

However, we’re not living in classical times. This economic slowdown – it can’t be called a recession as we’ve not had a further 2 quarters of negative growth – is persisting and there’s no real expectation of a marked change to lacklustre growth rates throughout the developed world. So it’s not demand that’s driving inflation but rather a number of external forces, including climatic conditions and wars, that have pushed up commodity prices. These won’t respond to a rise in interest rates.

So, given this, let’s understand who benefits from the current scenario and what this means for interest rates.

The main beneficiaries of the sustained low bank rate are:

  • The banks themselves – don’t confuse low bank rates with low interest rates for borrowing money. Certainly, the rates are lower than they were before the crash, but not as low as they should be, given the drop in the bank rate. In fact, looking at interest rates charged to companies and individuals for borrowings, the bank’s margins are extremely high. A margin of 3% to 3.5% (the difference between bank rate and lending rate) is normal – today it’s running somewhere between 5% and 7%, depending on your financial profile. The banks are, quite literally, “coining it” – just look at the new bonus rounds for evidence of this.
  • The government – the massive government debt attracts interest costs (they have to borrow the money). Historically, governments borrow money at, or extremely close to, the bank rate, so by keeping this low, the government reduces the amount of its budget spent on interest to service its massive debts.

Yes, homeowners can benefit to a degree, too – but the advantages tend to be a lot smaller in real terms for most people due to the structure of mortgages and the costs associated with moving between fixed and tracker rates, together with the fact that many people can’t change to take advantage of lower rates due to not having enough equity in their properties following the decline in values. And don’t forget that homeowners repaid a record additional £24 Billion on their mortgages last year – getting their mortgage values down ahead of any possible rise to cushion the impact.

So who benefits from higher inflation?

  • In a word: government. It comes back to the massive government debts that have been rung up in the past 10 years. One way to reduce the effective value of them is to allow moderate inflation into the system – simplistically, 5% inflation over 5 years reduces the effective size of the debt by 25%. Couple this with the increased tax receipts that come with inflation and you have a model to get government debt down much more quickly than would otherwise be the case.

So, given that inflation won’t respond to a rise in interest rates as this is not caused by high demand, and that the government and banks are the primary beneficiaries of having a slightly higher inflation rate and a sustained low bank rate, is it likely we’ll see an interest rate rise soon?

I think not – although I suspect the impact of a rise in bank rates may be felt less than generally expected. In fact, it might well lead to lending rates not going up at all as the banks would use this as a way to try to woo customers from each other, keeping lending rates where they were before – let’s face it, they have more than enough room in their margins to absorb a few modest rises in the bank rate.

Can Twitter Really Drive Investment Decisions?

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A group of hedge-fund managers are launching a multi-million dollar hedge fund next month, using Twitter as its market indicator to determine sentiment and to thereby make investment decisions.

This information came from a recent article on CNBC / Yahoo Finance which quoted Derwent Capital Markets – a London-based hedge fund – as saying it had successfully marketed the new venture, officially called the Derwent Absolute Return Fund, to high net-worth clients and had attracted over £25 million in investments.

The company is confident it can achieve returns of at least 15-20% per annum by analyzing information gathered from over 100 million tweets each day, which the firm brands as “The 4th Dimension.”

On the face of it, this may sound like a risky, or even crazy, venture – but is it?

Let’s face it, the concept of rational markets has been comprehensively debunked during the last few years of economic crisis, and the global growth in wealth came to a dramatic end largely through a change in general sentiment. We’ve also seen plenty of allegations – many apparently backed by evidence – of collusion between those in research and those in investment banking to pump stock prices of certain companies at various times. In fact, based on this and my own experience, it seems that relying on the “experts” to manage your investments is no greater guarantee of success than simply using a general market-tracking fund – and often provides worse returns.

Furthermore, most people agree that we won’t see real growth return this cycle until consumer confidence picks up. Isn’t that really just about general market sentiment?

So contrary to some of the views on this fund, I would argue that this is a smart bunch of people – what they’re doing is using current technology to gauge market sentiment and make investment decisions from there.  Instead of listening to a small group of people to try to understand what “the man in the street” is saying, they’re tapping into the collective feelings of millions.

I see this as the start of a whole new way of tapping into societal collective wisdom and sentiment. What do you think?

The End of Cash?

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It’s interesting to see the number of recently introduced products coming to market which are designed to, in effect, remove the need for cash.

One that has garnered particular attention recently is, of course, Square. This comprises a small application that resides on your iPhone (or iPad, iPod Touch) or Android phone, together with a little reader that plugs straight into the audio input jack of the phone and turns it into a personal credit card payment machine that will allow the user to accept credit card payments from anyone for a small fee (typically 2.75% + 15c). With no costs for set-up, application or card reader this is sure to change the game for those tens of millions of small businesses, traders and professionals that have, until now, fallen outside the electronic payment net because they are too small for the card companies to serve cost-effectively.

But Square is not alone – Obopay allows anyone with a  mobile phone to set up an Obopay account and, for just 25-50c (plus 1.5% if you’re using a credit card to fund your account) send money – in other words, make a payment – to anyone else with a mobile phone, whether or not that person already has an Obopay account. Again, there are no setup costs.

And then there’s Intuit with its GoPayment service that also enables credit card payments from a mobile phone – this time with a Bluetooth reader – at a cost of 1.7% + 30c per transaction, although this service does have a monthly service cost of $12.95 attached to it (I wonder for how long, though, given the competition above).

Doubtless there are many others, too, either in stealth mode at present or on the drawing board.

What’s more, these systems allow you to build purchase histories by customers, offer loyalty programs and great levels of service more simply than the straightforward cash systems did – so even the smallest businesses can step up their marketing at little or no cost.

At present, all these products only work for you if you’re a US-resident/business, but it’s only a (hopefully short) matter of time before they go global and the way of transferring value changes forever from cash to electrons. No more looking for change, worrying about how the currency in a new country you’re visiting works, being concerned whether anybody’s watching as you withdraw a large amount of cash from an auto-teller…. And, of course, if you’re a small business, no more concerns about having the right change for those large notes that auto-tellers like to give, about the value sitting in your till, or being worried when taking your cash to deposit it.

It’s going to be interesting to see how society changes over the next generation as we move from cash altogether. Will the nationalistic bonds to a currency (and the resulting issues of payments from/to different countries and with travel) be removed, and could we find a common global currency?

And, of course, we’re seeing the continued drive for the mobile phone to be less a telephone and more a personal digital assistant in every way – clock, alarm, calendar, address book, diary, music player, radio, newspaper, camera, voice recorder and now, wallet. As an aside, it’s interesting to see how many of the Generation Ys don’t wear watches – their phones tell them the time. Has the watch industry got an answer to this, its potentially biggest threat?

We’re at a very interesting point in the 5000 year evolution of money as we know it. Will it disappear completely as a physical object in the next 20 years?

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Living Your Brand – do companies really care about their Brand?

Goldman Sachs Tower in Jersey City
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2010 certainly seems to be going down as the year when the proverbial corporate skeletons are coming out of the cupboard:

  • Toyota – which had built its brand on reliable, safe vehicles – recalls many millions of cars all around the world in an apparently ongoing saga, with new recalls being announced almost monthly;
  • Goldman Sachs – viewed by many as the pre-eminent merchant bank – being sued for fraud by the SEC and now under investigation by the UK regulators, too;
  • Many airlines – especially those using words like “Favourite” and “5 Star” in their advertising – simply refusing to abide by their legal obligations, in terms of Regulation 261/2004, to provide accommodation and refreshments for their stranded passengers during the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

And this is just a sample of the more recent headline-grabbing issues.

Are they really “Too big to fail” – or just too big to care?

I suspect they believe the latter, not recognising the truth in the old adage that “Pride comes before a fall.” Remember, almost none of the largest and then most successful companies in, say, 1900, are still in any position of strength today – in fact most have disappeared altogether.

These corporates need to get back to basics, to remember that it is their customers that pay their salaries and to start treating their customers as the company’s most precious resource, rather than as a necessary irritant. Simply repeating a marketing mantra branding themselves as the pre-eminent company in their field doesn’t make it true…

The fact is that branding is a lot more than just a logo with a catchy by-line – a company’s brand is everything to do with that company, and the logo is just something to recognise it by as we’re visual creatures. Branding is about customer service, branding is about the way customers interact with the company in all ways, branding’s about staff training, branding includes corporate governance and social responsibility, branding is about all the materials that company produces – from marketing through packaging to the products themselves – in fact, branding is about everything to do with a company.

And this is where so many companies are falling down: they’ve lost sight of everything but the short-term pursuit of the bottom line. And I use “short-term” advisedly – as without attention to all aspects of their corporate brand, those companies will lose customers and start to fail.

Just look at the consumer backlash against many banks that they perceive to have been complicit in the economic downturn. Imagine how consumers who have been poorly treated will feel about giving more of their hard-earned money to those airlines that left them high and dry. Will former Toyota buyers be as happy to buy another Toyota?

Companies need to start refocusing on their entire brand, they need to recognise the power of instant communication for their customers and embrace it to make a positive difference, and they need to once again really put their customers first instead of just saying they do.

What do you think – do companies no longer care about their brand in pursuit of profits? Have you joined the growing ranks of disgruntled consumers and, if so, which are the brands you love to hate?

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Liquidation – a valid way to build personal wealth?

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A friend of mine in another country brought to my attention a company that is currently under voluntary liquidation – an act that reminded me of how often I’ve seen this tactic used as a convenient way of enriching oneself at the expense of others.

And isn’t enriching yourself at the expense of others in this way little more than fraud?

The problem here is that liquidation laws are necessary for a business in trouble to find a way to most fairly compensate all its creditors and close (or, in some cases, restructure) before it incurs further problems, resulting in even bigger losses for the creditors.

However, some unscrupulous people will start a business, build it over a few years to gain the trust of its suppliers and customers, and then at a point where the cash-flow starts to become problematic, put the business into voluntary liquidation and walk away from the debts. In the meantime, of course, they have paid themselves substantially in terms of salaries and bonuses – in effect, living extremely well off their creditors that are then left behind holding the proverbial baby.

While it is possible, in law, to go after these individuals and sue them for their personal assets to cover the delinquent debt, this is extremely expensive and, in order for the action to be successful you generally have to prove some form of wilful intent: always a tough thing to do, even when all the circumstantial evidence might point that way.

So, having accumulated a handy sum from this now-defunct business, they start again – looking for new victims. Mind you, some are brazen enough to start again in the same line, asking the same creditors for credit – and often, these creditors fall for it the second time, thinking that they will somehow be repaid from the profits of the new business…

And yet, these self-same businessmen will tell you that there are no victims here as their suppliers are (generally) covered by credit insurance and so will be paid out, while the credit insurer should be able to recover its money from the receivables (if it was that simple, why are they liquidating in the first place?)!

The fact is that credit insurance almost never covers the full debt, so the suppliers have a significant shortfall. On top of this, the insurance premiums invariably rise – the insurer has to covers its losses somehow, after all – and is also wary of that sector so withdraws/reduces cover for smaller, generally honest, businesses that then face genuine cash-flow crunches and may have to fold as well.

Victimless? Certainly not.

So, my question to you is this: do you believe this sort of action is legitimate, or should laws be framed to ensure that such action results in the forfeiture of assets by the liquidating party to cover the shortfall?

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What’s the Future of Banking?

One significant side-effect of the global financial crisis has to be a major overhaul of the world’s banking systems. They’ve been shown to be badly broken.

 After all, what is the current state of play with banks in general, when looking at their supposed core competencies?

  • Lending – very little lending activity going on, and only to those that don’t really need it (the very credit worthy);
  • Deposit-taking – although this continues, albeit at a lower rate due to the general economic woes, it’s done with caution and concern as the public no longer believes in the security of banks (the old adage about being as safe as a bank just doesn’t apply today);
  • Investment advice – does anyone trust the investment advice of banks any longer?

 And then there are peripheral activities such as credit cards – banks lowering limits, and now even looking at penalising the credit-worthy that pay up their credit card bills on time: surely a brilliant way to chase away customers…

Talking of customers: the issue of customer service is still something that few banks understand – they’re not open when customers want them to be, and are seldom found where they’re wanted. Fortunately, technology in the shape of Internet and Telephone banking is allowing us to work around these limitations.

And yet, the self-same group that precipitated the economic disaster of the past couple of years through the sale of very dubious investment instruments apparently repackaged to hide their source, believes that they continue to deserve multi-million dollar bonuses “to retain talent.”

What talent, and why should it be retained, considering the mess the world is in as a result of their activities?

Now that so many banks have been shown to have an extremely dubious business model, isn’t it time to relook the very essence of what they should be doing?   

Let’s see a complete separation of activities, so that banks focus on banking and investment houses focus on investment consulting – it’s clear that the “Chinese Walls” in financial institutions were full of holes.

Banking needs to be about rendering a service to the community – after all, a prosperous and stable community base is good for the bank’s business, and a prosperous and stable bank is good for the community. Banks need to focus on the business of taking deposits and making these funds available for loans to build businesses, put people in homes and generally provide a secure growth engine for the longer term. The short-term focus that we came to see in so many businesses (see: The Perils of Quarteritis) is just not acceptable.

And this model need not necessarily result in low returns for depositors – look at the success of microfinancing from Grameen Bank (and, now, others), both for the bank and the community. As with everything, there will be some elements that give lower returns, while others give higher returns. With careful, skilled management, depositors should be able to see appropriate returns while borrowers can secure appropriate loans.

It’s time for financial institutions to rebuild the trust that they’ve lost, and return to being of service to their communities again, rather than simply serving the bankers’ own interests.