Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Global banks no longer make money

As readers of this blog would know, I have always been sceptical about size in banking. It's not that the bigger you are, the more money you make; or the more spread about you are across nations, the more money you make.

Today, three Cs- the costs of capital, compliance and complexity- overwhelm the size effect, as the world's top banks are discovering. The Economist tried to see what sort of return on equity the big global banks would make under the new Basel 3 capital requirements (they assumed equity capital requirement or core tier I equity would come to 12-12%). They stripped out one-off costs that these banks have incurred, such as fines for violation of regulations. It turns out that the best case ROE is a little above 10 percent for HSBC, 10 percent for JP Morgan Chase and below 10 percent for Stanchart, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup and BNP Paribas.

Why has global banking turned out to be unprofitable of late? The Economist offers explanations:

First, these giant firms proved hard to manage. Their subsidiaries struggled to build common IT systems, let alone establish a common culture. Synergies have been elusive and global banks’ cost-to-income ratios, bloated by the costs of being in lots of countries, have rarely been better than those of local banks...

Second, competition proved to be fiercer than expected. The banking bubble in the 2000s led second-rate firms such as Barclays, Société Générale, ABN Amro and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) to expand globally, eroding margins. In 2007 RBS bought ABN in a bid to rival the big network banks. It promptly went bust, proving that two dogs do not make a tiger. The global giants also lost market share in Asia to so-called “super-regional” banks, such as ANZ of Australia and DBS of Singapore. 

Bank supervisors, meanwhile, have imposed higher capital standards on global banks. Most face both the international “Basel 3” regime and a hotch-potch of local and regional regimes. A rule of thumb is that big global banks will need buffers of equity (or “core tier one capital”) equivalent to 12-13% of their risk-adjusted assets, compared to about 10% for domestic firms. National regulators increasingly demand that global banks ring-fence their local operations, limiting their ability to shift capital around the world. The cost of operating the systems that keep regulators happy is huge. HSBC’s compliance costs rose to $2.4 billion in 2014, 50% higher than the year before. JPMorgan is spending $3 billion more on controls than it did in 2011.

Compare Indian banks with these global giants and you find that we are much better placed. Private banks had an average return on equity of 16 per cent in 2013-14, SBI and its associates over 10 per cent and nationalised banks just under 8 per cent. These are under unusually stressed conditions, given the problems in infrastructure related lending. Combine these returns with credit growth of 15-20% in the next few years, with  a high retail component with low risk and high yield and you realise why Indian banks are sitting pretty. Global fund managers who believe in India should be putting their money in a big way into Indian banks.

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