How can financial services serve?

A 2010 book, Portfolios of the Poor, made a big impression on me because the researchers had taken great care to ask poor people (in Bangladesh, India and South Africa) in great detail how they managed their money and what their financial needs were. The answer was different from the enthusiasm at the time for micro-credit schemes. It turned out people with not much income need secure vehicles for saving and transactions; borrowing was a low priority, and few people will become entrepreneurs, micro or otherwise.

Jonathan Morduch, one of that team (with Daryl Collins), has now co-authored (with Rachel Schneider) a book taking a similar, detailed look at the finances of American families. They investigated (using the same method of detailed diary-keeping and interviews over an extended period) families in several parts of the country who ranged from single mothers living in poverty to nuclear families a notch or two above median income for their area. One could call them the ‘left behinds’. The results, written up in The Financial Diaries: how American families cope in a world of uncertainty, is just as illuminating.

The headline is that the volatility of income is a bigger problem for most of those interviewed than their level of income. This volatility is closely linked to the way the labour market in the US has moved toward less stable conditions, with employers shifting risks steadily onto employees. “Over half of all income volatility was due to changes in income from the same job.” Even the higher income households in the sample experienced significant earnings volatility.

When income is uncertain, or even when it isn’t but is only slightly higher than regular outgoings, then emergency expenses – healthcare above all (this is the US!), but also car repairs when the car is essential for work – mean it is difficult for people to save steadily. The juggling involved in managing their finances, and the fragility of financial security, also occupies so much mental bandwidth (as per Scarcity) that people find it hard to get off the financial treadmill by any long-term planning. Clipping coupons seems a high priority compared with saving up to pay for college, albeit there are some exceptional focused individuals.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising to learn that financial services do not serve most of these households (up to and beyind the median) at all well. Much financial advice is geared at long-term questions like retirement saving, which is an unimaginable luxury for this 50%-plus. Few products a geared at saving for short-term goals – such as saving enough for a deposit to rent a new apartment – and certainly not with a combination of commitment devices to encourage the saving but enough access or control to make the money accessible in a real emergency.

The same bias to the long term financial needs of the well-off colours comment about pay day loans or check cashing services – payday loans have ultra-high APRs but their customers are often looking at per week costs over the short term. Lisa Servon’s The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives, which includes her experience working in a check cashing service, is a great companion volume to The Financial Diaries. (There’s an excellent NPR program about it.)

Servon’s book also includes some descriptions of tech-based financial products aiming to serve low-income customers better, as does this one. None has been a stellar success yet. Morduch and Schneider suggest legal limits on the total amount a lender can recover from a borrower, enabling short term lending to take place without it turning into a permanent, even increasing, debt burden. They write: “By pushing more of the consequences of underwriting decisions on to lenders – in the form of losing their money – they [ie total loan recovery caps] make lenders more cautious and selective in how much and to whom they lend.”

The book underlines how common is the experience of being on the edge financially, citing large-scale surveys to complement their detailed work. The latest US Census showed less than 4% of the population below the poverty line for the whole of 2008-2011, but 90 million (nearly one third) experiencing poverty for two months or more of the three years. In 2011 alone, 8.3% were below the line all year but about a quarter for two or more months.

Both The Financial Diaries and The Unbanking of America are illuminating reads, above all, for paying attention to what people say, rather than just theorising about them. Even before reading the latest rash of stories about the absymal behaviour of the banks, one can only conclude that unbanking will be a good thing as long as entrepreneurs – and the regulators who make or break them – can deliver at long last on the ‘service’ part of financial services.

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Bankrupt banks

I’ve been browsing through a new book, [amazon_link id=”0817918841″ target=”_blank” ]Making Failure Feasible: How Bankruptcy Reform Can End Too Big to Fail[/amazon_link], edited by Kenneth Scott, Thomas Jackons and John Taylor. The book is the product of a Hoover Institution project formed in 2009 to address concerns about the moral hazard that would result from bank bailouts. The project quickly concluded that a bank ‘resolution’ procedure was vital, and proposed a Chapter 14 of the US Bankruptcy Code to create a mechanism ready to be applied to restructure or liquidate any large financial institution of systemic importance that gets into trouble.

[amazon_image id=”B015M9SQYK” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Making Failure Feasible: How Bankruptcy Reform Can End Too Big to Fail[/amazon_image]

The book spells out the rationale for a bank resolution mechanism and explains in more detail how the Chapter 14 would work. It argues that the proposal would make it easier for US banks to comply with the ‘living will’ requirement of the Dodd-Frank Act. As the book notes in a later chapter, however, a domestic resolution procedure, even for the US, is only a partial answer for banks that are of global importance. The Bank of England and IMF have said there are 16 of these institutions. And there is, the cross border chapter here says, no consensus internationally about the right approach to bankruptcy. So if there is another global financial crisis in the short term, we will be in huge trouble again.

Still, it is good to see that people have been working on detailed bankruptcy proposals – although the detail will be of interest mainly to banking specialists, which I’m not. Let’s hope the regulators get on to the global complexities soon.

Other people’s money

Catching up with post-holiday stuff has slowed me down, but I finished John Kay’s new book, [amazon_link id=”B00UJD8AS2″ target=”_blank” ]Other People’s Money: Masters of the Universe or Servants of the People?[/amazon_link] on a flight back from his native Edinburgh yesterday. It is characteristically excellent, drawing the main threads out of the complexities of modern financial history and the post-crisis consequences, and writing with beautiful clarity and style. It’s up there  with John Lanchester’s [amazon_link id=”014104571X” target=”_blank” ]Whoops![/amazon_link] as a guide to understanding what has happened in finance. I agreed with every word. I don’t suppose he’d want the job, but it would be marvellous if we could put John in as Chancellor to sort things out.

[amazon_image id=”B00UJD8AS2″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Other People’s Money: Masters of the Universe or Servants of the People?[/amazon_image]

The book tells the story of the financialisation of the British and global economies in its first section, and the transition from relationship-based financial services focused on customers and the real economy to transactional and trading-based financial entities.This progressive shift in behaviour, values and institutions affected the whole of the corporate sector. The book offers a telling contrast between the 1987 and 1994 annual reports of ICI:

“ICI aims to be the world’s leading chemical company, servicing customers internationally through the innovative and responsible application of chemistry and related science. Through achievement of our aim we will enhance the wealth and well-being of our shareholders, our employees, our customers and the communities which we serve and in which we operate.”

versus

“Our objective is to maximise value for our shareholders by focusing on businesses where we have market leadership, a technological edge and a world competitive cost base.”

This has happened across the whole of the business sector throughout the west. It’s tragic. Risk taking at the expense of others, bonus culture, income inequality, short termism, declining business investment, overly-detailed regulation having utterly adverse consequences, and the taxpayer still in line to prop up the whole edifice if – or rather when – the financial sector gets hit by another tail risk it can’t cope with. As Kay underlines, and as [amazon_link id=”B00HZ634AU” target=”_blank” ]Admati and Hellwig[/amazon_link] pointed out so clearly, and even Alan Greenspan now admits, the banks have far, far too little equity capital and too much leverage. The summary here of Deutsche Bank’s balance sheet is terrifying.

The book is particularly clear about the inadequacy of banks’ current levels of shareholder capital vs debt on their balance sheets, and the nonsense of the Basel risk weightings, and banks’ claiming they can achieve 15% return on equity – always done by reducing the amount of equity in the denominator. Kay writes: “Return on equity is an inappropriate performance metric for any company, but especially for a bank; and it is bizarre that its use should have been championed by people who profess particular expertise in financial and risk management.” Bizarre, or perhaps just cynical.

So what to do about it? Especially as financial markets start displaying the kind of declines that could, potentially, wipe out a frail bank’s mimimal equity? The book has good answers. Kay starts with a set of principles for reform, including shorter chains of intermediation before the final customers, more focused and specialist financial institutions, a prioritisation and demonstration that the financial institution has its clients’ interests at heart (hello, Goldman Sachs), criminal and civil penalities applied to individuals (not fines on institutions), simpler regulation. Above all, politicians should abandon the illusion that the finance sector is special compared to other sectors of business. After all, the numbers don’t make sense; it has certainly not contributed as much to the economy as is claimed, and is not financing industry or serving the needs of investors.

In detail, the book favours structural remedies, not more and more regulation of behaviour – that is an arms race between banks and regulators that the former, with their ability to extract vast rents and hire lawyers/lobbyists will always win. Kay sees ring fencing of retail activities from investment banking as a ‘first step’. I agree: the too-big-to-fail-subsidy will always be too big for as long as there are any links. There needs to be a structural separation, and deposit guarantees only for utility retail/small business banking. He also puts great weight on individual civil and criminal responsibility.

Towards the end of the book comes one of many eye-popping quotations from Goldmans executives:

Sen C Levin (D, Michigan): When you heard that your employees in these emails and looking at these deals said, “God, what a shitty deal!)… do you feel anything?

Mr D.A.Viniar (CFO, Goldman Sachs): I think that is very unfortunate to have on email.

No wonder Kay concludes: “The finance sector of modern western economies is too large.” Spot on. It takes too many of the best graduates, distorts pay across the corporate sector, fails to innovate on behalf of its customers, and exposes taxpayers to unsupportable risks. Financial conglomerates need to be broken up, banks need to hold much higher levels of equity capital.

Financialisation has even damaged unfairly the standing of the role of markets (and economics): “The intellectual misconception behind the thought that prosperity might be enhanced by trade in baseball cards has been associated with an economic model that misunderstands the (important) role that markets play in enabling complex modern economies to manage information,” Kay writes. Prices are important signals – just not the prices on the trading room screens.

Shrinking the finance sector takes the book in its final pages to the influence of money and lobbying on politics. Which politicians are going to serve the people instead of the masters of the universe? Unfortunately I haven’t heard even the Labour leadership candidate my Tory best friend has renamed “The Gift that Keeps on Giving” addressing this. As for the American system, utterly bought by big money, beyond hope.

Meanwhile, I hope lots of people will read [amazon_link id=”B00UJD8AS2″ target=”_blank” ]Other People’s Money[/amazon_link] and then send it on to their elected representative with suitable passages highlighted, saying – if you want my vote next time, act on this.

 

Life beyond shareholder value

The peerless Izabella Kaminska (@izakaminska) of the FT linked this morning to this Andy Haldane speech, which I’d only skimmed when he made it. The speech discusses the consequences for corporate governance of the way the limited liability corporation has evolved, giving primacy to a narrow view of shareholder value. It cites en passant some terrific books both recent – Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig in [amazon_link id=”0691162387″ target=”_blank” ]The Bankers’ New Clothes[/amazon_link], Colin Mayer’s [amazon_link id=”0198714807″ target=”_blank” ]Firm Commitment[/amazon_link] – and less recent – Berle and Means’ [amazon_link id=”0887388876″ target=”_blank” ]The Modern Corporation and Private Property[/amazon_link] and Schumpeter’s [amazon_link id=”B00DQHN0MY” target=”_blank” ]Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy[/amazon_link].

The speech looks at the historical context of the emergence of limited liability, especially in banking. The need to which it responded was of course the increased capital requirements of the time, the Industrial Revolution getting well under way. With either partnerships of unlimited liability, banks in particular were unable to respond to crises by raising new capital. (Not that it proved straightforward in 2008-9 even with limited liability.) The speech ends with a discussion of potential corporate governance reforms, including clawing back bonuses, and modifying company law to reflect wider stakeholder interests, in addition to shareholders’ interests.

The history made me ponder, however, whether the limited liability public company largely ought to go the way of the megalosaurus? Already the growth of private equity suggests there are other financing channels chipping away at the monoculture. Perhaps when legislators ever get around to doing something, one of the corporate governance reforms needed is to reduce the role of limited liability public companies in the economy.

Meanwhile, I’m reading John Kay’s latest, [amazon_link id=”B00UJD8AS2″ target=”_blank” ]Other People’s Money[/amazon_link], an excellent read which follows up on his short-termism review, to which the Andy Haldane speech refers. A review to follow.

[amazon_image id=”B00UJD8AS2″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Other People’s Money: Masters of the Universe or Servants of the People?[/amazon_image]

A tale of modern Russia – and London

The latest instalment in my holiday reading has been Peter Pomerantsev’s [amazon_link id=”0571308015″ target=”_blank” ]Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia[/amazon_link]. I’d started it on the train home from the bookstore where I bought it a few weeks ago and only saved the bulk for the holiday with the utmost exercise of willpower. It’s a brilliant book. Pomerantsev, a TV producer and writer brought up in the UK and living in London again now, spent some years working for a Moscow TV station. His account of the people he met through his documentary making and in everyday Moscow life is utterly illuminating about the state of Russia.

[amazon_image id=”0571308015″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia[/amazon_image]

It would be impossible to do justice to the book by summarising it. Just read it. Mainly of course the book is about Russia. But it is also terrifying about the scope in the modern world for manipulating belief through the media, the combination of techniques from Goebbels and post-modern spin doctoring.

Above all, though, the final part of the book made it clear that today’s Russia is only possible because of today’s global financial system and especially today’s London, with the bankers, accountants and lawyers who are totally complicit in the handling of corrupt Russian money – not to mention all the armies of service businesses happy to feed on it.

When David Cameron recently made his speech saying London was no place for dirty money I was surprised nobody called him out on the hypocrisy of the sentiment, because London is of course the world capital of dirty money, among other things destroying the functioning of our capital’s housing market. Perhaps if the UK government turns out to be serious about eliminating the flow of illegal and corrupt funds, it will only be the case that some other offshore financial centre is willing to pick up the role. So be it. I’ll be surprised if it turns out Mr Cameron really meant it, however, given the extent to which the City depends on that flow of money. But he ought to – we should not allow gangster states the credibility of being able to use our capital city to cleanse their money.

Now onto another novel – Kamel Daoud’s [amazon_link id=”1780748396″ target=”_blank” ]The Meursault Investigation[/amazon_link].

[amazon_image id=”B00XUM79EK” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Meursault Investigation[/amazon_image]