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242 British and German Banking Strategies

The chain of crises that eventually came together to create one major

crisis is rooted in a long period of inadequate risk pricing in various parts

of the financial system. Effectively, the price differences between so-called

risk-free assets and risky assets had narrowed since the late 1990s and –

at least with hindsight – were too low. Following the end of the dotcom

boom excess liquidity was largely channelled into real estate and absorbed

by newly created financial assets so it did not fuel the traditional inflation indices which are based on consumer prices. Against the background

of moderate inflation, interest rates remained at historically low levels.

A strong belief that the rescue mechanisms of the Federal Reserve Bank

would avoid serious financial collapses added to the prevailing risk tolerance (Goodhart, 2008).

Besides these benign macroeconomic and monetary conditions, which

altered risk perception, the banks’ own securitisation policies contributed

to inadequate risk pricing. From the late 1990s they increasingly sold loans

on to the capital markets. Generally, securitisation enables a bank to use the

capital markets to adjust its loan portfolio in order to optimise risk diversification and use capital more efficiently. However, instead of using securitisation merely as a risk management instrument, some banks pursued an

“originate and distribute” approach where securitisation itself became the

dominant strategy.

Some banks, principally US mortgage banks, sold on a significant proportion of the loans originated by them or cooperating mortgage brokers in

this way. Assuming that the associated credits risk would only be on their

balance sheet for a short time, the quality of credit assessment became less

rigorous. A common approach was to use Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs),

often known as conduits, as intermediaries which then issued short-term

asset-backed commercial paper to fund long-term loans. Such refinancing

structures require liquid money markets on which these quickly maturing

commercial papers can be easily placed and traded.

In case an SPV should run into refinancing difficulties the banks had made

arrangements to act as a “lender of last resort” (Goodhart, 2008). Hence the

pivotal assumption on which this “business model” rested was that the markets for commercial paper would remain liquid. Yet they did not. Without

a high volume of offers and bids, the number of transactions declined and

price fixing became discrete rather than continuous. Thus, liquidity dried

up and the markets for these instruments effectively ceased to exist.

Several years of rampant mortgage lending meant that loans had been

granted on the assumption of rising property values, that is declining LoanTo-Value Ratios (LTVs). Consequently, more and more liquidity was injected

into the real estate market, thereby driving up prices and creating assetprice inflation. As US interest rates began to rise in 2004, housing prices

first started to rise more slowly and then, towards the end of 2006, began

to fall.

Conclusions 243

For some lenders it became a rational decision to default once the loan

exceeded the market value of the property, but for many others rising interest rates were the beginning of a personal tragedy as they could no longer

meet the financing costs. When housing prices began to fall and the riskiest group of lenders defaulted, risk-averse short-term commercial paper

investors refrained from refunding the SPVs.

In order to avoid a liquidity squeeze the banks behind these SPVs had to

provide funding and therefore had to liquidate assets. The consequences of

the first group of lenders defaulting were that the SPVs needed immediate

funding from the sponsoring banks. Since the 1990s the asset-liability structure of most banks had changed in accordance with the growing securitisation market, so they tended to hold less liquid assets and obtain more of their

funding from the capital markets rather than from customer deposits.

Having to place assets on the markets regardless of the impact on the

price had implications for the banks’ profitability, liquidity, and capital position as the accounting standards presume market values for the valuation

of assets. The need to provide liquidity induced write-downs of assets on

the banks’ balance sheets, which in turn reduced profitability and depleted

regulatory capital, thereby driving up refinancing costs.

All of the banks analysed in this book have been affected by the crisis,

be it via tightened liquidity or distressed assets. The collapse of banks in

the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom posed systemic risks

and curtailed the interbank lending market. With government support and

central bank intervention these bank failures were somehow contained.

Although it was possible to avoid a systemic crisis that would certainly have

had the potential to bring the complete financial system to a standstill, a

spill-over effect into other areas of the economy is inevitable.

In the United Kingdom the consequences are likely to be felt in a further decline in housing prices, which will eventually lead to a sharp decline

in consumption. Once consumption is in pronounced decline, the British’s

service-based economy will almost certainly enter a downturn, bringing

rising unemployment rates. In Germany the implications are likely to be a

tightening of credit conditions for the country’s highly leveraged corporate

sector. Neither lower consumption, nor the property markets pose a substantial additional risk for German banks.

From the banks’ perspective, the pressing issue is how to ensure that their

balance sheets are able to withstand possible liquidity shortages in certain

markets. The solutions must take into account the current accounting standards, which clearly exacerbated the situation due to the mistaken assumptions about the functioning of markets. Moreover, banks will have to review

their integrated asset-liability strategies in the light of a securitisation market that lacks standardisation and is thus prone to fragmentation and hence

illiquidity. This pinpoints the banks’ need to consider their roles as risktaking intermediaries. The most likely outcome is a restructuring of balance

244 British and German Banking Strategies

sheets, with banks holding more fungible assets, financed by longer-term

liabilities. While retail clients have more recently been popular with banks

as buyers of capital-market savings products or mortgage holders, their function as depositors is now likely to be “rediscovered”.

Before the financial crisis, British banks had begun to seek international

growth opportunities again, with the European continent seemingly being

given the same consideration as any other part of the world. Against the

backdrop of the highly concentrated British market, Barclays and The RBS

were battling for control of the Dutch bank ABN AMRO in summer 2007.

Eventually the largest ever takeover battle in Europe was won by The RBS,

which subsequently faced severe managerial and financial challenges as it

had to undertake cross-border integration while the financial markets were

in turmoil.

While the structure of the German market allows mergers and acquisitions to take place only within each pillar of the banking sector, in most

other European countries consolidation has continued, albeit at a slow pace

and within national borders. Against the background of the uncertainty on

the financial markets and the more restricted funding opportunities, crossborder mergers are likely to remain the exception rather than the rule until

the banks’ balance sheets have been aligned to the changed circumstances.

Nevertheless, given the limited scope for domestic market expansion in

many European countries, except for Germany, it seems inevitable that the

banks will eventually look abroad for growth opportunities.

Although national banking systems clearly prevail some 15 years after

the Single Market Programme was completed, the relentless growth of the

internet and cheaper international phone calls have facilitated both corporate and retail clients’ cross-border access to a full range of banking services.

Despite growing demand for international direct distribution, this trend,

which is still emerging, is only likely to affect standard financial products

and simple banking services.

As long as national discrepancies in taxation, consumer protection, contract law and financial regulation persist, especially in retail banking, full

harmonisation of the market entails overcoming very high hurdles. Greater

use of new technologies is probably reducing the significance of local

branches for standardised products and transactions. Following the current

financial crisis banks are likely to reconsider the unbundling of distribution

and production, probably bringing it closer together again. Notwithstanding

the future of unbundling, personal advice will be key for banks to differentiate their increasingly homogeneous products, irrespective of whether

the product is for an individual or a corporate customer. Excellent advice,

efficient execution, integrity, reliability and the human touch are the ingredients that can make a bank stand out.

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5 Epilogue – daring an outlook

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