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5 Epilogue – daring an outlook
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
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
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
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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