Thursday, December 6, 2012

Bring on 2013: Cliffs, Reforms, Recovery

What lies ahead in finance?
After a long haul and after markets watched and studied the results, we've jumped the hurdle of the presidential election. We now head toward a year-end where sound bites and gurgles of noise from Washington scream "fiscal cliffs" and a possible end-of-world scenario if legislators don't reach an agreement and unveil a fiscal plan before January 1.

Often in an election year, capital markets and finance managers go through pauses, starts and stops. They gauge the political winds that will affect economic recovery, interest rates or the tendencies for companies to invest in growth, merge with others, borrow long term or issue new stock.

The election is done, and it's time to bring on 2013, of course, after legislators cease jousting with each other. What lies ahead for professionals in finance? What is the outlook for those who manage portfolios, trade derivatives, underwrite securities,  borrow funds, invest in big projects, advise clients on retirement planning, and advise companies pondering a merger?

In the post-financial-crisis era, finance professionals are accustomed to volatility and uncertainty.  The two terms are portrayed as variables, statistics and concepts in theoretical finance. Today, they are a way of life. Just when signs point to a full-fledged economic recovery, from around the corner come a momentary slowdown or unsettling gyrations in markets--caused by factors or events previously unaccounted for:  Mideast uprisings, Greece, bipartisan politics, Spain, Italy, China, and the lingering reluctance of U.S. Congressmen to agree on anything. Markets become volatile because they can't handle, measure or project uncertainty or the impact of unforeseen events.

It has become the new normal for finance professionals, complicating how they manage portfolios, assets, balance sheets, funding needs, and foreign currencies. To be prepared, they must brace for the next startling event that unleashes itself to cause havoc in capital markets.

Some events, nonetheless, aren't uncertain in the year to come. They will occur, and bank managers and traders will spend much of 2013 and beyond wrestling with them.

New bank regulation and reform is for real. It's about to happen. The politics, debating and fretting over Dodd-Frank and Basel III are diminishing. The implementation has become. Large banks, broker/dealers and trading firms are hustling to prepare for a new world of restrictive rules of capital requirements, leverage, and trading.

Hence, new regulation will dictate how financial institutions do business, generate revenues, organize their global operations, and expand.  Most of the new rules require banks to hold more capital now, more capital next year, and even more capital in the years to come.  The new rules restrict proprietary trading and require extensive vetting, analysis and approval of new financial products.  Gone are the days when banks could amass large trading positions in options or commodities or when a coterie of bankers with math doctorates could design a derivative one month and trade it profitably with hundreds of counter-parties the next.

With increased amounts of capital set aside to support the same business, they can't generate or reach targeted levels of return on equity. If banks have an ROE (NPAT/Equity) target of 15%, then new capital above the old capital implies (a) they can't borrow as much to support existing business levels and balance sheets, (b) they must squeeze out more revenues from the same business model and/or (c) they must wring out costs from existing businesses.

This week, with revenue growth uncertain, Citigroup decided it needed to slash costs to address the same issues. It announced major plans to cut businesses and trim staff by 11,000--partly to bolster its ROE while meeting the growing capital requirements. 

With the new normal of uncertainty and the periodic slowdowns in recovery, like Citi, other financial institutions, too, are zooming in on cost control and business efficiencies to meet ROE targets. No business line or activity, it seems, is exempt from a revamping, a re-engineering, or a shut down. Some are selling off or closing businesses to meet performance targets; some are choosing to redeploy resources, attention and hiring toward business units already above ROE targets.

Fixed-income.  These business units (corporate bonds, mortgage bonds, structured finance, public bonds, high-yield debt, leveraged loans, etc.) at many financial institutions are under the gun right now. With thin profit margins on trading and lending activity and low fees from underwriting, some banks can't rationalize existing business. Not being able to make it work, many are withdrawing from fixed-income businesses or reducing their scope or capital deployed to support it.   

UBS announced this fall that it was virtually shutting down activities in this sector, while it contracts in investment banking overall. Other banks, too, are painfully making fixed-income decisions. A few more will persevere with hopes of gaining market share from banks exiting the business.

Asset management. New regulation won't overwhelm asset-management sectors as much.  They don't require substantial amounts of new regulatory capital (not much beyond the capital required to support infrastructure).  Financial institutions are, therefore, swarming to the apparent benefits of this sector:  less-onerous regulation, stable revenues, and everybody's projections regarding savings habits among consumers or corporations hoarding cash.  Even this month, Goldman Sachs announced plans to push this segment harder in global frontiers.  

For these reasons asset management--and variations of it (from private wealth management to investment management and institutional client management)--will get attention from bank senior management. Because of such attention, financial institutions will find ways to expand, grow assets under management, offer new products and hire researchers, investors, portfolio managers and client managers.

Risk management. In the years after the crisis, financial institutions everywhere beefed up their risk-management units to prepare for the next black-swan event or Lehman-AIG-Bear-Stearns collapse.  Many had units, people and systems in place, embedded in much of the trading and banking organization.  Risk managers were already detecting, managing, approving and projecting risks (and the exposures, defaults, non-performing assets that arise from those risks).  In recent years, however, financial institutions have tweaked governance and increased the authority of risk managers--given them more institutional power to act, make impactful decisions, raise flags and stop bad banking behavior. 

In the last year or two, risk management now incorporates a bit of compliance, arguably a growth industry in finance these days.  Banks and broker-dealers, now more than ever, require professionals who must interpret the thousands of pages of Dodd-Frank, decipher Basel II and III, and help build systems to monitor capital, leverage and liquidity. Opportunities abound for those who can master the rules, have the discipline to monitor them, and can explain their precise impact on business activity.

Compensation for experts in risk management and compliance sometimes lags that of those on the glamorous front lines.  Some institutions have taken proper steps to close these differences. Others need to. 

Equities.  Equity units aren't suffering as much as fixed-income units, partly because profit margins and fees on equity activity (trading, market-making, underwriting and investing) are higher, despite the worrisome volatility in markets, the anxiety of retail investors and the hesitancy of some client companies to issue new stock. Higher margins and fees explain how banks with equity prowess and market share can rationalize the business and keep in humming--in hopes volumes will once again reach pre-2008 peaks.

Corporate Banking.  Renewed  emphasis in corporate banking has surged in recent years, as major banks see value in old-fashion corporate lending, corporate cash management, custody and processing.  Managing corporate relationships from day to day results in satisfied clients, who provide a steady flow of business and revenues--in good times and downturns. Corporate banking, if risks are managed and harnessed, can meet the ROE hurdles, even with Basel II and III rules keeping tabs on corporate-loan volume.

Derivatives.  "Derivatives" has been the ugly word of finance since the finance crisis. Since then, derivatives have resurfaced in different forms and ways.  They (interest-rate swaps, credit-default swaps, options, warrants, etc.) are still useful corporate hedging tools and weren't legislated out of existence by new reforms.  New regulation now requires that most of them should no longer be traded "over the counter," "by appointment" or at the whims of large institutions.

New reforms will require they be traded and cleared more transparently on exchanges and at approved clearing organizations, so trading participants can see prices, volumes and counter-parties. This upends the trading and market-making models at big banks, which for years gushed at high margins and their ability to strong-arm markets in the way they could. New reforms will slash those margins and profits.

The new trading schemes for derivatives are still under review and subject to vast restructure. Banks, trading firms, broker/dealers, hedge funds, exchanges and clearing firms remain at the drawing board planing how interest-rate swaps and credit-default-swaps and other derivatives will trade going forward. Nervous, they are still unsure how they'll generate sufficient profits to meet ROE targets.

Some banks and firms will retreat; others will try to pick up the slack and make money from volumes and technology efficiencies. For most, it will still be a question mark for 2013 and forward.

Hiring and recruiting.   Financial institutions still hire with the same recruiting habits--massive hiring when the market picks up, massive reductions when threats of a downturn appear. Amidst the profitability challenges and cost-control campaigns, there will be reductions or limited recruiting in some segments (fixed-income, sales/trading, e.g.). They are offset by opportunities in areas where banks are confident earnings will be stable and expansion less risky:  asset management, corporate banking, consumer banking, e.g. Better opportunities exist, too, for those willing to go abroad (Southeast Asia, Brazil, e.g.).

In good times and bad, amidst market bubbles or threats of a system collapse, financial institutions still make their appointed rounds on campus at top business schools. They make their corporate presentations, identify students they covet, and hold interviews. Actual hiring tends to be erratic, but they maintain relationships, always hoping for that sustained market turnaround.

Compensation.  Compensation is always tricky, sometimes bewildering, often one grand puzzle. Media stories dare to project compensation in financial services (bonuses, first-year base salaries, total packages for senior bankers, etc.). Often the stories reflect the sentiments of one or two institutions and are based on quick interviews with a handful of executive recruiters.

For the most part, bonus packages in current times tend to (a) be as volatile and as uncertain as markets, (b) reward those designated as top performers, and (c) be a grab bag of cash, stock, deferred arrangements and even debt securities these days. Many large banks in the past five years have reduced bonus payouts substantially, but have offset that with significant increases in base pay.

Compensation overall may have trailed off, but most packages have been and will likely continue to be attractive for the best of the lot.


Markets are volatile, and so is the emphasis financial institutions place on diversity--whether that's diversity at entry levels or diversity at the most senior rungs.  Most institutions devote more attention at the lower professional levels and neglect it at the senior levels. At levels above vice president, they tend to allow the numbers to be whatever they are.

As 2013 approaches, diversity (no matter how it is defined or what it encompasses) has forged its way back onto corporate priority lists at most financial institutions.  During the crisis, diversity initiatives, programs and targets became a forgotten agenda item shoved into the back of the drawer. Today, with a bit of optimism, the major institutions see and feel the benefits of a more inclusive organization. Smaller firms (hedge funds, private-equity and venture-capital outfits, e.g.) haven't quite bought the benefits.

In 2012, diversity highlights culminated with Goldman Sachs' fall announcement that 14% of its new partners were women. Even in 2012, people applauded the 14%, a figure that hints at notable progress when compared to numbers from other years. But 14% still suggests that we still have a long way to go.

In all, whatever is happening in Washington will keep the industry from storming out of the starting gates, as 2013 launches. But most in the industry sigh and feel comfortable 2013 won't be 2008 or 2009.

Tracy Williams

See also:

CFN:  Approaching 2012, Dec-11
CFN:  Opportunities in 2012, Dec-11

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