A few years ago, when doing research on the systemic risk (or not) of commodity trading firms, I thought it would be illuminating to compare these firms to major banks, to demonstrate that (a) commodity traders were really not that big, when compared to systemically important financial institutions, and (b) their balance sheets, though leveraged, were not as geared as banks and unlike banks did not involve the maturity and liquidity transformations that make banks subject to destabilizing runs. One thing that jumped out at me was just what a monstrosity Deutsche Bank was, in terms of size and leverage and Byzantine complexity. Its
My review (conducted in 2012 and again in 2013) looked back several years. For instance, in 2013, the bank’s leverage ratio was around 37 to 1, and its total assets were over $2 trillion.
Since then, Deutsche has reduced its leverage somewhat, but it is still huge, highly leveraged (especially in comparison to its American peers), and deeply interconnected with all other major financial institutions, and a plethora of industrial and service firms.
This makes its current travails a source of concern. The stock price has fallen to record low levels, and its CDS spreads have spiked to post-crisis highs. The CDS curve is also flattening, which is particularly ominous. Last week, Bloomberg reported signs of a mini-run, not by depositors, but by hedge funds and others who were moving collateral and cleared derivatives positions to other FCMs. (I’ve seen no indication that people are looking to novate OTC deals in order to replace Deutsche as a counterparty, which would be a real harbinger of problems.)
Ironically, the current crisis was sparked by chronic indigestion from the last crisis, namely the legal and regulatory issues related to US subprime. The US Department of Justice presented a settlement demand of $14 billion dollars, which if paid, would put the bank at risk of breaching its regulatory capital requirements: the bank has only reserved $5 billion. Deutsche’s stock price and CDS have lurched up and down over the past few days, driven mainly by news regarding how these legal issues would be resolved.
The $14 billion US demand is only one of Deutsche’s sources of legal agita, most of which are also the result of pre-crisis and crisis issues, such as the IBOR cases and charges that it facilitated accounting chicanery at Italian banks.
Deutsche’s problems are political poison in Germany, for Merkel in particular. She is in a difficult situation. Bailouts are no more popular in Europe than in the US, but if anyone is too big to fail, it is Deutsche. Serious problems there could portend another financial crisis, and one in which the epicenter would be Germany. Merkel and virtually all other politicians in Germany have adamantly stated there would be no bailouts: politically, they have to. But such unconditional statements are not credible–that’s the essence of the TBTF problem. If Deutsche teeters, Germany–no doubt aided by the ECB and the Fed–will be forced to act. This would have seismic political effects, particularly in Europe, and especially particularly in southern Europe, which believes that it has been condemned to economic penury to protect German economic interests, not least of which is Deutsche Bank.
No doubt the German government, the Bundesbank, and the ECB are crafting bailouts that don’t look like bailouts–at least if you don’t look too closely. One idea I saw floated was to sell off Deutsche assets to other entities, with the asset values guaranteed. Since direct government guarantees would be too transparent (and perhaps contrary to EU law), no doubt the guarantees will be costumed in some way as well.
The whole mess points out the inherently political nature of banking, and how the political bargain (in the phrase of Calomaris and Haber in Fragile by Design) has changed. As they show quite persuasively (as have others, such as Ragu Rajan), the pre-crisis political bargain was that banks would facilitate income redistribution policy by provide credit to low income individuals. This seeded the crisis (though like any complex event, there were myriad other contributing causal factors), the political aftershocks of which are being felt to this day. Banking became a pariah industry, as the very large legal settlements extracted by governments indicate.
The difficulty, of course, is that banks are still big and systemically important, and as the Deutsche Bank situation demonstrates, punishing for past misdeeds that contributed to the last crisis could, if taken too far, create a new one. This is particularly true in the Brave New World of post-crisis monetary policy, with its zero or negative interest rates, which makes it very difficult for banks to earn a profit by doing business the old fashioned way (borrow at 3, lend at 6, hit the links by 3) as politicians claim that they desire.
It is definitely desirable to have mechanisms to hold financial malfeasors accountable, but the Deutsche episode illustrates several difficulties. The first is that even the biggest entities can be judgment proof, and imposing judgments on them can have disastrous economic externalities. Another is that there is a considerable degree of arbitrariness in the process, and the results of the process. There is little due process here, and the risks and costs of litigation mean that the outcome of attempts to hold bankers accountable is the result of a negotiation between the state and large financial institutions that is carried out in a highly politicized environment in which emotions and narratives are likely to trump facts. There is room for serious doubt about the quality of justice that results from this process. Waving multi-billion dollar scalps may be emotionally and politically satisfying, but arbitrariness in the process and the result means that the law and regulation will not have an appropriate deterrence effect. If it is understood that fines are the result of a political lottery, the link between conduct and penalty is tenuous, at best, meaning that the penalties will be a very poor way of deterring bad conduct.
Further, it must always be remembered that what happened in the 2000s (and what happened prior to every prior banking crisis) was the result of a political bargain. Holding bankers to account for abusing the terms of the bargain is fine, but unless politicians and regulators are held to account, there will be future political bargains that will result in future crises. To have a co-conspirator in the deals that culminated in the financial crisis–the US government–hold itself out as the judge and jury in these matters will not make things better. It is likely to make things worse, because it only increases the politicization of finance. Since that politicization is is at the root of financial crises, that is a disturbing development indeed.
So yes, bankers should be at the bar. But they should not be alone. And they should be joined there by the very institutions who presume to bring them to justice.