The logo of HSBC Private Bank in Geneva, Switzerland, Feb. 18, 2015. (EPA Photo/Martial Trezzini)

Biggest Global Banks Go to Pieces Under Pressure From Regulators


FEBRUARY 27, 2015

The logo of HSBC Private Bank in Geneva, Switzerland, 18 February 2015. Swiss police are searching offices of the Geneva subsidiary of HSBC bank in an inquiry into alleged money-laundering. Prosecutors have said they are investigating HSBC Private Bank (Suisse) SA 18 February 2015 and persons unknown for suspected aggravated money laundering.  EPA/MARTIAL TREZZINI

Global regulators have issued dozens of rules aimed at making the biggest banks safer. That’s leading to another result some wanted: making them shrink.

HSBC Holdings, Europe’s biggest bank by market value, said this week it’s considering “extreme solutions” for some of its units. Royal Bank of Scotland Group is reducing its US trading staff and getting out of two-thirds of the countries where it operates. JPMorgan Chase & Co. is closing branches, raising fees on some institutional deposits and looking for ways to shrink its trading businesses.

Increasingly strict capital rules over the past three years may be forcing the breakup of the financial supermarkets built in the decade before the financial crisis. Lenders, unable to use borrowed money to fund as much of their business as they once did, have cut profitability targets and are weighing more drastic actions to meet them.

“We’re beginning to see discussions that these capital charges are sufficiently large it’s causing those firms to think seriously about whether or not they should spin off some of their enterprises to reduce their systemic footprint,” Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen told the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday. “And frankly, that’s exactly what we want to see happen.”

Bank capitulation

Banks have been cutting assets since the financial crisis, selling smaller units and unwinding derivatives that carried high capital charges. The latest moves represent a capitulation in which many of the largest banks may be ending their ambitions of offering all services in all regions.

Regulators’ tools have included minimum capital ratios, stress tests and demands that more bank assets be the types that are easy to sell in a crisis. That combination, along with tepid economic growth and low trading levels, drove return on equity, a measure of profitability, to an average of 3.3 percent last year at 10 of the largest banks from 17 percent in 2006.

“Banks certainly anticipated the direction of travel on capital rules, but with hindsight not the severity, which is why combined with low economic growth we are seeing repeated changes to strategies to try to improve return on equity,” Jon Peace, an analyst at Nomura Holdings, wrote in an e-mail.

While RBS’s decisions were driven by seven straight annual losses, other banks may face pressure to downsize based on profits that aren’t high enough to meet investors’ demands. Bank of America and Citigroup, each with more than $1.8 trillion in assets, haven’t topped a 7 percent return on equity since the financial crisis.

‘Intense pressure’

Deutsche Bank is weighing job cuts, winding down business lines at its investment bank and selling assets, including consumer-lending unit Postbank in Germany, as part of a strategy review at the Frankfurt-based lender, a person with knowledge of the matter said last month.

“In 18 to 36 months, there will be a much more intense pressure on some number of banks to break up,” Lazard Vice Chairman Gary Parr said in an interview last month with Bloomberg TV. “It’s a Darwinian exercise, and what’s fascinating to me is how slowly it’s going.”

JPMorgan Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon, who runs the most profitable of the 10 banks, has taken the strongest stand against radical change. Dimon has defended his bank against analysts’ suggestions that it would be worth more broken up, saying the lender’s structure is what clients want and offers $18 billion in additional revenue and cost savings.

Black knight

A year ago, JPMorgan said it could earn a 15 percent return on tangible equity, which excludes items such as goodwill, even though it would have to maintain a 10 percent common-equity ratio. In December, the Fed proposed stricter capital rules for the biggest banks. JPMorgan said this week that it will cut more costs and earn 15 percent with a 12 percent common-equity ratio.

“Jamie Dimon is playing the role of the Black Knight in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’: He’s saying it’s just a flesh wound,” said Mike Mayo, an analyst at CLSA, referring to the 1975 British film in which the knight loses his limbs. “If this is just a flesh wound and they can get a 15 percent ROE with all the additional regulatory impediments, then the call from investors to break up subsides.”

Still, JPMorgan acknowledged at its annual investor day this week that it’s trading at the biggest discount among the eight largest US banks relative to analysts’ estimates of future profitability. Glenn Schorr, an analyst at Evercore ISI in New York, asked if tinkering at the margins failed to grasp the message regulators are sending.

“Are we missing the forest for the trees?” Schorr asked JPMorgan Chief Financial Officer Marianne Lake. “You’re optimizing, but is the Fed going to look at that and say, ‘I don’t get it, how many ways do we need to tell you you need to shrink, both in size and complexity?’”

Onerous rules

It isn’t only the rules forcing banks to cut their reliance on borrowing that have limited profitability. So-called return on assets, which measures how much profit a bank can make for every dollar of assets it holds, has also fallen.

For 10 of the largest European and US banks, profit on each $100 of assets on the balance sheet fell to 22 cents last year from 81 cents in 2006.

With all the capital rules, banking is still highly leveraged compared with other industries. The risk arising from that model has led regulators to attempt to ensure that banks can be wound down in a crisis.

‘Safer system’

“They are saying we’ve got to go back to a much safer system and that means everyone needs to shrink,” said David Ellison, a Boston-based money manager at Hennessy Advisors, which oversaw $5.9 billion at year-end. “They are using Basel, the CCAR stress test, to say this is what we want you to do. They have effectively nationalized the banking system.”

At first, it looked as if the rules wouldn’t be that onerous. Capital requirements revised in 2010 after the crisis were watered down under pressure from some European governments. So were the harshest elements of the US Dodd-Frank Act the same year after intense industry lobbying.

The failure of more European banks and the emergence of scandals that revealed rate-rigging and tax-dodging by others changed the political climate, leading to increased desire for stiffer measures. Global regulators added capital surcharges for the largest institutions. US supervisors almost doubled those.

Winding down

There’s nothing in Dodd-Frank or the global capital rules that tells banks to break up, according to Thomas Hoenig, vice chairman of the US Federal Deposit Insurance. The law says they should be capable of being wound down in a crisis, which is pushing some firms to shrink, he said.

“We’re not going to break you up, but we want you to structure yourself so that your failure doesn’t bring the economy down next time,” Hoenig said. “If you can’t get to that point with your current organization structure, then you should sell assets to get to that state.”

That message is finally getting through.

“Everybody knew capital levels would have to rise, but the magnitude of what regulators plan now probably exceeds most people’s expectations,” said Carola Schuler, co-head of European bank ratings at Moody’s Investors Service. “These higher capital requirements could be interpreted as an acknowledgment that the too-big-to-fail containment framework that was in place isn’t working properly.”