Monday, November 21, 2011

Who Comes First - Traders or Shareholders?

  When UBS caught alleged rogue trader Kweku Adoboli with his hand in the till, it must have been pretty clear to other UBS traders that bonus season might be a tad disappointing. Indeed if the missing $2.3 billion wiped 40% off of third quarter profits for UBS, that new Lamborghini Gallardo could be a bit OTT. But it seems the bank had ring-fenced 90% of Q3 revenues for staff pay and bonuses. And although the new CEO Sergio Ermotti has said that the bonus pool will probably be cut (FT) it is likely to be only by 10%.
  This has infuriated shareholders who believe they are left holding the bag for UBS' shocking lack of credible risk management practices. But are they holding the bag? UBS' share price on NYSE actually went UP after the scandal was revealed, and it is hovering around the same levels today as it was pre-scandal. And although one rogue trader did a hell of a lot of financial damage, the other traders appeared to be making money. Do they deserve to be punished for Kweku Adoboli's actions?
  It is an age-old argument in any company that has trading desks. If one desk loses and the rest make money, do the winners get punished with lower-than-expected bonuses? The answer is invariably yes, unless they have iron-clad contracts that guarantee a share of profits. Andy Hall at Phibro had a contract like that, which is one of the reasons Citi had to get rid of Phibro - Hall's $100 million compensation during what can only be termed a market crash was considered obscene. Even though he had made Citi a lot of money (close to $2 billion).
  If UBS cuts trader bonuses by 10% or more, they will probably leave for greener pastures. This leaves UBS temporarily without the money-makers as it scrambles to attract new ones. Traders outside UBS will take one look at the mess the bank got into last year and demand a premium to work there. So UBS will end up paying more for traders than it would if it paid its existing ones their expected bonuses. Shareholders have to be careful what they wish for, because the pay and bonus pool could RISE.
  On the other hand, if UBS is really downsizing its investment banking arm maybe bonus cuts is a good way to achieve that.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Financial Firms' Shenanigans Show Need for Transparency

  I have been thinking a lot about transparency lately (sad, I know), especially since Pipeline Trading's sneaky tricks and MF Global's seemingly full-scale fraudulent activities were exposed. Since the dawn of financial markets (I include energy and commodities here) people have been able to make great profits, not all of them legal. Over the years I have reported on some of these barely-legal activities, and there are many more that I cannot write about for fear of reprisals. So whenever lawmakers and regulators try to make strides toward transparency I applaud. Transparency makes investors happy, it gives them a warm and fuzzy feeling that the markets or companies they are investing in are as straight-forward as possible.
  MF Global let the transparency side down for brokers and broker-dealers by using segregated customer money for prop trading. What it allegedly did was not only illegal, but immoral. Customers were harmed, the CFTC and CME's reputations for being the good guys were damaged. A slightly loony post today on Zerohedge went so far as to say that MF Global has destroyed the whole system. Written by a broker called Ann Barnhardt from Barnhardt Capital Management, the post blames everyone from Obama to the government for orchestrating a conspiracy to defraud her customers. She has closed her business and says she won't get back in until everyone in power today is either dead or deposed. Here is one alarming passage:
Finally, I will not, under any circumstance, consider reforming and re-opening Barnhardt Capital Management, or any other iteration of a brokerage business, until Barack Obama has been removed from office AND the government of the United States has been sufficiently reformed and repopulated so as to engender my total and complete confidence in the government, its adherence to and enforcement of the rule of law, and in its competent and just regulatory oversight of any commodities markets that may reform. So long as the government remains criminal, it would serve no purpose whatsoever to attempt to rebuild the futures industry or my firm, because in a lawless environment, the same thievery and fraud would simply happen again, and the criminals would go unpunished, sheltered by the criminal oligarchy.
  Hers is an extreme case, she even invokes God at one point, but it shows how pissed off people can be when their protectors let them down. But regulators and exchanges are only human, and cannot read the minds of fraudsters and tricksters. They can only sniff around the edges and try to ensure that financial firms are doing the right thing. MF Global clearly wasn't, but its timing was perhaps the key to getting away with swiping customer money. A Dealbook article in today's New York Times says that the brokerage probably used some of the money to cover trading losses. Where the rest went is thus far a mystery. The NYT said: "The firm may have used some of the cash to keep its own lenders at bay, which means the money could be sitting in an account at another firm." OK...which firm? Who are the trading partners? This is the opposite of transparency and I can see where this might royally piss off clients and counterparties.
  One firm's actions post-M F Global warmed my little heart. Market maker Jefferies Group's shares got hammered when it was mentioned in the same breath as MF Global as having a preponderance of European debt on its books. Jefferies took the bold step of revealing its positions, then selling out of about half of them to mollify shareholders. Now that's what I call transparency. Unfortunately, the firm remains tarred with the MF Global brush.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Goldman Sachs Taste on an MF Global Budget

  Jon Corzine, the Goldman Sachs trader/governor/Senator/broker, thought he had MF Global under control. He would leverage what little cash the brokerage had, make a huge bet on European debt, flatter his contacts at the ratings agencies, and walk away with a gigantic bonus for 2011. Except he ran out of money - even customers' money it appears.
  There is an old saying in the markets that goes "He who has the most money wins". It refers to playing poker, where if you have more money than your opponents you can keep on betting until they all fold - broke. But it is also applicable to trading. If you have a very large position which you believe is right and will be profitable, you have to have enough capital to stick with it when it is going wrong. Jon Corzine made the mistake of using his Goldman Sachs champagne taste on MF Global's beer/broker budget. The money wasn't there. Capital requirements are not just for large investment banks, Mr. Corzine.
  Corzine never really seemed to understand what a brokerage actually did. He started out on the wrong foot, I heard, when he told the brokers that they would all take pay and bonus cuts. They responded by putting two fingers up and walking into other brokerage shops, for the same money they had been making previously at MF Global. I get the feeling he had no idea what brokers actually do, and tried to treat them like lowly floor traders.  Then took the money they brought in and tried to leverage it into a Goldman-like fortune. You can file this blog under "hubris."