News digest (Libor 1.7bn fine, banks’ poor IT systems, banking, telco, IT, retailing convergence…)

Again this week, so many things happening that I can’t spend much time commenting on each and I have to make choices!

George Osborne, UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, is about to announce a tax-free treatment for P2P lending, which could be included in individual Isa accounts. This is a good thing. Nothing much more to say…

The Bank of England is thinking of asking UK-based banks to provide regulatory capital ratios calculated using standard risk-weights as defined by Basel’s Standardised method. These ratios would not replace those banks’ main capital ratios as currently calculated (under the IRB method) but would ‘complement’ them. It’s a good idea and we may well end up having a few surprises…

The EU has fined some of the large global banks as part of the Libor rate-rigging. Banks will have to pay EUR1.7bn. This isn’t that significant given what JPMorgan has paid so far in fines in the US… I stopped counting and I may well be wrong but I think they paid around USD$15bn so far this year. Surely this should make me doubt about the ability of laissez-faire to regulate banks? Not really. First, we are not in a laissez-faire environment. Second, laissez-faire does not mean laissez-faire fraudulent activities. It means laissez-faire people to negotiate their own contracts and agreements. When those contracts are not respected, when there is fraud, punishment should ensue. Laissez-faire is completely in favour of the rule of law. Moreover in a real free-market environment, it is likely that most fraudulent banks would already be out of business…

Something I know from experience: many banks have really poor IT systems and poorly-designed databases. This week, Royal Bank of Scotland’s customers could not access their accounts anymore for a whole day (and pretty busy shopping day on top of that). Its CEO acknowledged that the bank will have to invest… GBP1bn in its IT systems. That’s a massive bill. It shows how outdated its IT systems must have been. It is scary to see that some banks (nop, no name), whether small, medium-sized or massively massive have such poorly-designed systems that they cannot adequately track simple data such as their exposures and the level of provisioning against them by industrial sector or geographical area for example. This is the result of years, if not decades, of underinvestment in IT. This is also why start-up banks are usually much more efficient: they have top-notch IT. For large banks, no surprise, trading systems have been upgraded at a much faster pace than commercial and retail banking ones. Banks are currently plagued by their high cost base. But more efficient IT systems would have helped maintain their costs lower while improving internal productivity.

Moreover, banks are also under threat from new financial actors, and possibly future data-heavy entrants such as Google and Amazon. Those firms have great IT systems: it is their core business. What if they entered the banking business? It’s what Spain’s BBVA’s CEO asked in the FT this week. Indeed, banks are now closing branches one by one as customers move online or mobile. It also means that new entrants possibly wouldn’t need any branch network altogether and could offer more efficient services to customers, using their huge data centres and cloud computing capabilities. A quick visit to the annual Barcamp Bank ‘unconference’ shows how many people are currently working on new customer-friendly and efficient banking API and other systems. We’ve already seen the ‘convergence’ of IT, telecoms and media. Are we about to witness a banking, IT, telecom, retailing, online search and payment convergence?

Are synthetic CDOs making a comeback? Well, issuance volume is still pretty low… Unless low interest rates start over-boosting this market too?

Finally, Columbia University’s Charles Calomiris has his own take on Admati and Hellwig’s recommendations and rejects some of their claims (such as the fact that higher equity levels would not impair lending, a claim that I have already made here, although my reasoning was different). He also favours rising banks’ equity requirements though.

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