Cross border financial services: Europe’s Cinderella?

The Belgian Financial Forum and SUERF held a colloqium about cross border financial services in Europe.

An impressive line-up of speakers from the public and private sector discussed why European banks don’t sell more services outside their home countries.

Some pointed out that regulation is still fragmented along national borders – despite the banking union.

But the recurring theme of the day was the lack of profitability. There is no business case for mergers and acquisitions. Countries like Germany and Italy have way too many banks.

Chart by Morgan Stanley, via Johannes Borgen

The industry would be better off with fewer players, but nobody wants to take over small banks with wafer-thin margins.

You can read my Twitter thread about the event here.

I’ll add a link to the slides when they are posted.

AI lawsuits are coming

AI will disrupt finance, but not in the way some tech bros think.

In a viral thread, David Heinemeier Hansson describes how Apple Card discriminates against his wife. Nobody at the company can explain how the algorithm makes its decision. Just “computer says no”.

That’s the kind of bureaucratic horror you expect from an old-fashioned state-run company. Ironically, Apple markets its credit card as “built on the principles of simplicity, transparency, and privacy” and “Created by Apple, not a bank”.

Yeah, I’ll stick to my bank, thanks.

If you can’t explain your AI, lawsuits are coming.

Long lawyers, short black box AI.

What’s behind the low valuation of European banks?

Great explanation by Johannes Borgen on Twitter:

In summary: banks are more robust than they used to be, but they have profitability issues.

To learn more about bank stocks, listen to the recent episode of Odd Lots with John Hempton.

See also this thread by Marc Rubinstein:

I also blogged about bank stocks in my 2017 post A lost decade (for bank investors).

Why KBC Group has a larger market cap than Deutsche Bank

See my tweets from a couple of weeks ago. I’ll have more to say on the blog (including the potential merger/acquisition of Commerzbank) if I find the time…

“One step above the janitors”: a huge red flag for compliance culture

As a follow-up on yesterday’s post, read this story about how Deutsche Bank Trust Co. Americas handled payments from Dankse Bank‘s Estonian unit.

A number of quotes will give you an idea of the priorities at the bank:

[W]hen workers sought broader scrutiny of certain clients, they got a familiar response from some higher-ups, the officer said: Shut up, focus on the transaction in front of you, file your paperwork and move on.

Although U.S. executives routinely promised regulators they’d get tough, former staffers say such efforts were often disregarded in favor of cozy relationships with overseas customers.

Throughout Deutsche Bank, compliance staff members were considered to be “one step above the janitors,” an unnamed former executive told lawyers who filed a 2016 lawsuit against the bank.

In Jacksonville, that task [i.e. know your customer] fell to an office that was understaffed and overly permissive, insiders recall.

Money laundering doesn’t pay (for banks)

Swedish tv station SVT has investigated suspected money laundering by Russian and Ukranian customers of Swedbank. Oligarchs used accounts at Swedbank’s Estonian branch to move money offshore. The documentary is available online in English: part 1 and part 2.

At the end of part 2, Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kiev is asked “why do you think they [i.e., the bank] let this happen?”. Ms. Kaleniuk replies “because it’s profitable!”.

However, I’m not convinced that is true. Payments are a low-margin activity that expose banks to a lot of downside risk. Violating anti-money laundering (AML) rules have cost banks hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years.

In my opinion, criminals succeed in money laundering because compliance with AML regulation was (is?) not a priority for top executives.1 A lack of funding and management attention for compliance leads to a mentality of “just check the boxes, so it looks like we did what we had to do”.

Stronger enforcement, including higher fines and other sanctions, might change that situation.

Birgitte from Lehman Sisters

[A] higher share of women on the boards of banks […] is associated with greater stability. As I have said many times, if it had been Lehman Sisters rather than Lehman Brothers, the world might well look a lot different today. – Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund

In today’s finance & crime news:

“Swedbank AB has fired its chief executive officer, Birgitte Bonnesen, amid allegations the bank was used to launder billions of dollars in Russian money on her watch.” – Bloomberg

For your information, five of the eleven members of Swedbank’s Board of Directors are women.

Foreign owned banks in Europe

How international is the European banking landscape?

Jamie Dimon, CEO of American bank JPMorgan Chase, says that European banks need mergers across borders in order to become more competitive. I created the map below to illustrate that Dimon has a point (that’s why he’s richer than you).

Flags show the nationality of the owner of the largest foreign owned bank. Subsidiaries and their parents are listed in the text.

Some remarks and observations: Continue reading “Foreign owned banks in Europe”

Telework

I used to commute to Brussels by train. The usual experience: full compartments, sometimes people had to stand if they didn’t want to wait for the next train.

When I went to a conference about the financial crisis (slides) last month, the train was almost empty.

As recently as five years ago, few companies allowed telecommuting. If your supervisor was OK with it, you were lucky to work from home once a week.

Nowadays, almost everybody realizes that a lot of jobs don’t need the physical presence of workers in some central office. With just a laptop, a VPN, and a headset you’re ready to collaborate with your colleagues from the kitchen table.

Credit where credit is due: banks were among the first to institutionalize telework.