Tag Archives: shadow finance

Barclays Toxic Landfill

barclays

The lawsuit filed by New York’s top securities regulator against Barclays, alleges that it favoured high-speed traders using its “dark pool” trading venue, while misleading other investors.The 30-page complaint gives examples of what Eric Schneiderman, the state attorney-general, claims were the bank’s practices.

The lawsuit claims that Barclays took advantage of its institutional investor clients, known as “the buy side.”  The complaint quotes a former director as saying: “[T]he way the deal would work is [Barclays] would invite the high frequency firms in. They would trade with the buy side. The buy side would pay the commissions. The high frequency firms would pay basically nothing. They would make their money off of manipulating the price.“Barclays would make their money off the buy side. And the buy side would totally be taken advantage of because they got stuck with the bad trade . . . this happened over and over again.”

It also quotes a former Barclays director as saying: “There was a lot going on in the dark pool that was not in the best interests of clients. The practice of almost ensuring that every counterparty would be a high frequency firm, it seems to me that that wouldn’t be in the best interest of their clients . . . It’s almost like they are building a car and saying it has an airbag and there is no airbag or brakes.”…

The same day Barclays’ then-head of equities sales noted in reference to the analysis that some in the industry viewed Barclays’ dark pool as a “toxic landfill” and so “[i]f we can help ourselves we should[;] it’s in our control”.

The attorney-general alleges the bank’s “Liquidity Profiling” surveillance system failed to protect clients from predatory high-speed trading tactics…“Barclays has never prohibited a single firm from participating in its dark pool, no matter how toxic or predatory its activity was determined to be.”

Excerpts from John Aglionby, Lawsuit alleges Barclays misled dark pool clients, Financial Times, June 26, 2014

Regulating Capital: the information challenge

stock market

During the financial crisis regulators discovered the hard way how little they knew about the risky derivatives portfolios built up by large financial institutions. Lehman Brothers, for example, was thought to have been a counterparty to about $5 trillion of credit default swaps. When they turned sour in 2008, it brought the financial system to its knees. In response leaders of the world’s main economies demanded in 2009 that derivatives deals should all be reported to “trade repositories”—vast central databases—to make it easier to identify and then reduce systemic risks.

On February 12th, 2014 European rules came into force requiring the reporting of all derivatives to one of six approved repositories. Similar rules have already been in place in America for about a year. But the effort, although concerted, is not consistent: the American and European reforms differ, making awkward transactions spanning the two jurisdictions. Moreover, even if these data can be reconciled, it is not clear what regulators will do with it.

The American regulations allow the reporting to be taken care of by one party to the trade. Yet Europe requires both parties to report. That means every fund manager or corporate treasurer trading derivatives has had to follow cumbersome rules, not just the banks that peddle most deals.  Getting both sides to report was originally seen as a means to ensure that every entity’s exposure could be rigorously monitored. But the complexities of obliging both parties to report trades, which then have to be reconciled with one another, have led many to question whether the additional burden is really worthwhile. “Dual reporting was required to avoid omissions in the data,” says Stewart Macbeth of the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation, one of the approved repositories. But it “captures a lot of companies in the real economy that probably do not pose a systemic risk”.

The European rules differ from the American ones in other ways too. America staggered implementation of its rules over the course of several months as different sorts of contracts and counterparties were gradually brought within their scope. European regulators chose instead to have everyone start reporting everything on a single day. That created a bottleneck as participants rushed to put the necessary procedures and agreements in place.

Now that the deadline has passed, responsibility shifts to regulators, whose duty it will be to make sense of the torrents of data that are now flooding in. In America the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has openly acknowledged the problems it has already encountered coping with the deluge, with one commissioner blaming “inconsistencies and errors” in the rules. In Europe the problems are likely to be even worse as so many more counterparties are reporting data to multiple repositories. That will create an unfortunate opportunity for both omissions and duplications of data. In time the new reporting rules should reduce risks, but much work still needs to be done.

A paper published on February 4th by the Financial Stability Board (FSB) offers a solution. It proposes aggregating data from multiple repositories into one central one. That may iron out inconsistencies in the data—but it will not necessarily make it any more digestible.

Derivatives:  Data dump, Economist, Feb. 22, 2013, at 65

Why Chinese Banks Love the United Kingdom

Yuan. Image from wikipedia

Britain’s banks, heirs to empire, have long coveted the riches of China. On October 15, 2013 their hopes of reaping them rose greatly when the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, announced a deal with China that is intended to make Britain the main offshore hub for trading in China’s currency and bonds and for foreign institutions investing in China’s fast-growing economy.But there was a price. Mr Osborne conceded that British regulators would “consider” (which tends to mean “approve”) applications from Chinese banks wanting to enter Britain as branches of their parent banks rather than as subsidiaries. The difference may seem arcane but in the world of banking regulation it is hugely important. Branches are overseen by their parents’ bank supervisors at home. They are not required to have thick cushions of capital to absorb losses or large chunks of cash to see them through hard times. Instead they are expected to call on their parents for help if they run into difficulties. This makes branches much cheaper and more attractive for banks than subsidiaries.

It also explains why regulators generally dislike them. The laxer rules on branches leave them more vulnerable if they or their parent banks get into difficulties. In allowing Chinese banks to use branches, British authorities are in effect betting that if anything goes wrong the Chinese government will bail them out, says Simon Gleeson of Clifford Chance, a law firm.

The chancellor’s decision has raised eyebrows in London’s financial district. Some worry that a supposedly independent regulator has been subjected to political interference and has been forced to lower its standards. Yet critics of the deal overlook two important points. The first is that there is an inevitable tension between a bank regulator’s mission of maintaining financial stability and the wider aim of promoting economic growth. Tension between a regulator and elected officials is not just inevitable but healthy.

Just as important is the tricky balance regulators must find between protecting their own banking systems and encouraging the smooth functioning of global capital markets. Letting banks use branches allows capital to flow more easily around the world. Forcing them into subsidiaries can lead to the creation of stagnant pools of cash and capital.  Although Britain has cast a more sceptical eye over branches of foreign banks since the crisis—particularly after its taxpayers were left out of pocket by the collapse of Icelandic banks and their British branches—it has generally stood on the side of financial globalisation. In this it is increasingly lonely. American regulators are likely soon to force foreign banks to establish fully-capitalised units. EU officials are threatening to do the same. Given this trend, Britain’s stance looks less like an opportunistic grab for Chinese business and more like a last, probably hopeless, stab at keeping alive the dream of a seamless global financial market.

Chinese banks: Open for business, Economist, Oct. 19, 2013, at 62

Tax Evaders and Whistleblowers

HSBC Private Bank n London, image from wikipedia

What  Edward Snowden is to mass surveillance, Hervé Falciani is becoming to private banking. In 2008 the now 41-year-old native of Monaco walked out of the Geneva branch of HSBC, where he had worked for three years, clutching five CD-ROMs containing data on thousands of account holders. The theft lobbed a bomb into Europe’s private-banking market, spawning raids and tax-evasion investigations continentwide. In the latest, this week, Belgian agents swooped on the homes of 20 HSBC clients, including some with ties to Antwerp diamond dealers.

Mr Falciani went on the run when the Swiss charged him with data theft. After moving to Spain he was imprisoned, but freed when a judge denied a Swiss extradition request. At one point, he claims, he was kidnapped by Mossad agents who wanted a peek at the clients’ names. He has now taken refuge in France, where the government has offered him protection in return for helping it hunt for tax dodgers.

Several countries have used the data to bring cases against suspected evaders. Revelations that dozens of Greek public figures hid money offshore have magnified the tumult in that country’s politics. Spain and France have fingered hundreds of high-level cheats and retrieved €350m ($610m) in back taxes. Mr Falciani maintains that his CDs provided support for an American probe into weak money-laundering controls at HSBC, which led to a $1.9 billion settlement. HSBC disputes this.

Mr Falciani has said he still fears for his safety, despite round-the-clock protection from three armed guards provided by the French. At least he is not short of work. He has been helping France’s tax authorities develop long-term anti-tax-evasion measures. And he recently became an adviser to a new Spanish political party, Partido X (which, ironically, tries to keep its members anonymous).

He insists his motives have always been pure: to repel Switzerland’s “attack” on other countries’ tax laws and exchequers. HSBC says he is no high-minded whistle-blower. He tried to sell the data at first, the bank contends, and started to work with prosecutors only when he was jailed in Spain. It claims he has data on only 15,000 clients (Mr Falciani says it is eight times that) and that the stolen files contain errors.

Either way, many more tax-shy Europeans have reason to sleep fitfully. Other countries are said to want a look at the data, some of which are yet to be decrypted. When Mr Falciani first made the rounds with his discs, there was little interest. The fiscal strains produced by the euro crisis have changed all that.

Banks and tax evasion: Hervé lifting, Economist, Oct. 19, 2013, at 79

Multinationals and their Stateless Income

Cross-border corporate taxation is fiendishly complex, the lobbying around it furious. Several recent academic studies show just how pervasive tax avoidance is.  The ability to shift profits to low-tax countries by locating intellectual property in them, which is then licensed to related businesses in high-tax countries, is often assumed to be the preserve of high-tech companies. Yet in “Through a Latte, Darkly”, a new study of how Starbucks has largely avoided paying tax in Britain, Edward Kleinbard of the University of Southern California shows that current tax rules make it easy for all sorts of firms to generate what he calls “stateless income”: profit subject to tax in a jurisdiction that is neither the location of the factors of production that generate the income nor where the parent firm is domiciled. In Starbucks’s case, the firm has in effect turned the process of making an expensive cup of coffee into intellectual property.

In another new paper Harry Grubert of America’s Treasury and Rosanne Altshuler of Rutgers University delve into tax returns by American multinationals in 2006. They examine all the foreign profits held abroad by these firms (because bringing the money home would incur tax). A remarkable 36.8% of these profits were recorded in countries taxing them at a rate of 0-5%, and a further 9.1% were in countries taxing at 5-10%. Given how much more aggressive their tax-avoidance strategies are believed to have become since, it seems likely that the proportion of foreign profits held by American firms in low-tax countries is now well over half. It will take more than fine words in a communiqué to change behaviour when so much is at stake,

Excerpt, The G8 summit: T time, Economist, June 22, 2013, at 72

Geological Scandal: Why Mining Companies Like Least Developed Countries

Iron ore. Image from enrc.com

An expert panel led by Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary-general, looked at five deals struck between 2010 and 2012, and compared the sums for which government-owned mines were sold with independent assessments of their value. It found a gap of $1.36 billion, double the state’s annual budget for health and education. And these deals are just a small subset of all the bargains struck, says the report, which Mr Annan presented in Cape Town, South Africa, on May 10th.

The report highlights some puzzling details. For instance ENRC, a London-listed Kazakh mining firm, waived its rights to buy out a stake in a mining enterprise owned by Gécamines, Congo’s state miner, only to acquire it for $75m from a company owned by Dan Gertler, an Israeli businessman, which had paid $15m for it just months earlier. Mr Gertler is close to Joseph Kabila, Congo’s president. ENRC, which is being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office in Britain, was Congo’s third-largest copper producer last year. Both ENRC and Mr Gertler deny wrongdoing.

African countries often fail to collect reasonable taxes on mining, says Mr Annan’s panel. For example, Zambia’s copper exports were worth $10 billion in 2011, but its tax receipts from mining were a meagre $240m. The widespread use by mining firms of offshore investment vehicles as conduits for profits creates scope for tax avoidance. Their use is not restricted to rich-world companies. Much of the oil that Angola ships to China is via a company called the China International Fund. Its trading prices are not made public…

Congo’s prime minister, Matata Ponyo Mapon, promises change. In January 2013… Mr Ponyo said he would rein in the state-owned mining companies and increase transparency in the industry. “We must avoid situations where we’re not publishing our mining contracts, where our state assets are undervalued, and where the government doesn’t know what its state mining companies are doing,” he told miners and officials at a conference in January….

Last year miners in Congo, which include Freeport-McMoRan and Glencore Xstrata, shipped $6.7 billion-worth of copper and cobalt from the country.

Business in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Murky minerals, Economist, May 18, 2013, at 74

See also Who is Looting Congo?

Not Dead Yet: the Fate of Micro-states in Europe

european microstates map

Armed with a cache of more than 2m documents, leaked from two offshore service providers, a group of investigative journalists has spent the past week publishing articles that lift the lid on thousands of companies and trusts set up in the British Virgin Islands and Cook Islands. The vast client list ranges from Asian politicians to Canadian lawyers—and no fewer than 4,000 Americans. For an industry that peddles secrecy and likes to operate in the shadows it is all rather embarrassing.

Opinions vary on the impact of the leaks. Tax campaigners have cheered it as a “game changer”. Offshore operators counter that most of the activity uncovered is legal. So what if President François Hollande’s former campaign treasurer has a Cayman Islands company? So do thousands of banks and hedge funds. Nevertheless, the affair will add to international scrutiny of tax havens. The pressure on them has grown as governments scramble to plug fiscal holes and push for the systematic exchange of tax information across borders. Germany’s finance minister welcomed the leak, hopeful that it would provide leverage to force more co-operation from “those who have been more reticent” to rein in the havens.

Faced with an end to the days of easy money, offshore jurisdictions are being forced to rethink their strategies. One of the more proactive has been Liechtenstein, nestled between Switzerland and Austria. The principality has long been popular with European tax dodgers, but growth accelerated when Swiss banks hawked Liechtenstein foundations to clients worldwide. This lucrative niche was damaged in 2008 when the former head of Germany’s postal service and many others were caught hiding money in the principality.

Under pressure from Germany and America, Liechtenstein buckled, agreeing to dilute bank secrecy and to exchange tax information. It has since signed many bilateral tax agreements and clamped down on money-laundering. The local financial industry has paid a high price for this. Liechtenstein banks’ client assets declined by almost 30% in the five years to 2011, to SFr110 billion ($118 billion)…

Other offshore centres must also attempt to square this circle. Next may be Luxembourg, a leader in offshore banking and tax avoidance. Bowing to greatly intensified pressure from its neighbours since the Cyprus debacle, the Grand Duchy has dropped its long-held opposition to swapping information about non-resident depositors with other EU countries. Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister, said the policy shift was about “following a global movement”, not caving in to German demands. Whether automatic information exchange can be introduced “without great damage”, as he confidently declared, remains to be seen.

Offshore finance: Leaky devils, Economist, April 13, 2013, at 71