The Year, The Crunch, The City and Her Bankers

2008 - Steve Woods

With the holiday season and the year-end approaching, the time is right to draw a line under what must have been one of the most challenging years in banking.

Financial services employees who have been around for a while (meaning 10+ years) never tire of saying that the industry is a highly cyclical one, and that they have seen several crisis come and go. This one, the optimists say, will be no different and will go away like all the other ones.

It is also well-known that the difference between an optimist and the pessimist is that the latter is better informed.

And on that note, the news that has kept us on our toes all year has been grim enough to turn even the most cheerful ones into defeatist.

In review, 2008 started off with bad news, but it was isolated. Societe General found a rogue trader in their midst and the USD 7bn he had managed to evaporate cost a few people their jobs and made SG's risk management look like Inspector Clouseau.

And although back then this seemed like a fairly large number of money to lose just like that, we all got used to much larger numbers indeed.

Firstly, the subprime crisis that had been simmering for a while boiled over, and Bear Stearns got the prize as the first high-profile collateral damage. A manic weekend saw them sold off (for a knock-down price if there ever was one) to JPM, who emerged as this year's garbage collector par excellence, seemingly sweeping up everything that was on fire-sale.

When this happened in March, I read that the number of investment banks that would disappear over the crisis would unlikely be "just one", and indeed this estimate was correct.

While banks were busy reducing head-counts during the first half of the year, it all seemed like a normal downturn. The sub-prime losses were large but manageable, and did not seem to be life-threatening.

However, once all the bankers were back from their well-deserved summer holidays, things turned decisively for the worse.

The lack of inter-bank lending suddenly made the business model of investment banks look wobbly and - with Bear Stearns (former No. 5) gone - focus shifted to the other institutions. Before long, Lehman was history and Merrill Lynch sold themselves to BoA (making them effectively history as well). This increased the pressure on MS and GS and in next-to-no-time, brought investment banking as such to an end.

What had looked like any other crisis was suddenly one of rather epic proportions. Well-established financial institutions disappeared, and the US - home of the brave and cradle of unabashed capitalism - turned into the nanny state for ailing banks.

The odd bank went bust, but for the most part, Henry Paulson's kitty of 700bn (making Jerome Kerviel look positively cheap) was used to bail out everything from AIG to the bank next door. Needless to say, it took multiple attempts to get such a plan through Congress, and the stock market went into freefall, wiping out much more than 700bn when the bill was first turned down.

Over here, Gordon Brown suddenly was 'the man with the plan', and took over the UK's banking systems into the government's intensive care.  

What started off as just another downturn has deteriorated into one of the worst crisis in living history. Banks are partly nationalised, Iceland effectively belongs to Russia, the US debt is entirely in the hands of Far- and Middle Eastern Sovereign Wealth Funds, and John Maynard Keynes is suddenly making his revival.

And, it seems that the crisis has now arrived in the real world. Good for those who want to buy an American car, bad for everybody else.

What we learned this year is that credit is so central to any economy that even the Daily Mail knows what a Credit Crunch is. We also know that the years of cheap money, big bonuses, rising property prices, and unlimited leverage are over.

The City is not big enough for all of us right now, and who knows whether it will be anytime soon.

I wish I was a little worse-informed so that I could still be an optimist. But as it stands, I remain open for the pleasant surprise of 2009 being better than this year.

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