Glass-Steagall Redux: A Gift to M&A Bankers?

 

There are few things in business that are outright bad for everyone. Usually someone, somewhere is a winner when the rules change. In the case of proposed new bank regulations, merger and acquisition ("M&A") deal makers may be about to enjoy a bonanza.

On January 21, 2010, the White House issued a press release entitled "President Obama Calls for New Restrictions on Size and Scope of Financial Institutions to Rein in Excesses and Protect Taxpayers" in which the 44th U.S. President proposes to limit banks from owning a hedge fund or a private equity fund or "proprietary trading operations unrelated to serving customers for its own profit." Additionally, unfettered deposit-taking growth would be strictly curtailed in order to avoid another federal bailout on the basis of "too big to fail." 

Another day, another mandate, another perverse outcome. 

  • Risk transfer requires a willing party to accept the uncertainty that is anathema to someone else. Companies cannot hedge unwanted price risk if there is no one on the other side of the equation. Restrictions on proprietary trading, otherwise referred to as Volcker's Rule, could arguably (and significantly) depress liquidity in numerous financial markets around the rule.
  • Lumping all hedge funds into one category is a mistake. Some hedge fund portfolios are highly liquid, with net asset values being reported to investors every day. Forcing a "one size fits all" solution to a financial market sector that varies in terms of strategy, scope and risk factors is a recipe for disaster.
  • Private equity funds tend to adopt a longer view than a trading operation. Is the suggested federal grab for power meant to discourage this source of  capital at the same time that bank credit is limited at best and cost-prohibitive at worst?
  • Why would Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac be exempt, especially given their stated track record in the area of risk-taking?

Not everyone is a sad sack. Think about all the equity carve outs and spin-offs that will result if banks are forced to shed their prop trading portfolios. This type of forced corporate restructuring will be a huge boon for investment banks, law firms and accountants who earn considerable fees for fairness opinions, buy-sell matchmaking and papering the deals.

Don't get me wrong. Excess in the trading room is bad news for everyone. Instead of binding limits introduced by regulators, why not encourage banks to increase capital reserves, evidence better risk management policies and procedures and let the market punish those organizations that get it wrong?

Perhaps not so coincidental, sales of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand are skyrocketing. In its January 21, 2010 press release, the Ayn Rand Institute cites that more than seven million copies of this 1957 novel have been sold. The premise of this international best-selling book is that captains of industry who create wealth walk away from those who take, leaving the city of Gotham in the dark, unable to survive.

Can the Pension World Learn Something from Ayn Rand?

Love her or hate her (the woman), many feel that Ayn Rand's literacy legacy is beyond reproach. Author of best-selling books such as The Fountainhead, her main message is one of self-determinism and excellence of work. New York Times reporter describes the business glitterati who embrace her words to this day, including former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan, and a bevy of Fortune 500 CEOs. No wonder then that her books continue to sell. According to "Ayn Rand's Literature of Capitalism," Atlas Shrugged, published nearly fifty years ago, "is still drawing readers; it ranks 388th on Amazon.com’s best-seller list. 'Winning,' by John F. Welch Jr., at a breezy 384 pages, is No. 1,431."

So why does her work capture the hearts and minds of corporate scions and entrepreneurs alike and what could the pension world learn from Ms. Rand's work?

Addressing the first question, consider her many admirers who describe the inspiration they draw from reading this long (1,200+ pages) novel about the philosophical integrity and strength of characters such as Dagny Taggart (slated to be played by Angela Jolie in the Hollywood film version now underway), Hank Reardon and the all-time favorite, John Galt. Withstanding immense scrutiny and criticism from the entrenched bureaucracies, each fictional business persona fought steadfastly to create wealth by building a better mousetrap and to resist, at all costs, the temptation to be mediocre and do "just enough." 

Part of the book's appeal is its timelessness. As one Atlas Shrugged reviewer recently wrote, this 1957 book could just as easily have been written today. As Rand railed against excessive government regulation (influenced no doubt by her childhood experiences of living in Bolshevist Russia), contemporary critics decry the "excesses" of regulations such as SOX. Rand extolled the virtues (and urgent need) for bold leadership. She cautioned what would happen if the world fell from the shoulders of Atlas and the producers of high-quality products and services (without government help) left the "exploiters" to their own feeble devices. She impugned those who defrauded or otherwise took what did not belong to them. Her words resonate loud and clear in the aftermath of a wave of corporate fraud and scandals. She allowed only for strong property rights and proper commercial incentives (economic profit) to support a better quality of life for all in the form of unfettered markets. (How many innovations occur in the lands of despots and closed markets?) 

Should Atlas Shrugged be a guidebook for pension trustees? Asked in other ways, should benefit plan decision-makers focus on full transparency and accountability? Should fiduciaries bravely step up to the plate and make decisions that are in the interests of beneficiaries first and and always? Should plan sponsors map out a detailed plan (and follow it closely) to avoid conflicts of interest? Will plan sponsors adopt best practices that, in the short-run may cost more in terms of time and money, but in the long-run, create a better outcome for participants and shareholders alike? Should high-integrity fiduciaries be economically rewarded for their insight, commitment and diligence? Conversely, should those who accept sub-par quality of work be penalized?

If the answer to any or all of these questions is affirmative, the following quotes are for you.

"A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others."

"Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps, down new roads, armed with nothing but their own vision."

"The ladder of success is best climbed by stepping on the rungs of opportunity."