Lehman Brothers: 5 Years On

Five years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, should investors be reconsidering the banking sector?

Jupiter Asset Management 16 September, 2013 | 12:33AM
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This article is part of Morningstar's "Perspectives" series, written by third-party contributors. Here, Guy de Blonay, manager of the Jupiter Financial Opportunities Fund, says banks are now largely “fit-for-purpose” five years on from the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

In the same way many people can still recall what they were doing when they first heard about the attack on the Twin Towers or the death of Princess Diana so the collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15 2008 has proved a defining moment for many working in the global financial industry. Brought down by its exposure to the sub-prime mortgage market, the demise of the 158-year old investment bank has come to embody an era where light-touch regulation and weak regulatory supervision fuelled a culture of excessive risk taking.

Five years on, better policing by politicians, regulators and the banks themselves have, in our view, transformed the way financial institutions go about their business. Yet challenges remain. Even if the nascent economic recovery bodes well for the sector, the global imbalances sparked by years of ultra-low interest rates could prove tricky to negotiate while the issue of banks that are “too big to fail” has yet to be fully addressed.

Still, the legal and regulatory framework that has been put in place since the dark days of September 2008 has managed to restore investor confidence in financial stocks, with the MSCI AC World Financials Index up 149.9% from its post-Lehman low point in March 2009. Some of the key milestones include the passing of the Dodd Frank Act in 2010 that gave to the Federal Reserve tough new powers over US banks, Basel III rules in the same year that forced global banks to adopt stricter capital and liquidity requirements and in Europe, a political will to implement cross-border oversight of the sector with the creation of the European Banking Authority in 2011. In the UK, meanwhile, sweeping changes to the way banks are supervised and new legislation that will see retail banking ring-fenced from investment banking activities, have placed a tighter regulatory leash on the sector.   

As we stand, we believe the major reforms required to make banks “fit-for-purpose” have largely been implemented. Any further measures are likely to be no more than tinkering at the edges, although reform is always likely to be an ongoing process given the complexity of the sector. It is telling that the Glass Steagall Act that so famously brought in the separation of retail and investment banking operations in the US after the financial crash of 1929 ran to just 37 pages and lasted 66 years. By comparison, the rules and regulations set out in Basel II took up 347 pages and lasted just four years.

The Federal Reserve signalled its renewed confidence in the sector as early as March 2011 when it allowed leading US banks to start paying dividends again and buying back stock. With most banks now well capitalised, we can expect a growing number of them to boost the amount of cash they return to shareholders, and for some of them to resume paying dividends. It is those banks with growing pay-out ratios that we favour today in our portfolio as long as they are attractively priced. Other banks are in the process of undergoing extensive restructuring in the wake of the financial crisis and these appeal to us for their recovery potential. It is a Fund that is very different in look and feel from five years ago when cash was king and owning defensive stocks was vital to resist the downturn in the global economy.

Reforming the banks, while not a painless affair, has undoubtedly been helped, in our view, by the ultra-low interest rate environment brought about by quantitative easing (QE). With central banks offering to provide cheap credit through billion-dollar bond buying programmes, banks were given the opportunity to recapitalise cheaply as they restructured. The unfortunate side effect of this flood of cash is that it has also enabled asset bubbles and imbalances to form in different parts of the global economy as investors have moved this cheap money into asset classes and regions, notably emerging markets, where they have been able to maximise their returns. Now that the Fed has signalled its plan to pare its bond buying programme, markets are likely to remain volatile as investors adjust their portfolios for the end of QE and a time, in the not too distant future, when rates will rise again. Against this backdrop, banks will have to tread carefully.

Looking ahead, there will also have to come a time when investors are weaned off the idea that there are some financial institutions that are just “too big to fail.” It has been a key principle underpinning the stability of the global capital markets although we would argue a flawed one. With the right procedures in place, there should be no reason a poorly-performing bank cannot be allowed to fail. If it is done in an orderly fashion, it should pose no threat to the stability of the broader financial markets. Regulators have been looking at practical ways to wind down a bank including living wills, ring-fencing and bail-inable debt but the feeling remains that the failure of a large global bank would still have the power, five years on from the collapse of Lehman Brothers, to send markets in a tailspin.

The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

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Jupiter Asset Management  Jupiter Fund Management is a UK fund management group, managing equity and bond investments for private and institutional investors.

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