Levine on Wall Street: Looking for Risks

How much would you pay for a risk officer? For a stock index? For a palatial prison lifestyle? For a too-big-to-fail bank's bonds? For government bitcoins? For a burrito bond?

Risk officers are having a moment.

Here is a story about bank executives who asked their risk officer if they could do something risky, and he said no, and they didn't do it, and he was so flabbergasted that he went and told the Wall Street Journal. ("Now, 'when we say no, it's usually no.'" Usually!) One theory that you could have of financial risk-taking is that front-office bankers and traders always want to take dumb risks -- risks that any competent risk officer could tell were dumb -- and risk officers were once too marginalized and underpaid and disrespected to stop them. And now the risk officers are integrated and well-paid and powerful so they'll stop dumb risks. But this feels like a naive theory.

"Before, you threw something over the wall, and the risk managers said yes or no," says William Hartmann, KeyCorp's chief risk officer. "Now we're more involved in the development of the strategy or the plan."

So that's great, I guess, but if you're working with the front-office guys to develop strategy, you're more likely to be psychologically and culturally bound up with that strategy, and those guys, and have a harder time saying no. Anyway yesterday the Securities and Exchange Commission announced fraud charges against Regions Bank "for intentionally misclassifying loans that should have been recorded as impaired for accounting purposes"; according to the SEC, "Thomas A. Neely Jr. was the principal architect of the scheme while serving as head of Regions Bank’s risk analytics group in 2009."


Yesterday's Supreme Court decision on employee stock ownership plans is, um, one of the boring ones, but Noah Feldman has a good explanation right here at Bloomberg View. I want to add two quick things on this case, following up on the more important stock-drop-lawsuit case from Monday. First, yesterday a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that you can sue an employee stock ownership plan for the mistake of buying the employer's stock. Lower courts had developed a presumption that, you know, that's okay, the whole point of the plan is to buy the company's stock on behalf of employees, it's right there in the name, it seems a bit unfair to sue the plan for doing what it's supposed to do. But the Supreme Court was like, no no, let's have lots of stock lawsuits, that's what America is about.

Second, the Court does have some nice things to say about market efficiency, following up on its Halliburton decision from Monday:

In our view, where a stock is publicly traded, allegations that a fiduciary should have recognized from publicly available information alone that the market was over- or undervaluing the stock are implausible as a general rule, at least in the absence of special circumstances. Many investors take the view that “‘they have little hope of outperforming the market in the long run based solely on their analysis of publicly available information,’” and accordingly they “‘rely on the security’s market price as an unbiased assessment of the security’s value in light of all public information.’”

A general rule that you can't sue people for not noticing, based on public information, that the market price was wrong, seems like a pretty good rule.

Goldman is merging retail and health care banking.

"We see growing convergence between sub sectors," says the memo, but it would. This sort of stuff does not feel bullish, either for business or for junior banker lifestyle. If there are lots of consumer deals, then you have dedicated teams that keep busy doing just, like, Upscale Supermarket M&A or Sexy Athletic-Gear Capital Markets or Pork Processor Hostile Defense. If there aren't enough deals to go around, you ship your consumer bankers off to work on health care deals.

The LSE is buying Russell for its indexes.

I think that's what's going on here: "The London Stock Exchange said on Thursday that it had agreed to pay $2.7 billion in cash for Russell Investments, the owner of the Russell 2000 stock market index." Russell "has about $256 billion in assets under management" for itself, but some $5.2 trillion in assets are managed against its indices; "The L.S.E. said it would undertake a 'comprehensive review' of Russell’s investment management business to see how it fits in the group." My guess is that it doesn't? Stock exchanges tend not to be asset managers, so this looks to me like they're buying an investment manager, throwing away its investment management business, and keeping its sweet sweet index. I continue to not really understand the index business. Like, it is a list of stocks, you need to pay $2.7 billion for it? I will write down a list of stocks right now and sell it to you for a million bucks; the savings are huge.

What's Raj Rajaratnam up to in prison?

Last year the New York Post reported that Rajaratnam is "living like a king" in prison, and his limousine driver thinks he can explain why. Rajaratnam has a limousine driver in prison, for one thing. Also the driver claims he visited Rajaratnam frequently and was instructed to wire money to other prisoners' families in order to keep up Rajaratnam's lifestyle. These instructions were issued on pieces of paper, and "Indeed, one time, Mr. Rajaratnam ordered Mr. Malaszuk to 'eat that piece of paper.'" I will guess that this explains why those instructions won't be introduced as evidence in court?

Things happen.

Manmohan Singh on the reverse repo program. Joseph Cotterill on Argentina and sovereign debt fragmentation. "Puerto Rico Moves to Restructure Debt," uh oh. And "an impoverished city of 25,000 south of Chicago sold $14 million in municipal bonds" to renovate a Holiday Inn, then gave the proceeds to a developer who "moved to India, leaving a half-gutted hotel building standing empty 'with dangling wires and exposed studs,' the S.E.C. said," oops. Jack Lew thinks that the too big to fail premium "is certainly shrinking if not gone." Hedge funds, or "hedge funds," or whatever, now manage more than $3 trillion. "And there are probably some hidden players out there -- hedge funds who are looking to get into the market" for bitcoins. John Paulson is helping Bill Ackman out in Allergan. Somehow Pinnacle is still holding up Hillshire for a higher breakup fee. America's love affair with butter, and with meatless burgers. Man picks up tab for lunch. More on burrito bonds.

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    To contact the author on this story:
    Matthew S Levine at mlevine51@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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