An all-American affair?

Photographer: Jason Alden

Situation Vacant: A European Banking Champion

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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Both of the banks that currently vie for the title of Europe's biggest investment bank -- Germany's Deutsche Bank and Barclays of the U.K. -- are in retreat. But sometimes the best opportunities come from going against the tide. There's an opening for some brave soul to create a European champion at a time when other financial institutions are exiting markets, laying off staff and shrinking their businesses.

Bank Leverage

Deutsche Bank is shuttering its operations in 10 countries and cutting 26,000 jobs in the next three years, scrapping its dividend for two years and seeking to cut costs by 3.8 billion euros ($4.1 billion). Barclays is also trimming its workforce by a similar amount on the same timescale, as its new Chief Executive Officer Jes Staley implements what he called the "necessary transformation" of the firm's investment banking operations.

Here's an update of a chart I've used before to illustrate how the world's biggest banks compare in the key capital markets of financing companies through managing bond issues, providing loans and selling shares so far this year:

JPMorgan has been involved in almost as many loans as Deutsche, Barclays and HSBC combined; Goldman's equities business is bigger than the sum of Deutsche and Barclays. The way things are headed, there won't even be a welterweight European banking contender, never mind a heavyweight to stand toe-to-toe with the U.S. banks in the investment banking ring.

This isn't just about national or regional pride. It's about having a financial infrastructure that's fit for purpose. As things stand, European governments and companies are increasingly reliant on the kindness of (American) strangers to meet their capital markets' needs.

Credit Suisse's decision earlier this month to abandon primary dealing in Europe, for example, shrinks the pool of banks available to ensure the smooth functioning of the government debt market. That leaves countries increasingly reliant on the ability and willingness of U.S. firms to help them meet their borrowing needs, in a business where profit margins are razor thin. In equity fundraising, BNP Paribas has done just $3 billion of business this year; should the French government want to offload some of its corporate stakes (Air France springs to mind), U.S. firms are much better placed to hunt down the investors willing to pay the best price.

That's fine until it isn't; it's impossible to predict whether a renewed wave of U.S. government regulatory intervention might prompt its banks to retrench from Europe, by which time there'll be no local expertise to fill the gap. Societe Generale CEO Frederic Oudea, who is also president of the European Banking Federation, summed up the regional consequences in an article for the Financial Times published on Oct. 11:

Does Europe want its own investment banks to be capable of operating efficiently in capital markets? Or are European states happy to look outside Europe for investment banks which can finance their debt? Are they willing to force European companies to rely solely on non-European banks for their investments and hedging solutions?

There is a solution, but it won't be easy. "If you did want to create an investment banking champion for Europe, you would have to combine the investment banking arms of the main players, but you would have to swallow really hard and you would need political support," Barclays Chairman John McFarlane told the Financial Times earlier this month.

The consequence of increased regulation and higher capital adequacy standards is a lack of investment banking appetite and expertise in Europe. The field is wide open for someone to meld the relevant parts of German, French, U.K. and Swiss outfits together to create a true competitor to the U.S. behemoths. Persuading the overseers to sanction such a move wouldn't be easy. While Europe is keen to separate ordinary retail banking from so-called casino banking, no individual European regulator wants to harbor a too-big-to-fail financial firm in its jurisdiction.

But the alternative -- no European bank with the skill set to meet the region's more sophisticated financial needs -- is worse. Convincing investors that a Frankenstein bank could achieve a consistent return on equity without a domestic retail base would also be a struggle. But there's business to be won and fees to be earned when everyone else is retrenching; maybe Anshu Jain and Bob Diamond, the former chiefs of Deutsche Bank and Barclays, respectively, should team up? 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net