Bankers Looking for Money, Not Deals at Davos

World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland
(Photo: Hanspeter Baertschi)
World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland

Crisis counselling will replace cosy dealmaking at the business and political summit in Davos this year as bankers face a market slump that has aggravated the worst conditions in generations.

Instead of gathering before the fireplace with the rich and powerful to seal deals with big corporate clients, bankers are more likely to ask for emergency capital from sovereign wealth funds or swap ideas on how to trim their businesses.

Regardless of the emergency rate cut by the Federal Reserve, which is more likely to staunch the bleeding than heal the patient, experts expect banks to become simpler and smaller, less profitable and more regulated in the coming year.

Such is the turmoil wrought by the credit crisis and the rout in global equities markets that the demise of the global bank as a viable business model is one subject likely to be bandied about at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

Some have already noted the conspicuous absence of the financial titans who swaggered through the snowy resort last year. The question remains whether -- given the sea change over the past six months -- many of them will ever return.

The immediate consequences of the crisis are apparent. Banks have written down over $100 billion in bad investments, closed large portions of their businesses, fired thousands of employees, and are bracing for worse still by hoarding capital and reigning in lending.

Banks have also taken on new strategic investors -- for the most part, Asian and Arab state-run investment corporations known as sovereign wealth funds -- who supplied badly needed capital to shore up weakened balance sheets.

But the less immediate consequences could be even more dramatic, experts say.

Think Global, Go Local

The biggest among them may be the demise of the global banking business model. Some of the hardest hit by the crisis -- HSBC , Citigroup and UBS whose empires span the planet -- will come under increasing pressure to break up or scale back dramatically.

"That whole business model is going to come under serious questioning," said Simon Maughan, analyst at MF Global. "Citi is facing pressure to break up...We see pressure mounting on HSBC this year and we think they'll restructure."

"UBS is under pressure to restructure and if the share price falls further, they will come under more pressure to break up," Maughan said.

Business conditions overall are also likely to worsen, experts say.

Banks will still have trouble getting the cheap liquidity they need to extend lending to retail and commercial clients. This means banks will lend less and at less-favourable conditions, and that will likely dampen growth in the economy.

Regulators are more likely to clamp down on a number of practices that got banks into trouble, such as burying billions of dollars in exposure out of sight in off-balance sheet structured investment vehicles (SIVs).

The Basel II capital requirements that took effect on January 1 in Europe, which aim to reward safety and punish risky behaviour with hefty capital charges, will likely prove expensive as an increasing number of activities appear risky.

"Definitely in the future, we will get more information, more comparable information and more transparent information," said Luis Maglanoc, regulatory specialist at bank UniCredit. "Regulatory scrutiny will be sharper."

Back to Basics

The list of likely fundamental changes goes on.

Business models will change and banking will become less profitable. Secondary markets that allowed banks to churn out loans and sell off the risk have largely dried up. Banks will have to hold loans on their books and de-leverage -- in effect, returning to traditional banking.

The de-leveraging exercise will likely hit investment banks the most, as their efforts to take on more and more risk led them to be hardest hit by the subprime crisis.

Foreign investors will consolidate holdings in western banks, who are unable to secure more funding from the capital markets and have turned instead to sovereign wealth funds.

Some banks will cease to exist. Mid-sized players who sailed into deep water without knowing the risks -- Germany harbours the most examples so far -- will have to seriously restructure or join forces with other players.

Finally, the slump in global equities markets is likely to depress business further, as bear markets usually correlate to lower levels of client activity. Far from easing, threats to the financial sector are multiplying by the day.