There is No Such Thing as a "Safe" Big Bank
Thank goodness we have the FDIC and the Federal Reserve and Congressmen and women.
Thank goodness they're willing to tap the captive citizenry for as much cash as they need to back the Fed and the FDIC to safeguard our big, beautiful banks from… themselves.
Only, there's a problem.
Big bank "safety" is only a myth.
Why It's Time to Sell Too-Big-to-Fail Banks
I'm not buying any bank stocks here. I don't own any at present. And if I did, I'd either sell them or at least hedge them.
It's not that they're doing poorly. They're not. Bank stocks have been strong because they've been making record profits. It's been a good ride if you're a Too Big To Fail bank or a shareholder.
But, being the cautious trader I am, I'm inclined to take profits when I have them in hand. That's why I'm out of the banks. I've banked my gains and turned cautious.
Citigroup beat analysts' expectations and finished up yesterday-even though the Dow took a big tumble.
Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase didn't do badly last week, in terms of their earnings and profit numbers either, but investors were disappointed.
But here's why I'm cautious…
Bank Stress Tests Could Lead to Higher Dividends for These Investors
The U.S. Federal Reserve will announce results of its annual bank stress tests Thursday – which means higher dividend payouts could be on the way from a handful of U.S. banks.
The bank stress tests are designed to assess if big U.S. financial institutions can weather a major economic storm.
Then, on March 14, the Fed will announce whether or not it approves of the banks' plans to distribute profits to shareholders.
The two-stage announcement process was put into place to give banks a chance to amend their payout plans, depending upon the results of the stress tests, before announcing them publicly. The Fed must approve any plans for the nation's biggest banks to distribute profits to shareholders after assessing the impact of those distributions on the banks' capital.
"You've gone from a few years ago, when the industry as a whole didn't have enough capital, to the point where in the not- too-distant future, it's going to have too much," Jason Goldberg, a New York-based banking analyst at Barclays Plc, told Bloomberg News. "The Fed's endorsement is "a Good Housekeeping seal of approval.'"
Why Warren Buffett is Wrong About U.S. Banks
Warren Buffett has made billions since the financial crisis by investing in U.S. banks, including Bank of America (NYSE: BAC),
The Oracle of Omaha has even guaranteed the safety of U.S. banks.
"The banks will not get this country in trouble, I guarantee it," Buffett told Bloomberg News. "Our banking system is in the best shape in recent memory."
Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A, BRK.B), says U.S. banks are safe because they have increased capital ratios, sold risky assets, cut unnecessary jobs and bolstered their balance sheets.
But while the U.S. banking system might be in better shape than it was five years ago, it is nowhere near fixed. And banks could cause another crash.
Too Big To Jail: It's a Dark Day For the Rule of Law
The opening line of a December 11, 2012 New York Times editorial on federal and state authorities choosing not to indict HSBC for money laundering reads: "It is a dark day for the rule of law."
It may be a dark day for the rule of law, but it's business as usual for the banks.
America's heralded and frighteningly powerful Department of Justice, along with all of the not so heralded or frightening banking regulators, simply refused to prosecute Britain's biggest bank out of fear of "collateral consequences."
In other words, they're "too big to prosecute."
That's what Andrew Bailey, the chief executive-designate of the Prudential Regulation Authority, said about the usual deferred prosecution agreement that accompanied HSBC's $1.9 billion fine. The Prudential Regulation Authority is set to replace the U.K.'s Financial Services Authority – the country's current toothless watch dog,
It's just another example of too big to fail and too big to jail.
Deferred prosecution agreements and hefty fines levied against the world's TBTF banks have become commonplace. Still, there are relatively few criminal charges, just wrist-slapping, don't-do-it-again fines and public spankings.
It is a dark day for the rule of law because the money cloak has effectively been cast over all things having to do with justice.
Let's call it what it is: buying immunity.
This "Massive" Cybersecurity Attack Targets Your Money
If you haven't yet been the victim of a cybersecurity attack, you might be soon depending on what bank you use.
Computer security firm McAfee issued a report yesterday (Thursday) alleging a "massive cyberattack" was being planned for next spring.
According to CNNMoney, a gang of criminals headed by a Russian cyber mafia chief known as NSD had developed a powerful "Trojan Horse" program designed to take money out of victims' bank accounts and channel it into their own.
The plan, called "Project Blitzkrieg," was aimed at 30 U.S. financial institutions, including online payment company PayPal, and was based on a malware program that would clone an account holder's computer to make it look like the accounts were being accessed from the owner's home computer, avoiding security questions that would deny the criminals access to the accounts. The idea was to then access thousands of accounts simultaneously to take out small amounts of cash from each one that would total millions of dollars.
Project Blitzkrieg first came to light when notices were posted on hacker Websites looking for hackers to join the group planning the attack. They offered a share of the loot for service.
Once the plan was discovered, it seems to have "gone dark."
It is impossible to know if Project Blitzkrieg has been cancelled or whether it is proceeding under much tighter security but security companies, including McAfee, have been working with banks to bolster their security.
HSBC Fine for Money Laundering is Largest Bank Penalty in U.S. History
The HSBC fine for money laundering charges reached a record $1.92 billion as Europe's biggest bank settled charges in an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department.
The fine is the largest penalty ever imposed on a bank from the Justice Department.
The Justice Department had accused HSBC Holdings PLC of illegally laundering money for Mexican drug cartels and with violating sanctions by doing business with countries including Iran, Cuba, Libya, Sudan and Myanmar, according to Reuters.
In a statement, HSBC Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver said: "We accept responsibility for our past mistakes. We have said we are profoundly sorry for them, and we do so again. The HSBC of today is a fundamentally different organization from the one that made those mistakes."
Under new senior leadership over the past two years, Gulliver said, "we have been taking concrete steps to put right what went wrong and to participate actively with government authorities in bringing to light and addressing these matters."
Why Ben Bernanke Could Learn a Thing or Two From Mark Carney
Now that President Barack Obama has been reelected, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's easy money policies may well be with us for the next four years.
And even if Obama replaces Bernanke when his term ends in January 2014, he's likely to choose another soft-money acolyte like Fed Vice-chairman Janet Yellen to lead the Fed.
For believers in sound money like me, that's something of a gloomy prospect.
As for the rest of the world, the prospects for higher interest rates don't look too good, either.
However, on Monday I did catch a glimmer of light when it was announced the Bank of England's new Governor is going to be Mark Carney, the former head of the Bank of Canada.
Now I'll be the first to admit that, at first glance, Carney doesn't look too promising.
He did, after all, spend 13 years at Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS). And we all know the track record of Goldman Sachs has been nothing short of appalling.
The bank itself made a bundle by shorting the housing market on the way down and persuaded its alumnus Hank Paulson to bail out its dodgy AIG credit default swaps with $13 billion of taxpayer money.
However, the truth is Carney has been out of Goldman since 2004, and his track record at the Bank of Canada has been very good indeed.
To Carney's credit, he didn't cut interest rates as far as the Fed and has actually raised them part of the way back. What's more, Carney only did $20 billion of "quantitative easing" bond purchases in 2009, at the height of the crisis, and has since sold the extra bonds back to the market.
In the aftermath, Canada's economy has notably outperformed the U.S. economy over the last five years, and continues to do so even though house prices there are currently looking wobbly.
Ben Bernanke could learn a thing or two here.
The Next Lehman: Why 71% of the Big Money Fears the Black Swan
Five years have passed since the financial crisis brought the world to its knees.
Gone are likes of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns among others who were driven into ruin by the epic collapse of the housing bubble.
In the aftermath, life appears– on the surface at least– to be returning to some form of normal. Normal, that is, if you happen to have a job.
It may be anemic, but there is real growth. And the truth is even housing may have bottomed.
Admittedly, it's not exactly sunny, but it's no where near as dark as it was in 2008 either.
Or is it?….
According to a recent survey by State Street Global Advisors, there's still plenty to worry about-especially in the sordid world of finance.
In fact, the world's 3rd biggest money manager said 71% of investors worldwide are afraid the next Lehman could strike within the next twelve months.
Keep in mind, we're not talking about small retail investors here. Not at all.
We're talking about some of the largest and best-informed, most sophisticated pension funds, private banks, and asset managers in the world and the wide majority of them think a " black-swan" type event could strike before this time next year.
A Black Swan Rerun
What do they think could be the trigger for this event?
Their biggest fears revolve around the next global recession, a potential euro break-up, or another episode of bank insolvency.
Other concerns cited were a slowing Chinese economy, an oil price shock, or the risks of asset bubbles from unending stimulus. Thanks to ongoing debasement wars, the asset class they feel holds the biggest risk at the moment is the currency markets.
These elite asset managers are not alone their fears either .
Here's What Really Happened to Citigroup's (NYSE:C) Vikram Pandit
The only big deal about Vikram Pandit "stepping down" as Citigroup Inc. (NYSE:C) CEO and his removal from the board is that it didn't happen sooner.
The truth is he didn't leave voluntarily. He was given an ultimatum by the "new" board of directors: resign or be fired.
Poor old Vikram. This was a setup from the start.
He ended up at Citigroup when the mega-bank bought his Old Lane hedge fund for more than $800 million.
Poor old Vik pocketed about $165 million in the sale and continued to run the fund, some say into the ground, until Citi shut it down.
In 2007, my favorite Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE:GS) ex-CEO Robert Rubin (who after pandering to all the big banks in the country as Secretary of the Treasury in Bill Clinton's administration, then pimped himself to Citigroup after allowing Citibank to merge with Sandy Weill's Travelers insurance conglomerate (that owned Salomon Smith Barney) in an illegal deal that required Congress to kill prudent banking laws (Glass-Steagall) to make it legal actually handpicked Vikram to run the bank.
Super rich-boy Bob Rubin, of course, had nothing to do with running Citibank after making it the mega-bank it became as a result of the merger; he was merely a special consultant to the board, or some B.S. like that.
But here's what really happened…