Archive for June, 2011

Still too big to fail

June 23, 2011

Tom Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and a skeptic on loose monetary policy and the state of the world’s biggest banks, is convinced the United States still hasn’t heeded the lessons of the last financial crisis.

During an otherwise happy gathering in our hometown, the “CFO of the Year” awards event organized by the Kansas City Business Journal, Hoenig climbed on his soapbox to warn of the prospect of another crisis in the future. The trouble is, he said, the same too-big-to-fail banks that starred in the 2008 meltdown and the recent HBO dramatization of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book Too Big to Fail are still, well, too big to fail – even moreso.

The financial reform law enacted in 2010 to guard against the next crisis doesn’t solve the issue of systemic risk, Hoenig said. And the world’s central banks continue to be “held hostage” by issues raised in 2008, he said. Exhibit A is the way everyone is worrying that debt problems of one smallish country could reverberate through big banks worldwide – roiling capital markets and threatening a new crisis.

“Dodd-Frank does three things, and it leaves one thing undone – and that is the most significant thing,” Hoenig said. What the financial reform law does:

  • Enhances supervision. “We’ve enhanced supervision after every crisis,” and it hasn’t prevented the next cycle of financial collapses, Hoenig noted.
  • Raises capital standards. But commercial banks used to hold capital around 15% of assets, and now some bankers feel 8% is too onerous a requirement, he said.
  • Mandates a new resolution process. But the next time a giant bank teeters on the brink, the bailout impulse will be as strong as ever, Hoenig said.

What Dodd-Frank leaves undone is addressing “too big to fail,” Hoenig said. The U.S. banking system is more concentrated than ever, and that fact haunts the financial markets, he said.

Hoenig offered a “TBTF” history lesson: In 1913, when the Federal Reserve was created, the five largest U.S. financial institutions managed assets totaling 2½% of the country’s GDP. In the Great Depression, the government created a safety net for banks – FDIC insurance and the like – and barred bank holding companies from speculative activities through the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933.

And it worked, Hoenig said. Banks lent money and cushioned their balance sheets against downturns. Investment banks, kept separate from the safety net, took on leverage and invested in riskier assets for greater returns. The economy grew. Markets did well. While the banks expanded, by 1980 the five biggest still held assets equal to only 14% of GDP. One failure wouldn’t have crashed the system.

That changed after the 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall freed banks to enter other financial services, growing bigger and bigger – and taking on more and more risk. Despite the turmoil of 2007 to 2010, Hoenig said, the banks kept getting bigger.

“Even today, after the crisis, the five largest financial institutions control 20% more assets than before the crisis,” Hoenig said. With the mergers caused by the financial crisis, concentration in U.S. banking has grown to around 60% of GDP.

As one who has lived through weekend “too big to fail” negotiating sessions, Hoenig said, when another giant teeters on the brink the story will be the same. Given the threat that a huge bank failure could lead to collapse in the real economy, he said, “on Sunday evening, before the Asian markets open, you will in fact bail it out.”

Before that next crisis arrives, Hoenig suggested, big U.S. banks should be broken into more manageable pieces – especially, separating commercial banking with its publicly provided safety net from those riskier investment activities in the capital markets. Hoenig laid out more specifics in a speech last month in Philadelphia.

I agree. Let’s dismantle too-big-to-fail before it fails us, again.

© 2011 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Want respect? Get strategic!

June 14, 2011

To gain a seat at the table with senior management, investor relations people must talk their way into helping their companies formulate strategy, George Barrett, chairman and CEO of Cardinal Health, told several hundred IROs today in a keynote address at the 2011 NIRI Annual Conference in Orlando.

“I really do feel that you’ve got to be a part of the strategy process. It’s very difficult for you to just be a voice for it. You need to feel it in your bones,” Barrett said. He urged IROs to “assert yourself,” perhaps by suggesting to the CEO that you can better communicate strategy if you sit in on the team formulating it.

“I view IR as an extension of my ears and my eyes, and this requires strategic fluency,” said Barrett, who joined Cardinal in 2008. “Investor relations must serve as a strategic partner, not just a voice to the Street.”

Barrett said he looks to Cardinal IRO and Senior VP Sally Curley to frame the context for company strategy, convey investors’ perspectives internally to management, and help separate the noise in the market from what’s important to the company.

One question some investors love to ask is “What keeps you up at night?” As CEO of a multifaceted $99 billion healthcare company that distributes pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and other products, Barrett tells it straight …

Here’s the real answer: pretty much everything.

And that’s true of a good IRO, as well.

© 2011 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Raising your profile as an IRO

June 10, 2011

Gaining access to the C-suite is critical for investor relations professionals, both to know what we need to know about the company for effective communication with investors – and to build personal success in our own careers – according to NIRI‘s June/July 2011 issue of IR Update.

The tips and ideas on raising your professional profile apply equally to IROs working in-house and consultants helping from the outside. Pick up your copy from NIRI and read “How Suite It is” (so far, the piece hasn’t appeared online).

Three qualities stand out to me among the several offered as keys to the C-suite:

Contribution. Several IROs and other execs say the key to gaining access to the corner office is to contribute to the business – in more than one way. Beyond doing your IR job well (which is fundamental), get involved with people and projects across various functions that are building value for the company.

Ruth Cotter, VP of IR for Advanced Micro Devices, urges IROs to be proactive:

At that level within the corporate world, they’re not looking for people waiting to be asked to do something. … Look beyond investor relations to garner the attention of your CEO and CFO.

Taking on a formal role in corporate strategy, business development or finance may be a remote aspiration for IROs in large, hierarchical companies. But look around. Often an IR person can informally volunteer to help people in other functions or serve on project teams that reach further into the business. Word gets around, and management recognizes contributions.

Courage. Jeff Henderson, CFO of Cardinal Health, says IR people can earn respect from their CFOs and CEOs by displaying the courage of their convictions:

Perhaps more than most positions in the organization, the IRO must have a certain level of courage – the courage to disagree with senior leaders and challenge their thinking and to say no to constituents at the appropriate time.

IR people can be confident in bringing investors’ feedback to management -after all, saying what will or won’t fly with the owners ought to carry some weight. In addition, the IR professional often brings counsel based on experience and training in communication skills more specific to IR than to the CEO or CFO’s backgrounds.

Credibility. This one, admittedly, is circular. IROs need access to the corner office to build credibility with investors. And IROs need to earn respect among investors to be credible with CEOs and CFOs – because word gets back on how IR is doing.

Charles Strauzer, an independent small cap analyst, suggests IROs have a heart-to-heart talk with their CEOs if they’re not getting ample access. If an IR person has to say “I don’t know” too often, he says, the IRO loses credibility:

Credibility comes from IROs’ access and their willingness to communicate. If they can’t get the access and information, they can’t communicate, and they won’t get the credibility.

A little self-evaluation is a good thing for the IR professional. Do I contribute to the business? Do I have the courage to speak my convictions? Have I built credibility with my main stakeholders, internally and externally? How can I get there?

Recently I heard an institutional investor ask a CEO on a conference call for a self-evaluation of his performance after one year on the job. Then the investor asked the Chairman for his assessment of the CEO and his team. An interesting – and positive – discussion ensued.

Comparing where we are today with where we need to be is how we grow.

© 2011 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.