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Did The Bank Bailout Work?

March 18, 2010 63 comments

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By Marquis Codjia

A few months ago, the crumbling global economy was atop the agenda of many G20 leaders. Social unrest, banking sector meltdown, global growth conundrum, and stock market yo-yos were the main discussion topics among the planetary leadership.

Governments the world over addressed the most imperative issue, the banking pandemonium, with massive cash inflows into a sector that hitherto epitomized capitalism at its best (and worst), with a modus operandi more akin to central intervention in communist economies.

The global tab ranges from 4 to 5 trillion US dollars according to the most optimistic estimates, but the overall costs may run higher in the future.

The financial rescue of the ailing banking sector, in principle, was the right course of action and various experts across the political spectrum saw eye to eye on its criticality, including the staunchest free-market theorizers who routinely treat as leftist energumens out of the antediluvian era those who dare buck conventional wisdom regarding the role of government in social economics.

It was flummoxing, however, to observe how lenient authorities were vis-à-vis banks throughout the bailout process on top of the very favorable terms under which funds were disbursed. Hence, financial institutions that benefited from state largesse were able to quickly use monies received to regain profitability and reimburse their respective governments.

Other parts of the economy didn’t experience so swift a recovery. Unemployment is still high; the mortgage sector is still in a shambles. Banks have been reluctant to lend, creating an underperforming productive sector and a lethargic private consumption. The stock market may be up but, debatably, the “real economy” is still down.

Banks played a crucial role in the current economic malaise, but anti-bailout commentators were wrong to vilify them and to affirm that such guilt should have precluded public rescue. Financial intermediaries are an epochal pillar of our post-modern economies, and it would have been socio-economically ruinous and politically unpalatable to let them sink.

Admittedly, a majority of banks are today more cash awash and profitable than a year ago albeit some pockets of the industry are still comatose owing to the liquidity hemorrhage that has devastated them since the recession erupted.

Regrettably, nothing has changed. These institutions are resorting again to the erstwhile practices that wrought havoc to the economy in the first place, under the aegis of a regulatory body eerily blind, deaf and tongue-tied.

Banks, evidently, should be encouraged to pursue and make profits as any private concern. But when such a financial quest comes at the expense of an entire system or poses a systemic threat to the productive sector of the economy, the argument in favor of tougher regulation becomes of preeminent import.

Companies need to utilize hedging for exposure control; yet, speculators lately seem to use derivatives to bet against their very benefactors. Although outrageous to vast swaths of the populace, such practices are explicable if one considers that the speculating camp only furthers private interests of elites (their investors) who seldom factor morality into the profitability equation.

Case in point: Greece. The Hellenic government bailed out its banking sector with billions of dollars only to see their country downgraded a few months later because of a perceived default risk.

At this moment, elected officials and central bankers should ponder the following question: did the bailout work? Or, stated differently, did the mammoth cash infusion into banks and the associated supplemental initiatives reach the initial goals?

Seasoned economists and social scientists will grapple amply with issues regarding program effectiveness and efficiency in the future, but prominent experts currently believe the answers to such interrogations are negative. George Mason University economist Peter Boettke posited that bank bailouts have created a “cycle of debt, deficits and government expansion” that in the end “will be economically crippling” to major economies, whereas Barry Ritholtz, famed author of Bailout Nation and CEO of research firm FusionIQ, thinks the rescue programs could have been conducted better.

It can be argued that the initial rescue phase of the bailout program was effectual in that it helped avert a domestic and global banking hubbub. But, contrary to popular credence, that was the easiest part. The courageous headship of political leaders and regulators cannot be underrated in the process, but it is indisputably far facile for a powerful central bank, like the US Federal Reserve, to make journal entries to the credit of targeted institutions and replenish their corporate coffers via the much celebrated “quantitative easing”.

The Fed, just like other G8 central banks, is in an enviable position because it can create money ‘out of nothing’ by increasing the credit in its own bank account. Ask current Greek Central Bank governor George Provopoulous whether he’d like to have such latitude.

Regulation is where actual political bravery need be shown from authorities, and so far the lack of sweeping reforms in the financial sector may obliterate the latter’s plodding recovery.

At present, there are five distinct reasons explicating the mediocre results obtained so far from the bailout scheme.

First, the much needed financial overhaul is taking longer to move up the legislative ladder and reach US President Barack Obama’s desk because not only financial lobbies – such as the über-powerful American Bankers Association – are exerting strong pressure,  the political agenda is also crowded out with the pressing healthcare reform and the geostrategic concerns linked to conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The fact that Senate Banking chief Chris Dodd, D-Conn., wants to introduce reform in the sector will probably change little in the short-term.

Second, President Obama’s own senior level financial staff is composed of former Wall Street alumni and lobbyists, and many skeptics are incredulous that a clique so tied to financial interests can spearhead true reforms in an industry that was previously munificent to them.

The next two factors are endogenous to the banking industry. One is the past experience of regulation and deregulation cycles that usually make laws dissipate over time, and the other stems from the idiosyncratic ability of financial engineers and investment bankers to design new products and techniques to counter existing laws.

Finally, the regulatory endeavor should be global in scope, and the present lack of geographic cooperation and the practical difficulty to track systemic risk within the industry are currently handicapping further advances.

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From Wall Street to Dubai – The Lucrative Idiosyncrasies of Islamic Banking

March 4, 2010 59 comments

Religious limitations within Islamic jurisprudence have kept Islamic banks more cash awash than their risk-taking Western counterparts after the recent economic hubbub, but gradual reforms need to take place for the industry as a whole to experience a structurally sustained positive growth in the future.

By Marquis Codjia

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A supranational symposium of key financial players took place recently (March 2nd and 3rd, 2010) at the posh King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center on the shores of the Dead Sea, circa 25 miles southwest from Amman, Jordan.

The event received trifling media interest from major western news outlets; however, behemoths in the global banking industry were closely eyeing pivotal decisions that may be announced in the final communiqué.

They were right to do so.

The gathering, the first Islamic Finance and Investment Forum for the Middle East, occurred in economically healthy and politically stable Jordan – a prominent ally of the West in a geostrategically susceptible region, – which enjoys the highest quality of life in the Middle East and North Africa Region, according to the 2010 Quality of Life Index prepared by International Living Magazine.

Another essential factor to heed lies in the fact that participants were among the crème de la crème of the Islamic financial marketplace, a group of over 350 bankers and experts from 15 countries that are spearheading transformational shifts in an economic sector likely to experience solid growth in the foreseeable future.

A bird’s eye view of Islamic banking is utile to fathom the industry’s core dynamics.

Islamic banking – and to a larger extent, Islamic finance – is deeply rooted in Islamic economics and quintessentially governed by Sharia, a legislative corpus that encapsulates the religious precepts of Islam.

Sharia or its financial section known as Fiqh al-Muamalat (Islamic rules on transactions) allows financial intermediaries to engage in any form of economic activity so long as they don’t charge interest (Riba) and shun businesses implicated in forbidden (Haraam) undertakings.

Sharia strongly furthers risk sharing among investors and economic transactions collateralized by tangible assets such as land or machinery but outlaw derivative financial instruments.

A derivative instrument is a product that derives its value from other financial instruments (known as the underlying), events or conditions. It is mostly utilized for hedging risk or speculating for profit. The recent turmoil in global capital markets and the ensuing socio-economic pandemonium owe much of their existence to a type of derivative called Credit Default Swap (CDS).

Viewpoints alien to the Muslim world may find Sharia restrictions deleterious for sustained economic development because what Muslim jurisprudence defines as vice (gambling, adult filmography, alcohol, etc.) not only plays a vital role in many countries’ GDPs but is also an arguable social and temporal concept.     

Notwithstanding, a plethora of observers now contend that constraints within Islamic finance have successfully shielded Sharia-compliant institutions from the recent economic meltdown while keeping their coffers cash awash.

Several factors support a potential Islamic finance boom, including skyrocketing deposits from denizens of oil-rich populated countries, numerous infrastructure projects and the emergence of a large middle class.

UK-based International Financial Services London estimates that Sharia-abiding assets have grown by 35% to $951 billion between 2007 and 2008, even though the industry “paused for breath” in 2009 amid the ongoing economic lethargy.

According to Mohammad Abu Hammour, Jordan’s minister of finance, the Islamic banking sector witnesses an annual growth rate of 10-15 % and there are currently over 300 Islamic banks in more than 50 countries, with large concentrations noted in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.

Most of those banks and financial intermediaries are owned by native shareholders but growing swaths of the Islamic banking sphere are being populated by specialized sections of “ordinary” full-service Western banks.

HSBC Amanah, the Islamic finance arm of HSBC, is an illustration of that trend.

Islamic banking is highly profitable and the heightened foreign interest conspicuously corroborates the notion that the industry is bound to expand once emerging nations within the Muslim world are willing and able to use their gigantic cash reserves to structurally develop core sectors of their economies.

Nonetheless, many pending issues are still crippling the Islamic finance sector and prevent it from exceeding the 1% share it currently holds in global banking business.

The first relates to the need for Islamic banks to devise risk-hedging strategies – especially those engaging in cross-currency transactions – and instruments that are compliant with regulatory precepts. Specialists within the industry have to be creative because derivatives, a major hedging tool, are prohibited by Sharia. Progress in that area is still timid.

Second, Islamic scholars need to devise and inculcate a homogenous body of legislation to financial agents to avoid asymmetric disadvantage in the marketplace. The immensity of such a task cannot be underrated because Islam has multiple schools of thought and divergent interpretations of certain religious precepts can often turn out to be insurmountable stumbling blocks.

Sunni Islam is the largest branch of Islam with at least 85% of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims although the endogenous variety of schools of thoughts often creates a diversity of views.

If a bank located in Sunni Saudi Arabia finds itself at a regulatory disadvantage versus an Iranian bank ruled by the precepts of Shiite Islam or a financial institution in Kharijite Oman, then evidently fundamental market disequilibria will emerge.

Third, the sector needs to harmonize practices to grow. Uniformity is needed not only in regulatory oversight but also in accounting and risk standards, both internally (within the Islamic world) and externally (vis-à-vis Western or other regional financial zones). A practical example will be to seek compliance with I.F.R.S. (International Financial Reporting Standards) and Basel II Banking Accords.

Finally, Islamic banks will need to engage in a sophisticated, well-targeted communication campaign aimed at educating skeptical U.S. and E.U. regulators (primarily), as well as prospective clients in the Western hemisphere. This effort will be pivotal in shifting public perception of the quality and positioning of their products and services and in expunging the stigma that erstwhile (and current) geopolitical happenings may have placed on the “Islamic brand”.


Dr. Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips on Interest and Islamic Banking

Competitive Asymmetry vs. Corporate Strategy: The Perilous Nexus in a Treacherous Chasm

February 19, 2010 64 comments

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by Marquis Codjia



In the past, corporate strategists sought to maximize overall firm profitability by devising the best modus operandi that will help achieve results efficiently and effectively. Such a strategy routinely took advantage of the endogenous analogies of a homogenous market or geographic zone, such as culture, regulatory landscape, uniformity in fiscal or monetary policies, and socio-political affinity.

This system of similarities was observed in North America between Canada and the United States, in Western Europe prior to the Schengen Accords that led to higher economic integration within the European federation, and Japan within its Asian economic and geopolitical fiefdom. It has proven very fruitful for many a company because the strategic proximity afforded them lower implementation costs and higher profitability.

Nowadays, globalization along with its cohort of uncertainties is rebalancing the economic landscape and swinging the strategic pendulum in unlikely whereabouts. Globalization forces companies to review their tactical practices because of inherent execution difficulties in cross-cultural environments.

Tactics ought not to be mixed up with strategy. The former deals with detailed maneuvers to achieve aims set by the latter.

The need to control and instill a grain of homogeneity in the global marketplace has forced Western governments – mainly – to found organizations that will promote anti-protectionist measures and greater legislative coordination in world’s business. World Trade Organizations (WTC), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and Eurozone are examples of such institutions or zones.

Though these international bodies have help catapult capitalistic free-trade as the preferred ethos, they have proven ineffective at creating a common economic environment in which corporations can engineer the same strategy to achieve their goals across geographical zones or markets.

This failure is due to the complex continuum of events taking place daily in the global arena that forces corporate leaders to include new factors in their strategy matrices.

A strategy matrix indicates how effectively a business entity can achieve profitability by juxtaposing such factors as store location, operating procedures, goods/services offered, pricing tactics, store atmosphere and customer services, and promotional methods.

New factors to be added to the mix are diverse and intricate; hence, an exhaustive analytical list cannot be within the purview of this paper. Some emerging trends relate to online marketing, higher government intervention, shareholder activism, military deals with domestic or foreign vendors, terrorism and war effects, and intellectual property theft.

Business leaders usually lump some of these issues in several corporate functions: risk management, government relations, regulatory, marketing, human resources, etc., and address them at higher echelons only when their magnitude dictates executive decision-making.

This approach is erroneous because it fails to recognize the systemic pedigree of corporate strategy and the notion that it must include all risks and objectives across the organization to be successful. The threats cited earlier are complex and diverse, and they usually change market equilibria by permitting, for instance, small firms to compete against larger rivals in markets they once couldn’t have penetrated.

This is the reason why I ascribe the concept of “competitive asymmetry” to this new phenomenon.

Numerous news headlines illustrate competitive asymmetry in the market. Western luxury brands are nowadays faced with fierce competition from “made in China” faked items, while American pharmaceutical mammoths like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson observe powerlessly patent-protected pills being fraudulently transformed into generics in India. Another example is activist investor Carl Icahn confronting Time Warner’s management and demanding a change in corporate strategy or organizational structure (segment divestiture, merger, acquisition, etc.).

Other instances include Boeing filing a contract protest with the US Government Accountability Office after it lost a military deal to Northrop Grumman Corp and Europe’s EADS or fast-food giant McDonald losing an eight-year trademark battle to stop Malaysian Indian McCurry Restaurant from using the “Mc” trademark.

These trends are obviously deleterious for most firms within the western hemisphere because that asymmetric rivalry deprives them of the profits their R&D investment must have normally secured over a large time span. The threat is coming principally from emerging and underdeveloped countries because now mature European, American and Japanese markets no longer offer maximal growth prospects and enjoy a legal environment that disincentivizes intellectual property malpractice.

Major companies cannot underestimate the criticality of these emerging trends because they not only stand to lose market share at home but also see their profits eroded in those international markets where growth rates are healthier.

I’ll end with some geoeconomics questions: how will Google’s recent infuriation at China affect the firm’s country strategy given that the current 300 million Chinese computer users constitute a less ignorable niche? What about its overall Asia strategy? Will business prevail over politics? Will Google’s potential exit from the Chinese market propel rival Baidu to domestic and global supremacy? How will that affect the firm strategy with respect to launching other products in a country with 1.3 billion customers? How will this affect Google’s overall profit line?

My Special Letter to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

February 11, 2010 22 comments

Lettre en français

Dear Madiba,

Prayfully this missive will find you in good spirits.
Today, February 11th 2010 marks the 20th year of liberty.
Liberty for you from 27 years in jail,
Liberty for the millions of your brothers and sisters,
The millions of your sons and daughters,
The millions of your grandsons and granddaughters,
The millions of your grand-grandsons and grand-granddaughters,
Who were enslaved in poverty only because of the melanin in their blood.

Baba, how are you? Where are you these days? What are you doing?
Contemplating the slow evolution of your country?
The world we live in?
Is this what you envisioned for modern South Africa?
Is Apartheid over?
20 years later, your country is governed by black elites,

The intelligentsia you groomed so painstakingly,
They are doing their best to rule a aching nation,
Fighting social evils wherever they can.

Madiba, is this what you foresaw?
The country is torn and needs healing.
Large swaths of the populace are still hurting.
A villain named AIDS is killing everyday,
Sons and daughters are being lost to oblivion,
While some of your political heirs are squandering huge time irrelevantly
Violence is rampant and it murders the very core of our societies.

Madiba, is this what your imagined?
South Africa is growing slowly, steadily and surely.
But the economy is still in the hands of a few,
The same few that held it before you were jailed,
The same few that held it before you were released,
While the mass is suffering from human greed and slow decimation
A new few also became wealthier than you can think,
And will be next generation power brokers.

Madiba, your country is crying,
Your continent is suffering from forces within and outer
Would you give them a bit of your rare wisdom?
Would you tell the world, so laudatory to you, that time has come for action?
Would you tell your African counterparts to let go of their massive military ego?
Would you please do that?

Would you…?