How U.S. Banks Took Over the World

A decade ago, they almost brought down the global financial system. Now they rule it.

When two of Europe’s corporate titans sat down to negotiate a merger this year, they called American banks.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles hired Goldman Sachs Group Inc. as its lead adviser. France’s Renault SA hired a boutique bank stacked with Goldman alumni. In a deal that would reshape Europe’s auto industry, the continental banks that had sustained Fiat and Renault for more than a century were muscled aside by a pair of Wall Street deal makers.

A decade after fueling a crisis that nearly brought down the global financial system, America’s banks are ruling it. They earned 62% of global investment-banking fees last year, up from 53% in 2011, according to Coalition, an industry data provider. Last year, U.S. banks took home $7 of every $10 in merger fees, $6 of every $10 in stock commissions, and $6 of every $10 paid to hold and move corporate cash.

urope’s banks are smaller, less profitable and beating a hasty retreat from Wall Street.

From their central perch in London and with close ties to developing countries, Europe’s banks were primed to benefit as financial services went global. They charged onto Wall Street in the 1990s and pressed their advantage as U.S. banks limped out of the 2008 crisis.

Then, “they handed the whole system on a platter to the Americans,” said Colm Kelleher, the Irish-born former Morgan Stanley executive.

Coming out of the crisis, U.S. banks quickly raised capital and shed risk, unpleasant tasks that Europeans put off. American businesses recovered quickly, and its consumers are eager to borrow and spend. A tax cut in 2018 boosted profits. Interest rates have risen.

Meanwhile in Europe, regional economies are sputtering and borrowing has slowed.

Central bankers have cut interest rates below zero, which leaves banks struggling to eke out a profit on loans. Banking policy in Europe remains fractured, with national and continental regulators pursuing often conflicting agendas.

“It is not our remit to promote national, or even European, champions,” said Andrea Enria, the European Central Bank’s top banking regulator.

Twenty-five years ago, European banks charged into the U.S. They bought storied firms like Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette and Wasserstein Perella and dangled big paydays for rainmakers. When Deutsche Bank announced a $10 billion takeover of Bankers Trust in 1998, it promised at least $400 million in bonuses to retain top bankers.

The challenges of merging a conservative European commercial lender and a U.S. derivatives shop gave competitors pause. Goldman’s CEO, Hank Paulson, shared his doubts with a hotel ballroom of his bankers: Deutsche Bank “just signed up for 10 years of pain,” attendees remember him saying.

Henry Paulson is sworn in as Treasury secretary by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in 2006. Before he headed the Treasury, he ran Goldman Sachs. PHOTO: JIM YOUNG/REUTERS

But in an era of cheap debt and light regulation, the land grab seemed to pay off. Deutsche Bank had a $3 trillion balance sheet in 2007 and that year earned twice as much as Bank of America Corp. in securities-trading. Royal Bank of Scotland was briefly the largest bank in the world, wielding a balance sheet bigger than Britain’s entire economy.

Even the financial crisis looked at first like an opportunity. When Barclays PLC bought Lehman Brothers in a fire sale, it got 10,000 of the firm’s U.S. bankers and few of its bad debts. On Lehman’s Times Square trading floor, the loudspeakers played “God Save The Queen.” Deutsche Bank pounced on Wall Street’s clients.

The high-water mark was in 2011, when global investment-banking fees were roughly split between European and U.S. firms.

The good times didn’t last. A 2012 sovereign-debt crisis across the continent put new pressure on the region’s biggest banks. Economic growth slowed across the continent. Central bankers turned interest rates negative in 2014. German media calls them “Strafzinsen,” translating roughly to “penalty rates.”

UBS slashed 10,000 jobs and cut big parts of its trading operation. Royal Bank of Scotland fired thousands of investment bankers and sold its U.S. retail arm to focus on the U.K. Three-quarters of the Lehman bankers Barclays picked up in 2008 were gone within five years, according to Financial Industry Regulatory Authority records.

Meanwhile, U.S. banks were quietly encroaching on European rivals’ territory. In 2009, JPMorgan completed an acquisition of Cazenove, the U.K. investment bank. Every year since 2014, JPMorgan has generated more investment-banking revenue across Europe than anyone else, according to Dealogic. (The London-listed owner of Peppa Pig, a British cartoon character, hired JPMorgan Cazenove to advise on its sale in August to U.S. toy giant Hasbro Inc. )

As U.S. banks got stronger and their European rivals weakened, client loyalties began to change.

Today’s companies are increasingly global. They make more of their money in the U.S. and have swapped a shareholder register stacked with old-line European families and trusts for the likes of BlackRock Inc. and other U.S. investment giants, where Wall Street banks are better connected. The percentage of U.K. companies’ stock owned by foreigners rose from 16% in 1994 to 53% in 2016, according to government statistics.

Fiat, the Italian car maker that pursued a tie-up with France’s Renault this year, makes two-thirds of its money in the U.S.,  where it owns Chrysler. Its shots are called by John Elkann, the New York-born scion of the family that founded Fiat in 1899.

One of Mr. Elkann’s closest advisers is a Goldman Sachs banker who for the past 15 years has organized a yearly gathering of European billionaire business owners, according to people who have attended. They swap stories, share advice and, more often than not, hire Goldman for deals.

Globalization has cost the Europeans not just on headline-grabbing mergers, but in the everyday business of managing money for clients. Deliveroo, a food-delivery startup based in the U.K., sought to ramp up in Europe and the Middle East. Instead of hiring local banks in each market, it consolidated its money flows with Citigroup , which has local licenses in 98 countries and a global digital platform.

JPMorgan has made a big push to expand transaction banking for European clients. In 2010 it established a new unit of global bankers to pitch day-to-day transaction services to big companies, and later took over dozens of European transaction relationships from RBS.

UBS’s Stamford, Conn., trading floor in 2005. It was able to accommodate 1,400 traders and staff. PHOTO: RICK FRIEDMAN/CORBIS/GETTY IMAGES

Most recently JPMorgan said it is extending its commercial banking business globally, targeting hundreds of midsize businesses across Europe. It has sought to take on a more local flavoring, doing things like sponsoring math-and-science programs for students in France, Germany and Italy.

Last year, Citigroup and JPMorgan were two of the three biggest providers of day-to-day transaction banking globally, along with Britain’s HSBC Holdings PLC, according to Coalition. U.S. banks accounted for 57% of the global transaction-banking revenue pool among the biggest banks in that business, versus 22% for Europeans, Coalition said.

Self-Fulfilling Financial Crises

Many mistaken assumptions about the 2008 financial crisis remain in circulation. As long as policymakers believe the crisis was rooted in the housing bubble rather than human psychology, another crisis will be inevitable.

.. Recall that by mid-2008, home prices had returned to, or even fallen below, levels supported by their underlying fundamentals, and employment and production in the residential construction industry had declined to levels far below trend. The work of rebalancing asset valuations and reallocating economic resources across sectors had already been accomplished.
.. To be sure, there still would have been around $750 billion worth of financial-asset losses in the form of defaults on subprime mortgages and home-equity loans. But that is only one-quarter of what global equity markets lost in seven hours on October 19, 1987. In other words, it would not have been enough to sink the global financial system.
.. Ben Bernanke, then Chair of the US Federal Reserve, seemed confident in the summer of 2008 that the correction in housing prices had not triggered any unmanageable financial crisis. At the time, he was mainly focused on the dangers of rising inflation.
.. And then the bottom fell out. The reason, Gennaioli and Shleifer show, is that beliefs changed.
  • Investors came to believe that financial markets were saddled with highly elevated risk, owing to a number of factors.
  • The interbank market had seized up,
  • homeowners were defaulting on their mortgages,
  • Bear Stearns had collapsed,
  • the US Treasury had intervened to rein in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and, above all,
  • Lehman Brothers had declared bankruptcy.
.. All of this led to the sudden run on both the shadow and non-shadow banking systems, as investors scrambled to dump assets. The increased risk that they had imputed to the system became a reality.
.. And yet nothing about the fallout from the crisis was inevitable. Had the Fed been in possession of contingency plans for putting too-big-to-fail institutions into receivership and becoming the risk-bearer of last resort, we would probably be living in a very different world today.
.. Gennaioli and Shleifer’s second important contribution is to show that “crises of beliefs” like the one that precipitated the disaster of 2008-2009 are deeply rooted in human psychology, so much so that we will never be free of them.
.. Crises of belief are manifestations of a chronic condition that must be managed.
.. When fundamental beliefs have shifted permanently, one should not expect the same policy mix that supported full employment, low inflation, and balanced growth before the crisis to do so afterwards.
.. For a decade now, people have been looking for a silver lining to the disasters of 2008-2018, hoping that this period will bring about a more productive integration of finance, behavioral economics, and macroeconomic orthodoxy. So far, they have been searching in vain. But with the publication of A Crisis of Beliefs, there is hope yet.

A Decade After Bear’s Collapse, the Seeds of Instability Are Germinating Again

A big financial-firm collapse in near future is exceedingly unlikely, but another crisis isn’t

.. Bear and Lehman were the manifestation of deeper economic forces that since the 1970s have produced crises roughly every decade. They are still at work today: ample flows of capital across borders, mounting debts owed by governments, corporations and households, and ultralow interest rates that nurture risk-taking in hidden corners of the economy.

By the early 1980s, though, deregulation had allowed capital to flow freely within and across borders and crises became a regular occurrence: the Latin American debt crisis that began in 1982,

  • the U.S. commercial real estate and savings and loan crisis of the 1980s,
  • the Asian and Russian financial crisis of 1997-98,
  • the dot-com bubble of 1998-2000,
  • the U.S. mortgage crisis of 2007-2009 and
  • the European sovereign debt crisis of 2009-2013

.. Bear was both facilitator and victim of a housing bubble inflated by low interest rates and huge inflows of foreign capital—a “global saving glut” as then-Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke put it.

.. It arranged mortgages that financed the housing bubble while borrowing heavily with short-term IOUs.

.. When those mortgages went bad, Bear’s creditors yanked their funds—a de facto run on the bank.

Most of the regulatory effort since has been to ensure the largest financial institutions such asJPMorgan Chase & Co., which bought Bear Stearns in a fire sale brokered by the Fed, don’t succumb to anything similar:

  • thicker buffers of capital to absorb losses,
  • more reserves of cash and liquid assets to pay off skittish creditors,
  • restrictions on trading and compensation that incentivize risk-taking, and
  • new procedures for winding down failing institutions without taxpayer bailout or a chaotic bankruptcy.

Hyun Song Shin, research chief at the Bank for International Settlements, warned in a 2014 speech against the tendency to “focus on known past weaknesses rather than asking where the new dangers are.”

.. bond markets are growing at the expense of banks in supplying credit, enabling business and government debt loads in many countries to surpass their precrisis peaks.

.. Emerging markets have borrowed heavily in dollars, which leaves them vulnerable should the dollar’s value rise sharply

.. Total U.S. debt, at around 250% of GDP, still stands at crisis-era peaks while debt levels in China have caught up and passed the U.S.

.. Crises surprise because they usually start with an assumption so sensible that everyone acts on it, planting the seeds of its own undoing:

  • in 1982 that countries like Mexico don’t default;
  • in 1997 that Asia’s fixed exchange rates wouldn’t break;
  • in 2007 that housing prices never declined nationwide; and
  • in 2011 that euro members wouldn’t default.

.. the equivalent today might be, “We will never see higher inflation or higher growth.” If either in fact occurs, the low interest rates that have raised household stock and property wealth to an all-time high relative to disposable income won’t be sustainable.

.. A 1.5 to 2 percentage point increase in real interest rates, which he isn’t forecasting, would be small by historical standards but could potentially make the debts of Italy or Portugal unsustainable.

.. Central banks know this, of course, which is one reason they are wary of raising interest rates too quickly—while nervous that if they raise them too slowly, the problem will get worse.