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Analysis: Carmakers wake up to new pecking order as chip crunch intensifies

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Analysis: Carmakers wake up to new pecking order as chip crunch intensifies 1

By Douglas Busvine and Christoph Steitz

BERLIN (Reuters) – The semiconductor crunch that has battered the auto sector leaves carmakers with a stark choice: pay up, stock up or risk getting stuck on the sidelines as chipmakers focus on more lucrative business elsewhere.

Car manufacturers including Volkswagen, Ford and General Motors have cut output as the chip market was swept clean by makers of consumer electronics such as smartphones – the chip industry’s preferred customers because they buy more advanced, higher-margin chips.

The semiconductor shortage – over $800 worth of silicon is packed into a modern electric vehicle – has exposed the disconnect between an auto industry spoilt by decades of just-in-time deliveries and an electronics industry supply chain it can no longer bend to its will.

“The car sector has been used to the fact that the whole supply chain is centred around cars,” said McKinsey partner Ondrej Burkacky. “What has been overlooked is that semiconductor makers actually do have an alternative.”

Automakers are responding to the shortage by lobbying governments to subsidize the construction of more chip-making capacity.

In Germany, Volkswagen has pointed the finger at suppliers, saying it gave them timely warning last April – when much global car production was idled due to the coronavirus pandemic – that it expected demand to recover strongly in the second half of the year.

That complaint by the world’s No.2 volume carmaker cuts little ice with chipmakers, who say the auto industry is both quick to cancel orders in a slump and to demand investment in new production in a recovery.

“Last year we had to furlough staff and bear the cost of carrying idle capacity,” said a source at one European semiconductor maker, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“If the carmakers are asking us to invest in new capacity, can they please tell us who will pay for that idle capacity in the next downturn?”

LOW-TECH CUSTOMER

The auto industry spends around $40 billion a year on chips – about a tenth of the global market. By comparison, Apple spends more on chips just to make its iPhones, Mirabaud tech analyst Neil Campling reckons.

Moreover, the chips used in cars tend to be basic products such as micro controllers made under contract at older foundries – hardly the leading-edge production technology in which chipmakers would be willing to invest.

“The suppliers are saying: ‘If we continue to produce this stuff there is nowhere else for it to go. Sony isn’t going to use it for a Playstation 5 or Apple for its next iPhone’,” said Asif Anwar at Strategy Analytics.

Chipmakers were surprised by the panicked reaction of the German car industry, which persuaded Economy Minister Peter Altmaier to write a letter in January to his counterpart in Taiwan to ask its semiconductor makers to supply more chips.

No extra supplies were forthcoming, with one German industry source joking that the Americans stood a better chance of getting more chips from Taiwan because they could at least park an aircraft carrier off the coast – referring to the ability of the United States to project power in Asia.

Closer to home, a source at another European chipmaker expressed disbelief at the poor understanding at one carmaker of how it operates.

“We got a call from one auto maker that was desperate for supply. They said: Why don’t you run a night shift to increase production?” this person said.

“What they didn’t understand is that we have been running a night shift since the beginning.”

NO QUICK FIX

While Infineon, the leading supplier of chips to the global auto industry, and Robert Bosch, the top ‘Tier 1’ parts supplier, both plan to commission new chip plants this year, there is little chance of supply shortages easing soon.

Specialist chipmakers like Infineon outsource some production of automotive chips to contract manufacturers led by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd (TSMC), but the Asian foundries are currently prioritising high-end electronics makers as they come up against capacity constraints.

Over the longer term, the relationship between chip makers and the car industry will become closer as electric vehicles are more widely adopted and features such as assisted and autonomous driving develop, requiring more advanced chips.

But, in the short term, there is no quick fix for the lack of chip supply: IHS Markit estimates that the time it takes to deliver a microcontroller has doubled to 26 weeks and shortages will only bottom out in March.

That puts the production of 1 million light vehicles at risk in the first quarter, says IHS Markit. European chip industry executives and analysts agree that supply will not catch up with demand until later in the year.

Chip shortages are having a “snowball effect” as auto makers idle some capacity to prioritize building profitable models, said Anwar at Strategy Analytics, who forecasts a drop in car production in Europe and North America of 5%-10% in 2021.

The head of Franco-Italian chipmaker STMicroelectronics, Jean-Marc Chery, forecasts capacity constraints will affect carmakers until mid-year.

“Up to the end of the second quarter, the industry will have to manage at the lean inventory level,” Chery told a recent Goldman Sachs conference.

(Douglas Busvine from Berlin and Christoph Steitz from Frankfurt; Additional reporting by Mathieu Rosemain and Gilles Gillaume in Paris; Editing by Susan Fenton)

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Aussie and sterling hit multi-year highs on recovery bets

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Aussie and sterling hit multi-year highs on recovery bets 2

By Tommy Wilkes

LONDON (Reuters) – The Australian dollar rose to near a three-year high and the British pound scaled $1.40 for the first time since 2018 on optimism about economic rebounds in the two countries and after the U.S. dollar was knocked by disappointing jobs data.

The U.S. currency had been rising in recent days as a jump in Treasury yields on the back of the so-called reflation trade drew investors. But an unexpected increase in U.S. weekly jobless claims soured the economic outlook and sent the dollar lower overnight.

On Friday it traded down 0.3% against a basket of currencies, with the dollar index at 90.309.

The Aussie rose 0.8% to $0.784, its highest since March 2018. The currency, which is closely linked to commodity prices and the outlook for global growth, has been helped by a recent rally in commodity prices.

The New Zealand dollar also gained, and was not far off a more than two-year high, while the Canadian dollar rose too.

Sterling rose to $1.4009 on Friday, an almost three-year high amid Britain’s aggressive vaccination programme.

Given the size of Britain’s vital services sector, analysts say the faster it can reopen the economy, the better for the currency. Sterling was also helped by better-than-expected purchasing managers index flash survey data for February.

The U.S. dollar has been weighed down by a string of soft labour data, even as other indicators have shown resilience, and as President Joe Biden’s pandemic relief efforts take shape, including a proposed $1.9 trillion spending package.

Despite the recent rise in U.S. yields, many analysts think they won’t climb too much higher, limiting the benefit for the dollar.

“Our view remains that the Fed will hold the line and remain very cautious about tapering asset purchases. We think it will keep communicating that tightening is very far off, which should dampen pro-dollar sentiment,” said UBS Global Wealth Management strategist Gaétan Peroux and analyst Tilmann Kolb.

ING analysts said “the rise in rates will be self-regulating, meaning the dollar need not correct too much higher”.

They see the greenback index trading down to the 90.10 to 91.05 range.

U.S. dollar

Aussie and sterling hit multi-year highs on recovery bets 3

The euro rose 0.4% to $1.2134. The single currency showed little reaction to purchasing manager index data, which showed a slowdown in business activity in February. However, factories had their busiest month in three years, buoying sentiment.

The dollar bought 105.39 yen, down 0.3% and a continued retreat from the five-month high of 106.225 reached Wednesday.

(Editing by Hugh Lawson and Pravin Char)

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Will COVID Finally Give Big Banks Their Direction?

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Will COVID Finally Give Big Banks Their Direction? 4

By Shreya Jain

If the recently finished 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we’d do well to re-evaluate the way things usually work. And in a world, that is still struggling to its feet after a tumultuous year, one can look around and notice that some pieces of reality have played musical chairs: social activities once regarded as keystones of public life are now greeted with deep suspicion, even fear; previously stable industries are on life support; and minimum wage employees suddenly bear the mantle of “essential workers” despite few immediate benefits of this increased responsibility.

Life, in other words, is not behaving as usual. And neither are the banks.

According to FDIC data, a record $2 trillion[1] has been deposited in U.S. banks since the coronavirus first struck the U.S. in January. More than 5.2 million[2] loans were issued by banks participating in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to keep several businesses afloat during the COVID-19 induced pandemic. This is the primary role of banks – to accept deposits and to grant loans.

In a direct juxtaposition to this primary role, if we look at the sources of revenue for banks to determine its role, especially during crisis, it however tells a story of banking institutions deviating from their primary role.

Consider the revenue distribution for a few top banks (Fig. 1):

Will COVID Finally Give Big Banks Their Direction? 5

Fig. 1: Composition of total revenue in 2019 H1 and 2020 H1

For all three of these banks, an increasing percentage of total revenues has been coming from the Investment Banking division, primarily driven by the Fixed Income Market.

In fact, in the most recent Dodd-Frank Stress Tests (DFAST), Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are ordered to hold the most capital of all the 34 firms tested- 13.6% and 13.2%[3] respectively. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have particularly high stress buffers because of the nature of the Fed’s exams, which put extra pressure on banks that rely heavily on capital markets; Goldman Sachs also has their decision to maintain dividends.

There is an intriguing question in all this – one made easier by recent developments.

“Should Banks be in a Growth Business?”

Will COVID Finally Give Big Banks Their Direction? 6There are a number of sources to draw from for a possible answer. We have a number of lessons from the past. The Glass-Steagall Act is a 1933 law that separated investment banking from retail banking. By separating the two, retail banks were prohibited from using depositors’ funds for risky investments. Only 10% of their income could come from selling securities. They could underwrite government bonds. [4]

However, the banking industry soon objected that the act was too restrictive. They believed they could not compete with foreign financial firms offering higher returns as the U.S. banks could only invest in low-risk securities. They wanted to increase returns while lowering overall risk for their customers by diversifying their business.

The most audacious move was when Citicorp and Travelers Group — a commercial bank and financial services company, respectively – merged to create Citigroup Inc. It was an unforeseen event that took the financial world aback for a number of reasons – not least of which was that such a move was technically illegal. But Glass-Steagall had a number of exploitable loopholes. This was just one possible outcome.

On November 12, 1999, President Clinton signed the Financial Services Modernization Act that repealed Glass-Steagall. This consolidated investment and retail banks through financial holding companies.[5] , creating new entities supervised by the Federal Reserve. For that reason, only a few banks took advantage of the Glass-Steagall repeal. Most Wall Street banks did not want the additional supervision and capital requirements.

Those that did take advantage became “too big to fail”.

The Bigger They Are…

The focus today on “Growth” above and beyond what would otherwise be allowed under Glass Stegall Act has been worrisome. The thirty-four participants in the severely adverse scenario of this year’s Dodd-Frank Stress Tests (DFAST) estimated their risk-based Common Equity Tier 1 (CET1) capital ratio would trough to 9.9%, from an end-2019 amount of 12%. In the worst-case scenario –assuming a W-shaped recession where the US is hammered by a second wave of the illness– banks’ aggregate CET1 ratios are projected to plummet to 7.7% after taking $680 billion of loan losses.

While it’s true that banks with trading focus have fared better recently due to an unusual rally in the stock market, there is still some cause for concern. Should that rally turn into a correction or a crash, the FED- and ultimately the American taxpayers – could have to actually bailout these too-big-to fail banks.

 A New York Fed paper, using data for more than 200 banks in 45 countries, found that banks classified by rating agencies as “more likely to receive government support” engage in more risk-taking. Moreover, the label of “too big to fail” and passing stress tests may create a false sense of security for large banks, thus encouraging them to continue taking risks with depositors’ money. Said differently, banks engaging in riskier behaviour are also more likely to take advantage of potential government support. Figure 2 shows that Banks with a higher probability of government support (as indicated by support rating floors – NF to AA-AA indicating increasing likelihood of government support) also have more trading assets on average.[6]

Will COVID Finally Give Big Banks Their Direction? 7

Fig 2: Summary Statistics of Bank’s Balance Sheet by Support Rating Floors

The support itself is not seen as bearing great future results either. The paper shows that following an increase in government support, we see a larger volume of bank lending becoming impaired and increase in net charge-offs. Additionally, we find that the effect of government support on impaired loans is stronger for riskier banks than safer ones, as measured by their issuer default ratings.

So, should a Bank be focusing on its growth? Should Banks be limited in what they do? Is the present Stress Test sufficient? Or does passing the stress test only contribute to an inflated confidence and outsized risk tolerance given the potential consequences?

…The Harder They Fall

Will COVID Finally Give Big Banks Their Direction? 8

A number of open questions that the banking industry still has to figure out….

Let us turn once again to lessons from the past, 2008 The Financial Crisis.

The financial crisis of 2008 had its foundation in bad mortgages, but this wasn’t what ultimately brought the banks to the brink of collapse.  Volcker noted when he proposed his idea (Volcker rule, a federal regulation that prohibits banks from conducting certain investment activities with their own accounts and limits their dealings with hedge funds and private equity funds, also called covered funds[7].) that the culprit wasn’t bad loans, but the exotic trades banks had made around them.

At the time, there was discussion of reinstating The Glass-Steagall Act but the banks argued that doing so would make them too small to compete on a global scale. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act was passed instead. This Act requires the Fed to conduct an annual stress test of bank holding companies with $50 billion in assets – otherwise known as “too big to fail.”[8]

Section 619 of the Act was The Volcker Rule aimed, once again, at separating the commercial and investment banking divisions of banks, but not with the same stringent restrictions as Glass-Steagall Act. It aimed to prohibit banks from using customer deposits for their own profit. Moreover, restricted banks from owning, investing in, or sponsoring hedge funds, private equity funds, or other trading operations for their own use. These steps were meant to protect depositors from the types of speculative investments that led to the 2008 financial crisis.

The idea became law in the Dodd-Frank reforms of 2010, but the rule-writing took another three years due to squabbles over how to separate prop trading from market-making and hedging. Instead of blanket bans, regulators sought to define each situation and carve out a string of exemptions, which is how the rule grew. The final rule also clarifies that certain activities are not prohibited, including acting as agent, broker, or custodian. As a result, the Volcker Rule has been in force since July 21, 2015

When the final version called on traders to certify the intent of each transaction, Jamie Dimon, the chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase, complained that traders would need a psychologist and a lawyer by their side to make sure they were in compliance.[9] Fed researchers found that the rule resulted in less-liquid markets for some bonds in times of stress. But by and large, banks adapted to it, though that did not stop them from lobbying for years to win procedural changes. Under the Trump administration, regulators showed a strong interest in simplifying the rule. The revamp, known as Volcker 2.0, is a steady effort to soften Volcker regulations during Trump’s administration.

Volcker2.0 – “Volcker 2.0” went into effect on October 1, 2020.

The Proposed Rule adds four new exclusions to the definition of “covered fund” — credit funds, venture capital funds, family wealth management vehicles and customer facilitation vehicles — thereby exempting them from the scope of the Volcker Rule.[10]

Changes in proprietary trading include eliminating a requirement that banks reserve an initial margin over 15% of Tier 1 capital and may allow banks to invest in up to $40B more in credit-default swaps.[11]

More capital will be available to venture capitalists, therefore making additional capital available to start-up companies. However, many believe this may be a short-lived change following the 2020 presidential election.

Volcker 2.0 is representative of a pendulum swing in financial regulatory compliance away from the strong reaction to the financial crisis of 2008.

Banks evaluated their capital market businesses to identify opportunities to leverage newly permitted activities and the reduced operational burden of Volcker 2.0. Different banks have commenced new strategies by increasing trading volumes and holdings. As an example, the table below (Figure 4) illustrates a trend in the commercial bank sector, and how the trading assets volume increased in 2019 in anticipation of the Volcker amendments.

Will COVID Finally Give Big Banks Their Direction? 9

Fig.4 : Total Trading Assets for Commercial Banks in the US[12]

Is COVID-19 the new lesson? Is FED, via Stress Test trying to tighten regulatory burdens for Banks majorly associated with proprietary trading driven revenues such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley? As per FED Stress Test in 2020, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were the two banks that faced the highest jump in the required minimum CET1 ratio – 4.1% and 3.2% respectively. (Fig 5)[13]

Will COVID Finally Give Big Banks Their Direction? 10

Fig.5: Minimum CET1 ratio in 2019 and 2020

 On one hand, financial regulators eased the financial crisis-era Volcker Rule. Conversely, the same regulators brought about tighter requirements via Stress Test for banks that are focussed on Trading revenues.

The change in minimum CET1 ratio is inversely related to the PEG ratio (Q3 2020) right after when the minimum CET1 were to be met. Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs had PEG ratios of 0.97 and 1.44, the lowest amongst their peers, while they had the largest change in minimum CET1 ratio – 4.1% and 3.4% respectively.(Fig 6.)

Will COVID Finally Give Big Banks Their Direction? 11

Fig.6: PEG Ratio post change in required minimum CET1 ratio

With another administrative change (new government) will the Volcker Rule be changed again to go closer to what it was intended for. Will banks be forced to choose between proprietary trading and having a PEG ratio comparable to its peers?

Do Banks Get a New Normal Too?

Oz Shy, a professor at MIT proposes that if we were to ensure policymakers let banks fail – we need to prepare in advance for the next wave of bank failures by protecting depositors’ money, instead of just focusing on stress tests or size reductions.

Depositors should be simply allowed to have access to accounts that maintain 100 percent reserves. That is, every cent of their savings would be backed by hard currency. His research has shown that moving in this direction improves social welfare relative to the current system of purely fractional banking, in which banks only hold a fraction of their deposits. A 100 percent reserves policy would break our current system’s bundling of risk-taking with the job of keeping accounts safe and offering payment services. Only then, by ensuring depositors (and voters) aren’t at risk when there’s a crisis, would governments have the will to let banks fail – without any regard to their size – and at no cost to taxpayers.[14]

And if a few banks want to be in growth business, they should be treated very differently than the other banks with a pure focus on transmission and custodian roles. More than what current stress test does. Maybe that’s the “new normal” banks need.

[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/21/banks-have-grown-by-2-trillion-in-deposits-since-coronavirus-first-hit.html

[2] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-ppp-banks-focus-idUSKBN2761G4

[3] https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/pressreleases/bcreg20200904a.htm

[4] https://www.thebalance.com/glass-steagall-act-definition-purpose-and-repeal-3305850#:~:text=The%20Glass%2DSteagall%20Act%20is,investment%20banking%20from%20retail%20banking.&text=By%20separating%20the%20two%2C%20retail,They%20could%20underwrite%20government%20bonds.

[5]https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/gramm_leach_bliley_act#:~:text=This%20legislation%2C%20signed%20into%20law,was%20granted%20new%20supervisory%20powers.

[6] https://www.newyorkfed.org/medialibrary/media/research/epr/2014/1412afon.pdf

[7] https://www.investopedia.com/terms/v/volcker-rule.asp

[8] https://www.congress.gov/111/plaws/publ203/PLAW-111publ203.pdf

[9] https://www.bloombergquint.com/quicktakes/the-volcker-rule

[10] https://www.srz.com/resources/summary-of-proposed-volcker-2-0-for-fund-activities.html

[11] https://gillespiegroup.law/2020/06/introducing-volcker-2-0-changed-need-know/

[12] https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/USTTAST

[13] https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/pressreleases/bcreg20200810a.htm

[14] https://theconversation.com/feds-focus-on-too-big-to-fail-wont-save-taxpayers-from-next-bank-bailout-61884

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ECB faces tricky balancing act after pandemic debt surge

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ECB faces tricky balancing act after pandemic debt surge 12

By Francesco Canepa, Frank Siebelt and Balazs Koranyi

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – As the euro zone begins to emerge from the depths of a pandemic-induced recession, the European Central Bank is facing a difficult balancing act between supporting indebted governments and keeping creditors onside.

Encouraged by the ECB’s massive bond purchase programme and ultra-low interest rates, national governments have taken on a mountain of new borrowing to cushion the coronavirus pandemic, pushing total public debt to 102% of the region’s output.

With a euro zone recovery seen lagging that of the United States or Asia, these countries will not grow their way out of debt or see it eroded away by rising prices any time soon.

Yet Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann has made clear he expects monetary policy to return to normal once inflation returns.

That means President Christine Lagarde and her colleagues must strike a difficult balance between the need to keep credit sufficiently easy for weaker borrowers like Italy while not losing the support of creditor countries.

“I think the ECB is trapped,” said Friedrich Heinemann, a professor at Germany’s ZEW institute.

“Certain heavily indebted countries can no longer cope on their own. The big issue here is the Italian debt,” he said of Rome’s 154% debt/GDP level.

ECB chief economist Philip Lane has rejected the idea that the bank’s policy is constrained, saying in a Reuters interview last year he was confident the bank could exit its bond-buying programmes when inflation allowed it to do so.

This is unlikely to happen any time soon.

JAPANESE WAY

The ECB has been already buying government bonds for six years, trying but largely failing to generate enough activity to achieve its near-two-percent inflation target.

Notwithstanding an expected rebound in euro area prices this year due to one-off factors and speculation of reflation in the United States, there is no sign of a stable return to higher levels of inflation on this side of the Atlantic.

This is due to both the aftermath of the pandemic, which destroyed millions of jobs, and structural factors keeping a lid on prices such as an ageing population, relentless technological progress and globally competitive product markets.

Even if inflation were to reach 2%, Lagarde could argue that it should be allowed to overshoot for some time after lagging below target for over a decade.

This argument, borrowed by the Federal Reserve, is being discussed as part of an ongoing review of the ECB’s policy strategy.

That should give Lagarde a justification to keep rates low and perhaps even continue buying bonds for a long time, like the Bank of Japan has been doing.

“It’s the Japanese way of handling the problem,” Philipp Vorndran, a strategist at fund management firm Flossbach von Storch, said. “A state can work at zero interest for eternity if people don’t lose trust in money.”

Graphic: Italy’s debt to GDP ratio

ECB faces tricky balancing act after pandemic debt surge 13

BUYING BONDS

The ECB has bought 3 trillion euros worth of government debt and it has pledged to keep at it until the coronavirus crisis is over and replace maturing bonds for even longer.

For now, Lagarde is free of some of the problems that dogged her predecessor, notably a lengthy court dispute with German sceptics about the legality of bond purchases that has been put to bed following a constitutional ruling last May.

The European Union is finally progressing on fiscal matters, issuing for the first time substantial amounts of joint debt to finance a 750-billion-euro pandemic recovery fund – giving the ECB more scope for bond purchases and alleviating pressure on some of the weaker members of the bloc.

Former Italian Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri had already committed to bringing Italy’s debt ratio back down to 2019 levels by 2030 through growth and investment, while the appointment of ex-ECB boss Mario Draghi as prime minister is fuelling investor hopes for growth-friendly reforms.

It is too early to tell whether the euro zone’s rising debt mountain will become a theme for conservatives in Germany’s federal election this September – but for now, coalition sources say they are steering clear of any debate around ECB policy.

But she still has some convincing to do.

Beyond Weidmann and fellow hawks on the ECB’s Governing Council, low rates have infuriated savers, who have seen the returns on fixed income investments disappear and property prices skyrocket in some areas.

Ironically, inflated assets prices make it even more difficult for the ECB to tighten policy if needed as that would likely trigger an economically disruptive market rout.

This and the unspoken need to help governments roll over their debt, known in academic parlance as “fiscal dominance”, meant the ECB was seen as having little choice but to keep the money taps open for the foreseeable future.

“What constrains the ability of the ECB to intervene against inflation is not just fiscal dominance but also the dependence of financial markets on low yields,” said Luis Garicano, a Spanish member of the European Parliament and a professor of economics at IE Business School.

(Additional reporting by Giselda Vagnoni in Rome; Editing by Mark John and Toby Chopra)

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