Monday, December 15, 2008

Bronte Capital calls for a new French Revolution

Credit Agricole SA is a bank which obsesses me – and on which I have lost some loot.

The problem is that it is a bank with very good bits and very bad bits. And the good bits are excellent (and mostly outside Paris) – and the bad bits are atrocious.

Charlie Munger observed that if you mix turds with raisins you still have turds.  Charlie was right and it shows in Credit Agricole SA’s stock price.

The bank is controlled by a bunch of regional mutual banks who – for reasons that are not apparent to me – have never got around to closing the bad bits.  Those regional mutuals are in turn controlled by five million voting mutual certificate holders – a reasonable proportion of French households.

The super-bad bit is their investment bank. It’s a mathematical finance type investment bank in the French mould. As has been noticed by more than a few people – the market recently has not been too kind to mathematical finance.

I just want to extract the results – quarterly – for just investment banking business.  Please click for detail...

These numbers really deserve looking at. The first observation is that revenue can go very strongly negative at an investment bank. That is nothing that Lehman et al have not discovered before – but the trading revenue was negative for several quarters in a row. You might conclude the traders were not much better as traders than say the average French farmer.

The second thing is that the costs line doesn’t seem to move much. Now when I was young and naïve – say 2006 – I thought the investment banks would have a very rough trot – but that the staff would take a fair bit of it in the hip-pocket. The argument being that the very high salaries were at risk – and you could at least assume that when time got rough for an investment bank the staff would be paid salary without bonus. Capital risks were lower than it would appear because at least variable expense would go close to zero.

Now I read lots of stories about how children are getting less allowance due to the credit crisis. Such stories always seem to wind up high in big-media’s “most read” and “most emailed” lists. And that is only because we – dear readers – are doing it to our own kids.

And if it is good enough for our kids it is surely good enough for our investment banker!

Anyway – it is noted that Wall Street bonuses remain stubbornly high – but this is France with all its equality and fraternity. And they can’t control this crap either.

But with numbers like these – if the investment bank were not owned by the rich French parent (Credit Agricole SA) then it would be bust – and the children (sorry investment bankers) would be out on the street.

But bust is better than it would have been in 1792. In those days – faced with a class as egregiously and hypocritically greedy as investment bankers they would have set up the guillotine in the Place de la Concorde and we would be treated to the public spectacle of mass beheadings.

These days of course it is easier. The French farmers and middle class all have a vote – its their mutual share. Executing a vote may be less grizzly than executing investment bankers – but it might be just as effective (though somewhat less theatrical).

Now how do you organise a new French Revolution?

John Hempton

1 comment:

Viktor said...

What are the good parts of the bank, which you like?

Good reading as always!

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