Boutique banking

Observations on millionaires

The City is supposed to be cowering in disgrace and shame, rudely awakened to the real world as angry G20 protesters roam the streets and punters attack Fred Goodwin’s houses. Except it isn’t. This year it’s all about setting up your own boutique bank and making a small fortune.

In January, the US-based Aladdin Capital embarked on a hiring spree in London as it switched from fund manager to boutique bank. In February, Michael Tory, previously head of UK investment banking at Morgan Stanley and then Lehman Brothers, founded a boutique operation with the hedge fund manager Benôit d’Angelin. That same month, UBS lost at least three energy bankers to the boutique firm Lexicon Partners; two of its senior investment bankers had already left for Close Brothers.

The term “boutique bank” generally describes an operation with between five and 50 staff that offers a “bespoke service”, usually in corporate finance, research and trading. Due to their size they are, in effect, unregulated, and can pick up almost any piece of business, often nabbing small- and medium-sized clients from bigger banks that have slashed staff and services.

The boutiques can, however, also trade on their own behalf, and this is where the shocker comes. The first bankers to lose their jobs were the debt departments – the people who bundled up prime mortgages, sub-prime mortgages and government loans to trade on the open market. When that market crashed, out they went. But they knew something the headline writers didn’t.

Because these debts were all bundled up together, some extremely bad debts – sub-primes, for instance – were tied up with some extremely good debts – say, a factory in Brazil borrowing to expand. These bundles of debt were all rated AAA by agencies such as Standard & Poor’s. When the sub-prime market crashed, these bundles slipped a couple of rungs down the ratings to AA-.

But because many pension funds and investment vehicles are only allowed (by their own rules) to own AAA grade investments, they started unloading these debts as fast as they could. In a market flooded by panic sellers, their price became, in effect, zero.

Yet within those bundles were healthy loans and mortgages that will keep on paying out over five, even 25, years. Boutique banks have no shareholders. They can play a long game, and they are starting to buy up these debts for a fraction of their initial value.

“The next round of millionaires is already on its way,” says Bill Park, a trader at a large multinational bank. “They’re the ex-securitisation guys who took their pay-off bonuses and set up boutique banks. They’re going to make an absolute killing.”

Exactly the same thing happened in the 1980s and 1990s. The boutiques started trading in the slump, made the partners wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, and then sold themselves to major international banks for a small fortune. It’s enough to outrage any Stop the City protester. Except that these guys are smart. They’re nowhere near the City – they are just out there, somewhere, making cash from all the chaos.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Who polices our police?

Photo: Getty Images
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It's time for the government to think again about Hinkley Point

The government's new nuclear power station is a white elephant that we simply don't need.

Today I will welcome Denis Baupin, Vice President of the French Assembly, to Hinkley.

His own choice to come and visit the site of the proposed new nuclear power station reflects his strong desire to prevent the UK disappearing up a dangerous dark alley in terms of energy policy. It also takes place as France takes a totally different path, with the French government recently adopting a law which will reduce nuclear energy in the country.

Greens have opposed Hinkley ever since the government announced its nuclear strategy. Hinkley, with its state aid and an agreed strike price of £92.50 per megawatt, has always been financially and legally suspect but it is now reaching the level of farce. So much so that George Osborne is required to be economical with the truth in front of a House of Lords committee because he cannot find anything honest to say about why this is a good deal for the British people.

Mr Baupin and I will join hundreds of protestors – and a white elephant – to stand in solidarity against this terrible project. The demonstration is taking place under a banner of the triple risks of Hinkley. 

First, there are the safety and technological risks. It is clear that the Pressurised Water nuclear reactor (EPR) – the design proposed for Hinkley C – simply does not work. France’s nuclear safety watchdog has found multiple malfunctioning valves that could cause meltdown, in a similar scenario to the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the US.  The steel reactor vessel, which houses the plant’s nuclear fuel and confines its radioactivity, was also found to have serious anomalies that increase the risk of it cracking. Apart from the obvious safety risks, the problems experienced by the EPR reactors being built at Flammanvile in France and Olkiluoto in Finland have pushed the projects years behind schedule.

Secondly, Hinkley poses risks to our energy security. Hinkley is supposed to produce 7% of the UK's energy. But we now know there will be no electricity from the new nuclear plant until at least 2023. This makes power blackouts over the next decade increasingly likely and the only way to avoid them is to rapidly invest in renewable energy, particularly onshore wind. Earlier this week Bloomberg produced a report showing that onshore wind is now the cheapest way to generate electricity in both the UK and Germany. But instead of supporting onshore wind this government is undermining it by attacking subsidies to renewables and destroying jobs in the sector. 

Thirdly, there is the risk of Chinese finance. In a globalised world we are expected to consider the option of allowing foreign companies and governments to control our essential infrastructure. But it is clear that in bequeathing our infrastructure we lose the political control that strengthens our security. The Chinese companies who will be part of the deal are part owned by the Chinese government and therefore controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. What a toppy-turvy world globalisation has created, where our Conservative British government is inviting the Chinese Communist party to control our energy infrastructure. It also seems that China National Nuclear Company is responsible for the manufacture of Chinese nuclear weapons.

Of course it is the Chinese people who suffer most, being at the hands of an oppressive government and uncontrolled companies which show little respect for employment rights or environmental standards. By offering money to such companies from British consumers through their energy bills our government is forcing us to collude in the low human rights and environmental standards seen in China.  

Research I commissioned earlier this year concluded we can transform the South West, not with nuclear, but with renewables. We can generate 100 per cent of our energy needs from renewables within the next 20-30 years and create 122,000 new quality jobs and boost the regional economy by over £4bn a year.

The white elephant of Hinkley looks increasingly shaky on its feet. Only the government’s deeply risky ideological crusade against renewables and in favour of nuclear keeps it standing. It’s time for it to fall and for communities in the South West to create in its place a renewable energy revolution, which will lead to our own Western Powerhouse. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.