Abigail with attitude: Tucker, Sants and the latest permutations of Meredith Whitney

By:
Abigail Hofman
Published on:

October also saw a changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. By which I mean, after more than 30 years, Paul Tucker, deputy governor of the Bank of England, left the Bank for a teaching post at Harvard. Tucker, who was widely viewed as the likely successor to the dour Lord King, lost out to Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney.

I was privileged to be invited to the farewell reception at the Bank, hosted by Carney for Tucker. Bank and insurance group chief executives mingled with regulatory grandees, politicians and academics. But the thing that struck me most – as with Bernanke and Yellen – was the difference in style between the host and the guest of honour. Both are obviously prodigiously bright, but there is an informality about Carney that amounts to a huge divergence from the traditional Bank of England culture.

When I introduced myself, addressing the governor as "Mr Carney", he genially corrected me: "It’s Mark."I then remembered the pictures I had seen of him in a British tabloid newspaper, bedecked in lilac shorts and suede loafers, chillaxing at a music festival during the summer.

Tucker always struck me as epitomizing the best of British: engaging, excellent manners and highly educated. I always appreciated his openness: Paul was never too grand to engage in debate about the pressing issues of the day with a lowly journalist. This openness will serve him well when he deals with his students.

Some people believe Tucker could return to the Bank of England as governor once Carney leaves. Unusually, Carney has only committed to serve for five years. He is meant to step down in June 2018. And 55-year-old Tucker would certainly have the experience to succeed him. I wish Paul well in his academic endeavours and welcome Carney to the overcast skies of a typical British autumn.

Sometimes the move from a top regulatory post to a less rarefied environment does not go smoothly. Commentators were taken aback to learn that Sir Hector Sants, the former chief executive of the UK’s financial regulator, the Financial Services Authority, had taken a three-month leave of absence from Barclays because of "exhaustion and stress".

The FSA no longer exists. Its supervisory functions were returned to the Bank of England and resurrected as the Prudential Regulation Authority in April. At the beginning of this year, Sants started as head of compliance and government and regulatory relations at the beleaguered British bank.

If you think about it, Sants’s appointment was a bit odd in the first place. The top regulator joined the UK bank that, on the face of it, has had more problems with the regulator than any other. Talk about gamekeeper turned poacher!

High-profile regulatory tussles remain unreconciled at Barclays. There is a continuing probe into the bank’s 2008 capital-raising in Qatar and a battle in the US about alleged manipulation of energy prices. And then, this July, Barclays stunned investors by announcing a substantial rights issue (the largest since the dark days of 2009) because the PRA claimed the bank’s leverage ratio was too low.

A source whispers that investors are not impressed. Many thought Barclays’ chief, Antony Jenkins, had given a commitment that there was no need to raise fresh capital in February when he announced the bank’s year-end results. Of course, it might be that Barclays was simply caught out as the PRA moved the goalposts and changed its assessment of the bank’s leverage ratio and thus Barclays’ need for additional capital.

Sants’s absence for health reasons is an eerie echo of the departure this August of Barclays’ former finance director. Chris Lucas was scheduled to leave the bank in February 2014, but accelerated his farewells and left the bank this summer, citing ill-health.

My sympathies are with Sants and I hope he makes a speedy recovery. But I can’t help drawing two conclusions: the first that, if he managed to cope with the stresses of being the UK bank regulator during the financial crisis, but has been laid low by a few months at Barclays, it can only tell you how tough being a senior banker has become. The second is that the honeymoon period for chief executive Jenkins is well and truly over. I will be scrutinizing the bank’s interim trading statement.

In October, former Wall Street star bank analyst Meredith Whitney replaced herself. It seems that Meredith Whitney Advisory Group has stopped publishing regular investment research
In October there was another change of personnel, but in a slightly unusual fashion. Former Wall Street star bank analyst Meredith Whitney replaced herself. What I mean by this is that Whitney requested to deregister Meredith Whitney Securities at the end of August. And it seems that Meredith Whitney Advisory Group has stopped publishing regular investment research.

The former Oppenheimer analyst has apparently set up a new business called Kenbelle Capital and is now "the managing principal/chief investment officer for a long/short fund".

Whitney’s recent career has had overtones of both hubris and nemesis. Marvellous Meredith won fame when she sounded the alarm in 2007 that Citi would need to cut its dividend. This warning proved prescient and led to Meredith being feted as a seer. Fortune magazine dubbed her: "The woman who called Wall Street’s meltdown."

At one stage, it seemed as if Whitney’s profile was higher than the firm for which she worked. And so it came to pass that she ditched Oppenheimer and set out in 2009 to build her own Wall Street advisory firm. However, this is the firm that she has now shuttered after three unprofitable years.

Meredith lost face in 2011 after she predicted, in a December 2010 television interview, that US municipal defaults might run to billions of dollars. This debacle has not yet transpired, despite Detroit’s recent woes. Of course, Whitney might be correct about the dire state of the states’ finances and her timing might simply have been wrong. Bloomberg quotes Whitney’s lawyer, Stanley Arkin, as saying: "She has a healthy line of people who have promised to invest... she’s getting set to run a good-sized fund."

I’m not sure that the Abigail with attitude column will be investing with Kenbelle. Timing in markets is everything. Think of Warren Buffett buying in to Goldman Sachs at a market nadir in 2008 or Jon Corzine, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, losing his new firm, MF Global, because of big bond positions that he took in European sovereign debt in 2011. The strategy behind the trading positions was correct, but the timing was wrong.

Indeed, even the most experienced of traders can fall by the wayside when they venture out as lone wolves to set up their own hedge funds. Remember Pierre-Henri Flamand, a former top Goldman Sachs proprietary trader, who closed his hedge fund, Edoma, in 2012 after reporting two years of losses? I will be intrigued to see how Whitney fares in the asset management business.