November 08, 2012

Banking shares are down sharply since the election, but the threat of tough regulation now moving markets might hold a kernel of hope for investors.

The re-election of Barack Obama and the victory of several high-profile supporters of tough financial regulation - notably Massachusetts Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren - have cemented expectations of an increasingly difficult operating environment.

Although not far off 52-week highs, the KBW bank index is about 4 percent lower than just before the election. Morgan Stanley is 8 percent lower, while Citigroup Inc is down about 4 percent.

With Dodd-Frank legislation here to stay it may just be that the election forces banks to get serious about their and the industry's prospects. Banks, in short, might start to trim sails, getting out of unprofitable lines of business and even getting tough on compensation.

For an example look no further than Swiss bank UBS AG , which recently unveiled a root-and-branch restructuring of its investment bank, with 10,000 job losses and an exit from many areas of fixed income. UBS was perhaps the poster child for the unsuccessful universal bank, acquiring multiple businesses and paying hugely for talent over the years as it sought entry into areas in which it ultimately could not compete.

Markets absolutely loved the bank's new realism and UBS shares now stand more than 16 percent above where they were in late October before the announcement. UBS's decision was surely influenced by a much tougher attitude towards regulation by Swiss banking authorities, who have demanded much higher levels of capital.

"I suspect that many banks have not yet really understood what the consequences of the new capital rules for business will be when they come into full effect in 2019," UBS Chairman Axel Webber told Germany's Handelsblatt.

"We, on the other hand, see this new world very clearly. Besides that, Swiss rules commit us to even higher capital demands than the 10 percent capital quota that Basel III orders."

Had Romney won, many Wall Street executives would have said that tougher foreign regulation only represented an opportunity for U.S-based banks to gain global market share, a much less likely outcome today.


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