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Berkshire business model is simple and effective, yet rarely copied

Buffett’s method is to find well-run companies and give them more freedom than they would enjoy on public markets. Yet other conglomerates use financial engineering and impose “transferable” management skills.

Central problem with banks is “too complex to fail” not “too big to fail”

Recent stumbles by Bernie Sanders illustrate a misdirection in his attack on the banking establishment. The central problem is not so much “too big to fail” but “too complex to fail”.

Balance sheets understate the scale of complexity in the financial system

JPMorgan and Deutsche Bank account for about 20 per cent of total global derivatives exposure. The risks associated with these exposures are largely netted out. But how well? Your guess is as good as mine, and probably not much worse than those in charge of these institutions.

The business of attacking companies is hard to admire but publicly useful

In cases of fraud official action inevitably damages both the business and its share price, and no agency will be right all the time. Short selling hedge funds are not right all the time either, but when they are wrong they lose their own money.

HBOS report yields three important lessons for all businesses

British regulators have finally published their report into HBOS, the bank formed from the merger of Halifax with Bank of Scotland, more than seven years after its collapse. The 600-odd pages contain much detail on events and personalities. But there are general lessons for all businesses. Avoid the diversifier’s fallacy. Beware the winner’s curse. Fear adverse selection.

Limited liability led to limited care for other people’s money

The financial sector in the 1980s and 1990s was characterised by a rush to incorporation. The mantra of “shareholder value” restored the nexus between finance and business that Smith had feared and Brandeis denounced. And the stage was set for negligence and profusion to prevail once again.

We were better served by old-fashioned relationship-focused bank managers

The bank manager used to be a community figure who would base his (they were all men) lending decisions as much on his local knowledge and the character of the borrower as on figures. He did rather better than his modern-day, intellectually-superior equivalent.

Solutions to the Greek debt crisis should be found through pragmatism not blame

The Greek crisis is not simply the result of Athens’ inept public administration but also of an extensive carry trade on eurozone convergence by northern European banks, notably in France and Germany, which obtained short-term profits by matching northern eurozone liabilities with southern eurozone assets. For every foolish borrower there is usually a foolish lender.

At last, is boring banking making a comeback?

Do the almost simultaneous announcements this month of a new regime at Deutsche Bank, and an extensive restructuring at HSBC, symbolise a fundamental change in the structure of financial companies?

It’s too risky to rely on financial risk models

Extremes among observed outcomes are much more often the product of “off-model” events than the result of vanishingly small probabilities. The implication is that most risk models are unsuitable for the principal purpose for which they are devised: protecting financial institutions against severe embarrassment or catastrophic failure.