The Banking Industry’s Go-to Crisis Adviser
There are plenty of differences between the fallout from the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and the 2008 financial crisis, but one similarity is the man trying to clean it up: H. Rodgin Cohen, known as Rodge, the senior chair at the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell.
The soft-spoken Mr. Cohen was at the center of efforts to save Silicon Valley Bank and First Republic, the latter of which involved a call between the Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and the JPMorgan Chase boss Jamie Dimon. Here’s what to know about one of the most influential players in the banking crisis who isn’t making headlines.
Mr. Cohen is a sought-after adviser in banking crises, and he has worked on almost every one in the last several decades. “Rodge is the banking lawyer’s go-to — there’s nobody who comes close to his level of reliability in the entire realm of substantive banking law,” said Sarah Raskin, a former deputy secretary of the Treasury. She added that she still finds herself in rooms of lawyers asking, “What would Rodge say?”
Mr. Cohen also once played a role in an international crisis: During the Iran-contra affair, he advised the American banks that released Iranian funds as a condition to free the American hostages.
He’s been at Sullivan & Cromwell for more than 50 years. After a run on Continental Illinois Bank forced a government seizure in 1984, Mr. Cohen led its negotiations with the F.D.I.C. He represented the Bank of New York in its $1.48 billion bid for Irving Bank, one of the first hostile takeovers of a bank, in 1988.
During the 2008 financial crisis, he represented either the buyer or the seller in nearly every major bank deal, including the government-backed sale of Washington Mutual to JPMorgan Chase. He was in such strong demand that he went from advising Lehman Brothers before it collapsed to counseling Barclays, which bought up a substantial part of the firm, after it fell. “Every time I looked up, it seemed like Rodge was in the room,” Henry Paulson, the former Treasury secretary, told The Times in 2009.
This crisis may require new maneuvers. Mr. Cohen advised Silicon Valley Bank as it scrambled for a buyer and has been counseling First Republic as it clamors for a lifeline. (The bank’s move to inject some $30 billion in capital from 11 banks was a page from a well-tested playbook of joint intervention, including for Continental Illinois.)
But as First Republic continues to teeter — and questions swirl about the extent of government intervention — the question now for First Republic and others is what the 2023 playbook will look like. If past patterns continue, Mr. Cohen will have a role in writing it. — Lauren Hirsch
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
A risky vacancy. Silicon Valley Bank operated without a chief risk officer for much of the last year, reports The Wall Street Journal. The job is among the industry’s most thankless, but SVB’s collapse underscores how much it matters.
Profit motive. Elon Musk cut off funding to OpenAI in 2018, leaving it without a way to pay for the expensive job of training its A.I. models on supercomputers, reports Semafor. Soon after, the company announced that it would create a for-profit entity.
Palm payment. JPMorgan Chase plans to test new technology that would allow consumers to pay with their palms or faces at some U.S. merchants. The bank, one of the world’s biggest payment processors, expects the technology to account for $5.8 trillion in transactions by 2026.
A.I. on A.I. Reid Hoffman, the LinkedIn co-founder, wrote a book about artificial intelligence with the help of GPT-4, the newly released language model from Open AI, which Hoffman has funded.
Is this a ‘Minsky moment’?
“Minsky moment” last entered the zeitgeist during the 2008 financial crisis, and some pundits are now putting it to use to comment on the current banking crisis. It describes the point after a long bull run when it becomes clear that asset values are unsustainable and an epic crash looms.
The back story: The term was coined by the economist Paul McCulley in 1998 as asset bubbles burst and is based on the “financial instability hypothesis” of the economist Hyman Minsky. His hypothesis holds that over a prolonged period of prosperity, investors take on increasing risk until lending exceeds what borrowers can pay off and they start selling safe assets, leading to plunging markets and creating a cash crunch.
Does the phrase apply to what is happening right now? Probably not. SVB didn’t fall because it was overleveraged — rather, fleeing depositors forced it to sell assets at deflated values, so technically SVB was not a Minsky moment, writes Zongyuan Zoe Liu, an economic policy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. But analysts at JPMorgan see a potential Minsky moment ahead as interest rates rise and economic engines sputter, citing concerns about global banking woes among other signals.
— The decline in Chinese billionaires last year as the ultrarich paid for China’s zero-Covid policy, a regulatory crackdown on private enterprise and a property collapse.
Switzerland wiped out Credit Suisse bondholders, and it’s a big deal
When the Swiss government forced the marriage of UBS and Credit Suisse, it wrote down about $17 billion of the latter’s bonds and prioritized shareholders over bondholders, writes The Times’s Joe Rennison, upending the usual order of who takes losses first in a bankruptcy. In the words of the Standard Chartered C.E.O. Bill Winters, that could have “profound” implications for how banks are run and for global regulation.
The deal targeted an obscure part of the debt market. Additional tier one, or AT1, bonds, are issued by many European banks. They count toward their capital requirements because in stressed situations, they can be written off and converted into equity to help keep the bank from failing.
The Swiss regulator Finma defended the decision to write down Credit Suisse’s AT1 bonds, saying it was necessary to “protect clients, the financial center and markets.” Finma added that AT1 bonds include contractual language that they can be “written down in a viability event,” if the government gives it the authority to do so.
But after the write-down, the AT1 bonds at other European lenders, including Barclays, Standard Chartered and BNP Paribas, all fell sharply even though E.U. regulators said they would adhere to the conventional hierarchy of who benefits first in the case of a bankruptcy and equity holders would take the first hit. As worries swirled around Deutsche Bank, sending its share down as much as 15 percent yesterday, its bonds also fell. One dollar bond dropped from 96 cents on the euro at the start of the month to less than 70 cents yesterday.
Winters says the Swiss move could change how banks are assessed, because Credit Suisse’s bonds were wiped out even though the bank was solvent. “The issue isn’t do the regulators have confidence in our solvency. It’s does the market have confidence in our liquidity?” he told a conference in Hong Kong.
Bondholders may take legal action. The law firms Quinn Emmanuel and Parras Partners are vying to represent specialist investors like Centerbridge and Davidson Kempner, as well as traditional fund managers like Pimco and Invesco. But they don’t have long to argue their point: Action needs to be taken within 30 days of the deal, according to people familiar with the process.
On our radar: The final season of ‘Succession’
The fourth and last season of “Succession” begins tomorrow. With all the recent drama among the real-life Murdochs — the 92-year-old Rupert announcing his plans for a fifth wedding, a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit, and a failed attempt to merge two parts of a giant media empire — you may have not missed the fictional media dynasty that bears more than a slight resemblance to the family. But early reviews suggest “Succession” is worth watching — especially given the promise of an actual conclusion. The Guardian called it “TV’s most agonising, pulverising drama” (which seems to be a compliment). Vogue says it’s “a lightning strike,” and Rolling Stone wrote, “It is full steam ahead to the end.”
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