Last year, one of my colleagues lost her husband in an accident. She received an insurance settlement for his death and placed the money in a U.S. dollar savings account with DBS Bank. Roughly six months later, a rep from the bank unexpectedly called her at home, then followed up with a scheduled home visit. He suggested that her money wasn’t gaining much interest and offered a more profitable solution. He could trade currencies on the widow’s behalf. “It’s the lowest risk thing we could do with your money,” crooned the banker. I hope this sounds crazy to you—because it is. It is also another sign that the world’s banks are growing increasingly septic.
My colleague has worked overseas her entire career. She won’t qualify for social security when she retires, nor will she receive a pension from any of the private schools where she has worked. Admitting she knew nothing about investing, and trusting the “professionals” was the only green light the bank needed before starting to trade currencies for her. Yes, and it was done with her entire proceeds, every single dime.
Currency trading, in case you’re unaware, is one of the most lucrative practices a bank can play—for itself. Clients typically suffer. Such trading, after all, is a negative sum game for investors, after fees and currency spreads. Unlike real estate, stocks or bonds, currencies (as a group) don’t rise in value. For every $1000 made in a currency trade, there’s a $1000 loss on the other side of the fence. The biggest players in the gamble are the institutional traders. As a group, they can’t beat each other in a zero sum game—and they know it—but they can reap massive profits from currency spreads and commissions, with their clients paying the price. This makes currency trading a negative sum game for clients. It’s not a good way for anyone to speculate, let alone have as the single investment activity for a widow.
In a world where London Interbank was recently fined $451 million for serially fudging a key interest rate benchmark, and where JP Morgan Chase may have lost $9 billion in a deal gone stupid, banking ethics appear to have gone the way of the Brontosaurus. The chief monetary economist at Cumberland Advisors, Bob Eisenbeis, suggests that financial incentives have become dangerously out of whack for bank traders, forcing silly risks and exploitation.
Even many of those entering the currency gamble with their eyes wide open are getting the shaft. BNY Mellon is accused of defrauding clients, based on two new lawsuits suggesting that the bank (which told clients they’d receive the best available currency price) purposefully gave clients, instead, the worst price of the day. The bank allegedly pocketed the profits. And State Street Corp is battling similar accusations.
Our banks are increasingly synonymous with excess, corruption, deception and dishonesty, with only a feeble regulatory response. But we’re not entirely powerless. Like a bully in the playground, we need to stand up to our banks when we notice an injustice. For my part, I’ll be calling DBS Bank when my friend’s latest currency contract expires. Like it or not, she’s pegged to the New Zealand dollar until August 24th. On that date (she can’t bail before) she’ll give me the name and number of her bank rep. Perhaps I can shame him. If not, perhaps I can cause his superviser some anxiety. Either way, it’s worth a try.