PacWest’s Plunge Reignites Fears About America’s Regional Banks

The regional banking sector is teetering again, with PacWest’s stock plummeting more than 35 percent in premarket trading, despite the Fed chair Jay Powell’s assessment that the worst is over.

The Los Angeles-based lender confirmed that it was talking to potential investors following reports that it was exploring a sale. Investors may be feeling some déjà vu after witnessing two big bank failures, and billions in market value wiped out, since the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in March.

It’s not just PacWest in free-fall. Shares in Western Alliance, Comerica and Zions Bancorp were down sharply too, even as S&P 500 futures were down only slightly after the Fed signaled it may be done raising interest rates.

News of a potential PacWest sale, first reported by Bloomberg — and confirmed by DealBook — came just hours after Mr. Powell declared that the banking system was “sound and resilient.”

Despite Mr. Powell’s reassurances, big questions remain. Among them: Can regional banks like PacWest find a private-sector solution? Or will regulators again need to step in?

The fix is tricky, as was made clear by First Republic’s monthlong search for a rescuer. JPMorgan Chase bought the lender only after it had been seized by the F.D.I.C. PacWest appears healthy, with deposits — 75 percent of which are insured — ticking up since the end of March. But it needs to raise capital, and fast.

Selling its depressed stock would be costly for PacWest. That could further spook depositors and investors, and play into the hands of the short sellers targeting the sector. Meanwhile, a fire sale of assets, including loans (the bank’s $2.7 billion lender finance loan portfolio is on the block) and securities pegged at low interest rates, may not fetch much. Finally, selling itself could be tough, and not only because the pool of potential buyers has narrowed significantly since the JPMorgan-First Republic deal.

Criticism of the Fed and calls for regulatory action are growing. Mohamed El-Erian, an economist and an adviser at Allianz, accused Powell of confusing the markets by saying the sector’s problems had largely been contained with the sale of First Republic. And Bill Ackman, the billionaire investor, called on regulators to modernize the deposit insurance system to restore the public’s faith in regional lenders. (He added that his hedge fund was neither long nor short the banking sector.)

Up next for the markets: The European Central Bank is expected to raise interest rates on Thursday, but it’s an open question as to whether it will do so by a quarter- or half-point.

Oil prices whipsaw in volatile trading. Benchmarks for crude rose on Thursday, but not enough to compensate for yesterday’s plunge, which was driven by investor concerns about slowing global demand. Meanwhile, Shell reported better-than-expected earnings, as lower costs and strong trading results offset lower oil and gas prices.

Jamie Dimon reportedly may testify about Jeffrey Epstein later this month. A deposition of JPMorgan Chase’s C.E.O., as part of two lawsuits over the bank’s ties to the convicted sex offender, is set for May 26 and 27, according to CNBC. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reports that Mr. Epstein had previously unreported meetings with Larry Summers and the LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and Mr. Epstein’s private islands were sold for $60 million.

Goldman Sachs reportedly seeks to settle a discrimination lawsuit. The Wall Street bank has held discussions about paying several hundred million dollars to resolve accusations that it systematically discriminated against female employees, The Wall Street Journal reports. A trial in the case is set for next month.

The U.A.W. withholds an endorsement of President Biden. The United Auto Workers, one of America’s most powerful unions, said it was concerned about the White House’s plans for an “electric vehicle transition,” though it hasn’t ruled out backing him later in the 2024 race. It’s a sign of how Mr. Biden’s climate change policies may cost him support from a key constituency.

Meta and the F.T.C. have escalated their fight over how the social media giant handles its users’ data. Meta accused the agency and its chair, Lina Khan, of pulling a “political stunt” after it moved to impose “a blanket prohibition” on the company’s collection of personal data from young people.

The agency has come down hard on Meta before for its handling of users’ data. In 2020, it imposed a $5 billion consent order and forced Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, to overhaul its privacy practices. The F.T.C. said yesterday that the company had failed to do so, accusing it of “recklessness” and of putting “young users at risk.”

The potential penalties are stiff. Meta would be barred from profiting off any data it collects from users under 18, and regulators want that to be extended to 18-year-olds — a move that would limit how the company targets ads to young people.

Meta vowed to fight. “Despite three years of continual engagement with the F.T.C. around our agreement, they provided no opportunity to discuss this new, totally unprecedented theory,” the company said in a statement, adding that Ms. Khan’s “insistence on using any measure — however baseless — to antagonize American business has reached a new low.” The company has 30 days to appeal.

Congress is also targeting social networks. Senator Edward Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana, yesterday reintroduced a bill to update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The lawmakers said in a statement that they were seeking to ban “targeted ads to kids, and stop all online platforms — not just Meta and other companies under F.T.C. consent decrees — from raking in profits through the exploitation of an entire generation.”

Tech giants like Alphabet, Amazon, Meta and Microsoft have beaten expectations this earnings season. Apple is up next and will report after the closing bell on Thursday. Here are some of the biggest things to watch for.

Stock buybacks: Investors expect Apple, which has spent more money repurchasing shares than any other company, to keep that up. The consensus number this quarter is $90 billion.

China: Nearly 25 percent of Apple’s revenue comes from China, and supply-chain disruptions there led to costly shortages. As the Chinese economy reopens after Covid, the iPhone maker’s sales should continue to recover, and Tim Cook, Apple’s chief, has said that production problems have subsided. But some analysts worry that the company remains overly dependent on China.

Artificial intelligence: Tech leaders have spent a lot of time on their earnings calls touting their progress in adding ChatGPT-like features to their products. Apple has been criticized for failing to keep up with the latest advances. Investors will be anxious to hear whether Cook lays out an expansive vision for the tech.

Leaders of companies working on artificial intelligence, including Alphabet, Microsoft and OpenAI, will meet with Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday, after the White House announced new initiatives to rein in the fast-growing technology.

It’s the latest sign that governments are seeking to tame A.I. as the tech world races to harness the power of products like ChatGPT — and critics warn that the technology threatens to reshape society in potentially negative ways.

White House officials pledged to release draft guidelines for A.I. use in government, to safeguard “the American people’s rights and safety.” The announcement comes a day after Lina Khan, the chair of the F.T.C., called for tighter regulation of the technology.

International regulators are also making moves. The head of Britain’s competition overseer told The Financial Times that the agency would review the A.I. market, with an eye on potential guardrails to protect consumers and smaller companies. That follows plans by the European Union for some of the world’s most sweeping legislation to regulate A.I.

In other A.I. news:

At HSBC’s annual meeting on Friday in Birmingham, England, the focus will be on one topic: whether to break up the bank, which is Europe’s biggest. HSBC management argues that the lender benefits from its integrated global operation. But the firm’s largest shareholder, the Chinese insurer Ping An, wants HSBC to spin out its main Asian operations.

Though a shareholder initiative to force HSBC to regularly review its structure may fail on Friday, the pressure on the bank to rethink its future won’t let up anytime soon.

HSBC’s China-facing business accounts for nearly half of its revenue — but Ping An says the division has been held back by having to subsidize its slower-growing Western operations. Asian investors were also angered by a 2020 edict by the Bank of England that British banks stop paying quarterly dividends. (HSBC said this week that it would restart those payouts.)

Last month, Ping An responded to management’s objections by suggesting the less drastic step of giving the Asian business, which is based in Hong Kong, its own stock listing.

HSBC remains unconvinced. Executives have said a breakup risks disrupting what is a well-performing business, and pointed to their efforts to shed nonessential operations like retail banking in North America. A better-than-expected earnings report on Tuesday helped buttress their arguments.

The fight will likely extend beyond Friday. Though HSBC is expected to win the vote on the shareholder proposal, analysts concede that HSBC will face increasing pressure from worsening tensions between Beijing and the West.

Given that Ping An hasn’t shown any desire to walk away, expect the fight over HSBC’s future to continue.



  • “Why Republican presidential hopefuls are keeping out of U.S. debt-ceiling squabble” (Reuters)

  • Ajay Banga, President Biden’s pick to lead the World Bank, was confirmed for the role yesterday. (NYT)

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