Medvedev Goes Shopping

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THE PLANK OCTOBER 8, 2008

Medvedev Goes Shopping

As the United States falters, its competitors are scheming. On Monday, Dmitri Medvedev met with the leader of one of Russia's largest conglomerates, Mikhail Fridman of the Alfa Group, and gave his strong blessing for an acquisition of foreign banking holdings (preferably American.) He interjected at one point: “Maybe we should also buy something while it’s not too late?” and later insisted quite strongly that "despite the crisis ... there are nonetheless some good opportunities for concluding investment deals," to which Mr. Fridman is reported to have said "this is absolutely correct...I fully share your view," and so on.They are not the only vultures circling. That same day, the Times reported that, late last month, executives from France's mostly-still-solvent banks gathered to discuss opportunities in banking sectors traditionally dominated by American companies. For Societe Generale, that included a bid for investment banking and equity derivatives. For BNP Paribas, it was the brokerage industry. And little time was lost—last Wednesday, BNP Paribas bought over Bank of America's prime brokerage unit and now competes with JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs. Japanese companies are attempting to derive similar benefits.What can this all mean? One way to look at it is as a form of creative destruction in action, with the American model of specialist banking—that is, investment banks operating independently of commercial banks—being more vulnerable than, say, the European universal banks, though the latter have problems as well (for one thing, though a large and diversified bank is more stable than a niche one, failure of such a bank could be more catastrophic to the overall system). But the American model is still more attractive than the Russian banking model, which seems to depend on political favor and is less dynamic besides, or the Japanese model, which is an unintended consequence of absent investment opportunities within Japan itself.The American model may need to change, however, if only to avoid more shopping sprees like this one, which could result in significant decisions being made without a view to American interests or, worse, in leaving holding companies open to manipulation by foreign governments. There are domestic repercussions too: American workers already have enough qualms working for American corporations. It's not clear our fabled "Joe six-pack" would prefer working for a Gulf holding company.--Sahil Mahtani

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