Just How Bad Off Are the Banks?

Here we are, how many years after the start of the financial crisis, and we still have questions about the status of individual banks and the banking system…in both the United States and Europe.

European banks have gone through two “stress” tests. The United States banks have gone through their own “stress” tests. And, still, there are questions about the solvency of individual banks and the banking system.

Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, received all sorts of criticism from the remarks she made last Saturday concerning the status of the European banks and the fact that they “need urgent recapitalization.”

Early this week we read about how various European banks are writing down the values of the distressed Greek government debt they hold. Some banks are taking have taken a 50 percent write down while others have taken haircuts of slightly more than 20 percent. There are no standards for taking such write downs leaving each bank to follow its own path. (link)

American banks are not coming off much better. One looks at the discounts being assessed against US banks in the stock market and the legal efforts that they face and one wonders what is real. Are these banks really solvent?

Bank of America has become the poster-child of the mismanaged large banks in the United States. Warren Buffett brought it some relief with his “pussy-cat” deal. Yes, Mr. Buffett can say that he (and other wealthy people) should pay more taxes as he cuts such sweet deals with such nice tax benefits for himself. Yet, some are taking the Buffet bailout of Bank of America (BAC) as a signal that maybe a closer look needs to be given the position of Bank of America. (link)

Just look at some of the numbers. Bank of America has stated that slightly less than 20 percent of its residential mortgage loans as either delinquent or nonperforming, a rate that is similar to that of Wells Fargo. JPMorgan Chase has about 24 percent falling in this class while the fourth of the big four, Citigroup, has less than 14 percent.

And, “Not only does the bank still face billions in legal settlement costs from Countrywide Financial deals, but it also has to buy back billions in faulty mortgages. Bank of America’s questionable foreclosure practices continue to drag it down, and, in addition, it faces Securities and Exchange Commission investigations into the actions of its subsidiary, Merrill Lynch, in the lead-up to the financial crisis.”

In addition, bank profits are falling and with the Fed promise that it will keep interest rates low for the next two years, bank interest rate margins and, hence, bank profits can be expected to remain squeezed for the near term.

And, why is the Federal Reserve keeping interest rates so low for the next twenty-four months?

One reason for keeping interest rates so low is that the Fed will continue to provide the banking system with substantial liquidity so that banks can work themselves out of their bad loan situation and that failing banks can be removed from the banking system with the least disruption possible.

Furthermore, commercial banks in both Europe and the United States are cutting back on their employment by not just thousands of people, but tens of thousands of people when all the layoffs are added together.

We look at all this information and we wonder, “Just how bad off are the banks?” The regulators have been working on this situation for at least three years. And, we still have all these questions?

The only conclusion one can draw from this is that the regulators and the people “in the know” did not want us to know how bad things were. And, they still are reluctant to let any of this information out. Notice how upset people got when Ms. Lagarde let the “cat-out-of-the-bag” on Saturday.

So much of this dilemma goes back to the discussion about the need for financial institutions to mark their assets to market.

I know how hard this is to do in the case of some assets without active markets. And, I know how painful this is to do “after-the-fact”, that is, after the asset values drop underwater.

But, this is a lame excuse that has been allowed to go on for too long!

If banks take risky bets on interest rate movements, they should only do so with the knowledge that if the markets move against them they will have to pay a price by marking the assets to market. I also don’t buy the argument that they will hold the assets to maturity. If the banks “place the bet” they must pay the consequences.

Same thing with risky assets: as banks take on more and more risky loans in an effort to “beef-up” their return on capital they are overtly exposing the bank. Again, when the assets go south the banks need to own up to the bets they placed.

And, if these mark-to-market efforts are done on a more timely basis then the banks will have to move to correct their asset problems earlier and they will not get into the deep “doo-doo” they now find themselves in.

Sooner or later these bank problems are going to have to be taken care of. Stringing things out as the regulators and politicians have done only postpones the day we can move off into the future. It is a prerequisite for finally achieving more robust economic growth.

The fact that the problems we continue to read about still exist three years after the financial collapse took place only raises further questions and continues to add uncertainty to the economic climate. No wonder that people are so risk averse today and only want to buy US Treasury securities or gold. (link)

About John Mason 79 Articles

Professional history: Banking--President and CEO of two publically traded financial institutions; Executive Vice President and CFO of another. Academic--Professor at Penn State University and at the Finance Department, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Government--Special Assistant to Secretary George Romney at Department of Housing and Urban Development; Senior Economist in Federal Reserve System. Entrepreneurial--work in venture capital and other private equity; work with young entrepreneurs in urban environment.

Visit: Mase: Economics and Finance

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