Banks Profit From Masking Looming Loan Losses

Another Bloomberg report which confirms what we have been saying for the past couple of months about the GAAP accounting principles, mark to market rules replaced by mark to fantasy rule, and other level-3 assets soaring against level-1 assets and even level-2 assets.
June 5 (Bloomberg) -- [...] Analysts who have examined the quarterly profits and government tests say that accounting rule changes and rosy assumptions are making the institutions look healthier than they are.

The government probably wants to win time for the banks, keeping them alive as they struggle to earn their way out of the mess, says economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University in New York. The danger is that weak banks will remain reluctant to lend, hobbling President Barack Obama’s efforts to pull the economy out of recession.

Citigroup’s $1.6 billion in first-quarter profit would vanish if accounting were more stringent, says Martin Weiss of Weiss Research Inc. in Jupiter, Florida. “The big banks’ profits were totally bogus,” says Weiss, whose 38-year-old firm rates financial companies. “The new accounting rules, the stress tests: They’re all part of a major effort to put lipstick on a pig.”

Further deterioration of loans will eventually force banks to recognize losses that their bookkeeping lets them ignore for now, says David Sherman, an accounting professor at Northeastern University in Boston. Janet Tavakoli, president of Tavakoli Structured Finance Inc. in Chicago, says the government stress scenarios underestimate how bad the economy may get.

The accounting rule changes that matter most for the banks came on April 2, when the Financial Accounting Standards Board gave companies greater latitude in how they establish the fair value of assets. Lawmakers, including Representative Paul Kanjorski, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, had complained that existing mark-to-market standards worsened the financial crisis.[...]

At Citigroup, the recipient of $346 billion in fresh capital and asset guarantees from the government, about 25 percent of the quarterly net income came thanks to the debt securities rule change, the bank said.

Another $2.7 billion before taxes came from an accounting rule that lets a company record income when the value of its own debt falls. That reflects the possibility a company could buy back bonds at a discount, generating a profit. In reality, when a bank can’t fund such a transaction, the gain is an accounting quirk, Weiss says.

Citigroup also increased its loan loss reserves more slowly in the first quarter, adding $10 billion compared with $12 billion in the fourth quarter, even as more loans were going bad. Provisions for loan losses cut profits, so adding more to this reserve could have wiped out the quarterly earnings.

Without those accounting benefits, Citigroup would probably have posted a net loss of $2.5 billion in the quarter, Weiss estimates. In the five previous quarters, Citigroup lost more than $37 billion.

Wells Fargo also took advantage of the change in the mark- to-market rules. The new standards let Wells Fargo boost its capital $2.8 billion by reassessing the value of some $40 billion of bonds, the bank said in May. And the bank augmented net income by $334 million because of the effect of the rule on the value of debts held to maturity.

Wells Fargo spokeswoman Julia Tunis Bernard declined to comment, as did Citigroup’s Jon Diat.[...]

“These changes will help the banks hide their losses or push them off to the future,” says Sherman, a former Securities and Exchange Commission researcher.[...]

The banks may look pretty, but they’ll be zombies until they clean up their books.

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