As of last week, the stock market remained characterized by strenuous overvaluation, strenuous overbought conditions, overbullish sentiment, and hostile yield pressures. The fraud charges brought against Goldman Sachs by the SEC may or may not provide a catalyst for market weakness, but significant risk is already baked into observable market conditions. The present syndrome tends to be followed by large and abrupt losses (though with somewhat unpredictable timing). To the extent that investors tend to attribute market fluctuations to the immediate news surrounding them, the Goldman Sachs issue may become more of a subject of investor attention in the weeks ahead than it deserves. But really, is anybody actually surprised?
Meanwhile, it is notable that the "favorable" earnings reported by J.P. Morgan and Bank of America in the first quarter were due to reduced provisions for credit losses - charges that are largely discretionary. In the fourth quarter of 2009, J.P. Morgan charged $8.9 billion against earnings to provide for credit losses, but in the first quarter of 2010, it charged $7.0 billion. Thus $1.9 billion of the $3.3 billion in earnings reported by JPM reflected reduced provision for credit losses. Likewise, the main factor driving Bank of America's earnings was a reduction in loss reserves. Indeed, the provision for credit losses was $3.6 billion lower than it was a year ago (when delinquency rates and credit losses were running at a fraction of current levels).
The reduced provision for credit losses might be reassuring were it not for the fact that delinquencies, foreclosures, non-performing loans, commercial mortgage strains, and actual charge-offs reported by various sources have been either unchanged or accelerating. Bank of America, for example, reported that 30-day delinquencies on residential mortgages hit a new record of 8.5% in the first quarter (though the surging FHA-insured portion will allow them to pass some of the consequent losses off onto the American public)
It seems equally unwise to celebrate "favorable" bank earnings reports that are exclusively driven by reduced loan loss provisions, particularly when the volume of impaired loans has not declined proportionately. Keep in mind that Enron and Worldcom were able to report outstanding earnings for a while by adjusting the manner by which revenues and expenses were accrued. I suspect that the U.S. banking system has become a similar breeding ground for innovative accounting.
Hussman's view on the banking profits
I am glad to read that Hussman shares my opinion on both the banking profits: just smoke and mirror and the fact that news come after the market event (rationalization process), and not the opposite. Here's a quote from his weekly market commentary: