I'm simply awestruck by the insanity. In order to cater to my audience, I try to be as cynical as possible in these pages. I work hard at it, I really do. But ever since I started writing, the ridiculousness of our current economic situation has consistently surpassed even my Orwell-inspired perpetual skepticism.
The recent debacle with the bank "stress tests" is yet another manifestation of this phenomenon. From the outset I dismissed the tests and their legitimacy. But I never dreamed that the Obama Administration, the banking industry and big media would go to such lengths to blatantly deceive investors. Now that the results of the tests are being used to justify further potential interventions, I suppose I need to summarize why the whole exercise is a fraud.
From the outset, there were so many problems with the structure of this plan that it should not have been given any attention as a legitimate exercise in the first place by the major media. By completely ignoring the contradictions that were plain as day in the process of the tests, the media tipped its hand that it would simply regurgitate whatever the administration and banking lobby told them to say. Here is a quick summary of why the tests were not even a worthwhile exercise in the first place:
1) The tests focused only on the loan books of the banks. It made no mention of derivative exposures, which are what really put the "entire financial system at risk." If the credit crisis were as simple as too many loans to people without jobs, this would be sufficient. But it is not.
2) The Treasury hired under 200 people to inspect the balance sheets of 19 banks over the course of approximately 6 weeks. A similar team of lawyers and securities experts spent years trying to untie the knot of Fannie Mae's loan book. They never really finished when Fannie went in to receivership. To think that 200 people could analyze 19 banks in such a short period of time is preposterous.
3) The Treasury officials relied on information given to them by the banks. There was nothing to stop the banks from picking and choosing what information to give. The models and assumptions that went into valuing the assets were not disclosed.
4) The goal of the test was to "restore confidence in the financial system." It was not to discover the truthful health of these institutions. So it was implicit in the very intent that banks should lie and obfuscate in order to achieve the "higher ideal" of confidence.
5) The test's "baseline" and "more adverse" scenarios were laughably optimistic. In some metrics, the baseline scenario's assumptions were already surpassed. Additionally, the scenarios did not factor in any acceleration of the Commercial Real Estate collapse, nor did it account for further deterioration in "Alt-A" loans or "Jumbo Prime" loans that are only now starting to approach their peak reset periods. The "stressful" scenarios flat-out assumed that no new problems would arise.
6) Immediately preceding the tests was the rejection of FASB 157, which allowed the banks to continue to mark their books to whatever they wanted, rather than what they were actually worth. Coincidence? Highly unlikely.
7) The repeal of FASB 157, along with inflated Q1 trading profits and other accounting shenanigans allowed the banks to post record profits for the first quarter. Those profits were used as the basis for future assumed profits in determining the capital ratios banks would require.
8) The banks were permitted to negotiate the results of the tests with the Treasury prior to their release. This alone should be enough to conclude that the whole exercise is a travesty of regulation. If the capital requirements were interpretive enough to be negotiable, they are effectively meaningless. The interpretive nature of such simple guidelines like, "what constitutes capital" makes it blatantly obvious that the results should not be trusted. In one such situation, Citigroup was able to negotiate their capital requirements down to $5 Billion from $50 Billion by claiming that assets that they have "pending for sale" should be considered as tangible equity. I tried to buy groceries this morning with a craigslist ad of furniture that I have for sale. They nearly called the police before I caved and paid cash.
9) Banks were permitted to use "Tier 1 Capital" as opposed to "Tangible Common Equity" as a measurement of their capital. The former massively overstates this capital. An analyst from RBC suggested that using the former would have resulted in an additional $68 Billion shortfall to the $70 Billion that was released. Below is a table from Rolfe Winkler that highlights this clearly:
The tests as they were originally crafted were supposed to be using TCE. But the banks didn't like this so they bitched and moaned until Treasury finally agreed to the less aggressive metric. Just another example of who was really calling the shots.
10) Now that the results are in, the banks have been reassured that the capital requirements may not actually be required if bank earnings continue to improve over the next two quarters. Essentially the Treasury said, "look guys, don't worry about the capital requirements we make public. We will give you ample opportunity to make up the difference by booking profits over the next two quarters. And we'll even turn a blind eye to any accounting tricks you need to make those numbers."
I could probably go on with another ten reasons why this whole process was a charade, but I will spare you the details. It is plain to the bare eye that what we have witnessed is a coordinated attempt by government and the financial industry to do anything possible in order to "restore confidence." If that means falsifying information, so be it. If that means tinkering with definitions, so be it. If that means trampling over decades-long regulatory procedures in order to obfuscate the truth, so be it.
As usual, what I find to be the most appalling factor in this is the mainstream media's total ignorance of the above and outright cheerleading of the results as an "all clear" signal.
Together with the media's compliance, the Obama Administration and the Financial Services industry have staged a massive confidence building charade, which to anybody not in direct benefit comes across as precisely the opposite. The fact that the Administration would go to such lengths to hide the truth behind the bank's insolvency issues, is anything but confidence inspiring.
All of the policy actions of the government over the last 6 months seem to be directed toward giving the "appearance" that the system is still solvent. The powder-puff regulatory treatment. The constant wink-wink, nudge-nudge relationship between regulators and boards of directors. The FASB 157 decision. Q1 earnings. The carefully crafted "scenarios" of the stress tests. The list goes on. It is all a carefully coordinated game of chicken being played with the minds of investors.
I'm not buying it. And I am fairly certain that some nasty details will be revealed of this whole situation as the economy deteriorates beyond the "more adverse" parameters, banks require continued capital infusions from Treasury or from FDIC via the Treasury. There was undoubtably collusion between the regulators and the regulated.
Which of course is one of the most identifiable characteristics of regulation in the first place. Heads are going to roll over this. Perhaps "Regulatory Capture" will become the catch phrase of 2010?
Disclaimer: The content on this site is provided as general information only and should not be taken as investment advice. All site content, including advertisements, shall not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell any security or financial instrument, or to participate in any particular trading or investment strategy. The ideas expressed on this site are solely the opinions of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions of sponsors or firms affiliated with the author(s). The author may or may not have a position in any company or advertiser referenced above. Any action that you take as a result of information, analysis, or advertisement on this site is ultimately your responsibility. Consult your investment adviser before making any investment decisions.