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Financial Chicanery and Accounting Charades

Posted by Larry Doyle on October 1, 2009 11:38 AM |

Financial chicanery and accounting charades come in all shapes and sizes. From mismarking trading positions on Wall Street to running massive Ponzi schemes and with many other stops along the way, the games people play to accrue false profits and cover real losses are endless. That said, all this artifice ultimately does end as the true value, or lack thereof, of the underlying assets is flushed out. For this very reason, I remain extremely concerned about the economy and overly conservative in my approach to the markets.

While we could debate at length about the necessity and efficacy of the FASB’s relaxation of the mark-to-market accounting for bank assets, ultimately the accounting will not truly matter. Why? The value of the assets on the banks’ balance sheets will find their true level. In the process, the banks will be sufficiently capitalized, or not. My bet is that many more of these banks will not be sufficiently well capitalized. Additionally, do not expect bank examiners and regulators to share this information.

I see clear evidence of this exact scenario in reading Bloomberg’s esteemed columnist Jonathan Weil’s commentary, Banks Have Us Flying Blind on Depth of Losses:

There was a stunning omission from the government’s latest list of “problem” banks, which ran to 416 lenders, a 15-year high, as of June 30. One outfit not on the list was Georgian Bank, the second-largest Atlanta-based bank, which supposedly had plenty of capital.

It failed last week.

Georgian’s clean-up will be unusually costly. The book value of Georgian’s assets was $2 billion as of July 24, about the same as the bank’s deposit liabilities, according to a Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. press release. The FDIC estimates the collapse will cost its insurance fund $892 million, or 45 percent of the bank’s assets. That percentage was almost double the average for this year’s 95 U.S. bank failures, and it was the highest among the 10 largest ones.

Do you think Georgian Bank was a special situation that somehow slipped past the accountants, examiners, and regulators? If you believe that, I have some AAA sub-prime CDOs for you that really look like good value.

What do we learn with the failure of Georgian? As Weil attests:

The cost of Georgian’s failure confirms that the bank’s asset values were too optimistic. It also helps explain why the FDIC, led by Chairman Sheila Bair, is resorting to extraordinary measures to replenish its battered insurance fund.

How many other ‘Georgians’ are out there? Plenty. The material difference amidst the banking system is the composition of the loan and investment portfolios of different institutions. Despite the fact that the FASB, pressured by Congress and Wall Street, has allowed banks to utilize chicanery and charades to cloud our view, fortunately we have journalists like Jonathan Weil to provide some clarity.

Might we be able to get Mr. Weil to shed some light on “Analyst Exposes Wells Fargo Balance Sheet Charade”?

LD

  • Spot on Larry. How many other Georgian Banks are out there? No one has any idea. Remember that IndyMac Bank was also NOT on the FDIC Problem Bank List either. So, that list, while it is at a 15-year high, still clearly does not give us an accurate or thorough picture of how many problem banks are out there. I sure wish that I could use mark-to-market accounting rules for my own stock portfolio and home value!!

    • Larry Doyle

      The lack of clarity by examiners and regulators is not because they do not know . . . it is because they do not want the public to know. However as people in cities, towns, and communities around the nation see these institutions closing down, that is tough to hide.

      Thanks for the insights.






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