Andrew Ross Sorkin
Published: April 20, 2009
This is starting to feel like amateur hour for aspiring magicians.
Another day, another attempt by a Wall Street bank to pull a bunny out of the hat, showing off an earnings report that it hopes will elicit oohs and aahs from the market. Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and, on Monday, Bank of America all tried to wow their audiences with what appeared to be — presto! — better-than-expected numbers.
But in each case, investors spotted the attempts at sleight of hand, and didn’t buy it for a second.
With Goldman Sachs, the disappearing month of December didn’t quite disappear (it changed its reporting calendar, effectively erasing the impact of a $1.5 billion loss that month); JPMorgan Chase reported a dazzling profit partly because the price of its bonds dropped (theoretically, they could retire them and buy them back at a cheaper price; that’s sort of like saying you’re richer because the value of your home has dropped); Citigroup pulled the same trick.
Bank of America sold its shares in China Construction Bank to book a big one-time profit, but Ken Lewis heralded the results as “a testament to the value and breadth of the franchise.”
Sydney Finkelstein, the Steven Roth professor of management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, also pointed out that Bank of America booked a $2.2 billion gain by increasing the value of Merrill Lynch’s assets it acquired last quarter to prices that were higher than Merrill kept them.
“Although perfectly legal, this move is also perfectly delusional, because some day soon these assets will be written down to their fair value, and it won’t be pretty,” he said.
Investors reacted by throwing tomatoes. Bank of America’s stock plunged 24 percent, as did other bank stocks. They’ve had enough.
Why can’t anybody read the room here? After all the financial wizardry that got the country — actually, the world — into trouble, why don’t these bankers give their audience what it seems to crave? Perhaps a bit of simple math that could fit on the back of an envelope, with no asterisks and no fine print, might win cheers instead of jeers from the market.
What’s particularly puzzling is why the banks don’t just try to make some money the old-fashioned way. After all, earning it, if you could call it that, has never been easier with a business model sponsored by the federal government. That’s the one in which Uncle Sam and we taxpayers are offering the banks dirt-cheap money, which they can turn around and lend at much higher rates.
“If the federal government let me borrow money at zero percent interest, and then lend it out at 4 to 12 percent interest, even I could make a profit,” said Professor Finkelstein of the Tuck School. “And if a college professor can make money in banking in 2009, what should we expect from the highly paid C.E.O.’s that populate corner offices?”
But maybe now the banks are simply following the lead of Washington, which keeps trotting out the latest idea for shoring up the financial system.
The latest big idea is the so-called stress test that is being applied to the banks, with results expected at the end of this month.
This is playing to a tough crowd that long ago decided to stop suspending disbelief. If the stress test is done honestly, it is impossible to believe that some banks won’t fail. If no bank fails, then what’s the value of the stress test? To tell us everything is fine, when people know it’s not?
“I can’t think of a single, positive thing to say about the stress test concept — the process by which it will be carried out, or outcome it will produce, no matter what the outcome is,” Thomas K. Brown, an analyst at Bankstocks.com, wrote. “Nothing good can come of this and, under certain, non-far-fetched scenarios, it might end up making the banking system’s problems worse.”
The results of the stress test could lead to calls for capital for some of the banks. Citi is mentioned most often as a candidate for more help, but there could be others.
The expectation, before Monday at least, was that the government would pump new money into the banks that needed it most.
But that was before the government reached into its bag of tricks again. Now Treasury, instead of putting up new money, is considering swapping its preferred shares in these banks for common shares.
The benefit to the bank is that it will have more capital to meet its ratio requirements, and therefore won’t have to pay a 5 percent dividend to the government. In the case of Citi, that would save the bank hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
And — ta da! — it will miraculously stretch taxpayer dollars without spending a penny more.
The latest news on mergers and acquisitions can be found at nytimes.com/dealbook.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 22, 2009
The DealBook column on Tuesday, about accounting changes at large banks that had the effect of improving their quarterly earnings reports, misidentified a professor who was critical of the accounting moves. He is Sydney Finkelstein, the Steven Roth professor of management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth — not Steven Roth.