Saturday, 28 March 2009

Big Banks Pull off The Ultimate Bait & Switch

We’re not quite as healthy as we thought we were. Oops.

J.P. Morgan Chase Chief Executive James Dimon said…that March was a little
tougher than the first two months of the year….Bank of America…CEO Kenneth Lewis also said that March had been a tougher month for his bank.

Convenient that they decided to dump this information on Friday afternoon, and at the close of a very good week.

Readers may recall that a few weeks ago, those two CEOs—along with Citi’s Vikram
Pandit—said the first two months of the year had been very good:

Pandit, March 10th: “We are profitable through the first two months of 2009 and are having our best quarter-to-date performance since the third quarter of 2007.”

Dimon, March 11th: “Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase,
said Wednesday that the bank was profitable in January and February…”

Lewis, March 12th: “We have been profitable for the first two months of
the year,” Lewis told reporters after a speech in Boston today

This was possibly the most nakedly self-serving bullshit the big bank CEOs have offered to date. (”bullshit” being a technical term of course, see Harry Frankfurt)

By February, it was understood that the big banks are all insolvent, certainly Citi and BofA. To deal with them, consensus among the cognoscenti was finally tending to a proper recapitalization: wiping out shareholders and forcing losses onto creditors via debt-for-equity swaps. Call it nationalization, call it preprivatization, call it FDIC receivership, it was clear that losses had to be recognized and by those to whom they properly belong: investors across the banks’ capital structure.

But no one really wanted to do this, not in Congress and certainly not in the Obama administration, where Timmy Geithner has made clear that his priority isn’t a cleansed banking sector, it’s a privately-owned one. For obvious reasons the banks don’t like this solution either. So they offered up their self-serving b.s. regarding January and February, buying just enough time for Congress/Bernanke to badger FASB into changing mark-to-market rules and for Geithner to roll out his private-public partnership plan.

Now whatever losses the banks can’t hide with revised accounting treatments, they can simply fob off on taxpayers via the partnerships. They got what they always wanted: A bad bank! An entity that will actually absorb losses from the asset side of the balance sheet! Shareholders and creditors don’t have to worry about further writedowns, not the ones that can’t be hidden anyway. Taxpayers will pick up the check!

Even better, the Geithner plan is so ridiculously complex—and public disclosure is likely to be so minimal—that toxic asset transfers are likely to happen largely out of view. Maybe Treasury will have to increase its borrowing substantially in order to fund the losses, but by that point everyone will be celebrating that banks have started lending again. Hooray!

By the way, are there ANY substantial protections to prevent banks from gaming this plan? What’s to stop them from acting as the equity investors in the partnerships, ponying up a sliver of equity to effect a transfer of toxic assets from their own balance sheets to the public’s? The FDIC’s FAQ for the legacy loans program doesn’t even address this particular Q. Is it not being frequently asked?*

This is all of a piece. The longer CEO/policy-maker collusion can delay loss recognition, the more time they have to invent ridiculous leverage schemes (more money printing! more government borrowing to fund “stimulus”! more FDIC “guarantees”!) to inflate those losses away…and to continue looting the public’s wealth.

But losses aren’t going away. Trading smaller private liabilities for larger public liabilities in order to artificially inflate asset prices does nothing to repair the economy’s aggregate balance sheet. At the end of the day, we’re still just lending more and more against a dwindling pool of real equity. The unwind is coming. Adding more leverage to delay it will only increase the pain.

Source: Rolfe Winkler

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