Tag Archives: banks

The Missed Opportunity

For a snapshot of what’s wrong with our banking policy, look at the front page of the business section of today’s New York Times. On the left side: “U.S. in Standoff with Banks over Chrysler.” On the right side: “Banks Show Clout on Legislation to Help Consumers.”

On the left side, a consortium of banks holding Chrysler debt is refusing to agree to the current restructuring plan, which involves bondholders holding $6.9 billion in secured debt getting about 15 cents on the dollar – roughly where the bonds are currently trading, according to the Times.* The banks are playing the ongoing game of chicken with the government, betting that the government will cave and give them a better deal rather than take a risk on a bankruptcy.

On the right side, the banks are using their lobbying clout to block the administration’s proposals to help consumers and households, including the mortgage cram-down provision (which would allow bankruptcy courts to modify mortgages on first homes) and added consumer protections for credit card customers. They currently have all 41 Republican votes in the Senate tied up, which means nothing can pass.

The banks leading the charge over Chrysler: JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup. The banks opposed to cram-downs: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. The banks blocking credit card protections: American Express, Bank of America, Capital One Financial, Citigroup, Discover Financial Services, and JPMorgan Chase. All or almost all are bailout beneficiaries. But don’t blame them: they’re just doing what they can to maximize their profits at the expense of the taxpayer, which is perfectly legal (and even ethical, depending on your conception of shareholder rights). Instead, you should be wondering why they are in a position to be maximizing profits at the taxpayer’s expense.

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New Day, New Bank, Worse Story

It’s a beautiful day today, and after Goldman and JPMorgan, I don’t feel like diving deep into Citigroup’s earnings release. But judging from the Bloomberg article, it’s a similar story, just not as good.

1. All the good news was in fixed income trading: $4.7 billion in fixed income trading revenues; falling revenues in credit cards, consumer banking, and private client.

2. Assets continue to deteriorate: $5.6 billion in new writedowns in trading accounts; $3.1 billion in charge-offs and reserves for bad credit card debt.

3. Accounting fictions save the day (the new bit): $0.6 billion in losses that don’t have to be classified as other-than-temporary (and therefore affect the income statement) thanks to FASB; $2.5 billion in “profits” because of the fall in the value of Citigroup’s own debt. The theory behind the latter is that Citi could go into the market and buy back all of its distressed debt, which would be cheaper than paying it off at 100 cents on the dollar. Also: $0.4 billion in litigation expenses avoided (previously reserved) and tax benefits from an IRS audit.

Point 3 adds up to $3.5 billion, which dwarfs Citi’s $1.6 billion  profit. Why is everyone so optimistic about banks these days?

By James Kwak

Who Had This Good Idea First? (A Weekend Comment Competition)

In early February, James proposed that bankers’ bonuses be paid out in “toxic assets” – after all, the industry was arguing that these would definitely rebound (“it’s just a liquidity problem”) and that their “true” value was substantially above current market value.  The idea was well received by our readers but not so much by the banking or insurance industry.

Someone quickly pointed out that – back in December – Bloomberg reported Credit Suisse would actually use a version of the same idea.  And, in the whirlwind of the fall, I now vaguely remember this same point coming up even earlier in some bigger discussion.

So in the spirit of proper attribution (also because a reader asked and I’d like to know the answer), here is our first ever weekend “comment competition”.

Who really originated this (very good) idea, either in private discourse or – easier to document – in a public comment, blog post, corporate document, or the like?  We’d also welcome updates on where any form of this idea is being used in practice.

By Simon Johnson

New Day, New Bank, Same Story

JPMorgan Chase reported its quarterly earnings today. The headline was $2.1 billion in net income, beating analysts’ estimates. Behind the headlines, it was similar to the story that Goldman told earlier this week: a huge jump in fixed-income trading, status quo everywhere else, and continuing writedowns. For example, if you look at the breakdown of revenue by type of activity (not line of business) on page 4 of the supplement, you’ll see that revenue was flat or down in every category except one: principal transactions, where it jumped from a loss of $7.9 billion to a gain of $2.0 billion. That $9.9 billion improvement more than explains the entire increase in pretax profit from negative $1.3 billion to positive $3.1 billion.

As with Goldman, it was clearly a good quarter for JPMorgan; making money beats losing money any day. But the question to ask is whether it is sustainable, either for JPMorgan or for the banking industry as a whole. To answer that question, here are some pictures.

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Is Goldman Really That Good?

Goldman Sachs released its quarterly earnings yesterday, and the headline was  net income of $1.8 billion, doubling analysts’ estimates. I would say this is definitely good news for Goldman; whether it’s good news for the banking sector as a whole is more uncertain.

First, as Bruce Wayne, one of our readers, pointed out, the quarter-over-quarter comparisons left out December. Because Goldman just changed its fiscal year end, its previous quarter ended in November and its latest quarter ended in March. December was reported separately and – surprise, surprise – Goldman took a net loss of $0.8 billion. So if they had mashed December into Q1, they would have had a four-month “quarter” with $1.0 billion in profits.

Second, the positive results probably reflect a better mix of businesses than other banks enjoy. Although Goldman has made big one-sided bets, its trading operation traditionally hedged many of its positions and made a lot of its money on volume. Its positive Q1 results were largely due to strong performance in fixed income, currencies, and commodities (FICC) trading, which reflects the fact that Q1 was a busy quarter – in part because of the massive unwind at AIG – and, as Goldman’s CFO politely said, “Many of our traditional competitors have retreated from the marketplace.” With fewer players in town, the oligopoly profits go up – another reason why the big banks are even more powerful than they were before the crisis.

When it comes to the value of its own investments, Goldman seems to have done less well. Its net revenues for principal investments, mainly “Other corporate and real estate gains and losses,” were negative $1.4 billion in Q1 and negative $0.8 billion in December. While Goldman was able to more than offset this with trading gains, I wonder what the implication is for commercial banks that are not dominant players in trading.

(The FT also raised an eyebrow at the fact that per-employee compensation in Q1 was much higher than in the year-earlier period. That actually doesn’t worry me, because I’m guessing those compensation expenses are bonus accruals – the better the quarter you have, the more money you have to set aside for year-end bonuses.)

By James Kwak

Does Size Matter?

Simon argued in the Atlantic article, and I argued in “Frog and Toad” and “Big and Small”, that the best way to regulate the financial sector is to limit the size of individual institutions. In the interests of providing a contrasting point of view, I want to point out that Kevin Drum thinks that small banks can do just as much damage as big banks:

I think crude bank size is a red herring for our current financial collapse.  Small banks can become overleveraged just as easily as big ones, hedge funds pay higher salaries than Wall Street behemoths, the interconnectedness of the global financial sector is a bigger cause of systemic worries than size alone, and credit expansions spiral out of control largely due to lack of political will, not because Citigroup is large and clumsy.  Those are the things we should be focused on.

Therefore, Drum favors systemic oversight and regulation (which I agree would also be good). Besides the first article cited above, he continues the argument here.

Will It Work?

Leaving aside the question of subsidies, which has gotten piles of attention on the Internet, Simon and I are skeptical that the Geithner Plan will achieve its basic objective: getting enough toxic assets off of bank balance sheets to restore the financial system to normal functioning. We discuss this in today’s Los Angeles Times op-ed, although our regular readers could probably fill in the blanks by themselves.

Update: At 2:30 PM Eastern today, I’ll be on a live chat at Seeking Alpha with Felix Salmon and possibly Brad DeLong and Mark Thoma discussing the Geithner plan. Salmon is strongly against, Delong is moderately (strongly?) for, Thoma is moderately for.

Update 2: At The New Republic, Simon discusses one plausible scenario under which the Geithner Plan is the first step in a comprehensive bank rescue strategy. But he’s skeptical that we will see the other necessary steps.

Update 3: Chat is done; replay is here.

By James Kwak