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Stress tests reveal Citi and BofA need more capital, but you knew that already

The leaks about who failed the stress tests are already starting.  Who got a big fat ‘F’?  Apparently, Citi and BofA for starters.  But is that any surprise?

Regulators have told Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc. that the banks may need to raise more capital based on early results of the government’s so-called stress tests of lenders, according to people familiar with the situation.

The capital shortfall amounts to billions of dollars at Bank of America, based in Charlotte, N.C., people familiar with the bank said.

Executives at both banks are objecting to the preliminary findings, which emerged from the government’s scrutiny of 19 large financial institutions. The two banks are planning to respond with detailed rebuttals, these people said, with Bank of America’s appeal expected by Tuesday.

The findings suggest that government officials are using the stress tests to send a tough message to struggling banks. Bank of America and Citigroup have been the highest-profile problem children in recent months, but it is unlikely that they are the only banks the Federal Reserve has determined might need more capital.

Just three months ago these two mega-banks were on the verge of collapse and needed yet more cash to sustain them.  So, the ‘stress tests’ haven’t provided any new information.  But, ah, there’s that last sentence: “it is unlikely that they are the only banks the Federal Reserve has determined might need more capital.”  Who else might need more dosh?

Industry analysts and investors predict that some regional banks, especially those with big portfolios of commercial real-estate loans, likely fared poorly on the stress tests. Analysts consider Regions Financial Corp., Fifth Third Bancorp and Wells Fargo & Co. to be among the leading contenders for more capital. Wells Fargo declined to comment. Representatives of Regions and Fifth Third didn’t respond to requests for comment made late in the day.

Government officials say their meetings about the stress tests with bank executives over the past few days conveyed preliminary results and that discussions were expected to continue this week about specific findings. They also say that banks directed to raise more capital shouldn’t be viewed as insolvent.

Come again? Banks directed to raise more capital shouldn’t be viewed as insolvent? Then what is the purpose of the stress tests, pray tell?

Instead, the capital is intended to cushion the banks against potential future losses under dire economic conditions. Federal officials say they won’t allow any of the top 19 banks to fail.

Still, it is unclear how flexible the government will be about adjusting the results, especially as banks plead their cases individually. Banks have until the middle of this week to lodge their formal responses to the tests. Bankers expect that will set the stage for several days of intense negotiations between the banks and their examiners.

Ah, I see, it is all a sham.

It sounds a lot like a test where the student banks who just failed go to the teacher regulator with mommy and daddy bank lobbyists in tow to see if they can get their grades changed higher. See, the stress are just a scheme to make us think the Federal government is actually doing something about the under-capitalized banking system in the U.S.. In reality, the Obama Administration is just buying more time in order to let us grow our way out of this problem.

According to MIT Professor and former IMF Chief Economist Simon Johnson, this is very nearly what Larry Summers said in a Feb 24th speech at the Inter-American Development Bank. Summing up Summers’ statements, Johnson says:

Summers made five points that reveal a great deal about his personal thinking – and the structure of thought that lies behind most of what the Administration is doing vis-a-vis the crisis. Some of this we knew or guessed at before, but it was still the clearest articulation I have seen.

  1. All crises must end. The “self-equilibrating” nature of the economy will ultimately prevail, although that may take massive one-off government actions. Such a crisis happens only ”three or four times” per century, so taking on huge amounts of government debt is fine; implicitly, we will grow out of that debt burden.
  2. We will get out of the crisis by encouraging exactly the kind of behaviors that “previously we wanted to discourage” two years ago. It is “this insight, this view” particularly with regard to leverage (overborrowing, to you and me) that “undergirds the policy program in the United States.”
  3. There is a critical need to support financial intermediation and to ensure it is adequately capitalized, with a view to the risks inherent in the current situation. He then said, with a straight face, that the current bank stress tests are designed with this in mind.
  4. Growth in the 1990s and more recently was based too much on finance (this appears to be a relatively new thought for Summers). The high and rising share of finance in corporate profits “should have been a warning”. The next expansion should be based less on asset bubbles and more on investment in key public services.
  5. The financial regulatory system “in fundamental respects has been a failure”. There have been too many serious crises in the past 20 years (yes, this statement was somewhat at odds with the low frequency of major crises statement in point 1).

Just one look at the credit ratings and stock prices of the 19 banks and financial institutions in the stress tests will tell you which are the weak institutions. So, why the charade?

Based on what Summers is saying, the stress tests are not designed to really test anything. They are designed to make it seem like the government has things well in hand so that we can grow our way out of this crisis with the help of government stimulus and debt.

Now, Summers and Geithner are not stupid. They do have a backup plan here. As I said in a recent post, not everyone is going to pass, and indeed, some banks have failed. What does that mean? It means these banks will be given some time to come up with the capital necessary to be adequately capitalized. If they cannot do so, the government will have to explore other options. This Plan B could include debt-for-equity swaps, nationalization, and FDIC seizure.

So, Geithner and Summers are hoping FDIC-subsidized funding, toxic asset removal, fiscal stimulus, quantitative easing and all the other measures now in place will kick in and provide a recovery – and solve the banking problem. However, if the problem is not solved, there is plan B – debt-for-equity swap, nationalization, or asset seizure.

In my view, we should be going to Plan B right from the start rather than going through this jury-rigged sham of a stress test.

Sources
Fed Pushes Citi, BofA to Increase Capital – WSJ
Larry Summers’ New Model – The Baseline Scenario

About 

Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former career diplomat, investment banker and technology executive with over twenty years of business experience. He is also a regular economic and financial commentator on BBC World News, CNBC Television, Business News Network, CBC, Fox Television and RT Television. He speaks six languages and reads another five, skills he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. Edward also writes a premium financial newsletter. Sign up here for a free trial.