Monday, April 13, 2009

Are Banks Telling the Truth?

On the front page of the Financial Times this morning we read the disconcerting headlines, “’Tarp cop’ to investigate whether banks have ‘cooked their books.’” (See Neil Barofsky, special investigator-general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), is “seeking evidence of wrongdoing on the part of banks receiving help from the fund.”

The game—“institutions applying for TARP money had to show they were fundamentally sound, potentially prompting them to misstate assets and liabilities.” Barofsky is quoted as saying, “I hope we don’t find a single bank that’s cooked its books to try to get money but I don’t think that’s going to be the case.”

Mr. Barofsky also said the Treasury’s expanded Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) was ripe for fraud.

The potential—fraudsters would be receiving indictments!

Two thoughts cross my mind when reading this. First, bankers in deteriorating situations tend to hide their heads in the sand when it comes to bad assets because they keep hoping that things will get better and the assets will recover their value. Having (successfully) completed several bank turnarounds I have found that this is one of the first things that becomes obvious when you initially investigate the loans and other assets of a troubled institution. Bankers, lenders, or portfolio managers continually think that ‘the economy will turn around’ or that ‘the company is getting its act in order’ or that some other event will come along that will result in the ‘asset gone bad’ becoming the ‘asset has become good again.’ And, so the asset is carried along but never comes back to life.

The problem with this is that these bad assets continually undermine the ability of the financial institution to right itself and become profitable again. The example is always there on the books of the banks and whether the executives or officers admit the fact, internally they know that things are not right and this drains efforts to instill a healthy culture to “do the right thing.” Managements that allow this unhealthy culture to continue are just perpetrating a bad situation, one that very rarely ever turns itself around.

The managements that participate in such a charade tend to be desperate and susceptible to moving to the next step when they are thrown a life boat like many financial institutions received in the past nine months or so.

Before following up on this point, let me just say that, historically, the bank either brings in someone to turn the institution around, or, a regulatory agency steps in and dissolves the organization. The American banking system has worked very well in the past with respect to “sick” banks. Contagion has been avoided through quick action connected with the swift resolution of problem assets. Financial institutions that were in trouble were taken care of—period!

But, that is not the case in the current situation. We have had a bailout. The banks have been tossed a life boat. However, financial institutions were supposed to be “fundamentally sound” in order to obtain TARP money. Here we get into the muddy waters of conducting a “general” bailout.

Let me just say that I have been suspicious from the start when government officials claimed that the need for the TARP funds was because the banks were facing “a liquidity problem” with respect to their troubled assets.
Again, my experience in doing bank turnaround’s is that the officers of the bank that claimed their assets were in trouble because of liquidity problems were attempting to cover up the real difficulties connected with the assets which were almost always associated with the issue of solvency.

It would not be much of a surprise to me to hear that the banks justified to the government that they were “fundamentally sound” because their asset problems were associated with liquidity issues rather than ones of solvency. This assessment could perhaps be supported if government officials only took a cursory glance at the assets. But, one could argue that this is the conclusion that government officials wanted to hear at that time.

Is this fraud? That is what Mr. Barofsky is going to have to find out.

Other than outright “cooking of the books”, in many cases the distinction between liquidity and solvency may fall back on an argument about “judgment”, about the “eye of the beholder.” Thus, Mr. Barofsky is going to have his problems proving his case.

In my opinion, many of the banks that received bailout relief had and still have a solvency problem and until the situation is handled that way the dislocations associated with the banking industry and the financial markets are going to continue. Consequently, I believe that Mr. Barofsky and others are going to find evidence that all along the issue has been solvency and not liquidity. If so, then there is a real issue of whether or not that these institutions that received TARP money were “fundamentally sound.”

My second thought on this issue is a very simple one. If people inside the banks covered up the real issues related to solvency heads should roll. Those that committed fraud should be indicted! Those that knowingly misled should be dismissed!

And, top executives, even though they were not directly involved in fraud or in a cover up, should be removed from their positions as well. They have proven that they cannot manage their institutions with sufficient control to justify their ability to move those institutions on into the future. The “buck stops with the top position” and the argument that they didn’t know what was going on is insufficient. It was their responsibility to know what was going on!

Risk management, the other “bug-in-the-coffee”, and financial control are not glamorous pursuits, especially when compared with the “jet pilots” of finance that were tossing around all sorts of money chasing narrow spreads with lots and lots of leverage. Performance over time, however, is closely related to an institution’s ability to successfully exert risk management and financial control.

We have to know what is going on in the banks and other financial institutions. The pressure needs to be stepped up to find out where things are. And, the sooner this pressure is exerted the sooner we will be able to find ways out of the mess we are in.

And this brings me to one final point. The Financial Times also had another headline on its front page that I found disturbing. The article cried out “AIG in derivatives spotlight.” (See “The unit that all but destroyed AIG has failed to sign up for the overhaul of the global derivatives market, which was given added impetus by the troubles at the US insurance group.” The government is involved with AIG—the government owns most of AIG. It is mind boggling to me that a government that supposedly wants to bring greater openness and transparency to the financial markets allowed this to happen!

1 comment:

Brian said...

All of this hand wringing over whether or not the banks lied is a symptom of and a distraction from the real problem. The real problem is the inflationary boom of the previous 10 years that led an entire industry to massively miscalculate.