Monday, May 4, 2009

Fed Delays Release Of Bank Stress Test Results

The Federal Reserve has decided to delay the release of results from its recent stress test on banks. It appears that the Fed is trying to limit damage to the banks who will appear weak based on the results, and allow them more time to figure out how they will raise the necessary funds. It will no doubt be interesting to see how investors react to the information provided by the stress test. For more on this, read the following article from Money Morning.

The results of the bank stress tests are in, but instead of releasing them today (Monday), the U.S. Federal Reserve is holding them close to its chest until after the markets close Thursday.

The amount of information awaiting disclosure seems to have grown, as have the reasons to postpone the potentially damaging data.

Not only will the government unveil which banks require more capital, it will also disclose potential loss estimates for certain loan categories and the banks’ ability to “absorb those losses” assuming economic conditions worsen through 2010, a government official told The Wall Street Journal.

Negative results could deal a huge blow to both the banks and government, as a sub-par grade may be viewed as an indictment not only of the failed management of the banks, but the government’s decision to loan them billions of taxpayer money. The banks also are concerned that anything but a tactful release of the results will cause internal and investor panic.

Government and banking industry officials told Bloomberg that both sides needed the extra time to debate preliminary results, as well as plans regarding how banks can recover capital.

On April 24, the government showed the tests’ preliminary results to the 19 U.S. firms it reviewed – from behemoth banks like Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC) and Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C) to the smaller GMAC LLC (NYSE: GMA) and MetLife Inc. (NYSE: MET). The banks involved in the stress tests hold more than half the loans in the U.S. banking system and two-thirds of the assets.

Everybody understands they’ve got a tiger by the tail here,” Mark Tenhundfeld, a senior vice president at the American Bankers’ Association in Washington, told Bloomberg. “If they don’t let him go gently, there will be a lot of mauling going on.”

Already, reports have leaked that two specific banks need more capital, and reaction hasn’t been pleasant.

After showing Bank of America and Citigroup test results, the government told the banks to raise more capital despite receiving a combined total of $95 billion in bailout loans.

At least three more banks need more capital, either from converting common shares to equity and/or receiving more government cash, sources told Bloomberg.

Sensing blowback from Congress, as well as the public, Federal Reserve chairman Ben S. Bernanke said that banks requiring more capital will have to attempt to raise it on their own before receiving another lifeline loan from the government.

Confusion On Evaluation’s Methodology

Debate over the results isn’t the only reason for the postponement. Disputes and confusion over the Fed’s methodology has also erupted.

According to a Fed’s test criterion, common shareholder equity should be the “dominant” portion of Tier 1 capital. Officials favor tangible common equity of about 4% of a bank’s assets and Tier 1 capital worth hovering around 6%.

But The Wall Street Journal reported last week that some bank executives got mixed signals during a meeting with regulators.

The regulators are asking “a million questions” and it’s “very unclear what they’re aiming at,” a senior executive told The Journal. “We can’t discern a pattern.”

Citigroup officials argued that regulators haven’t given the bank enough credit for its efforts to offload large asset chunks, such as Smith Barney and its Japanese brokerage arm Nikko Cordial Securities.

On Friday, Citigroup agreed to sell Nikko Cordial Securities, its Japanese brokerage arm to Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group (OTC: SMFJY) for about $5.5 billion. The deal, which is to be completed by Oct. 1, also includes a transfer of about $2 billion in excess cash from Nikko Cordial to Citigroup.

The deal will boost the bank’s Tier-1 capital ratio by approximately 27 basis points.

Individual Result Releases

One insider told Reuters that the government is leaning toward releasing individual results for each bank involved in the stress test – a move away from issuing a summary of results.

The source said the plan “is not very far along,” and that regulators also aim to disclose a lot of confidential supervisory information about the banks.

One analyst says that test results could be so specific to a bank’s portfolio that it’s not wise to use them as a litmus test for the overall health of the banking sector.

“Once you try to take that information and extrapolate it, it gets very complicated and it’s dangerous," Kevin Petrasic, who served at the Office of Thrift Supervision from 1989 to 2008 and is now an attorney at law firm Paul Hastings in Washington, told Reuters.

Whatever the results – or how they are disclosed – Money Morning’s Shah Gilani, a former Wall Street hedge fund manager, said the evaluation process has several flaws.

“What’s missing, unfortunately, is an assumption of how much additional capital would be necessary to facilitate credit expansion – which, in turn, would serve to fuel economic growth. That, after all, should be the ultimate stress-test objective,” he wrote.

And the end result is more stress added to an already stressed banking sector, as too much information and/or misinformation only makes a sound assessment more difficult.

Money Morning’s Stress Test

The government’s pushback of stress test results only made the public more hungry for the their release. But you don’t have to wait until Thursday to know which of the 13 biggest U.S. banks are diamonds or duds.

Last week in Money Morning’s Bank Stress Test,” Martin Hutchinson highlighted the four secrets that will let you separate the winners from the losers in the U.S. banking system

  • Banks that made profits in the very difficult fourth quarter of 2008 and first quarter of 2009 are probably in good shape, especially if their loan-loss provisions exceeded their charge-offs (the amount actually lost.)
  • Banks that lost money in the fourth quarter and first quarter may or may not be in terminal trouble; it depends on the amount of those losses and whether the red ink is expected to continue to flow going forward.
  • With the run-up in bank stocks in recent weeks, there’s been an accompanying rise in the ratio of share price to book value (stock price per share/book value per share). If that ratio is still below 30% - even after the recent price increases - the market lacks confidence in the bank’s ability to solve its own problems. Unfortunately, the market currently appears to be overly optimistic about some of the banks that still have considerable ongoing problems.
  • Management’s dividend policy is less of an indicator than it was just a few short months ago; several banks have sharply cut their dividends in order to repay the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) capital they got in late 2008. Reasonably, profitable banks don’t want the government meddling in their business or compensation structures

Hutchinson also gave an individual analysis of each bank, highlighting their strengths and pulling a curtain on their weaknesses.

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