Commentaries

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from Rolfe Winkler:

Ending the off-balance sheet charade

Investors have more than one reason to celebrate two new accounting rules. Besides forcing banks to fess up to the risks they are carrying on their books, new standards for off-balance sheet assets will make it harder for companies to inflate earnings artificially.

The new rules - FAS 166 and 167 - are desperately needed to prevent banks from hiding assets to increase leverage. Lending that isn't supported by capital is a main ingredient behind unsustainable credit bubbles, and banks' off-balance sheet games played a big role in the most recent one.

But another reason banks like off-balance sheet structures is that it enables them to manufacture profits.

Coming up to the end of a quarter, if a company is a bit short of its earnings target, it can package some assets together into a security and "sell" them to an off-balance sheet entity.

from Rolfe Winkler:

Banks still need bigger cushions (Q2 TCE update)

reuters-logoIt was a surreal moment two weeks ago when analysts on Goldman Sachs’ earnings conference call pressed CFO David Viniar to jack up leverage. They seem to think that the worst of the credit crisis is behind us, so Goldman should goose its risk profile to increase returns. This is remarkably short-sighted.

Yes, leverage is down, but only relative to the obscene levels reached a year ago.  Measured by tangible common equity, the biggest banks are still levered over 20 to 1. If banks learn nothing else from the financial crisis, it’s that they should err on the side of prudence, carrying substantially more capital than appears necessary.

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