Opinion

The Great Debate

Stress tests: The results are in, now what?

Mark_Williams_Debate– Mark T. Williams, who teaches finance at Boston University’s School of Management, is a former Federal Reserve bank examiner. The views expressed are his own. –

The market has anxiously waited over two months.  With the stress test results in, we now have our work cut out for us.  Not that these findings were surprising, as the 10 banks which made the government’s “need to raise additional capital now” list are the usual suspects, such as Bank of America (BofA), Citigroup, Wells Fargo, SunTrust, Fifth Third, KeyCorp, and Capital One.  They were problem banks before the tests and they continue to be.  But this painfully drawn-out process has spawned four tangible benefits worth discussing.

First, the stress test results raise an important policy question:  Should our largest banks, those central to our economy, be allowed to take such large risks? These results paint a clearer picture of the level of risky lending practices that many of our 19 largest banks engaged in over the last decade. The government’s assessment provides added support to the need for re-regulation in this vital industry.  In the worst-case scenario, the Fed reported that these banks, which control the majority of our country’s deposits and loans, could need to raise approximately $600 billion in additional capital just to cover increased loan defaults.

Second, the stress test results show that risky bets were not just concentrated but spread over many areas, including trading and financial contracts, first and second mortgages, commercial loans, securities, and credit cards.  Having more detail on the sheer scope and size of these risky bets and potential losses provides a stronger case for the need to revamp the capital standards currently applied to banks.

It also raises the question of how the Fed and other regulators might monitor the on-going level of bank risk-taking activities.  Under the existing Tier 1 regulatory capital standard, almost all 19 banks pass with flying colors, yet the stress tests show a bleaker picture as the majority failed this equally important financial health test. The level of risk they are taking, should the economy weaken further, can not be supported by their current level of capital. Tests indicate that the 10 weaker banks need to raise approximately $75 billion to cushion against those losses.

U.S. mouth writing checks its body won’t cash

James Saft Great Debate – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

A look at credit insurance prices for U.S. banks shows that market thinks the government’s mouth is writing checks its body can’t or won’t cash.

Despite a blistering rally in bank shares and Herculean efforts by the U.S. to build confidence in its financial sector, the price of insuring some leading banks’ debt against default has increased markedly in recent weeks.

Bank rally ready to be marked-to-market

James Saft Great Debate – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

U.S. bank operating earnings are going to have a hard time outrunning credit losses, making the massive rally in bank shares look ready to be marked-to-market.

A series of positive statements about profitability in the early part of the year from major U.S. banks, notably Bank of America, Citigroup and JP Morgan helped to spring a rally in the beaten down sector, as investors bet that with government assistance they could earn their way out of their troubles.

Bankers can’t kick the sporting habit

Alex Smith– Alexander Smith is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

People are up in arms about bankers receiving bonuses when the banks they worked for have gone down the pan. But isn’t it just as shocking that so many state-backed financial firms still subsidize the eye-popping wages of sporting superstars through rich sponsorship deals?

It’s the same story on both sides of the Atlantic. Citigroup, which received $45 billion from the U.S. government, is sticking with a $400 million marketing deal from 2006 which includes the naming rights for the new home of the New York Mets baseball team, which will be called Citi Field.

First 100 Days: Fix the banks

morici– Peter Morici is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Business and former Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission. The views expressed are his own. —

For every new president, campaign promises and inaugural idealism must give way to the hard choices that measure the mettle of their leadership.

Now Barack Obama must act pragmatically to fix the banks or the economy will sink under their weight.

Nationalization: Terrible but inevitable

James Saft Great Debate – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Nationalization of weak banks in Britain and the United States may be preferable to current plans for insurance and soft “bad banks” schemes which risk being swamped by future losses as assets, especially real estate, continue to crater.

An insurance program, getting banks to identify their riskiest assets to the government which will insure them for a fee, is one of the main planks of a UK plan to bail out banks unveiled this week.

Banking spins destruction myth: Hoocoodanode?

James Saft Great Debate – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Just as every society has a creation myth, banking is now busily writing a destruction myth that seeks to explain and soothe in a world torn to its foundations.

The myth, as expounded by regulators, bankers and their various service providers, is that we were hit by a perfect storm, a 1,000-year flood so unpredictable that we can’t possibly be held accountable for it. An act of god, rather than the folly of man.

Credit cards unkindest cut for U.S. consumers

James Saft Great Debate — James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Government intervention or not, banks will be cutting up America’s credit cards at an unprecedented rate, with grave implications for the economy and company profits.

The U.S. Federal Reserve last week added more nutrition to its alphabet soup of rescue programs when it unveiled the Term Asset-backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF), under which, among other things, it will lend up to $200 billion to investors in securities backed by credit-card, auto and student loans.

Slouching towards nationalization

James Saft Great Debate – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

The Citigroup bailout is sure to succeed, but only if you count avoiding making unpleasant but needed decisions as success.

It won’t work if you define success as building confidence and attracting private capital back to the banking system. It fails to work out a clearing price for rotten assets, and though it underwrites $306 billion of them even this huge sum is not enough to suspend disbelief.

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