Opinion

The Great Debate

from Rolfe Winkler:

New off-balance sheet rule: Little impact on Wells

The new accounting standard requiring banks to bring assets back on balance sheet had a negligible impact on Wells Fargo. Despite having over $2.0 trillion of off-balance sheet assets, Wells consolidated just $10 billion of risk-weighted assets when the new standard took effect January 1. (See slide 17 in the bank's supplemental earnings release)

wells 166 better

The idea behind the new accounting standard is to bring hidden assets back into the light of day so that regulators can insure proper levels of capital are held against them. With Wells, this appears not to be happening.

Last summer, the bank estimated the new standard would raise risk-weighted assets by $46 billion.* In its last quarterly filing, it revised the estimate down to $25 billion.** When the standard finally went into effect, the figure was just $10 billion.

Total off balance sheet assets, meanwhile, were over $2.0 trillion at the end of September. (see page 31)

One reason for the giant difference is that "conforming" mortgages comprise a bit over half of Wells' off balance sheet assets. These are eligible for a government guarantee via Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or Ginnie Mae, argues the bank, so it needn't consolidate them since they pose no risk to its balance sheet.

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.

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