Neil Unmack’s Profile
Finance’s 80s experiment shows cracks
We may never see mullet hairstyles or other weird fashions again, but in finance, there is a 1980s revival.
The International Accounting Standards Board has gone back to the future, allowing banks to reclassify assets they previously had to mark to market as loans and receivables, valued at amortized cost. That effectively allowed them to avoid the embarrassment of mark-to-market and return to the historic cost accounting of a quarter-century ago.
The reasons are plausible enough: many asset classes were quoted at nominal, distressed sale prices only. But you ignore market prices at your peril: problems loans are left to fester, exposing investors to the cost of loan managers (understandably) taking a rosy view of advances they may have approved.
Many European banks took advantage of the IASB’s lenience to whip doubtful assets off their trading books — not just plain debt, but collateralized loan obligations, leveraged loans and other doubtful exotica. Now Deutsche Bank <DBKGn.DE> has indicated how this stuff is doing, and the answer is: badly.
Deutsche’s pretty figures would have been quite spoiled had it taken a further 1.4 billion euros of unrealized losses on the 37 billion euros of assets it reclassified since last October.
The discrepancy between the carrying value and fair value shouldn’t be a surprise — that was the whole point of the changes. Unfortunately, the market is proving to have been right in pricing some of these assets as junk, because the losses in the reclassified book are starting to show.
More than half of Deutsche’s 1 billion euro provisions for credit losses in the second quarter derived from these reclassified assets. Some 2 billion euros of the 3.2 billion euro rise in problem loans had previously been reclassified.
Deutsche is not alone. RBS’ <RBS.L> impairment losses on reclassified assets rose to 747 million pounds in the first three months of the year, up from 466 million at the end of last year. UBS is carrying assets reclassified last year at 24.7 billion Swiss francs, versus the fair value of 20.6 billion.
The accounting changes are not designed to bamboozle investors, even though that is frequently the result. Losses may have been deferred, but they will happen. The question for banks is whether they can generate profits quickly enough to offset them. Market prices that seemed ridiculous in the depths of the panic may turn out not to have been the equivalent of the mullet after all.