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New York Times
Financial stocks have more than doubled from their March 2009 lows. And with autumn — generally a rocky season for the markets — fast approaching, it's a good time for a reality check on the banking sector. The goal: to determine whether fundamentals in the industry support the rocket-fueled surge in bank shares.
To be sure, the stock market and smart money often try to anticipate recoveries long before they are evident in the numbers. But a "relief rally" — that is, the exuberance that accompanied the fact that our economy appears to have avoided another Great Depression — won't have the same staying power as a move based on solidly improving operations. So understanding what's going on in banks' financial statements is worthwhile.
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With that in mind, Christopher Whalen, managing director at Institutional Risk Analytics, a research firm, has analyzed financial data from the second quarter of this year that almost 7,000 banks submitted to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The data includes 90 percent of institutions with federally insured deposits but excludes reports from the 19 money-center banks like Citigroup, Bank of America and Wells Fargo. Those reports are filed later to the F.D.I.C.
Even with the big guys missing from the analysis, it is an illuminating look at the health of regional and community banks and a fairly comprehensive assessment of the industry's well-being.
Unfortunately, that assessment shows that the number of financially sound banks is declining and that the ranks of troubled institutions are growing. Indeed, Mr. Whalen said his figures show more stress in the banking industry in the second quarter of 2009 than in the immediately previous periods.
For example, Institutional Risk Analytics gave 4,234 banks a rating of A+ or A (as a measure of their financial soundness) as of June 30. That total was down 21 percent from the end of March and 25 percent from the end of 2008. Meanwhile, it slapped a failing grade on 1,882 banks as of June 30, up 16.5 percent from the end of March; the number with failing grades had dropped a bit in the first quarter.
This downward migration is a sign that more banks are now feeling the effects of economic conditions regardless of their business models, Mr. Whalen said. In other words, even the best-run banks are having trouble escaping the impact of a sluggish economy and high unemployment.
Based on his preliminary review of individual bank reports, Mr. Whalen said the greater stress across the industry results from the large number of banks getting dinged by losses or charge-offs. The figures, Mr. Whalen said, call into question assumptions made by the government earlier this year, when it put major banks through "stress tests."
In short, the tests may not have been tough enough.
"The stress tests said that through the two-year cycle, big banks had to have enough capital plus earnings to withstand a 9 percent loss rate," Mr. Whalen said. "But what we're seeing with the levels of stress in the industry is that we are there now and we are not at peak of cycle yet."
The government's stress tests also assumed that the third quarter would show a bit of an improvement, and Mr. Whalen does not necessarily disagree. But any reduction in losses in that quarter may also be short-lived. "The third quarter may be a little rah-rah in terms of loss rates," Mr. Whalen said, "but if the economy isn't dramatically improving, then the fourth quarter of this year and the first quarter of 2010 will be another leg down."
The good news is that some banks have raised capital during these past few months of investor optimism. But a host of operational problems remains at many institutions. In addition to loan losses and rock-bottom recovery rates on assets they're trying to unload, for example, banks also face rising expenses (because they're paying to carry properties that generate scant — or zero — revenue). All of this cuts significantly into earnings, which banks desperately need to bolster their battered financial positions.
With banks short on revenue, they cannot apportion enough for reserves against future loan losses. "In bad periods," Mr. Whalen said, "banks typically set aside twice as much as they charge off, but now a lot of them are at one-to-one."
Later this year, Mr. Whalen said, banks that stayed on the straight and narrow and dealt swiftly with their problems will start to emerge from the morass.
"But we will still have a very large percentage of the population experiencing problems going into the end of the year," he said.
Surely, investors in financial companies have earned a respite from their long slog of losses, and the recent rally has been a tonic for damaged stock portfolios. But it's simply not clear that the banking industry is out of the woods. It took many years to inflate the enormous debt bubble that popped in 2007. The deleveraging process, which is nobody's idea of fun, will take a long time, too.
Satan says; "Got your hole dug yet to put all your moola in?, or better still follow the advice of all the gold pimps on TV and Radio, and get your investment all shiney!"