Financial Review

Monday, April 28, 2014 – But Our Bankers Aren’t Oligarchs

But Our Bankers Aren’t Oligarchs
by Sinclair Noe
DOW + 87 = 16448
SPX + 6 = 1869
NAS – 1 = 4074
10 YR YLD + .01 = 2.67%
OIL – .03 = 100.57
GOLD – 7.50 = 1297.30
SILV – .16 = 19.67
This should be an interesting week. On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee, the FOMC, will meet to determine monetary policy; a statement will be issued Wednesday. On Friday, we’ll have the monthly jobs report.
The market is jittery. The Dow fell 140 points on Friday, rose 139 on Monday morning, and gave it all back Monday afternoon, then recovered at little at the close. Investors are worried about the Ukraine crisis, the Fed’s tapering, peak earnings, high PEs, low GDP, inflation, deflation, and of course, their own shadows.
So far, the stock market has merely been sluggish to start the year; no big crash, no big gains. Last week, the big 3 indices were down a little, while the indices are in negative territory year to date, that could change with one good week of trading. After doubling or tripling since 2009, stocks aren’t cheap any more. Companies, meanwhile, are finding it harder to keep raising earnings in a period of soft economic growth. This makes investors more cautious, but because speculative excess still hasn’t reached the extremes of past bubbles, and because the Federal Reserve is determined to sustain the recovery, there is less fear of a big decline. The Fed has started slowly rolling back its quantitative easing, gradually ending the unprecedented bond-buying program that dumped more than $1 trillion into financial markets. Investors are trying to figure out how well corporate earnings will grow with less Fed aid.
A big complication is that many companies are reaching the limit of their ability to boost profits by cutting costs. More companies now need to focus on building revenues, which means higher costs for investment, hiring and wages. The days may be ending when Wall Street will reward companies for holding down wages and doing little investing; the focus is shifting to sustainable earnings.
Margin debt, a measure of the use of borrowed money to invest, is at a record high in dollar terms. But as a percentage of market value, it is 2.6%, still between the 2008 low of 2.3% and the 2007 high of 2.8%. Still, the markets haven’t yet shown enough excess to warrant a crash, and so people are still buying the dips; probably because they haven’t yet figured out where else they can go.
Money managers are turning on stocks that have delivered the best returns during the bull market: small caps. Large speculators such as hedge funds are betting $2.8 billion this month that the Russell 2000 Index will fall. That’s the most since 2012 and the highest versus average levels since 2004.
Today, the National Association of Realtors reported its Pending Home sales index increased 3.4% to 97.4. The index is based on contracts signed last month to purchase previously owned homes. These contracts usually become sales after a month or two, and March’s rise suggested home resales could rebound in the months ahead. Existing home sales had fallen to their lowest levels in more than 18 months, with March sales down 7.9%; but today’s report suggests the possible end to the soft patch in sales.
Along with the economic news this week, we’re keeping an eye on geopolitical events, as Ukraine is crumbling under a constant barrage. Russian backed militants extended their hold on eastern Ukraine by seizing more public buildings in Donetsk region, breaking up rallies by supporters of the government in Kiev. The mayor of the second largest city in Ukraine was shot today. Russian gunmen are holding about 40 hostages, including 6 military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, their interpreter and 4 Ukrainian army officers who were accompanying them.
Today, President Obama announce more sanctions against Russian oligarchs; imposing travel bans and asset freezes for 7 individuals and 17 companies. So far, most of the sanctions have been targeted toward energy companies or energy company executives and banks and bankers. Stop and think about that for a moment. Russian bankers are considered oligarchs fomenting geopolitical unrest and supporting the corrupt regime of Putin. And in the US we’re supposed to believe that our bankers are the beneficent titans of industry and pillars of commerce.
Last week we reported that the Department of Justice was in the early stages of negotiating a settlement with Bank of America. The government is reportedly seeking $13 billion in penalties, on top of $9.5 billion that BofA agreed last month to pay to the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The problem is that BofA sold mortgage backed bonds stuffed with shoddy mortgages that did not meet basic standards.
A big part of the settlement would go to the FHFA as compensation for selling the defective bonds to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Another part of the settlement takes the form of consumer relief; requiring the bank to adjust mortgages to make them more affordable for borrowers; the problem is the bank probably doesn’t own the mortgages, so the bank wouldn’t really have that expense.
Also, digging deeper into the previously announced $9.5 billion settlement with FHFA, about $3.2 billion involved BofA buying back mortgage bonds, but they bought those securities for 20 cents on the dollar, and they still have value, probably a lot more than what BofA paid. When is a penalty a profit? When a big bank settles with the bank regulators.
The Supreme Court will hear a case that has some intriguing implications for mortgages; it involves the Truth in Lending Act. The case is Jesinoski v. Countrywide, the subsidiary of Bank of America. The Jesinoskis refinanced a mortgage in 2007; when their loan was closed, Countrywide did not provide all of the disclosures required by the Truth in Lending Act (TILA). Their suit states that they were not provided with two copies of a “Notice of Right to Cancel” and two copies of a “Truth in Lending Disclosure Statement.”
Under the Truth in Lending Act, a borrower has the right to rescind the loan by midnight of the third business day following the closing of the loan, or until the lender has provided the borrower with all the legally required loan documents. The Act also creates a three-year time limit to exercise the right to rescind the loan, even if the required disclosures have not been delivered to the borrower. Three years to the day, the Jesinoskis sent a letter to Bank of America rescinding the loan. BofA said the letter meant nothing. The Jesinoskis sued to enforce their rescission request, saying that their letter should have been sufficient.
The case has made its way through appellate courts, which denied their appeal, but other District Courts have been split on whether a letter is an allowable form of notification in instances such as the Jesinoskis’ case. The Supreme Court merely said they would hear the case; any actual decision is a long way off.
A more pressing matter for Bank of America is capital levels required by the Federal Reserve. You may remember the Fed recently conducted stress tests for big banks and it turns out that, following further review, Bank of America flunked the test; seems they miscounted  the treatment of structured notes assumed in its acquisition of Merrill Lynch in 2009. The bank notified the Fed of its mistake and the Fed is now “requiring the Bank of America Corporation to resubmit its capital plan and to suspend planned increases in capital distributions.” Or in plain English, no stock buybacks, and no dividend increases.
Particularly concerning for regulators and shareholders, the bank had been making the accounting error for more than four years, potentially inflating its true level of capital during that period. This basically goes to the practice of booking gains or losses based on changes in the value of a firm’s own debt, which led to BofA’s regulatory capital problem. Essentially, accounting rules mean that, in some cases, the worse off a firm is from a credit standpoint, the more it may gain in terms of earnings. That is because the value of its own debt would be falling during a stressed time. This would lead to a smaller liability. And a decline in a liability results in a gain to income.
This didn’t used to be much of an issue since the value of bank debt didn’t change all that much. Then came the financial crisis. And as bank debt remained volatile in its wake, firms were left with big counterintuitive gains or losses in their income based on fluctuations in the value of some of their liabilities. Banks started to exclude the impact of such changes from their results. Investors couldn’t make heads nor tails of the mess, and so they ignored it, at least until it affects buybacks and dividends. The important part to remember is that BofA flunked its stress test, and nearly 6 years after the financial meltdown they still have toxic junk on their books and they haven’t figured out how to count it.
Meanwhile, regulators in Britain announced they’ve begun criminal proceedings against 3 former Barclays employees suspected of manipulating the Libor. The new criminal proceedings are the latest development in a broad investigation into the manipulation of major interest rates by some of the largest global banks, including Barclays, UBS, Royal Bank of Scotland, and others. Twelve people in total are now facing criminal charges in Britain. All 12 are mid-level traders. Barclays, RBS, UBS, the Dutch lender Rabobank and ICAP have combined to pay more than $3 billion in fines to British and American authorities in the investigation of manipulation of various Libor-linked interest rates, but so far regulators have not been able to figure out whether higher level execs at these institutions knew anything about manipulation in a multi-trillion dollar market; which seems remarkably unlikely.

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