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Fed Said to Order Banks to Stay Mum on ‘Stress Test’ Results


By Bradley Keoun and Scott Lanman

April 10 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Federal Reserve has told Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Citigroup Inc. and other banks to keep mum on the results of “stress tests” that will gauge their ability to weather the recession, people familiar with the matter said.

The Fed wants to ensure that the report cards don’t leak during earnings conference calls scheduled for this month. Such a scenario might push stock prices lower for banks perceived as weak and interfere with the government’s plan to release the results in an orderly fashion later this month.

“If you allow banks to talk about it, people are just going to assume that the ones that don’t comment about it failed,” said Paul Miller, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets in Arlington, Virginia.

Regulators are using the tests to determine whether the 19 biggest banks have enough capital to cover loan losses during the next two years if the economy shrinks, unemployment surges and housing prices keep declining. The tests are a linchpin of the plan Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced in February to bolster confidence in the nation’s banks and restore financial-market stability.

Geithner has likened the stress tests to those used by doctors to evaluate a patient’s health. They’re designed to mesh with the administration’s effort to remove distressed mortgage assets from banks’ balance sheets. The Fed is overseeing the administration of the tests, people briefed on the matter say.

Progress Report

President Barack Obama is scheduled to get a progress report on the tests today during a meeting with his economic team. Geithner will attend, along with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Sheila Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Goldman Sachs plans to report first-quarter earnings April 14, followed by JPMorgan Chase & Co. on April 16. Citigroup reports April 17, and Morgan Stanley announces April 21. All four banks are based in New York.

Spokesman for the banks declined to comment.

“No matter what the result, the stress tests are going to move markets,” Camden Fine, president of the Independent Community Bankers of America, said in an interview yesterday. “That’s the tricky part. If they don’t give out enough information or the information is presented in the wrong way, that could cause markets to plunge.”

Silent on ‘Process’

Banks should stay silent because a focus on the tests would be “a harmful distraction” from earnings, said Scott Talbott, senior vice president for government affairs at the Financial Services Roundtable in Washington.

“It is premature for banks to talk about the stress tests,” Talbott said yesterday. “They aren’t finalized yet and there is no framework to evaluate the results.”

Wells Fargo & Co. Chief Financial Officer Howard Atkins declined to discuss the tests yesterday after his bank reported a record first-quarter profit that beat the most optimistic Wall Street estimates.

“We haven’t commented on regulatory matters and we won’t start now,” Atkins said in an interview. “We don’t comment on the process.”

In a separate interview later, Wells Fargo spokeswoman Julia Tunis Bernard declined to say whether the bank had been told by regulators to keep silent. “We don’t comment on our discussions and conversations with regulators and officials,” she said.

Under the Treasury’s plan, banks would have six months after the reviews to raise any new capital they might need. If the money isn’t obtained from private investors, the government will provide the funds from the $700 billion bank-rescue plan.

To contact the reporters on this story: Bradley Keoun in New York at bkeoun@bloomberg.net; Scott Lanman in Washington at slanman@bloomberg.net.

Exibições: 48

Comentário de Alexandre César Weber em 11 abril 2009 às 19:06

The Obama Economic Team's Flawed Cosmology: Still Believing the Universe Revolves Around the Banks


A series of recent meetings with members of Barack Obama's economic team (including running into Larry Summers on my way to an appointment in the West Wing, leading to a spirited back-and-forth that made me feel like I was back at Cambridge, debating the smartest kid in the class), left me with a pair of indelible impressions:

1) These are all good people, many of them brilliant, working incredibly hard with the best of intentions to solve the country's financial crisis.

2) They are operating on the basis of an outdated cosmology that places banks at the center of the economic universe.

Talking about our financial crisis with them is like beaming back to the 2nd century and discussing astronomy with Ptolemy. Just as Ptolemy was convinced we live in a geocentric universe -- and made the math work to "prove" his flawed theories -- Obama's senior economic team is convinced we live in a bank-centric universe, and keeps offering its versions of "epicycles" and "eccentric circles" to rationalize their approach to the bailout. And because, like Ptolemy, they are really smart, they are really good at rationalizing.

It's easy to get lost debating the complexity of each new iteration of each new bailout, but the devil here is not in the details -- but in the obsolete cosmology.

If you believe the universe is revolving around the earth -- when, in fact, it isn't -- all the good intentions in the world, and all the endless nights spent coming up with plans like Tim Geithner's Public-Private Investment Program will be for naught.

The successive bailout plans have been frustrating to many observers (yours truly included), but when you realize how fully the economic team is mired in a bank-centric universe, all the moves suddenly make perfect sense.

Here is one example. Everybody agrees on the paramount importance of freeing up credit for individuals and businesses. In a bank-centric universe, the solution was a bailout plan giving hundreds of billions to banks. It failed because, instead of using the money to make loans, the banks "are keeping it in the bank because their balance sheets had gotten so bad," as the president himself acknowledged on Jay Leno. As a result, the administration, again according to the president, had to "set up a securitized market for student loans and auto loans outside of the banking system" in order to "get credit flowing again."

But think of all the time we wasted while the first scheme predictably failed. And how much better off we'd now be if we had provided credit directly through credit unions or small healthy community banks or, as happened during the Depression, through a new entity like the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.

Luckily, there is a plethora of economic Galileos out there who recognize that the old bank-centric cosmology is just plain wrong. But while Joseph Stiglitz, Simon Johnson, Jeffrey Sachs, Nassim Taleb, Niall Ferguson, Paul Krugman, etc. are not being imprisoned for life for their heretical views -- they are also not being listened to. Which is really surprising for an administration that has prided itself on a "team of rivals" approach.

Worse, as the fundamental flaw in the administration's cosmology becomes more and more evident, the economic team around the president is closing ranks. Even David Axelrod, once the administration's champion of a more skeptical view of a bank-centric universe, appears to be peering through the Geithner-Summers telescope.

Back in February, he crossed swords with Geithner, arguing for executive pay caps. But there he was on Sunday, whiffing on a pro-populist softball offered up by Fox News' Chris Wallace, who asked: "When taxpayers are putting up most of the money and taking more of the risk, why would the Obama administration allow some of these executives to get even richer?"

Axelrod's answer? "On some of these programs, we're asking financial companies to come in and help solve this problem by providing more lending, by buying up toxic assets and so on. We don't want to create disincentives and undermine the program."

"Asking" them? Aren't we, in fact, bribing them with massive capital infusions and loan guarantees? That's what being surrounded by a group of modern day Ptolemys will do to a person.

Of course, it's less of a surprise that Geithner and Summers believe in bank-centrism -- they're both creatures of it. Which is why it wasn't a shock when it was reported this weekend that Summers had received $5.2 million for advising a hedge fund last year, or that he received hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from some of the very banks -- including J.P. Morgan, Citigroup, and Goldman Sachs -- that have been on the receiving end of billions in taxpayers money. Billions that have come with very few strings attached -- and almost no transparency.

I am in no way suggesting there is anything corrupt about this or any quid pro quo involved. It's just that in a bank-centric universe, funneling no-strings-attached money to too-big-to-fail banks is the logical thing to do.

So is arguing that the banking crisis is just a liquidity problem rather than an insolvency one, as Geithner continues to do (and if the stress tests come back declaring Citi solvent, it will be high time to start stress testing the stress testers).

In a bank-centric universe, it's also no surprise that "mark-to-market" accounting rules, in which banks have to calculate and report their assets based on what those assets are actually worth, instead of what they'd like them to be worth, are being abandoned. A good name for the reworked accounting standards would be mark-to-fantasy, because that's basically what balance sheets will be under these new rules. Of course, to a true believer in bank-centrism, the problem with mark-to-market is that it's not good for the banks. It's the accounting equivalent of Galileo's telescope.

Last week at the G-20 meeting, Gordon Brown proclaimed that "the old Washington consensus is over." But when it comes to attacking the financial crisis, the zombie Wall Street/Washington consensus that has everything in America orbiting around the banks is still the order of the day.

The longer bank-centrism is the dominant cosmology in the Obama administration -- and the longer it takes to switch to a plan that reflects a cosmology in which the American people are the center of the universe and are deemed too-big-to-fail -- the greater the risk that the economic crisis will be more prolonged than necessary. And the greater the suffering the crisis will continue to cause.

There is an enormous human cost to this bank-centric dogma. Unemployment, already at levels not seen since 1983, is skyrocketing. In many places in the country, it's approaching 20 percent (and in Detroit it's 22 percent).

Writing about the "grand book" that is the universe, Galileo declared that it "cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written... without these, one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth."

That's where we find ourselves today, wandering about in a dark financial labyrinth -- being led by good men blinded by an obsolete view of the world.

President Obama needs to open his inner economic circle to those untethered to this flawed way of thinking and acknowledge that navigating our economic crisis using maps based on a cosmology that places banks at the center of the universe can only lead to our being lost at sea for years to come.

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