Friday, November 30, 2012

Overheard at a Branch Opening

"We're financially lacking in fodder,
As bankers, to earn as we oughter,
When deposits accrue
At zero-point-two
And we lend out at three and a quarter."

Dr. Goose was among the guests at the opening of the Glen Ridge, New Jersey branch of Boiling Springs Savings Bank. As an invited community leader (not as a limericker laureate), I chatted with Boiling Springs' President & CEO Bob Stillwell, who proudly told me of the bank's adherence to the time-honored business of taking deposits and making mortgages. This basic approach has served the bank well from the 1959 founding of its original branch in Lyndhurst NJ, to the opening of its 18th branch today. Not only has the bank stuck to the basics, it has also stuck with Mr. Stillwell, who joined over 40 years ago as a recent college graduate.

One of the ways in which Boiling Springs, a mutual holding company, puts down roots in the four New Jersey counties in which it operates is by supporting local charitable causes. This was evident in the reception's guest list, which included trustees of the Glen Ridge Educational Foundation and the Glen Ridge Community Fund. The bank had actively supported both organizations before even setting up shop in Glen Ridge.

Boiling Springs' head of lending, Frank Weber, asked my opinion on the current interest rate environment, which we agreed was not easy for savers or community bankers. "Margin compression" is a serious concern for an institution whose funding cannot get any cheaper; at 0.15%, its checking accounts now pay three times the national average rate. Every incremental reduction in mortgage rates reduces the bank's interest margin, for which a higher level of refinancing volume is only a partial compensation. Still, a savings bank that has grown slowly and stuck to its knitting through five decades of financial cycles is not likely to let a little margin compression impede its progress.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Remembering Lincoln on Thanksgiving

In celebration of Thanksgiving Day 2012, I offer once again my limerick verse based on the 1863 proclamation that established our national holiday:

"The Almighty, with merciful gaze
Looking past our iniquitous ways,
Has bountif'ly blessed,
As we all may attest
In a day of Thanksgiving and praise."

In 1863, with the nation ablaze in civil war, President Abraham Lincoln spoke movingly of
"these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, [to which] others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God... They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People."
It is worthwhile to read the entire proclamation as we come together to give thanks in a time of troubles, and remember the greater trials of our history. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Caveat Emptor

A buyer who looks to an audit
Of a target before having bought it,
May leave itself open
In spite of all hopin',
To sellers' attempts to defraud it.

Years ago, an accounting professor visited a class of credit risk analysis trainees, of which I was one, and told us that "a financial statement is like a bikini: what it reveals is interesting, but what it conceals is vital." Every so often, I have cause once again to ponder the professor's sage insight. Today, for example, comes news of an $8.8 billion accounting fraud allegedly perpetrated on HP by management of the software company Autonomy, which $HPQ acquired last year for $11.1 billion. Autonomy's key product is IDOL, a software package that allows big users to crunch big data and find patterns and meaning in it. HP alleges that, notwithstanding clean audits by Deloitte, Autonomy's pre-acquisition financial statements contained -
The mischaracterization of revenue from negative-margin, low-end hardware sales with little or no associated software content as “IDOL product,” and the improper inclusion of such revenue as “license revenue” for purposes of the organic and IDOL growth calculations.The use of licensing transactions with value-added resellers to inappropriately accelerate revenue recognition, or worse, create revenue where no end-user customer existed at the time of sale. This negative-margin, low-end hardware is estimated to have comprised 10-15% of Autonomy’s revenue.
Somewhere, my old accounting professor is smiling ruefully.

Monday, November 19, 2012

No Cliffhanger

A pundit, politically touting,
The conventional wisdom was flouting,
When he roundly dismissed
The Fiscal Abyss
As "Over, except for the shouting."

The Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal declares that today's stock market is in the throes of a "Morning Money Ben rally." That's because Politico's Ben White has made the gutsy call that the fiscal cliff is already over. Swimming against the current of mainstream media coverage of this supposed January 1 cliffhanger, Mr. White points out the essential difference between the political situation today and that which prevailed during the Debt Ceiling debacle:
Nearly every signal from Republicans suggests they understand they have lost the war over taxes going up on the wealthiest Americans and are just trying to figure out how to get the least objectionable deal that includes real spending cuts and a trigger for tax and entitlement reform. It’s clear from polling that the GOP will get the blame if taxes go up on everyone on Jan. 1 and any subsequent damage to the economy and markets will fall squarely at the party’s feet. Republicans are no longer ignoring such polls.
In a somber counterpoint to Mr. White's analysis, Mr. Weisenthal reminds us that the greater political difficulty for President Obama this time may lie on his own Democratic side, in getting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to play ball in the field of Social Security and Medicare cutbacks.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

No Security in Book Value

Said a banker: "The Crisis revealed,
In investments we carried for yield,
How extreme fluctuations
Affect valuations,
So better to keep them concealed."

Said investors: "It's better to trust
In the price you could fetch if you must,
And the equity value
Which, hopefully, now you'll,
Accordingly, have to adjust."

Bankers, regulators, lobbyists and the US Congress have all turned their attention to the US implementation of the Basel III regulatory framework, which appears to have very few friends in high places. One always-controversial element of Basel III is the requirement to mark to market those securities that a bank has as "available for sale." Bankers hate this idea because it increases the reported volatility of earnings and capital. At a Senate Banking Committee last week, Michael S. Gibson, director of the Division of Banking Supervision and Regulation at the Fed, appeared prepared to give a little in the face of industry pushback, saying that regulators are "considering changes to the treatment" of such securities.

However, if bankers hate mark-to-market, investors should love and defend it. As the Journal's Heard on the Street columnist David Reilly writes: "the only thing worse than a loss at a big bank is pretending it doesn't exist." Reilly points out that available-for-sale securities comprised $2.6 trillion, or 19% of bank assets, on June 30, up from 14% in 2008. Like it or not, such investments do fluctuate in value, and pretending that they could be disposed of at cost only leads to investor distrust during financially difficult times. Unlike bank loans, liquid securities are not reserved against, so marking them to market is the only way to assure that, at least in this one respect, investors can place some credibility in the reported book value of financial institutions.

Friday, November 16, 2012

WSJ: No Security in Book Value

Here is my latest post for the Journal's Total Return blog, on the fight over banks' having to mark to market their securities held for sale. Please enjoy, and leave a comment!

RIP Hostess

Hostess will finally cease
Mixing flour and sugar & grease,
And many are sad,
But is it so bad
After making the nation obese?

For me, the bankruptcy and liquidation of Hostess was a bit like reading of the death of a former celebrity that you had thought was long deceased. I have not seen, much less eaten, a Twinkie in twenty years. The company's demise has been met with an outpouring of grief fit the passing of a national icon, which in a way it was. But was it a good way? This was a maker of products whose nutritional emptiness and questionable chemical content were so widely known that their consumption once comprised part of the psychological testimony for the defendant in a murder trial. While I do mourn for the 18,000 jobs lost, the death of Hostess leaves me feeling... curiously empty.

Conditions Are Tight

Said Bernanke: "By now it is evident
That tight mortgage standards are prevalent,
Which is really too bad,
As it's time that we had
An impetus, not an impediment."

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke gave a speech at a housing conference yesterday in which he noted the tight lending conditions currently prevailing in the mortgage market. Although loose lending standards contributed to the 2008 economic collapse, and tightening standards in response was appropriate, Bernanke said it appears that “the pendulum has swung too far the other way,” denying some creditworthy borrowers. This may slow the housing revival and impede the economic recovery, warned the Chairman.

That mortgage lenders remain reluctant to lend puts a spotlight on the limitations of Fed action, inasmuch as the central bank has recently begun a program to buy $40 billion a month of mortgage-backed securities as a way of freeing up the market's credit capacity. Chairman Bernanke spoke in Atlanta at the Operation HOPE Global Financial Dignity Summit. His remarks did not address the question of whether "financial dignity" is an oxymoron.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Perfect Scandal

In DC, it's a welcome distraction
From each warring political faction:
Invoking, in speeches,
Security breaches
From man-on-biographer action.

It appears that the affair of CIA director David Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwell, is the perfect Washington scandal, giving the mainstream media just enough connection to supposed "national security issues" to justify around-the-clock coverage of a tabloid story. This was made abundantly clear today during President Barack Obama's midday press conference.  The President spoke on progress in negotiating a long-term budget deficit solution that would avoid the fiscal cliff (or "austerity bomb," as I like to call it), with special attention to his insistence on letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the top 2% of income earners.  The first question went to the AP's Ben Feller, who asked:"Can you assure the American people that there have been no breaches of national security or classified information in the scandal involving Generals Petraeus and [John] Allen?"

Now, this is a non-question, since it is already evident that there was no breach of national security, and we already know that Ms. Broadwell had classified information on her computer.  Of course, Mr. Feller's question gives him an opening to write a lede containing the keywords "sex scandal", which is much juicier than leading with "tax cuts" or the "fiscal cliff". However, this is a time when the nation needs to focus on its long-term sustainability, and the Ben Fellers of this world should be helping us to do so - as should the Dr. Geese.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Rhyme & Reason on the Fiscal Cliff

If rational ladies and chaps
In Congress agree to put caps
On deductions from taxes,
Then revenue waxes,
With deficits waning, perhaps.

But merely increasing the revenue,
For sustainable budgets, would never do.
Our care for the aged
Must now be re-gauged,
If balance long-term we endeavor to.

To establish a little more surety
For Medicare and Social Security,
We must compensate
For our slowing death rate
By raising the age of maturity.

The Congress may not be remiss
In horsetrading that against this,
For to hope there is reason
That Washington's seizin'
Escape from the Fiscal Abyss.

Over the weekend, Dr. Goose was seized by optimism when he read Greg Mankiw's latest blog post regarding the resolution of the fiscal cliff. In a post entitled "How To Raise Tax Revenue From The Rich Without Increasing Tax Rates," Prof. Mankiw writes:
According to the Tax Policy Center, if we cap itemized deductions at $50,000 and keep tax rates as they are today, we would raise $749 billion in tax revenue over ten years. Moreover, according to the TPC's distribution table, 96.2 percent of the extra revenue would come from the top quintile, with 79.9 percent from the top one percent.
This elegantly simple modification to the tax code, which was also floated by Mitt Romney during his presidential campaign, could be the core of a compromise on the federal budget. The quid pro quo would be a reduction in the growth rate of spending by "gradually but significantly increasing the age of eligibility for Medicare and Social Security." Of course, there's more to it than this, and the devil, as always, is in the details, but it does give one hope to see a simple framework on which reasonable people can come together.

In a related point, I like the term "austerity bomb" as a more descriptive alternative to "fiscal cliff" for describing what will happen if no budget deal is reached.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Post-Election Analysis

The super PACs failed in their mission
To win with financial munition.
Though pols who would carry
Find cash necessary,
It's not a sufficient condition.
* * *
The House GOP had consistently
Obstructed Obama insistently,
But now they're at pains,
Having garnered no gains,
To avoid going cliff-diving fiscally.
* * *
The nation would like to see whether
The parties can now work together
To right our finances,
Or what are the chances
That partisanship rules as ever?

The results of the 2012 US elections have provided rich fodder on which political junkies of all stripes may chew. The New York Times reported this morning that wealthy sponsors of conservative super PACs got no return on the investments that they made in such vehicles as "American Crossroads." Co-founded by Karl Rove, this super PAC, along with the affiliated "Restore our Future," collected about $300 million, seemingly for naught. Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor and Republican party chairman who helped raise money for the two groups, consoled himself that their spending helped keep the race as close as it was.

House Republicans seem to be chewing a little more thoughtfully these days, as evidenced by their newly cooperative rhetorical stance with regard to the "fiscal cliff." Speaker John Boehner struck the new tone in remarks at the Capitol: "Mr. President, this is your moment. We’re ready to be led — not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans. We want you to lead, not as a liberal or a conservative, but as president of the United States of America." Of course, many have already predicted such conciliatory talk, followed by a reversion to partisanship, so we must be cautious in our expectations.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election Night

The election result may not alter
That bipartisanship tends to falter,
But still one can yearn
For the gridlock to turn,
Though there's hardly a reason at all ter.

President Barack Obama has apparently won reelection with a decisive electoral college count, on top of a 50/50 split popular vote. As in 2010, the Election Day result leaves the country with a Democratic President and Senate, at odds with a Republican House. Now that the President's reelection is no longer at issue, what will be Congressional Republicans' top priority? Will the Democrats find economic issues - such as healthcare costs, higher education or deficit reduction - on which the parties can work together constructively? I do hope so, though I hardly dare to expect it.

Congratulations to the President and all the victorious candidates tonight. Let's do good things for the country.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Election Follies

Republicans tended to pout
When statistical guys pointed out:
Though the margin is tight
'Tween the Left and the Right,
Re-election is hardly in doubt.
* * *
The Economist recommends "O"
As, on balance, the best way to go:
"After careful review
Of the devil who's new,
We'll stick with the one who we know."
* * *
The GOP House is in harm'ny
That, until the election of Romney,
They're refusing outright
Any measures that might
Aid recovery of our econ'my.

As the US election day looms tomorrow, a group of wonky "poll aggregators" such as Nate Silver of 538 have attracted attention with predictions that President Obama's re-election is an eighty or so percent likelihood. This has generated a lot of misunderstanding, especially among the President's opponents, as to how someone can estimate such an overwhelming probability of his victory when all the polls show something like a statistical dead heat. The answer is that Mr. Silver and others like him take all of the data from various polls and use them to run possible scenarios for electoral college outcomes. The models show that, in 4/5 of the possible scenarios, Mr. Obama wins the electoral college, regardless of how close the popular vote may be. Supporters of Mr. Romney may console themselves that their man still has a 1/5 chance of beating the odds.

The Economist, in its judgment that "the Devil you know is better than the Devil you don't know," seems to encapsulate the general feeling that this election is all about President Obama, whether you love him, hate him or fall in between. Mr. Romney seems almost beside the point, except to provide an alternative for those who don't like the President. That group would include Republican members of Congress, who for the last four years have stalled any sort of economically forward-looking initiatives for the country, lest the President get the credit. Would they be any less obstructionist in a second Obama term? Would Mr. Romney's election suddenly unleash their capacity for positive action? We shall soon see.

Please do your civic duty and vote on Election Day!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

More Vortex Verses

My friend Andy Fately, the "FX Poet" of Barclays Capital, is, like me, stuck at home in New Jersey. He writes:

"There once was a poet named Fately.
You haven't heard much from him lately.
Seems Sandy derided
His verse, so decided
To have him write lines more sedately."

Andy's clients should see him back on the job by Monday. In the meantime I hope we hear more great verses!

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