why are higher interest rates good for banks?

There are two factors involved:

behavior of bank managements:  To a considerable degree, commercial banks are able to use changes in interest rates to their money-making advantage.  When rates are declining, banks immediately lower the interest they pay for deposits but they keep the rates they charge to borrowers high for as long as they can.

When rates are rising, as is the case in the current economic environment, banks do the opposite.  To the degree they can, and given that most loans are variable-rate that is considerable, they raise rates to borrowers immediately.  But they keep the interest rate they pay for deposits low for as long as they can.

A generation ago, banks had a much greater ability  than they do now to maneuver the interest rate spread.  That’s because money market funds were in their infancy.  There were no junk bonds to serve as substitutes for commercial loans.  There was even a Federal Reserve rule, Regulation Q, that prevented banks from paying interest on checking accounts and put a (low) cap on what they could pay to holders of savings accounts.

Nevertheless, especially as rates are rising, spreads still can widen a lot.

economic circumstances:   bank lending business tends to tail off in recession, since most companies don’t want to take the risk of increasing their debt burden during bad times–even if the potential rewards seem enticing.  The credit quality of existing loans also worsens as demand for capital and consumer goods flags.

The opposite happens during recovery.  The quality of the loan book improves and customers begin to take on new loans.

stock market effects

The market tends to begin to favor banks as soon as it senses that interest rates are about to rise.  Wall Street was helped along this time around when perma-bear bank analyst Mike Mayo turned positive on the group for the first time in ages last summer.

After the anticipatory move, banks have a second leg up when the extent of their actual earnings gains becomes clear.  It seems to me the first move has already come to an end   …but the second is still ahead of us.

Trump and the big banks

banks and their social function

Banks aren’t ordinary corporations.  In addition to being private, for-profit organizations, they also carry out important social economic functions.  They’re the primary instrument the government uses to carry out national money policy.  Through letters of credit, they also underpin the workings of the international trade of multinational firms that is increasingly important for economic growth.

This is why the major banks are considered “too big to fail.”

bank failures

US banks have been on the brink of failure twice during the past hundred years–in the late 1920s and in 2007-09.  Both times this has been the result of rampant speculative financial market activity coupled with reckless lending, both driven by the search for earnings per share growth.

Glass-Steagall, and its repeal

In the 1930s, Washington enacted legislation, including the Glass-Steagall Act that barred the banks from non-banking activities (like brokerage, proprietary trading and investment banking).  The new laws ushered in a period of relative stability for the banks that lasted until the late 1990s, when their intense lobbying succeeded in getting Glass-Steagall repealed.

(An aside:  yes, the banks manufactured periodic crises through imprudent lending to emerging economies–the Walter Wriston-led binge of the 1970s being a prime example–but these were relatively tame in comparison.)

Less than ten years later, many big banks were broke.  World trade had come to a standstill as manufacturers refused to accept banks’ guarantees that shipped merchandise would be paid for (the worry was that the guaranteeing bank would file for bankruptcy while the goods were en route, reducing the shipper to being an unsecured creditor).  The deepest peacetime period of world economic decline since the Great Depression began.

This, in turn, spawned Dodd-Frank, the 21st century equivalent of Glass-Steagall.

repeal again?   so soon?

While it took more than half a century for the memory of the Depression to fade enough for Congress to consider removing restrictions on bank activity, we’re now less than a decade away from the 2007-09 collapse.

Despite this, despite campaigning on an anti-establishment platform, and despite warning that Hillary Clinton should not be elected because she would be a creature of the big banks, during his first few days in office Donald Trump is proposing to restore to the big banks the tools of self-destruction they have wielded to devastating effect twice before.

How odd.

 

US corporate tax reform (iii)

For years ago I wrote in detail about today’s topic, which is deferred taxes.

The basics:

–deferred taxes are an accounting device that reconciles the cheery face a company typically present to shareholders with the more down-at-the-heels look it gives the IRS, while accurately reporting to both parties the cash taxes paid

–look at the cash flow statement, which, as the name implies, shows the cash moving in and out of the company or in the income tax footnote to get the particulars for a firm you may be interested in.

accounting for a loss

The issue I’m concerned about in this post is what happens when a company makes a loss.

reporting to the IRS

The income statement  for the IRS looks like this:

pre-tax income (loss)      ($100)

income tax due                          0

after-tax income (loss)     ($100).

reporting to shareholders

Financial accounting books, in contrast, look like this:

pre-tax income (loss)         ($100)

deferred tax, at 35%                 $35

after-tax income (loss)        ($65).

what’s going on

The financial accounting idea, other than to cosmetically soften the blow of a loss, is that at some future date the company in question will again be making money.  If so, it will be able to use the loss being incurred now to offset otherwise taxable future income.  Financial accounting rules allow the company to take the future benefit today.

It’s important to note, however, that the deferred tax is an estimate of future tax relief, based on today’s tax rates.

why does this matter?

Profits add to shareholders’ equity; losses subtract from it.  Under the GAAP accounting used for reports to stockholders, a loss-making company only has to write down its shareholders’ equity (aka net worth, book value) by about two-thirds of the actual loss.  To the casual observer, and to the value investor using computer screening, it looks stronger than it probably should.

Financial stocks typically trade on price/book.  This is also the sector that took devastatingly large losses during the financial crisis (that they caused, I might add).

Suppose the corporate tax rate is reduced to 15%.

This diminishes the value of any tax loss carryforwards a firm may have.  It also may require a substantial writedown of book value, making that figure more accurate.  But the writedown may also underline that the stock isn’t as cheap as it appears.

 

our neighbor’s house, banks and Grexit

This post could also be titled, “Why bank stocks have never been my favorites.”

a mortgage loan story

There’s a house down the street from us that has been empty for the past seven or eight years.  It’s worth maybe $150,000.  The former owner stopped making mortgage and property tax payments in 2008(?), mailed the keys back to the bank that gave him the loan and left for another part of the country.

The local sheriff has seized the house for non-payment of taxes, which total maybe $20,000, and has tried to auction it off a number of times.  The minimum bid, which no one has offered, is the taxes owed.

Why no bidders?

The bank still has a lien on the house for the $300,000 mortgage it granted almost a decade ago when all the loan craziness was going on.

why I don’t like bank stocks

The bank is apparently still unwilling to recognize the loss it made on this loan.  I presume this is because if its books were scrubbed of all the similar dud loans it is carrying, the bank’s financials would look pretty awful.  So it pretends the loans are still good.  To some degree, but not totally, investors can see through the pretense and the bank’s stock (I don’t know which bank) probably trades at a discount to book value.  But the reality is hard to see from the outside.   This is why bank stocks make me uncomfortable.

from Brexit to Grexit

What does this have to do with Grexit?

Bank stocks throughout the EU plunged when the “Leave” side won in the Brexit vote.  That has very little to do with the UK, in my opinion.  But if Britain can leave the EU, so too, can Greece, whose economy has been moribund for close to a decade.  Leaving would allow Greece to devalue its currency and thereby give its economy at least a temporary boost.  That would only work if the country defaulted on its sovereign debt at the same time.  So default is a probable consequence of Grexit.  That would be very damaging to the EU banks whose vaults are stuffed with Athens-issued bonds.

 

vendor financing and Carly Fiorina

prelude

The leaders in the race for the Republican presidential nomination are both deeply flawed business people.   Both are brilliant marketers.  Both are, paradoxically, running–successfully–on their “records” in business, something that alternately bemuses and appalls the financial community.

The Trump case is complex: excessive use of leverage that all but destroyed the family real estate business in the late 1980s, followed by a successful decades-long struggle to rebuild what was lost.

The Fiorina record is less so:  her tenure at Hewlett-Packard is best summed up by the fact Fortune magazine points out that HPQ stock gained almost $3 billion in market value the day she was fired.

As her poll numbers continue to rise, however, attention is beginning to shift to Fiorina’s tenure at Lucent, a spinoff from ATT that included Bell Labs and ATT’s telecom infrastructure business.  Lucent was a stock market darling in the late 1990s, but collapsed in the early 2000s under an accounting scandal surrounding vendor financing.  Fiorina, who became CEPO of HPQ in 1999, was long gone by then.  But the question is beginning to surface as to what role she played in promoting vendor finance at reckless levels before she left.

So I figured I’d write about what vendor financing is.

vendor financing

I’ve found that a good way of gauging competitive strength is by looking at how quickly a company gets paid for its goods or services.   On the positive end of the conceptual spectrum is the firm that gets paid in full before it makes or delivers stuff.  On the far negative side is the outfit that either gives its products/services away or pays you to take them.

Vendor financing falls much nearer to the negative pole.  It isn’t simply giving customers 180 days to pay.  Vendor financing is long-term loans given to customers by a firm to induce the purchase of that company’s very expensive capital equipment.  In Lucent’s case, vendor financing involved multi-billion dollar deals for telecom infrastructure equipment.

At first blush, there’s nothing wrong with this.

The company providing vendor financing may have a lower borrowing cost than a customer.  So one could argue that this is a relatively harmless way of providing a product discount.  In addition, the fact that a customer doesn’t have to line up bank financing makes it easier for a super salesman to close deals–and lock up clients–in a very short time.  In the land rush to stake out territory in the fast-growing mobile phone infrastructure, it became a staple of dong business in Europe and emerging markets in the 1990s.

Even in its most benign form, however, vendor financing has issues.

It makes company profits look better than they otherwise would be.  Let’s say, for example, my list price is 100, on which I earn an operating profit of 50.  If my customer asks for a discount of 10 to seal the deal, my sale would be 90 and my profit 40.  If I counter with 100 plus cheap long-term financing, then I still show sales of 100 and a profit of 50, even though I’m giving a discount.  The loan I provide simply sits on the balance sheet and has no effect on profits.  So I’ve hidden the discount and inflated my profits.

Like most financial things, vendor financing didn’t remain in its benign form for long.

Telecom vendors soon began offering financing to firms that wouldn’t be able to arrange commercial bank loans.  Then they began to offer loans that would be impossible for customers to repay  …and/or for more equipment than they could ever possibly use.

Lucent was eventually charged by the SEC with accounting fraud.

 

In an extremely carefully written article on the front page of the New York Times yesterday, Andrew Ross Sorkin reports that Fiorina was involved with a multi-billion dollar Lucent vendor loan to a company called PathNet that had less than $1.6 million in annual revenue (shades of Solyndra)–something that came up in her unsuccessful Senate run in California.

What Janet Yellen did/didn’t say yesterday

Yesterday the Fed announced that its Open Market Committee had decided to postpone, yet again, beginning to raise interest rates from their current intensive-care lows.

In her press conference following the decision, Jane Yellen cited several reasons :  the recent rise in the dollar, a plateauing of consumer spending in the US and worries that the authorities in China might be bungling their way through the necessary change in that economy from export-led growth to one that’s led by domestic demand.  (Ms. Yellen pointed to recent ructions in the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets as evidence for the last.  Personally, I don’t think this is correct.  I see those markets’ rise and fall as what almost inevitably happens when a country allows margin borrowing for the first time.)

Whatever the motivations, the fact remains that the Fed sees the current situation in the US as too risky to warrant even a miniscule rise in short-term interest rates.  …and this is despite six years of economic growth and increasing employment since the economy bottomed in 2009.

What isn’t being said here?

Two things, I think:

–after Japan’s financial collapse in 1989-90, that country twice tightened economic policy prematurely–once by raising interest rates, a second by raising taxes.  The result of these miscues was a quarter-century of deflation and economic stagnation.  The Japan example suggests that in a slow growth environment with no inflation the risks of policy tightening are much larger than most people in the US suspect.

–governments have two main tools to influence GDP growth:  monetary (changes in the price or availability of credit) and fiscal policy (changes in spending and/or taxes).  Fiscal acts slowly but lays the general foundation for growth and indicates a broad direction for expansion.  Monetary acts relatively quickly and is most useful for mid-course corrections, slowing or accelerating the pace.  A dysfunctional Washington has meant that, other than the bitterly contested bank bailout plan in 2009, fiscal policy has done virtually nothing useful to stimulate growth over the past half-decade (arguably, it’s a mild deterrent).  Nor is it likely that Congress, now winding up to shut the government down, will change its stripes.  This implies that the Fed has no backstop if it makes a policy mistake.

 

Nothing about either is particularly new news.  But the Fed decision calls attention the major structural difficulties the US economy faces.  This is not a recipe for having stocks go up.

Greece in a nutshell

Greece joined the euro in 2001.  This gave it the right to print/mint euro currency, as well as to issue Greek sovereign debt in euros.  The second is important because issuing euro debt is like having access to a giant EU credit card–payment was at least implicitly guaranteed by every member of the EU, not just Greece.

Greece probably didn’t meet the criteria of economic health necessary to qualify to join the euro. Everyone in the EU seems to have known this at the time but thought that having the cradle of Western intellectual and political history in the euro was symbolically important.

In 2009, the ruling party lost an election.  The new administration discovered, and announced to the world, that Greece had been systematically falsifying its national accounts–official reports of the country’s fiscal health and growth–for years.  Greece’s apparent prosperity during the opening years of the 21st century turned out to be a combination of lies and living beyond its means, funded by large-scale euro bond issuance.  Most observers agree that Greece run up more debt that it can ever possibly repay.

Negotiations between Greece and its creditors are at an impasse.  Broadly speaking, the EU and IMF want to see structural economic reforms (which may prevent a repeat of the country’s woes) in Greece before any debt forgiveness.  Greece, whose current government has already reversed some of the few reforms implemented over the past six years, wants debt forgiveness first, talks about structural reform later.

The EU put a take-it-or-leave-it offer on the table about a week ago.  The Greek government has decided to call for a national referendum vote on the issue, scheduled for Sunday.  In the meantime, it has shut down its banks, so no one can take their money out of the country.

There are some odd technical issues with the referendum.  For example, one political party is suing to stop the vote, saying it’s unconstitutional.  It’s also coming at the start of vacation season, so it’s not clear whether people can get home to vote, especially with atm withdrawals limited to €60 a day.

Domestic Greek polls indicate that likely voters favor accepting an EU bailout plan by 52/48–even though the administration is campaigning against it.  A “No” vote probably means Greece leaves the euro, and maybe the EU as well.

I have mixed feelings about the negotiations themselves.  On one hand, I’ve got to admire the ingenuity and determination of the Greek side in trying to get the best possible deal.  On the other, everything I’ve I’ve read and heard to make me think Greece regards negotiation as a blood sport.  The point is not to get a fair deal, but to suck the other side dry and toss the husk to the side of the road.  –even a little bit–about the needs of the other side.  It’s turned the negotiations into a fool me once, fool me twice situation, in my view.

I think the current Greek administration may have done a huge amount of damage to the country’s long-term economic prospects by trying so hard.to wriggle out from responsibility for the current crisis.

Ironically, the better outcome for the EU might be for Greece to vote to leave the euro.  The resulting damage to the Greek economy will be enormous, I think.  Seeing what happens will likely silence separatist movements elsewhere in the EU.