11.30.09

Worse Than Enron?

Wall Street’s big banks are playing dangerous new accounting games—and this time taxpayers are on the hook for hundreds of billions. Nomi Prins uncovers a scandal in the making.

Enron was the financial scandal that kicked off the decade: a giant energy trading company that appeared to be doing brilliantly—until we finally noticed that it wasn’t. It’s largely been forgotten given the wreckage that followed, and that’s too bad: we may be repeating those mistakes, on a far larger scale.

Specifically, as the largest Wall Street banks return to profitability—in some cases, breaking records—they say everything is rosy. They’re lining up to pay back their TARP money and asking Washington to back off. But why are they doing so well? Remember that Enron got away with their illegalities so long because their financials were so complicated that not even the analysts paid to monitor the Houston-based trading giant could cogently explain how they were making so much money.

The nation’s biggest banks, plumped up on government capital and risk-infused trading profits, have been moving stuff around their balance sheets like a multi-billion dollar musical chairs game.

After two weeks sifting through over one thousand pages of SEC filings for the largest banks, I have the same concerns. While Washington ponders what to do, or not do, about reforming Wall Street, the nation’s biggest banks, plumped up on government capital and risk-infused trading profits, have been moving stuff around their balance sheets like a multi-billion dollar musical chairs game.

I was trying to answer the simple question that you'd think regulators should want to know: how much of each bank’s revenue is derived from trading (taking risk) vs. other businesses? And how can you compare it across the industry—so you can contain all that systemic risk? Only, there's no uniformity across books. And, given the complexity of these mega-merged firms, those questions aren’t easy to answer.

Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, for example, altered their year-end reporting dates, orphaning the month of December, thus making comparison to past quarterly statements more difficult. In the cases of Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo, the preferred tactic is re-classification and opaqueness. These moves make it virtually impossible to get an accurate, or consistent picture of banks ‘real money’ (from commercial or customer services) vs. their ‘play money’ (used for trading purposes, and most risky to the overall financial system, particularly since much of the required trading capital was federally subsidized).

Trading profitability, albeit inconsistent and volatile, is the quickest way back to the illusion of financial health, as these banks continue to take hits from their consumer-oriented businesses. But, appearance doesn’t equal stability, or necessarily, reality. Here’s how BofA, Citi and Wells Fargo play the game:

Bank of America: The firm reclassified its filing categories upon acquiring Merrill Lynch, but it doesn't break down the trading vs. investment banking revenues of Merrill. This either means the firm doesn’t truly know what's going on inside its new problem child, or doesn’t want to tell. (No wonder no one’s jumping for the upcoming CEO vacancy.) That said, despite the obvious information clouding, new acquisitions generally don’t have their activities broken out, which makes it a lot harder for regulators, shareholders, or we, taxpaying subsidizers, to know whether the merger was a success or not.

According to Scott Silvestri, Bank of America’s spokesman, “On our second quarter's earnings release, there was a note explaining why we changed reporting structure. But, with every quarter that passes, it's harder to unscramble the egg. It's been a merged entity since January 1, 2009.”

He added that “we have an earnings supplement. Every quarter, we put out a standalone Merrill 10-Q that shows its profitability.” True, but what’s the point of issuing a separate Merrill report, without delineating Merrill’s contribution in its main books so that you can clearly see how specific parts of Merrill’s business impact similar ones in the merged entity? Furthermore, we can’t even figure this out ourselves—the Merrill results in the 10-Q don’t map directly to those of BofA’s books. This all just creates more complexities for a bank that still floats on $63.1 billion in various government subsidies.

When it wants to, it appears that BofA can merge and then break out Merrill’s numbers. Under the "Global Wealth & Investment Management ” classification, we discover that Merrill contributed three-quarters of the $12 billion BofA took in over the first nine months of 2009. According to Silvestri, “The numbers of the old Merrill are there because the brand name was kept, vestiges of the old Merrill Lynch exist.”

Talk about semantics. Why not also break out the area where revenues tripled and trading account profits jumped significantly (from a $6 billion loss in 2008 to an almost $14 billion gain in 2009)? Something is clearly going on there: the best measure of trading risk, VaR (“value at risk” or a firm’s daily trading variation) doubled between 2008 and 2009. If I was the CEO, I’d want to see this critical comparison on my merged company filing.

Elsewhere, the sum of Bank of America’s quarterly figures doesn’t quite add up to the nine months totals. (A few hundred million of discrepancies between friends.) Another item "all other" is off by nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. And so on. The firm also declared, that it “may periodically reclassify business segment results based on modifications to its management reporting methodologies and changes in organizational alignment." In other words, whenever it feels like it. Comforting, isn’t it?

Citigroup: Another balance-sheet renovation, this time because of a sale (Smith Barney, which it offloaded to Morgan Stanley) rather than a purchase, and another trading miracle. Citigroup’s main trading arm, housed in what it calls the Institutional Clients Group (ICG), made $31.5 billion in net revenue for 2009, compared with a $7.8 billion loss in 2008. Its average daily value at risk jumped too, though “only” by 15 percent or so.

That’s a huge and extremely fast trading rebound for the main recipient of government subsidies (at $373.7 billion). But, there is no overall breakdown present in the summaries of Citigroup’s latest filings. And the sum of the trading totals doesn’t equal the parts, because the firm also noted that certain numbers deemed an “integral part of profitability” weren’t included in those computations, without giving any apparent reason. (After adding the missing number, it still didn’t add up.)

Again, it’s “just” a couple billion of discrepancies, but with books this massive at banks this big and risky, accuracy matters. Plus, such nuances make it extremely difficult to understand its books for regulators or the public.

Citigroup's Danielle Romero-Apsilos said that they periodically change reporting. "ICG existed, but after Smith Barney's joint venture with Morgan Stanley, we moved the private bank into the securities and banking reporting line in the ICG."

That describes the chain of events, but doesn’t get closer to determining trading related revenue. Romero-Apsilos said, “We don’t break up the financials specifically for those businesses. Over the years, we may have broken out different things."

Wells Fargo: Yet more innovative accounting maneuvers. For example, the innocuous sounding category, “wholesale banking” which provides traditional lending, finance and asset management services, was expanded (following the Wachovia acquisition that completed on December 31, 2008) to include more speculative activities like fixed-income and equity trading. But, those activities aren’t broken down in the firm’s SEC filing, making it difficult to determine which portion comes from trading vs. commercial or investment banking.

Wells Fargo spokesperson, Mary Eshet (who still has a Wachovia email address) confirmed there is no separate Wachovia 10-Q (like there is for Merrill Lynch), but that it wasn't the case that "Wells Fargo broke out trading related revenue previously either."

In fact, Wells just provides totals for their four main business segments, each of which increased sharply. Community banking rose from $33 billion in 2008 to an annualized $59 billion in 2009. Wholesale banking shot up from $8.2 billion in 2008 to $20 billion in annualized 2009. And, wealth, brokerage and retirement quadrupled from $2.7 billion in 2008 to $11.6 annualized for 2009. (The fourth segment is called ‘other.’) Yet, all these rosy numbers come with no specific breakdowns for their various trading business areas.

Separately, Wells states in its filing that its management accounting process is “dynamic” and, not “necessarily comparable with similar information for other financial services companies.” This statement should give lawmakers pause: if banks are so complex as to constantly fluctuate their own reporting, deciphering figures just before a crisis won’t exactly be a walk in the park.

With taxpayers now on the hook, we need an objective, consistent evaluation of bank balance sheets complete with probing questions about trading and speculative revenues, allowing for comparisons across the banking industry. This lack of transparency leaves room to misrepresent risk and trading revenue.

The long-term solution is bringing back Glass-Steagall. Being big doesn’t just risk bringing down a financial system—it means you can also more easily hide things. Remember the lesson from the Enron saga: when things look too good to be true, they usually are.

Nomi Prins is author of It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bonuses, Bailouts, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street (Wiley, September, 2009). Before becoming a journalist, she worked on Wall Street as a managing director at Goldman Sachs, and running the international analytics group at Bear Stearns in London.