It turns out, disclosure hasn’t improved much. Really, the holes are shocking, given the crisis. The authors explain that banks classify assets based on a three-level hierarchy. Level 1 is publicly traded stuff. Level 2 includes mortgage-backed securities and derivatives, which themselves are not simple to value. And then there’s Level 3:
Level 3 is hair-raising. The bank’s Level 3 estimates are “generated primarily from model-based techniques that use significant assumptions not observable in the market.” In other words, not only are there no data about the prices at which these types of assets have recently traded, but there are no observable data to inform the assumptions one might use to generate prices. Level 3 contains the most-esoteric financial instruments—including the credit-default swaps and synthetic collateralized debt obligations that became so popular and prevalent at the height of the housing boom, filling the balance sheets of Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, and many other banks.
At Level 3, fair value is a guess based on statistical models, but with inputs that are “not observable.” Instead of basing estimates on market data, banks use their own assumptions and internal information. At Level 3, fair value is an uneducated guess.
Surely, one would assume, Wells Fargo’s assets would mostly reside on Level 1, with perhaps a small amount on Level 2. It’s just a simple mortgage bank, right? And it seems inconceivable that Wells Fargo would be loaded with Level 3 investments long after regulators have supposedly purged the banks of toxic assets and nursed them back to health.
Yet only a small fraction of Wells Fargo’s assets are on Level 1. Most of what the bank holds is on Level 2. And a whopping $53 billion—equivalent to more than a third of the bank’s capital reserves—is on Level 3. All three categories include risky assets that might lose value in the future. But the additional concern with Level 2 and Level 3 assets is that banks might have errantly recorded them at values that were inflated to begin with. There is no way to check whether reported values are accurate; investors have to trust the bank’s managers and auditors. Scholarly research on Level 3 assets suggests that they can be misstated by as much as 15 percent at any given time, even if the market is stable. If Wells Fargo’s estimates are that far off, the bank could be sitting on billions of dollars of hidden losses.
One thing I like about this piece is that it shows, five-years after the crisis, we still really haven’t moved on. The opacity of banks’ assets was precisely the problem in the run-up to the Lehman crash. Even the short sellers were guessing. They just happened to be right.
Banking is complicated. And there’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, in principle. So, yes, regulation must be sophisticated. We know that. But Partnoy and Eisinger have it just right that the bedrock principles underlying them are not complicated at all.
The starting point for any solution to the recurring problems with banks is to rebuild the twin pillars of regulation that Congress built in 1933 and 1934, in the aftermath of the 1929 crash. First, there must be a straightforward standard of disclosure for Wells Fargo and its banking brethren to follow: describe risks in commonsense terms that an investor can understand. Second, there must be a real risk of punishment for bank executives who mislead investors, or otherwise perpetrate fraud and abuse.
Anyone can understand that.