Audit Notes: Hardly a Nick, European Fallout, Shopping for Ratings

I wrote this morning that the financial-reform bill is like taking a firebug’s matches away and leaving him with his blowtorch. A slap on the wrist that won’t do much of anything to prevent the fire next time.

For why this is just a slap , look to the Financial Times’s Lex column, which offers a back-of-the-napkin analysis of how much it will cost Wall Street if enacted. The Volcker Rule would cost 2 percent of profits. Consumer rules and higher deposit-insurance rates would be 1 percent. And:

Also, if markets genuinely believe big banks will be allowed to go under, possible rating downgrades would increase funding costs.

Good one, Lex. Mark that down as zero.

The biggest threat is the amendment that would force banks to shed their derivatives businesses. That could slash Wall Street earnings by up to 10 percent. Then again, hardly anyone really thinks the derivatives part is going to make it through conference and into law bearing any resemblance to the Lincoln amendment. And even if it did, Wall Street would get a ton of money from spinning off the businesses. They’re not going to just give them away.

But even if up to one-fifth of post-tax earnings is under threat, the most exposed banks have two big offsets to play. Morgan Stanley reckons the capital relief generated from being forced to spin-out naughty businesses could mitigate up to half the pain from reforms. The rest could be made up with a tweak to compensation ratios. A watered-down bill introduced over many years would be even more easily absorbed.

So there you go. Hardly a nick.

— The Washington Post puts the cards on the table today with a report on the possible fallout from the European crisis:

If the trouble starts — and it remains an “if” — the trigger may well be obscure to the concerns of most Americans: a missed budget projection by the Spanish government, the failure of Greece to hit a deficit-reduction target, a drop in Ireland’s economic output.

But the knife-edge psychology currently governing global markets has put the future of the U.S. economic recovery in the hands of politicians in an assortment of European capitals. If one or more fail to make the expected progress on cutting budgets, restructuring economies or boosting growth, it could drain confidence in a broad and unsettling way. Credit markets worldwide could lock up and throw the global economy back into recession.

It’s good to state so clearly what’s at stake.

— The Journal is good to go page one with a piece on how companies are still shopping for ratings agencies—playing them against each other.

For example:

Deutsche Bank AG last year sought a triple-A rating on securities backed by loans the German bank and its affiliates had made to U.S. companies. In January 2009, bank representatives showed Moody’s, Fitch and S&P the proposed $1.7 billion deal, called Blue Ridge, people familiar with the deal say.

The Blue Ridge pool, in which the average loan had a junk rating, had a distinctive feature: Deutsche planned to hold all the loans and channel the cash flows to holders of the bonds, instead of transferring most of the loans themselves to a company that issued the securities.

Moody’s analysts told Deutsche the arrangement put the deal at risk, say the people familiar with the deal. Moody’s said that if Deutsche Bank failed, cash flows for the deal could be disrupted, potentially hurting the bonds, these people say. S&P had questions on the deal too, they add.

Deutsche chose Fitch, which had fewer objections, these people say. In April 2009, Fitch gave $1.3 billion of the $1.7 billion deal a triple-A rating, saying in a written report it was comfortable with the bank’s financial strength and the deal’s overall structure. The ratings haven’t changed since they were given.

Such a story comes at a critical time: As Congress debates whether to eliminate such shopping around in the financial-reform bill.

— Less good on the paper’s page one? This headline at the top of the paper across four columns: “Mortgage Rates Decline.”

Well, blow me down! It’s a fine story on an important topic, but a Realtor newsletter could probably find a more alluring hed.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.