Bloomberg: Wells Fargo’s Numbers Don’t Add Up

Wondering just how the banks’ earnings reports have been so good? Me, too.

Already we’ve seen Goldman Sachs fiddle with its first quarter by dumping more than a billion dollars of losses in its “orphan month” of December, which was left in a sort of netherworld because of the i-bank’s shift to a new earnings calendar.

Now, Bloomberg’s Jonathan Weil puts some major dents in Wells Fargo’s smashing earnings report from last week—one that sent its and other banks’ stocks soaring. Weil chides investors for putting “blind faith in a big bank’s earnings.”

Indeed, the report was just a press release, not a securities filing. That, along with all the necessary information that comes along with it, comes next week.

Weil says it looks like Wells Fargo is taking advantage of some accounting tricks to prettify its numbers. One trick is tapping into loan-loss reserves the bank picked up when it bought Wachovia. Weil calls that accounting treatment “raiding the cookie jar,” and reports that it’s now banned (Wells Fargo was grandfathered in). It effectively means Wells doesn’t have to write down losses it takes since it can just adjust its loan-loss reserves. That can create a lot of “money.”

He catches Wells apparently not following SEC rules by calculating a key metric called tangible common equity using non-generally accepted accounting principles. That resulted in the number being nearly three times higher than a more-typical formula for tangible common equity, Weil calculates.

Silly me — I thought the SEC’s rules apply to Wells Fargo, too.

Weil also points out that Wells’s numbers are probably inflated by the rewriting of so-called mark-to-market rules late in the quarter, but that it didn’t disclose what its numbers would have been without the rule change.

And this is just nice to point this absurdity out:

Look at Wells’s Dec. 31 balance sheet, and you’ll see a $109.8 billion line item called “other assets.” What’s in that number? For that breakdown, you need to go to a footnote in Wells’s financial statements. And here’s where it gets comical.

The footnote says the largest component was a $44.2 billion bucket that Wells labeled as “other.” Yes, that’s right: The biggest portion of “other assets” was “other.” And what did this include? The disclosure didn’t say. Neither would Bernard.

Talk about a black box. That $44.2 billion is more than Wells’s tangible common equity, even using the bank’s dodgy number. And we don’t have a clue what’s in there.

It seems like Washington and Wall Street are trying to get out of this mess in no small part by going through the accounting looking glass—pretending that things are better than they are and hoping that mass self-delusion kicks in.

With the way the stock market has reacted recently, that doesn’t appear to have been a bad bet.

Good for Bloomberg and Weil for calling folks out on this.

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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.