The Banks and the Big Three

The Journal’s excellent Heard on the Street writer David Reilly hits at the banks today, pointing out that they need restructuring as bad or worse than Detroit, but Washington so far is giving them a virtual pass, unlike their industrial counterparts-in-collapse.

The crisis has shown that banks’ basic business model has come undone, that their cost structures no longer reflect reality and that they are still in need of capital.

The string of bailout packages hasn’t explicitly recognized this…

For their part, banks have found lots of causes for their predicament aside from their own failings. The crisis, they have argued, is down to an impossible-to-predict perfect storm, predatory hedge funds, panicked investors, unrealistic accounting rules and economic changes that emerged so quickly there was no way to be prepared for them.

If only. The reality is the crisis is due to bad lending and investment decisions. And those, after all, form the core of the banking business. In auto terms, it’s as if banks designed cars that suffer from catastrophic mechanical failures, or can’t be driven during snow storms.

Reilly has numbers to back that up. While the banks beef about mark-to-market rules causing them to capsize, actual loan losses have been bigger than the “fake” accounting losses:

Even including Citi, though, total credit costs of $101.40 billion outpaced mark-to-market losses of $90.35 billion at the banks surveyed, according to Merrill.

He’s right to point out there’s more urgency with fixing the banking system, and right to point out that doesn’t mean they should come out looking the same.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.