Weil looked at the Wells Fargo fine print and found that its report didn’t comply with SEC rules, that it most likely used now-banned loan-loss reserves (not illegally—Wells was grandfathered in) to pretty up its books, that its reported tangible common equity was three times what it should be, and that it had a massive pool of assets under “other assets” labeled “other.” Ah, transparency.
Finally, Weil noted that Wells didn’t disclose what its earnings would have looked like without the change in FASB’s mark-to-market accounting rule, which presumably allowed it to hold off on taking writedowns on beaten-down assets and to mark up assets it had already written down.
That’s the only point here that Times reporter Eric Dash touches on, ever so briefly:
With good reason: the banking industry has gotten relief from recent changes to accounting rules, which could inflate earnings.
That should have been explored much more.
My point is, I detect a trend going on to try to boost confidence in the system. The government (Congress, at least) pretty much forced the independent accounting-standards board to change its rules to the benefit of banks and to the detriment of investors. The Obama administration hasn’t exactly been true to his campaign-season pledges of transparency. At least two banks’ accounting procedures have raised legitimate questions.
All this happy talk is counterproductive. What the markets need now is radical transparency, and journalists should demand it. If we find out things aren’t that bad, prices bounce and we move on. If we find out (as I suspect) that they are, then we’re force to take quick action to once and for all clean up the mess.
To be clear, I agree that the banks’ situation improved considerably in the first quarter. I just think journalists need to be on top of what looks like a concerted effort to pretty things up to look better than they really are.