Variant Perceptions

Category: banking

TARP warrants: let every eye negotiate for itself and trust no agent

A secret about the TARP warrants is starting to spread.

Most have heard of the adjustment to the strike price after dividends but there is more to the anti-dilution clauses than just the adjustment to the strike price. A few months ago I decided to cryptically suggest this insight in a visited message board, where many were buying TARP warrants, to see who else had caught it.

Actually, not many. One of the few, the author of today’s post.

Over the last few months we have discussed the anti-dilution clauses. He recently decided that it was time to confirm the major insights: discussed them with a few lawyers, that did not help much, and ran the math with one of the small banks that has TARP warrants. He finally put some of the insights, but not all, in a document. It starts with a great Mark Twain quote so how could I not like it. I am thankful that he accepted to share it in this blog.

Both Bruce Berkowitz and Francis Chou mention the secret in their most recent letters. It is mentioned so cryptically as if they did not want it to be known. In the same cryptic style, the author of this post asked to remain anonymous.

There is a lot more to the anti-dilution clauses than what is being discussed in the blogs, the press, and even this post. If you are interested, I suggest you separate several hours and READ the prospectuses fine print.  Also the numbers are from a few weeks back and not all warrants mentioned in the table are from TARP or even have the same fine print. There are no shortcuts in this investment, you have to read a lot.

For more information, I first mentioned the TARP warrants almost two years ago in the following post:

Disclosure, we both are long a few of the mentioned TARP warrants



I am frequently asked, “So what is XXXX’s edge?” I think it is possible that in some cases we eliminate 80% of the competition when we start by reading the annual report. It never ceases to amaze me, how frequently we find that an investor in a particular company did not bother to read the annual report, including professional investors.

Now get ready for some tedious reading! If you do not feel like chewing leather than you are well advised when I say you should skip the following two pages.

Recently, I realized again how few investors bother to read the primary documentation, when researching the TARP warrants of US banks. I expect analysts and investors in these warrants to be do more research than the average sophisticated investor in equities due to the offbeat nature of warrants. However, it quickly became clear to me that analysts, investors and the press clearly did not bother to read the prospectuses of the warrants. Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) used to say that “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read” and that certainly rings true here.

For the benefit of those that have not heard about TARP warrants;

  • TARP- Troubled Asset Relief Program
  • Warrant- The right to purchase an equity security for a certain period at a certain price.

TARP is one of the programs that the US government created to bail out the banks. For example it allowed the US Treasury to purchase newly issued preferred equity from various banks e.g. Bank of America. The US Treasury received warrants, called TARP warrants in this case, with these shares. In time the US Treasury either sold the warrants back to the respective companies or it sold it off into the market where lesser mortals like us can now buy them.

The warrants have some important features.

  1. They are long term; 10 year warrants expiring around 2018-2021
  2. They have various anti-dilution adjustments
  3. The exercise price when compared to current tangible book value is low.

Continuing with the BAC A warrants as an example,

You can learn this by simply reading the relevant prospectus.

Technically, in the case of BAC and others, it is not the prospectus that holds the important information, it is the supplement to the prospectus. When you read the anti-dilution adjustments you note that the exercise price is adjusted downwards in some cases (e.g. when a cash dividend is declared) AND the number of warrant shares (shares/warrant) is adjusted upwards.

You can learn this by simply reading the relevant prospectus.

Last year you could purchase the BAC warrants for as little as $2.00-$3.00 with an exercise price of $13.30. Today, BAC’s book value is $21 and tangible book value is $12. We are NOT advocating that paying $2.00- $3.00 for the right to buy BAC until 2018 for around current book value is a good deal, but it is worth investigating. Particularly if there is potential for the exercise price to be reduced AND the number of warrant shares to be increased every time a dividend is declared.

You can learn this by simply reading the relevant prospectus and looking up the price.

There seems to be a general misconception in the market that the anti-dilution adjustments only apply to AIG TARP warrants, mainly because Bruce Berkowitz spoon fed the market with a statement in the press about AIG. However, these adjustments are not exclusive to AIG TARP warrants; in fact the exact opposite is true.

You can learn this by simply reading the relevant prospectuses.

In the case of BAC it also pays to read the “prospectus” for the warrent, Warren Buffett negotiated for Berkshire Hathaway in Aug 2011. Warrent, Warren. Get it? Eh, ok, I will move on.

The warrent comes with a strike price of $7.14 and 700m warrent shares (6% of BAC outstanding shares) and has the same anti-dilution adjustments as the TARP warrants. It is quite plausible for the warrent shares to increase from 700m to 1Bn AND the exercise price of $7.14 to be reduced to $5.00 over the 9 years to 2021. What can we say? The Master strikes, yet again!

You can learn this by simply reading the relevant prospectus.

Those of you that stuck with me through the section on warrants either enjoyed it or must feel like the man that tried to commit suicide by drowning himself in a puddle of water, one inch deep. The good news is, it is almost over.

When you research the various warrants you should realize that all these warrants are not created equal and we have found the most significant differences are evident when

  1. you compare the relevant company’s current tangible book value with the warrant’s exercise price and
  2. the normalized dividend per share.

In the case of b) I mentioned that the warrant shares adjust upwards AND the exercise price downwards when a dividend is paid. Technically the relevant amount is the difference between the dividend per share paid and a threshold dividend per share. This threshold was set by the last dividend per share payment at the time the warrant was issued. Most of these warrants were issued in the depth of the financial crisis, which means that in most cases the “last” dividend that was paid was at a time of peak profitability and before very substantial share dilution. Therefore, it is prudent to adjust for this and when we do so we come up with the following comparison.

We reiterate, neither are we making a case for or against buying the warrants nor are we saying this is anything more than a simplistic analysis. As always you have to do our own homework! 

We are simply saying that the relationship between the exercise price and the current book value and the relationship between the historical dividend per share and the threshold for the dividend to give you the “kicker” are very different from company to company. Therefore the investor that has that knowledge most certainly has a huge competitive advantage and in the case of the TARP warrants we believe it is a minority that understands the differences. All it takes is for the investor to read the relevant prospectuses.

Charting Banking XXIV: pre-tax pre-provision earnings

If tangible common equity multiples have their issues, what is a good valuation alternative?

If you trust the bank to survive its credit headwinds while at the same time its total revenues are growing, or at least stabilizing, I think it is fair to use some sort of multiple of normalized earnings. And if that is the case, pre-tax pre-provision earnings are a good start.

  • Why pre-tax? Two reasons. First, with all the recent losses many banks are not going to be paying taxes for a couple of years. And second, it makes easier the comparisons among banks and across time when taxes paid are fluctuating.
  • Why pre-provision? Provisions are the main way credit issues get reflected in the income statement, building up reserves for consequent charge-offs. Therefore, if we want to isolate the earnings power from the credit issues this is the main line to subtract. The other way credit issues impact earnings is loses related to sales of real estate owned REO.

And the idea is that after getting a standardized PTPP, you can use your personal estimate on steady state provisions and taxes to get to an estimate normalized earnings. We will get to that later.

There is one little problem though: that is all the consensus on PTPP there is. Each analyst and company do their own adjustments:

  • One-offs like goodwill write-downs and gains or loses on securities sold
  • CVAs and other mark to market distortions
  • REO gains and loses
  • Depreciation and amortization
  • Credit related operating expenses like mortgage servicing

And there is no consensus even on how to name pre-tax pre-provision earnings:

  • pre-tax pre-credit earnings
  • pre-tax pre-provision income
  • pre-provision operating income
  • core earnings

And of course each one of those come with its own abbreviation.

That makes life hard because you are not sure what each company or analyst is including and how to compare across companies and analysts. My opinion is that there is no way around it: you have to get your own estimates … and I will share one fast, but not very precise, recipe:

  1. Get cash from operations from the cash flow statement, and reverse the following adjustments
  2. Subtract back all working capital adjustments that are usually the lines that start with “increase” or “decrease”
  3. Subtract back stock compensation
  4. Subtract back tax provisions from the cash flow statement
  5. Subtract the equipment purchases (capex) from cash from investing
  6. Add back taxes (taxes provisions) from the income statement

Or the same, start from net income in the cash flow statement and add depreciation, amortization, provisions, one-time loses/gains, taxes, and subtract equipment purchases. Each company has different line disclosures in the cash flow statement so you still have to season to taste. But at least is much more standardized than using analysts and company estimates.

At the end, you get something very similar to what Buffett refers as owner’s earnings only that it does not include taxes. Among its benefits, it excludes non-cash charges and is somewhat conservative because it does not adjust for high administrative expenses related to foreclosures and REO administration (ie: Bank of America has 30,000 FTEs entirely dedicated to solving mortgage issues).

These are the numbers I am using as estimates for the Big 4 and the big challenger. Use them only as a reference. As I said, there is no way around it: you have to get your own estimates.

Do not try to be overprecise, I usually round up numbers trying to sin on the conservative side. Better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.

One way to double check the estimates is to compare profitability ratios  (do it with tangible figures if you prefer) across companies and across time to have a better idea of the earnings power of the bank. These are some high level numbers across companies,

Now how to get from PTPP to a normalized valuation? Well, the long way is to do a discounted cash flow with normalized provision, taxes and growth. I will recognize that I prefer simplicity, with some common sense, and generally use a 10x multiple of PTPP:

  • Very simple to calculate.
  • 10x pre-tax is close to 15x after tax.
  • 15x historic earnings multiples imply growing at the same rate as rest of the economy and returning just cost of capital.
  • Big banks cannot grow a bigger share of the economy forever so a conservative multiple looks good.
  • Substantial non-earning assets.
  • Some of them still have high cost financing (prefs, trups, tarp), despite high liquidity, that will be reduced over time.
  • The banks that I am interested in, the ones under some distressed valuations, will not pay taxes for years.
  • Non crisis provisions of around 0.3% of revenues are less than what many banks pay in mortgage mess related expenses.

There is at least one big exception to these oversimplified assumptions, banks heavy in credit cards or similar lines based on a model of high normalized provisions in line with high net interest margins. A clear example of this is Capital One. My recommendation, go to previous 10Ks and double check the normalized provisions.

Having estimated a normalized value, it is good practice to go through the credit/legal issues and estimate how many years would take to solve  them, apply your preferred margin of safety discount based on the company’s specific risks and growth prospects, and voilà.

That was today’s look inside the sausage factory.

Long BAC, C

PS: criticism of these numbers based on real figures is very much welcomed!

PS 2: I adjusted USB PTPP to reflect its 2011 growth after comments at the Corner

Bank of America’s big improvement

Brian Moynihan is not  the most charismatic of communicators but his prepared statement was excellent. You do not need the Irish gift of gab when you show results.

Some people have said that the Bank of America’s results were made of paper-mache. As any participant of a Mexican piñata can testify, paper-mache can be very robust. With its current capital situation, the piñata would need some serious beating to go down.

This time I am betting on the piñata. Yes, I am finally buying big banks and, as hinted more than a year ago, I did so by buying TARP warrants . It was about time to end this procrastination.

PD: good discussion of the results at the Corner of Berkshire and Fairfax.

The last 2 years, we’ve been executing on a huge transformation here at Bank of America. After 6 large acquisitions in 6 years during the mid-2000s, then the economic crisis and its aftermath, we set on a course to simplify the company, to streamline the company, to reduce the size of the company, to lower our risk and build a fortress balance sheet. During that, we set goals to have 9% Basel I Tier 1 common and 6% tangible common at year-end 2011.

We set goals to reduce our non-core assets. We set goals to bring our credit risk down and to address the mortgage risk related to the Countrywide acquisition. At the same time, we also set goals to continue to invest in areas where our company can grow and has this competitive advantage. Areas like our Wealth Management area, areas like our Preferred Small Business areas, where we’ve added Preferred Bankers and Small Business Bankers, areas like our Commercial Corporate and Investment Banking areas, especially in large corporate investment banking outside the United States.

Along the way, we had to address issues that came up in mortgage, the slowly recovering economy, which isn’t moving — which is moving forward but not as fast as we all like. The European crisis, a muted interest rate outlook and the revenue loss to the new regulations that have been passed. These then result in our focus on cost, and we announced early last fall our New BAC program and the goals that we had for it.

So as we think about 2011, we saw the following. First, on capital and liquidity. This quarter, our Tier 1 common equity ratio ended at 9.86%. Our tangible common equity ratio ended at 6.64%. In the case of each of these ratios, they are dramatic improvement from the beginning of the year. And we made these improvements while absorbing significant mortgage-related costs during the year. We have ratios that are in line with our peers, and we expect further improvement due to continued work on our balance sheet we’ll make during 2012.  In addition, our liquidity is and remains at record levels even after the downgrades we experienced in the fall.

Moving from capital and liquidity to our core businesses. On Slide 3, you can see, we continue to do what we’re here for. We simply serve our clients and customers and we do it very well. Our core business activity continues to move forward. During 2011, we continue to grow our deposits and our investment assets for our corporate and personal customers. We originated 20% more in small business loans this year, in 2011, than we did in 2010. This met our internal goals we had for that unit, but importantly, also met our $1 billion incremental goal we committed to the White House and the Small Business Administration a few months back. For our commercial clients and our corporate clients, we did what we’re here to do. We provided more loans, more capital and more market access here in the U.S. and around the world. For example, in the fourth quarter, you can see strong growth in our loan balances in our corporate area. And for our investor clients, we achieved the #1 Institutional Investor Overall Research ranking. Evidenced in the quality of ideas to match our capital to help them make their investments.

In our Mortgage business, we continue to reshape our operations to focus solely on origination of mortgages for our customers and to do it well. And importantly, we continue to help those who have difficulty making their payments in mortgages. We’ve now crossed over 1 million modified loans in our servicing portfolios.

The third area we focus on, after capital liquidity and the core businesses, was costs. It’s clear that we’re going to grind forward with the recovery in this country. Our clients continue to push forward and we’re seeing the activity continue to move forward, but a full recovery to what we would call normal, may take some time. So with that in mind, we begin to focus on bringing our cost down across the company.

Our cost structure for Bank of America has 2 broad elements today. First, the cost we incur to deal with the mortgage issues. And second, the remaining cost to run the rest of the company for the benefit of our customers. Overall, cost were down from 2010 to 2011, and we expect substantial cost savings in 2012. This quarter, you can see that starting to take hold. We made significant progress towards our overall FTE reduction goals. Our period-end FTE is down about 7,000 people in the fourth quarter compared to the third quarter. This is over and above the 2,500 people we added in this quarter for our Legacy Asset Services. There’s 2 things about this. One, this shows that our New BAC implementation has begun in earnest. And second, the good news is, that we expect that LAS is at and near its peak staffing.

The fourth area we’ve been concentrating on in 2011 was trading. Trading was strong in the first part of the year, but with the issues in Europe, the depth of U.S. downgrades, the downgrades of our company and changes in client risk appetite, results were weak in the second half, especially in the third quarter. However, during the fourth quarter, we partially recovered as Bruce will talk about later. Yet, we still reduced risk during the quarter to ensure we were well positioned to handle what might have come up. We still have work to do in trading, but the team got active this quarter, as the quarter unfolded, and we saw a stronger results.

From a credit risk perspective, you can see that our charge-offs and cover ratios continued to improve. We ended the year with strong ratios. And we’ll also end the year with $15.9 billion in rep and warranty liability reserves. We built significant litigation and other reserves in this area also.

So the 4 areas of 2011 was all about raising capital and liquidity, driving the core businesses, managing the cost and risk management.

Long BAC warrants

Charting Banking XXIII: tangible common equity

More than 3 years after Lehman, I continue to get involved in board discussions over the uses of the tangible common equity (TCE) and its close relative the TCE ratio.

TCE ratio = Tangible Common Equity / Tangible Assets

I am not a fan of using TCE for valuations, very seldom you will encounter a bank going through an orderly liquidation. In good times earnings show and in distressed times, like the ones we live, is precisely when banks can not liquidate orderly. They either,

  1. Survive: and go on to live better times
  2. Dilute: increase capital to navigate bad loan issues
  3. Sell: to a bidder with the balance sheet to navigate the bad loans
  4. Collapse: so who cares about valuation after a wipeout

Surprisingly, most capital raised has been negotiated around TCE multiples, usually close to 1x TCE. To have a future it is first essential to survive the present so capital sets the rules. I will argue though that with credit issues declining fast, current and potential earnings multiples should increase in importance. The age of TCE multiples should and will recede.

The second use of TCE, and the one that I personally use, is the TCE ratio. A measure of leverage and its close cousin: excessive risk taking.

Why the TCE ratio and not all the other capital ratios that regulators use for capital adequacy, like tier 1 leverage, tier 1 capital, total risk? I am old-fashioned, and I think it is important to be skeptic of measures that open opportunities to hybrid capital, that is partly debt, or use “risk” weighted measures of assets, when there are no “safe” assets only safe underwriting. When financial booms come, hand in hand with financial deregulation argued for by the banks themselves, exoteric metrics can easily hide or tempt risk taking.

Leverage is not the only way that banks can take risks, bad loans and investments are even worse. But a risk taking bank will pull all levers and high leverage is a good warning signal. For example, let’s see the TCE ratio for American banks at the bottom of the 2009 crisis.

It does not look like all banks were pushing the envelope but what about the Big 4! Some will argue that these are precisely the banks with high pre-provision profitability to cushion the crisis, with Warren Buffett one of them, and it has some truth.

Dick Kovacevich specifically told me to ask you your views on tangible common equity.

What I pay attention to is earning power. Coca-Cola has no tangible common equity. But they’ve got huge earning power. And Wells … you can’t take away Wells’ customer base. It grows quarter by quarter. And what you make money off is customers. And you make money on customers by having a helluva spread on assets and not doing anything really dumb. And that’s what they do. (…)

You don’t make money on tangible common equity. You make money on the funds that people give you and the difference between the cost of those funds and what you lend them out on. And that’s where people get all mixed up incidentally on things like the TARP. They say, ‘Well, where’d the 5 billion go or where’d the 10 billion go that was put in?’ That isn’t what you make money on. You make money on that deposit base of $800 billion that they’ve got now. And that deposit base I guarantee you will cost Wells a lot less than it cost Wachovia. And they’ll put out the money differently.

Even more, I would argue that this set of banks was not even very responsible for the bubble. Investment banks and other banks that had already collapsed should carry more of the blame.

But add a fizzing real estate bubble to large real estate loan and securities portfolios. Who should you trust with this mounting evidence of too much risk taking? Or as Buffett would say

banking is a very good business unless you do dumb things

So with all the complaining about the new emphasis on the TCE ratio in the dark days of 2009, I wonder … what was new? Banks lobby for deregulation and more leverage only later to complain of regulation “overreach” . The system flatlined only because they asked for the rope to hang themselves.

And let’s not forget that capital for the whole system is important. Capital works as a cushion and help banks to recognize loses faster instead of gambling on a rosier future. To be the lonely good bank, and most were prudent, when the national banking system is collapsing is no consolation. As the Bank of Ireland sadly learned.

The flip side of the TCE ratio is that its improvement also signals banks reducing risk, voluntarily or not, and the progress has been spectacular.

What about Europe? As is public knowledge, European banks have their issues. And it is not just the sovereign debt exposure. Some big banks need capital and the TCE ratio is one if several guidelines that hint on this despite all their complaining.

Does this mean that the American banks are threatened? Good banks but sadly part of a collapsing global banking system?

Not so fast. Retail banking crisis are more of a local/national affair connected to local/national deflation. International assets  are usually not big or risky enough in retail banks balance sheets. But that is an assumption that must be checked, specially with the Big 4 taking more investment banking roles, as we will do in a future Charting Banking.

Banking quick review: asset quality

The last part of bankregdata‘s review of the banks’ third quarter results. His emphasis is on asset quality and I do not think there are going to be many surprises for the readers that have been following the Charting Banking series despite the slightly different angle that Bill uses:

  1. Asset quality is improving fast
  2. Construction and development loans are a pain in the neck

In particular, I like his analysis of the real estate owned (REO) composition and the speed on how banks have been restructuring the most troubled loans (construction and development, and housing mortgages).


This week reviews the Banking Industry 3rd Quarter 2011 performance for Asset Quality, Loans, Restructures and REO.

Using the Texas Ratio as a measure of risk we see that (collectively) banks continue to improve:

A review by Asset Size shows some risk in the largest banks (where GAAP issues mitigate some of the concerns) and mid-size Community Banks between $250 and $999 Million.

Unadjusted Nonperforming Loans continue to drop and are at 4.21% of Total Loans. In terms of dollars, NPLs at $309.67 Billion are now 24.47% below the 2010 Q1 peak:

The Adjusted NPL numbers are dropping slightly quicker – more on that shortly.

Quarter over Quarter Nonperforming Loan Amount by Loan Portfolio:

Of the 13 largest Loan Portfolio types, every one experienced a drop with the exception of Individuals: Auto Loans which rose 1.98%.

A couple of thoughts regarding Construction & Development NPLs:

  • Even with a 10.10% drop in NPLs, Construction & Development loans still have a 14.57% NPL rate.
  • At $254 Billion C&D lending is back to 2003 Q1 levels and $377 Billion (59.69%) off the 2008 Q1 high.
  • In 2003 Q1 C&D made up 4.88% of all loans outstanding – today it is 3.46%.
  • Is this due to a lack of demand or the fact that banks won’t go near Constuction loans?
  • It’s hard to picture an expanding economy without an increase in Construction & Develoment loans.

One concern is that while there is good news with Charge Offs at $31.66 Billion (lowest quarter since 2008 Q3), Adjusted NPLs to Charge Offs has climbed to $7.09. Basically, there are $7.09 of Adjusted NPLs for every $1 of Charge Offs – banks are delaying Charge Offs relative to the NPLs earlier in the cycle.

If you go here you’ll note that it is the small banks struggling with the ratio. Home Equity and 1-4 Family Junior Liens are particularly a problem.

Restructured Debt inexorably climbs higher (and higher):

Restructured Loans to Total Loans is at 2.63%. All reported loan types experienced increases in the rate:

  • 1-4 Family Residential at 4.52%
  • Commercial Real Estate at 2.08%
  • Commercial & Industrial at 0.76%
  • Construction & Development at 5.93%

Once again, Construction & Development loans continue to be a problem area – especially with a 52.96% NPL rate on the restructured portion.

Other Real Estate Owned continues to slowly drop:

OREO is being liquidated and slowly coming down. Collectively, banks took a -$1,135,148,000 hit to Non Interest Income, however, they continue to offset it with Gains from Loan Sales.

OREO levels compared to Peak/Previous High by OREO Type:

And on that cheery note, I’ll end this much-too-long missive and wish you a Merry Christmas. If you have any questions or suggestions feel free to contact me.Ahh, yes, there is that pesky Construction & Development issue once again. Comparatively, the smaller community banks have worked through a higher portion of their Construction NPLs and charged them off to REO. The problem is that they are just sitting on the balance sheet – slightly more difficult to get rid of that partially built apartment building.

Looking at 1-4 Family Residential is a mixed bag. All 1-4 Family Residential has come down 19.38%, however, Foreclosed GNMA is still very high. The bigger problem for Housing is that banks are just not charging it off at the same clip – the inventory is being held out of REO. Once again, we look to the NPL to CO ratio which shows 37.34 for 1-4 Family Residential. That’s $37.34 of NPLs for $1 of Charge Offs – which is an 11 quarter high and the highest since the 46.00 put up in 2008 Q4 when the largest banks delayed charge offs to hit year end numbers.

Bill Moreland

Banking quick review: income statement

As promised, this is BankRegData’s monthly comment follow-up. Some comments at the end.

Pre-Tax Net Operating Income hit $48.82 Billion (1.65%):

The quarter over quarter increase was $6.63 Billion. The $48.82 Billion figure is the highest since 2007 Q2 at $54.97 Billion (2.07%). The peak was $56.88 Billion in 2006 Q2 (2.29%).

Let’s look first at the big part of the pie which is Net Interest Margin:

Net Interest Margin is down $663 Million from last quarter. A couple of points here:

  • The $105.23 Billion represents the 6th straight quarterly decline from the Credit Card inflated peak in 2010 Q1.
  • Funding Costs continue to drop and are now sitting at 0.70%. Banks are clearing another $33 billion per quarter in lower Interest Expense costs compared to 3 years ago.
  • Interest Income (Yield) is dropping faster and sitting at 4.25% which is a historically low number.

So where did the increase in Pre-Tax NOI come from? Trading Gains:

Trading Gains once again made a disproportionate impact with a Q on Q increase of $5.55 Billion. JPM made up $4.55 Billion of the increase.

Other Non Interest Income observations:

  • Banks are once again finding ways to increase Service Charges income.
  • Investment Banking Income at $2.13 Billion is at least a nine year low.
  • Net Servicing Fees got hammered at a number of banks – especially JPM.
  • Income from Loan Sales is once again on the rise.

As an aside, Loans Held For Sale jumped $49.43 Billion Q on Q. Part of this ($8.14 Billion) is due to the conversion of OTS reporters (who did not previously report the item) to the OCC Call Reports. That means $41.28 Billion is newly marked for sale.

If you have any questions or suggestions feel free to contact me.

Bill Moreland


When discussing banks for the Charting Banking series I preferred to focus on the balance sheet (asset quality, capital and reserves). That was the key to assess if banks could manage the stress before regulators pull the plug.

It is about time to address the income statement. And yes, the banks in general are showing profits. Very large profits, even after provisions and write downs. And increasing.

However, Bill rightly notices  some weak spots:

  • NIM under pressure: both in absolute and percentage numbers. Lack of loan generation, pointed out in part 1, and all time low interest rates are starting to make a dent.
  • Large trading gains: that are not sustainable

Even without the jump in trading gains, the net operating income would have shown an increase over last Q ($43.2B adjusted for the increase) so I do not worry about the trading profits sustainability too much.

However, the net interest margin under pressure is very important and is a direct consequence of consumers delevering (fair to say they do not need more debt) and businesses not investing because of lack of demand.

The question is, when is loan demand going to jump start? I have an hypothesis, but for the moment I prefer to keep it to myself. At the same time this is not a life threatening issue with banks trading below tangible book value. Tangible book is a  good estimate of liquidation value so if the worse happens, and banks profits start to decline, the sector would still seem very cheap.

Bronte Capital was very early in noticing this possibility (while thinking it was not going to happen).  A very good example of hoping for the best but planning for the worst.

In fact he was so early that it was one of his first posts. At the time it was radical because everyone was fixed on the bad loans. He says he had only 20 readers. If that is the case I am honored!

Banking quick review: assets and liabilities

First of all, thanks to Bill Moreland from BankRegData that granted us permission to post his latest commentary. Every month, he chooses some graphs from his service to address some critical issue. If you are not subscribed I suggest you doing so.

His latest installment tackles the latest results of the banking system. We will start sharing his view on the balance sheet, leaving the income statement for a follow-up.

I have added a few comments at the end.

This week reviews the Banking Industry 3rd Quarter 2011 performance for Assets, Liabilities and Income/Expense. The next mailing in a couple weeks will cover Asset Quality, Loans, Restructures and REO.

Total Assets industry wide climbed $208.28 Billion over Q2 and are now at $13.84 Trillion. This is the second highest number ever and just shy of the peak of $13.89 Trillion set in 2008 Q4.

Please note the $252 Billion bump in 2010 Q1 up to $13.36 Trillion. The number would have shrunk were it not for the $291 Billion lift from the international Credit Card balances being brought on to the Call Reports. Note the impacts of this on Pre-Tax NOI & NIM in tables coming up shortly

Goodwill and Other Intangibles make up the majority of the drop in the Other Assets category.

The growth in Net Loans & Leases, while considerably lower than Securities, Trading and Fed Funds, does mark the second consecutive quarterly increase. This is the first time that has happened since 2008 Q2.

That said, banks are becoming less and less focused on lending.

The chart above details Net Loans as a percentage of Total Assets. I did a spot check on the FDIC data going back to 1992 and could not find a number lower than this quarter’s 51.70%.

Deposits grew $233 billion Q on Q (2.38%) and surpassed $10 Trillion for the first time. In 3 years, deposits have grown $955.84 Billion, since 2003 Q1 they have grown $4.34 Trillion.

Other notable items from the Liabilities & Equity side of the Balance Sheet:

  • $38.18 Billion increase (12.92% Q on Q) in Trading Liabilities
  • $26.25 Billion increase (7.34% Q on Q) in Other Liabilities
  • $106.85 Billion decrease (-10.87% Q on Q) in Other Borrowed Monies ($17.91 Billion drop (-5.25%) in FHLB Advances)


What do we make of this?

  • What Liquidity Concerns?: the banks are flooded with deposits and what they are lacking is loan demand.
  • Loan Growth Anemic: banks are still hoarding but there are some initial signs that it could be restarting.
  • Goodwill Written Down: improving the asset quality. There has been a lot of focus in tangible assets and equity, but the issue is becoming less important by the day.
  • Franchise Value Increasing: assets are growing, deposits are growing. If the assets are good, the franchise value is also growing

The bad news is that the same large liquidity and lack of loan generation is starting to affect the banks’ net interest margin, but that is an issue we will tackle in the follow-up.

Thinking about investing in US banks? a short answer to David Merkel

In the comments section to the post Three Years After Lehman I got this deceptively simple question from David Merkel, the author of the classic The Aleph Blog,

I recommend that you try to talk with M3 Partners, Chris Whalen or Hovde – if they will talk to you. They know banks far better than I do, and I am pretty certain they are bearish.

I’m no expert on banks. I only have a few question marks:

  • Exposure to Europe
  • Exposure to repo lending/borrowing
  • Lack of clarity because of illiquid assets, and lack of mark-market accounting.
  • Home equity lending
  • Over-reliance of clipping pennies from the Fed, at a time when the front end of the yield curve has collapsed.

Basically, I don’t trust the accounting. Why should I buy bank stocks when I can buy safer insurers at similar or better discounts, where I know the accounting is mostly fair, and the liability structures are stronger?



My first thought was that it was nearly impossible to answer all David’s “few” question marks in the comment section but surely I could answer his insurance versus banking question. How wrong I was. When the short answer became two pages long it was fairly obvious that it was the stuff for a post. It probably needs editing but the short answer was already taking too much time:



I am sure others do not feel as comfortable as you with insurance accounting and underwriting standards. I certainly do not and you have been my man when I want corroboration on those issues (smile)

I imagine that when you mean investing in insurance companies, you are referring to insurance companies where you personally feel comfortable with their underwriting and their history. Besides basic rules of thumb to check reserves, the accounting will not help much predicting future losses.  Also I suppose that there are some sectors that you would not trust like life insurers with large guaranteed annuities portfolios or some mortgage insurers.

That reaches a central point of investing in financial firms: some leap of trust is almost always needed. For insurers you cannot know every single policy, for banks you cannot know every single loan. There are a couple of mREITs that I know all their loans but those are an exception.

There are several investment approaches to this “leap of trust” thing:

  1. Do not trust any financial firm ever: that has been the path taken by several good investors. They prefer to keep it outside their circle of competence and I will not try to convince them to change. You have to pick your spots. At the same time, there is a leap of trust in any type of investment (BP/security, NWSA/ethics, HPQ/acquisitions) even if you trust the accounting, that as we know it is not always the case. I personally have lost money investing in some simple businesses, in simple industries with lots of net cash, and instead made substantial returns in some complex distressed situations.
  2. Buy great companies with great teams: Because of some accident an investor may get to know in depth some financial sector (you insurance, me banking) and get comfortable with some teams. Good teams can avoid disasters for decades and the top of them can regularly achieve 12%+ average ROE and grow. That is a recipe for fantastic returns. I consider this approach risky. Historically many have had style drift like AIG and also be exposed to nationwide cataclysms. For example, Bank of Ireland was the best of Irish banks but that did not help much. Besides, it can nurture complacency and abdication on the part of the investor.
  3. Wait for the earthquake and look for survivors: that combined with signs of a new management team doing what is necessary (exiting marginal business, manage for capital and cash flow, reducing legacy assets significantly) can be a powerful combination. You are NOT trusting management, you are seeing it in action and following its progress.

As you have probably noticed this blog is mostly devoted to turnaround investing and that means point #3. It is a way of trying to avoid the pitfalls of #2 by waiting to see the order of magnitude of the cataclysm and watch management in action not just in words or reputation.

One key historical advantage of approach #3 for banks is that damaging credit bubbles are usually tied with real estate booms, deregulation, overvalued or even fixed exchange rates (for countries not indebted in own currency), and sustained current account deficits. Some recent examples are Latin America 82, Scandinavia 90, Mexico 94, Asia 96, Argentina 00, Subprime 08, Eastern Europe and PIGS 11. Bubbles driven by excess internal depository savings badly invested are much more rare and different in their consequences (Japan 1990s, maybe China today).  That provides several advantages to an informed investor:

  • Avoidable: Real Estate is a big proportion of banks’ balance sheet and usually with deregulation capital is lobbied to be thinned. Most crisis in other categories are usually sideshows: they are not big enough or risky enough. So by only following a couple of categories it is possible to avoid 90% of banking crisis.
  • Measurable: when the punctuation hits Real Estate, the other categories follow linear processes that can be measured and followed for a sign of a turn (with the exception of C&D, always one big if):
    1. Pricing and collateral of new loans are improved
    2. Regulators are tougher
    3. Bubble loans become a lower percentage of portfolio over time
    4. Cash and liquidity increases
  • Scope limited: wherever real estate goes (residential or commercial depending on the type of bubble) that is where the banks will go. If the government does not intervene, watch out (1932). If the government delays or avoid the devaluation of a fixed currency (Greece, Ireland, Spain today) watch out. Loans that are non-performing are difficult to hide. They will show in regulator reports, the cash flow statements or real estate industry reports.
  • Time limited: CRE and MBS from bubble times become a lower percentage of the total portfolio over time, while the new loans should be perfectly OK with the improved underwriting and pricing.
  • Hated or unloved: headlines do not help and many people were financially burned, so you can wait for confirmation before investing. People get trapped in the morality tale just when it is already in the past. Also it is not like buying the dip is a must, there may be several opportunities. The important part is to improve the probability of a hit because the upside is enormous anyway.
  • Replicable: learn one running play and play it ad infinitum. There is always a country suffering undeserved short term capital inflows, misusing them, and becoming the next candidate for a banking blow out  … with the following renaissance. Just look at Greece or Australia. There are twists here and there, like for example countries indebted in their own currency like the US, but isn’t it nice to have a perpetual compounding machine?

The funny thing is that at the moment there is not a single bank stock in my portfolio. It is circumstantial because I have had small and medium banks on and off over the last year and I think the banking sector today is fertile ground indeed.

In this blog I have tried to bounce and structure ideas on approach #3, the turnaround approach. It needs more work, pragmatism and flexibility than what is normally understood as value investing. Its success is tied to avoid investing in every single opportunity but only the high probabilities, and there must be several high probabilities in the banking sector today:

  • Good industry: there is a bank in every Western film. There is a bank branch or an ATM in every commercial location. That is how critical and entrenched are banks in a modern economy and even its history. It is oligopolistic at the local level, without technology obsolesce, and has high regulatory barriers to entry (just ask Walmart). Chris Whalen may not like the oligopolistic setup but I am not seeing many advocates of a utility model. And the alternative of too much dumb private competition was one primary reason of the mess we are in. A highly regulated and oligopolistic model has historically worked.
  • Pool of good businesses: retail banking is a local business where you want strong local market share (or a collection of strong local market shares like Bank of America and Wells Fargo). There are plenty of cheap banks with local dominance funded by long-term low-cost deposits with margin to absorb negative shocks. It is not like Bank of America is the only option, actually I think there are better risk-adjusted alternatives with similar upside.
  • Hidden downside protection: I am finding multiple cash flow positive banks that are most probably overcapitalized and over-reserved. There is some regulatory risk (pushed to dilute) but at the current prices the upside is big even with some dilution.
  • Emphasis in the core business: loose times, loose capital. Tight times, tight capital. The best example of all is Bank of America selling stakes in Canada, Europe and China (that also reduces Private Equity and Credit Card exposure) while redoubling their efforts in the good old USA. Heavy emphasis on the core business, even if it shrinks a company, is a sign of a management that gets it. It improves profitability in the long term and reduces risk.
  • The investor has time to close the loop: I usually prefer small and mediums firms because they are less followed and their turnarounds are easier. But hate can also provide time to confirm that all skeletons are out of the closet … and banking is the most hated sector today. There are still not many in the media realizing that most banks are improving. Even the smart Chris Whalen, that has been positive of medium banks, is probably missing the improvement in the Big 4 normal operations and capital ratios most probably because of too much attention to the off balance sheet putback liabilities (issue that would require a whole new post to give it justice).
  • First cash flow statement, then balance sheet, finally income statement: And the banks cash flow is at several years highs.You can distrust the balance sheet but it is much more difficult to lie with the cash flows statement. If these loans and operations are so bad, why they are so profitable? It is not like there has not been enough time for bad loans to explode.
  • Look for stable or improving earnings potential: In non-financial firms l prefer stable or growing revenues targeting a turnaround based on cost reductions. For banks I look for stable or growing assets and deposits with provisions reducing over time. Most banks’ franchises are still intact and legacy issues are getting reduced. For example, the much maligned Bank of America has been increasing total deposits and core deposits.

And as I argued in Three Years After Lehman, the sector turnaround seems to be going full speed ahead. At this speed that means most of the US banking sector legacy issues should be behind in a year or so.

Therefore, any criticism of the banks should be focused on things off-balance sheet like putbacks or new shocks like Europe. Measuring their order of magnitude should be a piece of cake but I am not seeing many doing that calculation and much less balancing it against the capital, reserves and profitability of each bank. That is the game.

I will not try to convince you David out of insurance companies especially when they are cheap and right in the middle of your circle of competence. Actually, I think it is an interesting sector to follow these days:

But if the American commercial banks are safe, they are a lot cheaper than the American insurance companies. For example, if Bank of America survives – and I am not saying it will – it generates close to $40B in pre-tax pre-provision earnings and is priced around $80B. I do not know of any such disparities in the insurance sector (maybe you do?)

Also the situation is a little different, closer to investing in insurance companies after asbestos … the shenanigans are out in the open! You are faced with the more simple task of evaluating the trustworthiness of the companies projections without short term time pressure.

That is one huge advantage. Some time has passed and you are seeing how some of those projections have performed. Actually some competitors have gone down the drain that is also good for the survivors enjoying improving interest spreads.

With insurance companies, I personally do not know the shenanigans in this soft pricing market. Some have said that AIG was an example of a company too aggressive on pricing backed by the government but from my novice point of view they are not doing so bad in this catastrophic year. Conclusion, I do not know where are the insurance sector hidden bombs and to go by reputation and a track record is not usually my style, a style that shuns complacency.

Hope this answers your question David. Maybe next time I will post the answer to the few question marks …it is already running three pages long.

Charting Banking XXII: three years after Lehman

Three years after Lehman concerns about the banks’ state of affairs have resurfaced once again. The strange thing is that the performance has been very predictable: a steady improvement in all fronts. Once again we are going to take advantage of the pret-a-porter graphs from (I am very lazy). But this time it includes a couple of new charts to address the capital ratios improvement.

Let’s start with our usual guests the Texas ratio and 30-89 days delinquencies.



It does not look like the crisis is deepening, doesn’t it? 30-89 delinquencies in particular are at levels not seen since Lehman collapsed. When people talk about the credit issues of the banking system it really surprises me. The fundamentals are definitely improving.

One of the most common accusations is that banks are “extending and pretending”. Well, loan  extensions are a normal part of a bank operation. Good clients with good credit normally get extensions. Despite all the talk of recent years, there is a good difference between liquidity issues and solvency issues.

But I understand people’s concern with restructured loans, if credit standards and interests payments are reduced for lenders  it might indicate credit deterioration. It is still part of good banking, especially when rates are zero so there is room for helping lenders while maintaining spreads, but it is an issue that should be addressed.

The problem is that the bankregdata ratio that I have been publishing includes restructured loans. It was the conservative way. Though, considering the improved conditions I think it is time to show the progress without restructured loans. And it has been dramatic.



I do not even know where the “extend and pretend” argument comes from. I understand that Japanese banks were very slow in recognizing their commercial lending problems in the 90s, because of cozy keiretzu connections, and all the resulting problems.

However, Japanese banks had non-performing assets reaching 8%. US banks are nowhere near those levels and most have been building reserves, modifying and extending good loans, charging-off the bad ones, foreclosing the zombie ones and disposing REO.


And not including reestructured loans:



It has not been a pretty process but all the headlines about robo-signing and wrong foreclosures are not the result of banks being slow. Even more, for most of them there is not even the incentive to delay when their capital ratios give them space for maneuver to accelerate issues and leave the crisis behind.



And I have not yet counted the very large reserves built over the last 3 years, maybe I should.



Most banks are most probably over-reserved.  It also hints that most current provisions, that are depressing banks’ earnings, are fake expenses.

Not that there is anything wrong with that, better be safe than sorry. An overcapitalized and over-reserved banking system is better for all of us. It reduces systemic risk and provides a buffer in case of external shocks … like Europe.

And from an investor point of view, these reserves can provide a nice margin of safety. Most of the credit problems have been recognized and more than 50% of them are already in the past. So if an investor underestimated some hidden issues … there are lots of reserves – and cash from operations – to take care of them.

We have to be careful though, each bank is its own animal. Maybe on the aggregate the system is being managed conservatively; but each bank as an investment has to be addressed individually.

Munger on financial innovation

It all started with an asinine bubble. The cause was a combination of megalomania, stupidity, insanity, and I would say evil on the part of bankers and mortgage brokers.

And it was widespread. Alan Greenspan was a smart guy, but he totally overdosed on Ayn Rand when he was young. You can’t give bankers the freedom to create gambling games.

Clever derivatives broke dozens of companies. It killed them. Bankrupt. We don’t need these kinds of innovation in finance. It’s OK to be boring in finance. What we want is innovation in widgets.

I bet Richard Fuld doesn’t have an ounce of contrition. It’s just megalomania. When it’s like that, you need rules to prevent catastrophe. When banks are borrowing the government’s credit rating, you need rules to prevent stupid things.

I don’t want to sell credit to people who are going to hurt themselves with it. You should only sell products that are good for the people who use them. Some disagree with this, but I know I’m right. That is to say, you’re talking to a Republican who admires Elizabeth Warren.

Fancy computers are engaging in legalized front-running. The profits are clearly coming from the rest of us — our college endowments and our pensions. Why is this legal? What the hell is the government thinking? It’s like letting rats into a restaurant.

None of us should fall for the idea that this was constructive capitalism. In the 1920s they called it bucket shops just the name tells you it’s bad and they eventually made it illegal, and rightly so. They should do the same this time.

Charlie Munger, Morning with Charlie 2011