In 2007, equity markets fell out of love with financial institutions, especially those with large investment banking operations. 2008 saw something of a reconciliation – the bigger the write-off, the bigger the dividend cut, the bigger the capital raising, perversely the greater the investor buying interest. But there remain many reasons for caution.
The asset quality of major banks remains uncertain. Svein Andresen, secretary general of the Financial Stability Forum, which is made up of global regulators and central bankers, recently told a conference of bankers in Cannes: "We are now 10 months through this crisis and some of the major banks have yet to make disclosure in [crucial] areas.”
Despite significant writedowns, sub-prime assets remain vulnerable. There are substantial differences in valuations (see table below). Lack of detailed disclosure about valuations compounds the uncertainty.
Other assets – consumer credit, SME loans, corporate lending and high-yield loans – all look vulnerable as the real economy slows. Banks have increased provisions but it is not clear whether they will be adequate.
Bank balance sheets have changed significantly. Traditional commercial bank assets consisted primarily of loans and high quality securities. Traditional investment bank assets consisted of government securities and the inventory of trading securities.
In recent years, asset credit quality has deteriorated. High quality borrowers have dis-intermediated the banks by financing directly from investors. Banks also hold lower quality assets to boost returns.
Bank balance sheets also now hold investments – private equity stakes, principal investments, hedge fund equity, different slices of risk in structured finance transaction and derivatives (of varying degrees of complexity). Sometimes, the assets don’t appear on-balance-sheet, being held in complex off-balance sheet structures with various components of risk being retained by the bank.
Under US accounting rules, asset must be classified into:
– Level 1 (mark-to-market) – liquid assets or instruments that are actively traded.
– Level 2 (mark-to-model) – instruments that cannot be priced based on trade prices but are valued using observable inputs.
– Level 3 (mark-to-make-believe or mark-to-myself) – the asset or liability cannot be priced using observable inputs and requires the use of modeling techniques and substantially subjective assumptions.
Asset quality uncertainty can be gauged by looking at a bank’s Level 3 assets as shown in the table below:
In the first quarter of 2008, the position deteriorated. For example, Merrill Lynch’s Level 3 assets increased to $US69.86 billion as of March 28 from $41.45 billion on December 28 (an increase of 69 per cent) equivalent to over 225 per cent of capital.
There are several areas of concern. Banks have benefited from hedging transactions (some of these are difficult to value Level 3 transactions). The exact nature of the hedges is not disclosed. The value of the hedge is based on models and estimates. The lack of disclosure around the value of the hedges, their nature and hedge counterparties make it difficult to gauge whether they will be effective in reducing losses.
A further area of concern is the practice of "circular asset sales”. Banks have sold risky assets where the seller has provided the buyer with favourable terms. Banks have sold leveraged loans on the basis that the bank lends the buyers 75-80 per cent of the price at below market rates. Sellers have given undertakings that if future asset sales are at lower prices than that paid by the buyer then the seller will compensate the purchaser. These provisions have allowed banks to sell assets at prices that avoid the need to further mark down its positions.
This creates uncertainty about the value of bank assets. Further write-downs in asset values cannot be discounted.
This leads to the glaring truth that banks require re-capitalisation. The capital required is currently around $US300-500 billion (15-25 per cent of total global bank capital) to cover losses.
Capital is also needed for assets returning onto their balance sheet (as the vehicles of the "shadow banking system” are unwound). This capital is required to restore bank balance sheets. Additional capital will be needed to support future growth.
Banks have raised a significant amount of capital but face increasing competition. Insurers, including the monolines, and the government sponsored enterprises (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) also need re-capitalisation. This may limit availability and increase the already high cost of capital for banks.
Availability of capital, high cost of new capital and dilution of earnings will impinge upon future performance.
Earnings growth in recent years has been driven by a rapid expansion of lending – both traditional and disguised forms such as securitisation and derivatives activity. Bank balance sheets have expanded at rates well above GDP expansion, and lower volumes in the future will mean lower earnings.
Corporate finance and advisory fees are driven by the capacity to finance transactions and also co-investing in risk positions. So lower origination of lending driven deals may reduce this income significantly.
Investment banks generated around $US15 billion on fees in 2007 from "financial sponsors” – private equity firms involved in leveraged transactions. Banking fees for leveraged finance deals are expect to be down at least 50 per cent in 2008. Some banks have reported declines in fees of around 90 per cent.
Structured finance has contributed strongly to earnings in recent years, but now things have changed and securitisation volumes have collapsed.
Just recently, there have been signs that the securitisation markets was starting to show tentative signs of life. Many "securitisation” transactions re-packaged existing assets into securitised format to allow banks to take advantage of cheap funding from central banks. This used the fact that central banks now allow AAA-rated asset backed securities to be used as collateral for direct funding or can be exchanged for government bonds that can be financed by repurchase arrangements.
Glimmers of hope?
Trading revenue has been a bright spot. Increased volatility and a much wider bid-offer spread have generated increases in both client driven and proprietary trading earnings. Several factors may limit trading income. Derivatives and structured investments, especially complex products, previously generated significant earnings, but problems in structured finance have highlighted concerns about complexity, transparency and valuation. Revenues may diminish, therefore, as investors and borrowers curtail their use of such instruments preferring simpler products that are less profitable to the bank.
Trading revenues relied heavily on hedge funds and financial sponsors, but hedge fund activity is likely to slow through consolidation and reduced leverage. Derivatives and hedging activity from private equity transactions and structured finance has been significant. Hedging revenues typically contribute 50 per cent or more of bank earnings from a private equity transaction. Reduction in financial sponsor activity will limit revenue from this source.
Banks have also increasingly relied on proprietary trading to supplement earnings. This increases risk and depends on the availability of capital. It also relies on availability of counterparties and liquidity. Concern about counterparty risk and reduction in market liquidity in some products increases the risk of this activity and reduces its earning potential.
Risk models in banks are a function of market volatility. The low volatility regime of recent years reduced the amount of capital needed. Increased market volatility will increase the amount of capital needed. This may restrict the level of risk taking and therefore earnings potential.
To make things worse, rating agencies have downgraded a number of investment banks and many are still on "negative watch” as a result of concerns about asset quality, capital requirements and earnings outlook. Lower credit ratings may limit the ability of banks to trade.
Where accepted as counterparty, the banks may have to post increased collateral. There is anecdotal evidence that large hedge funds are now asking banks to post collateral as surety to mitigate credit risk in transactions. Merrill estimated that a downgrade of its credit rating by one category (or 'notch') would require it to post an additional $US3.2 billion of collateral on over-the-counter derivative transactions.
Similarly, Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers estimated that a single level ratings downgrade would require posting an additional $US973 million and $US200 million of additional collateral. Weaker credit ratings will affect the ongoing profitability of affected banks.
Higher costs will also increase, limiting earning recovery. Bank funding costs have already increased and most firms have been forced to issue substantial amounts of term debt to fund assets returning to balance sheet and protect against liquidity risk. To the extent that these costs cannot be passed through to borrowers, the higher funding costs will affect future funding.
Banks have issued high cost equity to re-capitalise their balance sheets. Hybrid capital issues paying between 7.00 per cent and 11.00 per cent pa will be drag on future earnings. Highly dilutionary equity issues (often at a discount to a share price that had fallen significantly) will also impede earnings per share growth and return on capital.
Banks also face additional short-term costs. Litigation against banks has increased. There may also be prosecutions of banks. The costs of these are unknown. In the longer term, banks face higher regulatory and compliance costs.
As banks begin to adjust their business models (selling assets and reducing staff), significant restructuring costs will affect earnings in the short run. The benefits of the restructuring will yield benefits but they will take time to emerge.
Accounting factors may also affect any earnings recovery. FAS157 allows the entity's own credit risk to be used in establishing the value of its liabilities. Changes in the entity's credit standing are therefore reflected as changes in fair value. This results in gains for credit downgrades and losses for credit upgrades.
As credit spreads increased, US banks have taken substantial profits to earnings from revaluing their own liabilities. European banks have also taken significant gains. If markets stabilise and the credit spreads for banks improves then banks will have to reverse these gains. There may be significant mark-to-market losses especially on new debt issues by banks at high credit spreads since mid-2007.
Normally, a dysfunctional financial sector and weakened individual firms would result in significant consolidation through mergers and acquisitions and asset sales. Consolidation activity usually provides support to values. In this instance, many likely predators are themselves weakened. There is also a shortage of capital to undertake such transactions. Acquisitions, in the present environment, are complicated by uncertainty about assets values and a weakening economy. For example, the JP Morgan and Bear Stearns transaction was effectively a "distressed” sale at what everybody assumed was a bargain price. All this makes the inevitable consolidation difficult and reduces the support to bank valuations.
Investors are looking for a rapid recovery in bank earnings. Earnings may recover but the "gilded age” of bank profits may be difficult to recapture.
Glamorous banks reliant on 'voodoo banking' may find it difficult to achieve the high performance of the go-go years.
Banks with sound traditional franchises that have avoided the worst excesses of the last 10-15 years will do well in the changed market environment. Such old fashioned banking may ironically do well in the new environment. Interest rates that they charge customers have increased. Bank deposits have become far more attractive than other investments. Stronger banks have also benefited from a flight to quality.
Will the recovery in bank stocks take the form of V or U? In fact, it may be an L-shaped future (with a slight uplift at the end of the flat period). With the Northern Rock and Bear Stearns bailouts, central banks and governments have signaled that major banks are "too big to fail”. This is a necessary but not sufficient condition for recovery of bank earnings and stock prices.
© 2008 Satyajit Das All Rights reserved.
Satyajit Das is a risk consultant and author of Traders, Guns & Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives (2006, FT-Prentice Hall).
At the time of publication the author or his firm did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article although he may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund.