Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Dick Kovacevich On TARP and the Financial Crisis

Dick Kovacevich, the retired Chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo & Company is one of the best chief executives of the hundreds I have met during my career in the capital markets, though I never covered banks.  I heard him tell the story of Norwest Bank for many years, and it was always the same message about the importance of the retail 'stores' and improving the number of relationships per customer. My savvy banking analyst colleague at Roulston and Company held him in the highest regard also, and he didn't hand out plaudits easily. Mr.Kovacevich's  pitch was a model of clarity, simplicity, and focused on a few core metrics. The ROA, with a modest degree of leverage and a portfolio of businesses including asset management, led to a superior ROE: it was beautiful and simple.

When he took on the famous "merger of equals" that was Norwest and Wells Fargo, Kovacevich really stepped on the hornets' nest, but he handled it with brass knuckles in a velvet glove.  Having seen him during a few pickup basketball games, he was unassuming and never drew attention to himself. As a board member at Fingerhut, I know that he was always prepared, engaged and focused on getting the company to do the right thing for all stakeholders; when he couldn't meet his own high standards any more, he left the board. It isn't any coincidence that WFC has been one of Berkshire Hathaway's core equity holdings for many years.  His piece in the current Cato Journal caught my attention, and whenever Dick Kovacevich talks about banking and financial services, it's compulsory listening for me.

In 2009, in the din of drums beating for more special Treasury/Fed/government rescue plans, we stood along side a relatively small minority writing about letting the capitalist mechanism of bank failure under existing mechanisms do its job, as it had done before.  This post, it turns out, is being re-read often today.

CEO Kovacevich was in Washington, D.C. for the 2006 Treasury TARP meeting.  He writes,
"I believed at that time, and I still believe today that forcing all banks to take TARP funds, even if they didn't want of need the funds, was one of the worst economic decisions in the history of the United States."

The Sins of the Few, Not of the Many

At some point, all banking crises have at their root, a crisis of confidence. TARP destroyed confidence in the banking system because the public concluded that all the TARP banks had to be in trouble, otherwise why would they have taken the government's money?   Kovacevich writes that "...isolated liquidity issues turned into a tsunami impacting all banks and industries."

Fewer than twenty financial institutions precipitated the crisis, in his opinion. Dick Kovacevich writes that "The housing crisis got as big as it did...only because of the existence of quasi-public/private entities such as Fannie and Freddie."

Meanwhile, of the twenty institutions he references, half were investment banks and half were commercial banks, roughly. Citi was a commercial bank acting more like an investment bank. Why, he asks, punish 6,000 commercial banks for the sins of a relative few?

Bear, Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and others had liquidity crises. Their funding model where trillions in balance sheet assets were funded by short-term liabilities was toxic, just waiting for the music to stop when short-term funds couldn't be rolled over any more.

Abuse of the Term "Systemically Important."

After more than forty years in the banking business, Kovacevich writes,
"In my opinion, there was not any systemic reason to not let banks fail over this time."
Bear, Stearns which was half the size of Lehman Brothers should have been allowed to fail. Had this happened, he writes that Lehman's assets would have been sold as the BS workout would have provided market guideposts for bidders to price Lehman's assets. Under the secrecy of TARP, there was no transparency, and hence no confidence and hence the Treasury could talk about the lack of  bidders for all of Lehman, which is a red herring and disingenuous.

Regulatory Failure and Incompetence

One quarter after being forced to take TARP funds, Wells Fargo reported record earnings, the highest in the firm's 160 year history.  In less than one year, the TARP funds were paid back, along with $2.5 billion in bank interest cost of funds borrowed, and warrants required as part of the shotgun package for the unused and unwanted funds, were exercised in-the-money. 

When WFC stepped in to rescue Wachovia in the fall of 2008, it took about one week for WFC's auditors and examiners to conclude that expected losses and required litigation reserves would exceed existing reserves by more than $60 billion!  

How, the author writes, could have ongoing examinations by the Federal Reserve, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation have failed to turn up this deficiency earlier?  

SEC oversight over the Financial Accounting Standards Board failed when it allowed FASB to impose mark-to-market requirements when markets had become frozen (i.e. failed) and unable to generate economically rational prices. All the market participants understood the market failure, but their opposition was cast politically as an aversion to regulation and financial discipline.  

The Fed's proprietary risk models overrode those used for the banks' own stress tests, and yet these models weren't shared with the member banks for comparison and testing.  The helter skelter regulatory regime required major banks to put forward profit and capital forecasts for the May-November 2009 in early 2009.  

The Fed's secret, proprietary risk models concluded that WFC's revenues would be 30% lower than WFC's own internal forecasts!  This kind of discrepancy should have set off alarm bells at the Fed, and making the models available for examination would have been the truly 'scientific' thing to do when confronted by an anomalous result like this.  Regulatory chutzpah, arrogance and incompetence fuelled by populist, anti-bank sentiments and by their highly paid outside consultants, ran high. 

Actual results for the forecast period were 2% above WFC's internal forecasts.

The Office of Thrift Supervision failed in its routine examination and regulation of Washington Mutual, Countrywide, IndyMac Bank, New Century, First Franklin, Option One, Fremont Financial and other sub-prime originators.  We have written about WAMU, Countrywide, IndyMac, and New Century in multiple posts.  Various reports by Special Masters/Examiners and others have made the egregious abuses available for anyone to see.

Things were dire at the massively mismanaged OTS, yet nobody was banned from their industry or prosecuted on the regulatory side. OTS was folded into the OCC: the regulatory apparatus wasn't held accountable or downsized, it just got swept under a rug with a new name.

A Simple Idea To Make Banks Stronger

Mr. Kovacevich notes that the total long-term debt of the bank and its bank holding company plus equity and reserves are broadly about 30% of assets, which should be more than sufficient to withstand even a black swan scenario. 

Debt holders, he rightly observes, contribute more capital and can impose more financial discipline than equity holders through either a bridge bank or through the bankruptcy mechanism.  If one felt that this cushion might not be adequate, the author says that an additional 5-10% holdback on uninsured deposits could be imposed; this proposal has been offered by many academic researchers on the banking system, such as Chicago Booth School of Business or the Columbia Business School. 

Dodd Frank Doesn't Make Our Banking System Better or Safer

25,000 pages of new law have not been translated into workable regulation even after more than four years after passage. Regulators have completed only about 52% of the 398 proposed new rules under Dodd Frank, according to the law firm of Davis, Polk. 

More than 100 highly trained and paid regulators office at, or work full time on the specific accounts of the largest banks on a routine basis.  

Fannie and Freddie are still around, not being wound down.  They have once again received the charter, just before the election cycles, to turn on the spigots and make home ownership accessible to all.  Have we learned anything?  No, but that's not the point in politics. 

I'll be posting on a fascinating book by Charles Calomiris (Columbia Business School) and Stephen Haber (Hoover Institution at Stanford University), "Fragile by Design."  It is a must read for any students of money, banking, financial economics and regulation.  

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