Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Photograph, Not a Circuit Diagram

Oh, good. Now, would you mind explaining this to me?
Except in the simplest cases, one cannot expect observation alone to reveal the effect of the use of an aspect of economics. One cannot assume, just because one can observe economics being used in an economic process, that the process is thereby altered significantly. It might be that the use of economics is epiphenomenal—an empty gloss on a process that would have had essentially the same outcomes without it, as Mirowski and Nik-Khah (2004) in effect suggest was the case for the celebrated use of “game theory” from economics in the auctions of the communications spectrum in the United States.

— Donald MacKenzie, An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets 1

By now, many of you may have already read Frank Partnoy and Jesse Eisinger’s lengthy, outrage-y article in The Atlantic about the ongoing horror that is bank accounting, and/or one of many, many responses and reactions to it. I will not try your patience (or mine) by addressing their each and every substantive argument, but I thought it might be useful to lay out in summary form here why I think the entire premise of their screed is wrongheaded.

First, I will take the liberty of condensing and paraphrasing Messrs. Partnoy and Eisinger’s 9,500 word confection for the benefit of those among you with limited time and attention spans:
Banks are opaque and hard to understand! This is scary! Even big, sophisticated investors don’t understand the risks big banks take! Financial reporting for banks is scary and complex and mystifying! To calm ourselves, we tried to understand stodgy, prudent Wells Fargo’s financial statements. What did we find? Wells Fargo is big, opaque, complex, and scary!! Even their friendly investors relations person could not or would not answer our questions! We are scared! What should we do? We should send more bank executives to jail for scaring us! Oh, and come up with better, more understandable financial disclosure! Otherwise no-one will ever, ever, ever invest in publicly traded banks again! And then, disaster!!

* * *

Before I begin, I think it is fair to concede our Cassandras’ contention that large commercial, investment, and universal banks2 are highly complex, risky, and opaque institutions. It is also fair to say that most of the bad or downright naughty things which have occurred in the financial sector over the past several years (although not all; viz., Bernie Madoff) have bubbled up from the bowels of large, complex, opaque banks and their brethren. But the notion that there is some sort of magical accounting regime which could simultaneously shine sunlight into the deepest reaches of multi-trillion-dollar global financial institutions, clearly convey the actual and potential risks these institutions face or create in their daily operations, and therefore usher everybody into a new era of financial transparency, trust, and mint juleps on the sun porch is simply ludicrous. It completely misunderstands what accounting is and what accounting is for.

It is a rookie mistake.

First, accounting is—as Donald MacKenzie characterizes (academic) economics in the quote above— an epiphenomenon to the actual day-to-day activities which any business conducts. It is a way to keep track of the financial outcomes of a firm’s true activity, which is conducting business. It is passive, it is backward looking, and properly used under normal circumstances it drives none of the important business decisions or activities which firm executives pursue. When accounting consequences do drive decisionmaking, as in tax avoidance strategies or manipulating earnings, it introduces distortions into the underlying business which can lead to all sorts of economic inefficiences, up to and including fraud.

Accordingly, reading a set of financial statements can tell you very little about how to run an actual business. That is why every business of even modest complexity runs its own internal management information systems which provide the people running the show with real time, targeted information which they can use to make decisions. These systems have very little, if anything, to do with generally accepted accounting principles. The daily trading book and profit and loss statement for a Wall Street trading desk will bear little resemblance to the balance sheet and income statement of its investment bank parent. Of course at year and quarter end each desk’s results do get rolled up and reconciled into its parent’s consolidated financial results, but this process by necessity compresses and distorts the actual real-time, granular information used to run a business into standard, pre-approved accounting categories. In addition, the backward looking nature of accounting for the period just ended means the more dynamic and changeable an underlying business process is—for example, sales and trading at a securities firm—the more out of date and potentially misleading the reported numbers can be to the current state of the business.

And it is not a matter of simply providing more, more detailed information more frequently. Put aside the common tension that most businesses compete with others, and detailing too much information in publicly available accounts would undermine their competitive position. (This is particularly important for market-making investment banks.) No, such a strategy would increase the complexity of a firm’s accounts, which seems exactly contrary to Messrs. Partnoy and Eisinger’s stated objectives of greater transparency and shorter financial reports. Not to mention still not get at the idiosyncratic risk and business practices of each such firm, because it is the entire point of public accounting to standardize reporting to enable comparability across firms.

And this last gets directly at a critical point which seems to have eluded our intrepid reporters: what accounting is for.

* * *

For that is what public accounting is: a public accounting of the financial results of a firm for the benefit of external stakeholders of various stripes, including lenders, creditors, business counterparties, regulators, and investors. It is meant to be an intermittent report on the health and progress of a firm to potentially interested parties, filtered, standardized, and formatted into a presentation which can allow those parties to compare the firm to its peers and competitors both within and outside its industry. It is not meant to be a real-time profile of the actual business operations of an individual firm; nor is it meant to give outsiders such operational knowledge of the firm that they completely understand and perhaps could even run the business themselves. It is a report card, not a class curriculum or even lecture notes.

And you should not think that regulators—who we might indeed prefer to have much more detailed, real-time operational knowledge of systemically important risky financial institutions—are hobbled in any way by the limitations of their regulatees’ public financial reports. Securities and bank regulators always have intimate access to the current operations and results of firms under their supervision and, arguably, should have much more. But this is true whether a firm files public reports or not.

Lastly, Messrs. Eisinger and Partnoy’s concern for the confidence of equity investors in banks is completely ass-backwards. A quick peek at the balance sheet of their subject Wells Fargo reveals that it derives only 10.4% of its outside funding from equity investors: the vast bulk is in the form of retail and other deposits, and the balance comes from other debt and preferred investors. Show me a retail depositor who decides whether to keep her money at Wells Fargo based on the footnote disclosure in its annual report and I—after I pick my lower jaw up off the floor—will show you a hot January. Likewise, equity investors were not the funders first to the lifeboats when Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers ran aground. Stock investors were not the parties who cratered failing banks in the financial crisis.

That is because banks and investment banks do not rely on equity investors for daily funding or liquidity. They rely on trading counterparties, repo suppliers, short-term lenders, and prime brokerage hedge fund customers to roll over constantly maturing short term debt (often funded overnight) and keep their trading balances and assets at their firm. When these institutional investors lose confidence, a bank is toast. They refuse to roll over short-term funding, they yank their assets on deposit, and they may even put on a nice, juicy short against the beleaguered bank’s stock just for good measure. And you can bet your bottom dollar they are not going to wait for the quarterly 10-Q report to be filed 45 days after period end to make their decision.

* * *

Even the much maligned (by me) Securities and Exchange Commission understands the proper relationship of public accounts to equity investors. Remember that the SEC’s objective for public reporting is not to help you fully understand a business. It is to disclose all pertinent and relevant facts and risks about a business so an investor can make her own informed decision. Banks are big, opaque, risky, and complex. What do bank financial statements tell us? They tell us banks are big, opaque, risky, and complex. That sounds pretty accurate to me. The kind of disclosure our doughty duo proposes, including ludicrously simplistic “worst-case scenarios,” would not increase investors’ understanding of the real risks inherent in the mind-bogglingly complex business of global finance. In point of fact, these are only poorly or dimly understood by the very bankers undertaking them. Instead, it would promote a sort of unwarranted confidence that would be both dangerous and misleading.

Equity investors should be terrified of banks. After all, they are the last capital providers in line in famously and ineluctably evanescent institutions, firms whose very existence can wink out over a weekend if the depositors, counterparties, and institutional investors ahead of shareholders decide to take a powder. That is the nature of banks, then, now, and always. Banks are structurally short liquidity. When liquidity dries up, or becomes prohibitively expensive, banks fail, and they fail fast. It’s as simple as that.

And yet, notwithstanding all of poor Bill Ackman’s axe grinding, retail and institutional investors still seem to want to own bank stocks.3 Why is that? Well, notwithstanding the good money to be made owning them in good times, it seems the prices of bank stocks, whether measured by historical prices, P/E ratios, or price to tangible book value, have dropped to a level where investors feel fairly compensated for the risk they are assuming. You know: the risk disclosed in the banks’ public financial statements that they are big, opaque, risky, and complex.

Nowhere is it written that bank stocks should trade at a specific multiple of book value, no matter how accurate or believable book value is. Investors may be paying lower than historical multiples of book for bank stocks because they do not trust banks to have properly marked assets to market, they may not trust management not to destroy value by making stupid errors (or errors unavoidable in today’s volatile and unpredictable markets), or they simply fear more unanticipated systemic disruptions will sink even the best-managed, most conservatively-accounted-for banks (including threatened regulatory changes). Investors are paying lower prices for bank stocks because they require higher risk-adjusted expected returns.

This does not sound like a crisis of confidence to me. This sounds like sensible, prudent investing in an uncertain world.

Related reading:
Frank Partnoy and Jesse Eisinger, What’s Inside America’s Banks? (The Atlantic, January/February 2013)
Matt Levine, Turns Out Wells Fargo Doesn’t Just Keep Your Deposits In A Stagecoach Full Of Gold Ingots (Dealbreaker, January 3, 2013)
Felix Salmon, You can’t regulate with nostalgia (Reuters, January 3, 2013)

1 Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2008, p. 18.
2 For the novitiates, simply, a “commercial” (or retail) bank is primarily a lending bank: they take in retail customer deposits and lend them out in the form of mortgages, commercial loans to businesses, and other retail loans. An investment bank acts as a market intermediary, buying and selling securities and derivatives on behalf of clients and itself and advising on mergers and acquisitions. A universal bank is a combination of commercial and investment bank. Most big banks you read about nowadays, including, e.g., Wells Fargo, are universal banks. Not enough for you? Want to go deeper down the rabbit hole? Start here.
3 How do I know this? Well, the trading volume and price of public banks and investment banks is not zero, that’s how. By the way, the price to tangible book value ratio for terrible, awful, scary Wells Fargo is currently 1.7x, or almost twice book value. Perhaps that’s because equity investors take great comfort from all those information-insensitive depositors ahead of them in the capital structure.

© 2013 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.