Glass-Steagal Act Should Not Be Core of Financial Regulatory Reform

There has been a lot of talk lately about the repeal of Glass-Steagal in the 1990’s and the potential that such a move contributed greatly to the financial crisis. Glass-Steagal, originally passed in 1933, had many parts to it but it is most widely known to have disallowed commercial banks that gathered customer deposits and gave out loans from also being investment banks that would underwrite securities and trade for their own account.

The logic of Glass-Steagal makes sense; banks should not use depositor or government capital to fund internal hedge funds. Should the enormous risks the trading desks take turn sour, it puts customers’ deposits in jeopardy and reduces the amount of lending the firm can do. Not to mention the fact that cheap government funding is given to banks to boost lending and the economy, not to generate trading profits for the firm’s partners.

Despite the soundness of the law, those who maintain that the repeal of Glass-Steagal was a leading contributor to the financial crisis are off base. Why? Because most of the casualties of the financial crisis were not banks at the time. Off the top of my head I can name AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Merrill Lynch.

None of those firms were commercial banks but they lost the most money. Those losses came from poor mortgage underwriting, poor insurance underwriting, and extreme leverage ratios of up to 40-to-1. More effective government regulation surely could have helped prevent such monumental downfalls (minimum underwriting standards and leverage limits to name a couple), but a combination business model of commercial and investment banking was not the culprit by any stretch of the imagination.

Now there were commercial banks that failed or nearly did during the recent crisis. Wachovia and Citigroup are the two big ones. But again, Glass-Steagal would not have prevented this. Citigroup was hampered by its leverage and significant holdings in mortgage backed securities, CDOs, and SIVs. Wachovia failed after it acquired a California-based mortgage lender that pioneered interest-only, pick-a-payment, and option ARM mortgage products. Such poor, undocumented, mortgage underwriting doomed them from the start, not investment banking (Wachovia did little, if any).

I am all for better regulation of the financial services sector, but many of the ideas floating around do not really address the core issues the industry faces. Not only that, existing regulators and laws easily allow for better regulation, without further changes, even though modern products such as credit default swaps and futures contracts clearly need to be regulated going forward.

Executive Compensation Restrictions Work In Everyone’s Favor

The core difference between the Bush and Obama administrations in terms of how they doled out government bailout funds was what, if any, terms came with getting the money. Former Treasury Secretary Paulson gave out the first half of TARP funds with no strings attached. Secretary Geithner, conversely, wanted to make sure the government funding came with restrictions, including how much executives of bailed out firms could earn while they still owed the taxpayer billions of dollars. Skeptics argued that this was a way for Washington to gain control of the private sector, but in reality it really was just a way to maximize the odds that the government got repaid.

The Obama administration’s auto task force required that GM CEO Rick Wagoner resign because they knew that under his leadership we would never get our money back, not because they wanted firm control over GM. In fact, the CEO they handpicked, Fritz Henderson, just resigned after the GM board (not the government) insisted he move faster in making necessary changes, something GM-lifer Henderson was unwilling to do.

Executive compensation restrictions have served as another way to increase the chances that TARP funds are repaid. The restrictions made it more difficult for Bank of America to find candidates to be the banking giant’s new CEO. As a result, BofA raised $19 billion in new capital last week in order to be in a position to immediately repay its $45 billion in TARP loans. I do not know anyone who expected the entire $45 billion to be repaid this quickly, and therefore it appears the pay restrictions did exactly what they were intended to do; give TARP recipients incentive to repay the money as fast as they could.

This is just one of the many reasons I think Treasury Secretary Geithner has done a very solid job so far. There will always be critics who blame everything they don’t like on certain people, but a lot of these decisions are proving to have worked.

Speculative Trading Lends Credence To “Rally Losing Steam” Thesis

A disturbing recent trend has emerged in the U.S. equity market and many are pointing to it as a potential reason to worry that the massive market rally over the last six months may be running out of steam. Investment strategists are concerned that a recent rise in speculative trading activity is signaling that the market’s dramatic ascent is getting a bit frothy.

This kind of trading is typically characterized by lots of smaller capitalization stocks seeing massive increases in trading volumes and dramatic price swings, often on little or no headlines warranting such trading activity. Indeed, in recent weeks we have seen a lot of wild swings in small cap biotechnology stocks as well as some financial services stocks that were previously left for dead.

For instance, shares of beleaguered insurance giant AIG (AIG) soared 27% on Thursday on six times normal volume. Rumors on internet message boards (not exactly a solid fundamental reason for a rally) which proved to be false were one of the catalysts for the dramatic move higher, which looked like a huge short squeeze.

Consider an interesting statistic cited by CNBC’s Bob Pisani on the air yesterday. Trading volume on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) registered 6.55 billion shares on Thursday. Of that a whopping 29% (1.9 billion shares) came from just four stocks; AIG, Freddie Mac (FRE), Fannie Mae (FNM), and Citigroup (C). Overall trading volumes this summer have been fairly light anyway and the fact that such a huge percentage of the volume has been in these severely beaten down, very troubled companies should give us pause for concern.

While not nearly as exaggerated, speculative trading like this is very reminiscent of the dot com bubble in late 1999 when tiny companies would see huge volume and price spikes simply by issuing press releases announcing the launch of a web site showcasing their products.

I am not suggesting the market is in bubble territory here, even after a more than 50% rise in six months, but this kind of market action warrants a cautious stance. Irrational market action is not a healthy way for the equity market to create wealth.

Fundamental valuation analysis remains paramount for equity investors, so be sure not get sucked into highly speculative trading unless there is a strong, rational basis for such investments. Companies like AIG, Fannie, and Freddie remain severely impaired operationally and laden with debt.

As a result, potential buyers into rallies should tread carefully and be sure to do their homework.

Full Disclosure: No position in any of the companies mentioned at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Meredith Whitney’s “Buy Goldman Sachs” Call Lifts Market, But Comes A Little Late

My frequency of posting has diminished here lately, mainly due to the fact that not much interesting seems to be happening (at least from my perspective). I always err on the side of posting less rather than writing just for the sake of doing so without having much to say.

Stocks are rising smartly today after renown banking bear Meredith Whitney (now at her own firm) actually had positive things to say about investment banking giant Goldman Sachs (GS), upgrading the stock to a “buy” and raising her price target to $186 per share. GS shares are trading up 7 points to $149 each.

While the market is making a big deal about this call today, we have to remember that everyone knows Goldman Sachs is firing on all cylinders lately, so this should come as no surprise. Getting in the stock ahead of earnings (especially on an up seven point day) may backfire for some people tomorrow (GS reports earnings tomorrow morning) who are getting excited about Whitney’s bullish note.

Frankly, the best time to get into Goldman was when the stock was down a lot (you know, when Warren Buffett bought a 10% preferred from the company and got equity warrants). As you can see from the chart below, GS shares had a huge move down, and even before today had made a ton of it back already.

gs1year

While Whitney’s call looks late to me, she has taken earnings estimates well above consensus, which makes the stock by no means expensive even at $149 per share. Whitney’s 2010 profit estimate is nearly $20 per share, so there is no reason the stock couldn’t trade higher from here if she is right. Still, I would have loved this call had it come when the stock traded below $50 near its low, or even after a double to $100. Now it has already tripled.

In terms of the large commercial banks, Whitney appears to be hedging her bets (probably because deep down she knows that the worst is behind us for the banking sector). She is bullish near term (thanks to a booming mortgage business), but bearish long term. This seems like a hedge because, if anything, logic would dictate one being bearish on banks in the short term (while the economy is still in the dumps), and bullish longer term (because the recession is certain to end).

Part of her long term bearish view is the fact that she thinks the unemployment rate is going to reach 13-14 percent. It seems odds for a banking analyst to be making predictions like that. Not that economists are any good at forecasting the jobless rate (they’re not at all), but to think the unemployment rate will rise another 4% from the current 9.5% seems overly negative to me, especially given the source. After all, many people are expecting positive GDP as soon as the third quarter of this year.

All in all, I think the market is placing too much importance on Whitney’s comments this morning. Not much has changed, really. We already knew Goldman was printing money, mortgage refinances were doing well, and that the economy was still rather poor. It seems like Whitney is making both bullish and bearish comments at the same time to cover her bases.

As a result, I don’t think there is much to go on from her views at this point. Unless you think the economy will never recover (and the unemployment rate will hit 13 or 14 percent), I would just buy your favorite bank stocks at attractive prices and hold them for a few years. There is still plenty of money to be made in the sector if you have patience.

Full Disclosure: No position in GS at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Meredith Whitney Quitting Oppenheimer Helps Show Contrarian Indicators Still Work

As my clients know well, I am a contrarian when it comes to investing in the market. To me, buying a stock is no different than shopping for a new house, car, or wardrobe at the mall. You get your best deals when you are either buying things other people don’t want (store sale racks, foreclosed properties), or buying things when other people aren’t shopping for them (winter coats well into the season).

As a result of natural human behavior, many market participants use contrarian sentiment indicators to guide their investment strategy. Measures of investor bullishness and consumer confidence, for example, are proven contrarian indicators. Sometimes certain events can even mark emotional extremes.

Consider banking analyst Meredith Whitney’s decision on February 18th to leave her sell side job at Oppenheimer to start her own firm. Prior to October 2007, few people even knew who Whitney was, but after she became one of the first analysts to point out a possible capital shortfall at Citigroup (C) she immediately became the face of the banking crisis (thanks to the financial media) and has been extremely bearish on the group ever since.

So, we have a relatively unknown banking analyst make a good call on a large bank stock, the media picks up on it and runs with the story for months, and less than 18 months later she has enough of a following to start her own firm. These kinds of events often mark extremes, in this case, the depths of the banking crisis. For an analyst who made her career by being unrelentingly bearish on banks, it stands to reason the banking sector would be struggling mightily around the time she quit her job to go out on her own. It makes sense to question whether negative sentiment would be peaking around that time.

Of course, I wouldn’t have used this example if it didn’t serve as a positive data point for the contrarian indicator thesis. We won’t know for another year or two if Whitney quitting actually was a great contrarian indicator or not (it’s too soon to call the bottom in the banks), but it took only 12 trading days for the bank stocks (and the market itself) to put in a fierce and dramatic bottom on March 6th. Since then the market has risen 36%. Financial stocks have fared even better, soaring 105%.

Another contrarian indicator I follow is the number of worried emails and phone calls I get from my clients about their investment portfolios. If I get a few clients expressing concern over a period of days, that signals to me that sentiment is extremely negative and a bottom may not be far off. This personal indicator of mine peaked on March 2nd, merely four days prior to the market’s bottom.

All in all, contrarian indicators measuring sentiment among investors and other market participants can still be a very valuable tool when managing one’s investments. I recommend keeping them in mind as you continue to follow the market and your portfolios.

Full Disclosure: No position in Citigroup at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

U.S. Bank Stress Test Cheat Sheet

All we’ve heard about this week has been the stress tests, so I figured I would summarize the important aspects for everyone. Hear is what you need to know if you are following the large cap U.S. financial sector.

Capital Ratio Requirements: Banks must have enough capital to maintain the following ratios:

*Tier 1 Capital of 6.0%

*Tangible Common Equity (TCE) of 4.0%

Deadlines: For banks that need more capital, here is their timeline:

*Articulate plan for raising capital by June 8th, 2009

*Implement plan by November 9th 2009

*Maintain target capital ratios through December 2010

Sources of Additional Capital:

The regulators have indicated that raising private capital is the preferred source of raising capital. The banks may also choose to sell certain assets and use cash earnings to reach the targets. If those options are not sufficient to reach the desired capital levels, the banks may convert their TARP preferred capital into mandatory convertible preferred stock, which can be converted, on as needed basis, into common equity in order to boost capital levels to the needed levels.

Here are the results:

As for individual stocks, I have long been writing positively about COF, PNC, and USB on this blog. COF and USB passed and PNC needs to raise the least of all the banks, a meager $600 million. These results are not surprising to me, and I continue to like all three stocks long term.

Full Disclosure: Peridot Capital was long shares of COF, PNC, and USB at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Credit Cardholder “Bill of Rights” Looks Like Sensible Regulation

One of the biggest concerns from conservatives since President Obama’s election has been the possibility of new, overly burdensome government regulation on various aspects of the economy and financial markets. While this should be a real concern, it is unfair to assume new regulations will be over-the-top before any of them are actually drawn up, passed, and enacted.

Among the first is a credit cardholder “bill of rights” which is supposed to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive credit card issuer practices. The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed its version of the bill (the Senate is working on possible modifications), so I thought I would go through the summary of its contents to see how reasonable it is. Below are the details:

Interest Rate Increases

1) Limits interest rate increases on existing balances to those cardholders who are late with their payments, have a promotional rate expire, or have a card with a variable rate

2) Requires card issuers give consumers 45 days notice to any interest rate changes or significant contract changes

Credit Limits

1) Lets consumers set their own fixed credit limit

2) Prevents over-the-limit fees for consumers who have set a limit or for “hold” transactions

3) Limits (to 3) the number of over-the-limit fees issuers can charge for the same transaction

Penalties for On-Time Payers

1) Ends “double cycle” billing – interest charged on balances that were paid on time

2) If cardholders pay on time and in full, prevents issuer from charging left-over interest fees

3) Prohibits additional fees for paying over the phone or internet

Allocation of Consumer Payments

1) After the minimum amount due, payments must be allocated proportionally to high interest and low interest balances, not exclusively to the lowest interest rate debt

Due Dates

1) Billing statements must be mailed 21 calendar days before the due date, payments received by 5pm local time on the due date must be considered “on time”

2) Extends the due date to the next business day if the due date falls on a day the card issuer does not accept or receive mail

Misleading Terms

1) Establishes standard definitions for terms such as “fixed rate” and “prime rate” so as to ensure clarity in marketing materials

2) Gives consumers who have been “pre-approved” for a card the right to reject the card prior to activation without negatively impacting their credit score

High Fee, Subprime Cards

1) Prohibits issuers of subprime cards (cards with fixed annual fees that exceed 25% of the card’s credit limit) from charging those fees to the card itself, which often results in consumers going over their limit

Issuance to Minors

1) Prohibits card issuers from knowingly issuing cards to individuals under 18 who are not emancipated minors

After reviewing this “bill of rights” I was pleased to conclude that none of these measures, in my view, would be considered excessive regulation by the federal government. I think we all need to take more responsibility for our actions and our financial situations, and empowering the consumer with information and the ability to avoid certain products if they choose to can only aid in that process. Kudos to Washington on this one (hopefully the Senate doesn’t mess with it).

Paulson Threatened To Remove Ken Lewis If He Backed Out Of Merrill Lynch Deal

Some people are worried that President Obama is going to try and run the banks and credit card issuers but how about this little tidbit from the Wall Street Journal:

Then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson threatened to remove Bank of America Corp. Chief Executive Kenneth Lewis and the bank’s board of directors if the bank backed out of its merger with Merrill Lynch & Co. last year, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said.

Mr. Lewis had informed Mr. Paulson on Dec. 17, 2008, that Bank of America was planning to invoke a material adverse event clause in the merger agreement that would allow it to call off the deal, Mr. Cuomo said. Three days before, Mr. Lewis had learned that Merrill Lynch’s financial condition “had seriously deteriorated at an alarming rate” since Dec. 8, 2008, Mr. Cuomo said.

The difference between this news and the ouster of GM CEO Rick Wagoner, of course, is that the government is a creditor of GM and without having lent them money, GM would have filed bankruptcy a long time ago. Forcing shareholder-owned companies to merge simply to prevent possible instability in the financial system is questionable at best and completely inappropriate at worst. I hope the Obama administration doesn’t repeat these types of things. Fortunately, pushing for a credit cardholder bill of rights, as discussed today in Washington, does not fall into such a category. Let’s cross our fingers it stays that way in the future.

First Quarter Best Quarter Ever for Wells Fargo

No wonder the market is up huge today. Before the bell, Wells Fargo (WFC) announced that it would earn a profit of $3 billion in the first quarter, making it the best quarter in the company’s history. Even more impressive, that result includes $372 million in TARP preferred dividends paid back to the government.

Some numbers from their press release:

Revenue $20 billion (+16%)

Pre-tax, pre-provision profit: $9.2 billion

Provision expense: $4.6 billion

Pre-tax profit: $4.6 billion

Net earnings: $3 billion

Allowance for future loan losses: $23 billion

Why isn’t the Wachovia deal killing them? As I have pointed out before, purchase accounting lets you write-off loans when deals close, so Wells was able to take most of the Wachovia losses up front, which boosts earnings in the future quarters. As we can see, this is the first quarter for the combined company and they are really executing well.

Full Disclosure: No position in WFC at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time