Last week the Fed conducted yet another “Stress-Free” test purposely designed to conclude banks are in better shape than they really are. The parameters seemed strict.

  • US recession marked by a 50 percent drop in stock prices
  • 21 percent drop in housing prices
  • Joblessness soaring to 13 percent
  • An even worse recession in Europe

15 out of 19 banks passed based on a measure of “regulatory capital”. The four stress test failures are Citigroup, Ally, Suntrust and MetLife.

“In fact, despite the significant projected capital declines, 15 of the 19 bank holding companies were estimated to maintain capital ratios above all four of the regulatory minimum levels under the hypothetical stress scenario,” the Fed said.

The exercise opened the door for some of the most capital-flush banks to immediately announce new or higher dividend payments to shareholders, after the Fed prevented or limited such payouts by a number of the banks last year following a similar examination.

JPMorgan Chase announced a 20 percent dividend hike and a $15 billion share buyback program, while Wells Fargo also sharply boosted its planned dividend.

Bank with Negative Tangible Equity Passes Stress Test

Anyone who can think knew in advance the stress test would be a farce, but Jonathan Weil dug up the real dirt in his Bloomberg report Class Dunce Passes Fed’s Stress Test Without a Sweat.

The most important thing to understand about the Federal Reserve’s latest stress tests is what they were not intended to do. Their purpose wasn’t to test whether the nation’s biggest banks could survive a financial blowup like that of 2008 without government assistance.

Rather, the Fed designed its tests to measure the effects a hypothetical crisis would have on banks’ regulatory capital. Capital is the financial cushion a company has available to absorb future losses. While the Fed would like for us to believe that regulatory capital is the same thing, it’s quite different. And too often it bears little resemblance to reality.

Citigroup Inc. (C) was deemed well capitalized under the government’s methodology when it got bailed out in 2008. So was CIT Group Inc. when it filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

How stressful were the Fed’s tests? One anecdote stands apart: Regions Financial Corp. (RF), which still hasn’t paid back its bailout money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, passed.

The footnotes to the company’s latest financial statements tell the story. There, the Birmingham, Alabama-based lender disclosed that the loans on its books were worth $8.1 billion less than what its balance sheet said, as of Dec. 31. By comparison, the company’s tangible common equity, a bare-bones measure of net worth, was $7.6 billion.

Weil went through Regions’ balance sheet, using the company’s own footnotes as to fair-market values of their financial assets and liabilities and concluded “Regions’ tangible common equity was negative $525 million as of Dec. 31.”

In short, the test was a joke, although it had its intended effect. Shares of Regions and other large banks soared, and Regions raised $900 million selling common shares on Wednesday. The company, which hasn’t reported an annual profit since 2007, plans to use the money to help repay the $3.5 billion it got from the Treasury Department in 2008.

Regions probably would have failed years ago if not for its federal backstop. Instead, it now has a stock-market value of $9.1 billion. Clearly the Fed wanted it to attract new investors, and those who put fresh capital into Regions this week believe the government won’t let it die. That about sums up the company’s value proposition. In other words, we’re all still on the hook.

Bank shares may look “cheap” but they aren’t. The latest “stress-free” test by the Fed proves as much. How much longer the market lets the Fed get away with this nonsense is anyone’s guess. I would have thought silly season would have been over long ago.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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