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Co-written by Qasim Khan

Part One:

On March 10, a Citigroup (NYSE:C) memo from CEO Vikram Pandit “leaked” and its content– about Citi’s “capital strength and earnings power”– sparked a massive rally in financials that carried over six weeks.

The Financial Times issued (justifiably so) suspicious sentiments toward the “leaked” letter. More forecasts of profitability followed from JP Morgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), and General Electric (NYSE:GE) (whose finance arm GE Capital is eating away at the parent company’s equity and faces the same problems as the big banks). The announcements caused financial stocks to surge, yet the legitimacy and sustainability of these forecasts were called into question by bears everywhere, especially considering JPM’s announcement was merely a reaffirmation of an earlier release.

Then on March 29th, Zero Hedge published an alarming piece on the role AIG CDS trade settlements played in the profitability of these banks. Here are some fascinating tidbits from the CDS trader he referenced:

During Jan/Feb AIG would call up and just ask for complete unwind prices from the credit desk in the relevant jurisdiction. These were not single deal unwinds as are typically more price transparent – these were whole portfolio unwinds. The size of these unwinds were enormous, the quotes I have heard were “we have never done as big or as profitable trades – ever“.

I can only guess/extrapolate what sort of PnL this put into the major global banks (both correlation and single names desks) during this period. Allowing for significant reserve release and trade PnL, I think for the big correlation players this could have easily been US$1-2bn per bank in this period.

What this all means is that the statements by major banks, i.e. JPM, Citi, and BofA, regarding abnormal profitability in January and February were true, however these profits were a) one-time in nature due to wholesale unwinds of AIG portfolios, b) entirely at the expense of AIG, and thus taxpayers, c) executed with Tim Geithner’s (and thus the administration’s) full knowledge and intent, d) were basically a transfer of money from taxpayers to banks (in yet another form) using AIG as an intermediary.

I received an email from an anonymous reader after the AIG trade unwind news came out, who pointed out that the ISDA, the sole regulatory body of the OTC derivatives market, issued an amended close-out protocol less than a month earlier. This protocol allows for essentially retroactive trade settlements at non-market close-out prices, as admitted by the ISDA:

The purpose of the Protocol is to permit parties to agree upfront that in the event of a counterparty default, they will use Close-Out Amount valuation methodology to value trades.

Zero Hedge also received a reader tip a day later about the ISDA’s new protocol and how it allowed the AIG fiasco to occur:

Thanks to an intrepid reader who pointed this out, a month ago ISDA published an amended close out protocol. This protocol would allow non-market close outs, i.e. CDS trade crosses that were not aligned with market bid/offers.

News of the AIG CDS trade settlements for counterparties echoed the sentiments of Eliot Spitzer in his terrific piece for Slate entitled The Real AIG Scandal (as well as in his follow-up Slate article The Real AIG Scandal: Continued, in which he delves into the $12.9B Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) received as an AIG counterparty in AIG’s bailout:

Everybody is rushing to condemn AIG’s bonuses, but this simple scandal is obscuring the real disgrace at the insurance giant: Why are AIG’s counterparties getting paid back in full, to the tune of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars?

On April 7, Neil Barofsky, inspector-general of the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) launched an investigation into the AIG trade settlement scandal. In his memo to the Treasury and Federal Reserve, entitled Review of Payment of Counterparty Claims Settled by AIG, Barofsky states:

SIGTARP has received a request from 27 members of Congress to review the counterparty payments made by AIG. The requestors raised concerns over whether the payments were made in the best interests of the taxpayers. The objectives of the review are to determine:

  • To what extent did AIG pay counterparty claims at 100 percent of face value and was any attempt made to renegotiate and close out these claims with “haircuts?
  • To what extent were assessments conducted of the health and total exposure of risks to the counterparties?

On April 2, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) yielded to Congressional pressure and changed its FAS-157 Regulation to ease mark-to-market rules and allow for dodgier accounting practices. This occurred right before a string of bank earnings that greatly benefitted from the regulatory amendment.

To start it all off, Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) issued a press release on April 9 announcing record earnings Q1 2009, stating its expectation “to report record net income of approximately $3 billion for first quarter 2009.” But Paul Jackson of HousingWire.com offered a compelling argument against the sustainability of Wells’ earnings assertions in his piece A Game of Credit Cost Smoke & Mirrors at Wells Fargo?. Here are the highlights:

Wells Fargo reported that they will absorb just $3.3 billion in charge-offs on bad loans for the quarter, and just $4.6 billion in loss provision expense; both numbers are well below most analyst estimates, and are the primary reason Wells will report earnings trumping earlier Street estimates.

“The shocker was that they only had only $3.3 billion [in] charge offs,” said Whitney Tilson of hedge fund manager T2 Partners, in a CNBC interview Thursday afternoon. “It’s weird, because in Q4 Wachovia and Wells Fargo together had $6.1 billion in charge-offs, and then in a quarter in which things were terrible, those charge offs fell by 50 percent … They’re going to have a lot of losses over the next couple of years, [and] anyone baselining at $3.3 billion in charge offs per quarter is crazy.”

And as a Yahoo! Finance article noted:

Wells Fargo saw its non-performing assets as a percentage of total assets jump by 40 percent over the previous quarter, yet it only increased its reserves by 5 percent. So even though more of its loans are past due or face foreclosure, it isn’t setting aside significantly more cash to deal with potential losses.

Teri Buhl, also of HousingWire.com, uncovered even more shocking disingenuous accounting in her article Wells Fargo Q1 Profits Packed with Accounting Gain:

It appears, however, that as much as nearly one-third of the bank’s first quarter earnings may be nothing more than the result of an accounting treatment; without such a move, tangible common equity would be 10 bps less than the 3.1 percent the Street expects.

The jump in earnings pertain to FAS 160, an accounting rule first announced in 2007 that became effective on January 1, 2009 … The effect of the new accounting rule allows certain liabilities to ‘jump over’ to the asset book as non-cash transactions via paid-in capital, thereby rolling directly into earnings and boosting reported equity. In the case of Wells Fargo, the bank found itself with up to $824m it could use this quarter as an accounting gain to earnings.

When it finally released earnings on the 22nd, Wells offered even more evidence refuting its own sustainability assertions:

The net unrealized loss on securities available for sale declined to $4.7 billion at March 31, 2009, from $9.9 billion at December 31, 2008. Approximately $850 million of the improvement was due to declining interest rates and narrower credit spreads. The remainder was due to the early adoption of FAS FSP 157-4, which clarified the use of trading prices in determining fair value for distressed securities in illiquid markets, thus moderating the need to use excessively distressed prices in valuing these securities in illiquid markets as we had done in prior periods.

The April 2 FASB change to fair-value accounting mentioned above allowed WFC to value its assets $4.35 billion higher than if FAS 157 retained its original methodologies. Taking out the asset revaluation the mark-to-market rule change allowed, WFC would’ve posted a $1.3 billion LOSS in Q1 2009, ceterus paribus. And that figure doesn’t include any of the various other accounting shenanigans mentioned above.

Next came Goldman Sachs’s earnings, starting with a day-early release of its Q1 earnings that corresponded with a $5 billion equity offering priced at $123/share (more on this later).

From its $1.81 billion in Q1 profits, its FICC revenues jump out right off the bat:

Fixed Income, Currency and Commodities (FICC) generated record quarterly net revenues of $6.56 billion, 34% higher than its previous record.

FICC is the unit in which Goldman’s AIG counterparty CDS trade settlements would’ve materialized, so it’s no surprise that record revenue streams came from this specific arm. Its investment banking unit, for comparison, did not bode so well:

Net revenues in Investment Banking were $823 million, 30% lower than the first quarter of 2008 and 20% lower than the fourth quarter of 2008.

Either Goldman’s traders suddenly got really, really good Q1 2009 or the “real AIG scandal” greatly helped Goldman’s big profits. In fact, in a Bloomberg interview (audio courtesy of Zero Hedge), Blackrock (NYSE:BLK)’s managing director Peter Fisher affirmed his belief that Goldman’s record profits were “largely due to AIG unwinds” and “non-recurring in nature”.

Floyd Norris offered more insight into Goldman’s fishy Q1 accounting in his New York Times article The Case of the Missing Month:

Guy Moszkowski of Merrill Lynch wants to know if they made money from the now-famous government-financed American International Group transactions.

The answer is cautious. Most of the impact was in December. For the first quarter, the total A.I.G. effect on earnings was, in round numbers, zero.

So what was the A.I.G. effect in December? They did not say.

Where’s December?: Goldman Sachs reported a profit of $1.8 billion in the first quarter, and plans to sell $5 billion in stock and get out of the government’s clutches, if it can.

How did it do that? One way was to hide a lot of losses in not-so-plain sight.

Goldman’s 2008 fiscal year ended Nov. 30. This year the company is switching to a calendar year. This leaves December as an orphan month, one that will be largely ignored. In Goldman’s earnings statement, and in most of the news reports, the quarter ended March 31 is compared to the quarter last year that ended in February.

The orphan month featured — surprise — lots of write-offs. The pretax loss was $1.3 billion, and the after-tax loss was $780 million.

More shenanigans were uncovered in its May 6 10-Q filing. GS was profitable in 56 of 64 days in Q1 2009, far above statistical norms and quite shady when taken in context with the increase in Goldman’s program trading (a correlation delved into very cleverly here by Zero Hedge).

And in perhaps the most blatant of all accounting fiascoes this quarter dealt with its choice to take an $850 billion writedown based on exposure to now-bankrupt LyondellBasell Finance Company in the “orphan month” of December:

(1) Includes one day on which the firm incurred negative trading net revenues of $859 million, principally reflecting a writedown of approximately $850 million related to the bridge and bank loan facilities held in LyondellBasell Finance Company.

It was a Zero Hedge article that alerted me to this and the article raises two very important questions:

i) the digital jump in value on this loan from something likely reflecting par to a value indicative of zero or just above, raising questions about just what the mark-to-market or otherwise methodology at Goldman is, especially since the underlying bonds in Lyondell did not demonstrate anywhere near to a comparable corresponding plunge.

ii) why did Goldman take the charge in December, when LyondelBasell did not file for bankruptcy until January 6, 2009? Just how did Goldman know to remark their position a week in advance of one of the biggest bankruptcies for 2009? As has been speculated elsewhere, the orphan month of December was used by Goldman as a garbage bag in to mark down all its underpeforming positions (and in some cases undermark existing assets especially in the commodities book).

And, just for kicks, more on the Goldman-AIG relationship here.

Part Two:

On April 17, JP Morgan Chase announced a $2.1 billion profit of its own. Again the fixed-income trading revenues were remarkably spectacular:

Fixed Income Markets revenue was a record $4.9 billion, compared with $466 million in the prior year.

If any readers have an idea of how a 1052% increase in fixed-income market revenue YoY can occur without some sort of shenanigans and how this is in any way indicative of sustainable cash flow in the middle of the world’s worst global financial (and soon-to-be monetary) crisis, I’m all ears.

On the same day, Citi announced a $1.6 billion profit, with revenues of $24.8 billion. Guess how? You guessed it– more amazing trading:

In the Institutional Clients Group, Securities and Banking revenues were $7.2 billion, mainly due to strong trading results.

At the forefront of the huge trading revenues again was fixed-income:

Fixed income markets revenues of $4.7 billion reflected strong trading performance.

More than half of these revenues was due to the worsening of Citi’s own credit:

A net $2.5 billion positive CVA on derivative positions, excluding monolines, mainly due to the widening of Citi’s CDS spreads.

And add to that some one-time gains:

Closed sale of remaining Redecard position for an after-tax gain of $704 million.

The current quarter included a $110 million tax benefit related to the resolution of certain issues in an IRS audit.

Operating expenses were $12.1 billion, down 23%, reflecting benefits from ongoing re-engineering efforts, the impact of foreign exchange, and a $250 million litigation reserve release.

That is $3.56 billion strictly due to one-time gains and cash flow from Citi's own deteriorating credit, which when taken out of the equation would cause a more than $2 billion loss for Q1 2009!

But that’s not where it ends. Egan Jones had this to say:

Accounting and government magic – the recasting of FASB157 enables financial institutions to defer the recognition of losses with the result that C’s March trading profits swung from a $6.8B loss to a $3.8B gain.

Without the change in FAS 157, the >$2B loss calculated above becomes a more than $5 billion loss for Citi! So much for a great quarter.

And of course there is the issue of loan-loss reserves, for which every bank conveniently set expensed minimal amounts. A Reuters piece entitled Can Citigroup’s Results Be Sustained? had this to add:

Meanwhile, the bank’s allowance for loan losses is growing, but not as fast as the company’s nonperforming loans, leaving some investors to wonder if the bank is setting aside enough money to cover future losses, known as reserving.

4/20 saw BofA announce another $4.2 billion of record profits to add to the Q1 bank earnings train. $5.5 billion of trading revenue helped boost that figure quite a bit, however, quite better than the $4.1 billion loss from trading in Q4 2008.

Just like the other banks, Bank of America funneled AIG CDS close-out valuation-based settlement profits through its trading division to book massive one-time profits under the guise of sustainability. Or did BofA traders suddenly get amazing, like Goldman’s, JP Morgan’s and Citi’s, in the same quarter during the same financial crisis?

OptionARMageddon put together a terrific graphic representation of how Q1 trading profits drove BofA’s record earnings:

BofA

In an e-mail to Dealscape, BofA shareholder Jonathan Finger offered cautionary sentiments to the one-time nature of much of BofA’s revenues:

A good portion of the earnings are from non-recurring items – sale of some China Construction Bank shares and write ups on fixed income securities at Merrill Lynch.

Two days later, Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) announced a menial $177 million loss, with $3.0 billion in revenues. Immediately Morgan Stanley’s treatment of December as an orphan month jumps out:

As a result of the change in the Company’s fiscal year end from November 30th to December 31st, the Company had a December 2008 fiscal month transition period. The results for this period, which reflected a net loss applicable to Morgan Stanley of $1.3 billion, are presented on page 19 of the financial supplement accompanying this release.

That wipes out almost half of Q1’s revenues right there and magnifies its loss by a multiple of over 730%.

And again the fixed-income revenues:

Fixed income sales and trading net revenues were $1.3 billion, compared with net revenues of $2.4 billion in the first quarter of last year. The decrease in net revenues reflected losses of $1.0 billion in the current quarter from MS debt-related credit spreads compared with gains of $1.0 billion in the prior year.

Taking out one-time events, Q1 2009 fixed income sales and trading revenues were $900 million better than Q1 2008, or an improvement of over 160%.

So why exactly is this happening? Simple. Banks need as much private capital as possible in addition to government bailout funds and going all-in with accounting shenanigans and AIG trade settlements of questionable legality causes a massive rally in banks that is essentially a Ponzi scheme. Private investors provide capital to banks on news of record earnings and the belief in their sustainability. But the earnings aren’t sustainable and the banks are in reality dependent on the capital provided by the investors in the first place.

Like I expected, banks raised tons of cash into this rally by selling equity (and debt, as well). After denying it would sell equity two months earlier, Bank of America announced its plan to sell 1.25 billion shares into these scam-inflated prices. Wells announced $6B in equity issuance and Morgan Stanley $2B, along with Citi adding $5.5B to its share-conversion plan. Goldman, as noted earlier, announced its sale of $5 billion in equity and $2 billion in 5-year bonds.

So not only did banks lure investors into providing them capital through scam-inflated earnings (from taxpayer-financed AIG trade unwinds, unsustainably low loan-loss reserve expenses, adoption of changed FAS 157 regulations, and various other accounting shenanigans), but they sold equity into these inflated prices to further expose investors to the bank’s equity depreciation. Multiple-sigma statistically significant trading profits (even if you choose to ignore the presence of the AIG “conspiracy”) are not sustainable ways to raise cash to deleverage exposure to toxic assets. The asset side needs to decline and equity needs to start rising organically through investment banking divisions and such for banks to have sustainable turn-arounds.

Like I said, it is little more than a Ponzi scheme. And like all Ponzi schemes, when the exponential organic return-on-investment necessary to keep the external cash flow coming and sustain the scheme dries up, it’s toast. No wonder banks are selling stock into this rally.

No wonder insider selling is at an all-time high (with $14 sold for each $1 bought-- compare that to the 7:1 insider selling/buy ratio at the all-time top in the stock market in October 2007). And no wonder the rally has gone parabolic.

S&P Parabolic

Bernanke’s “green shoots” and CNBC’s second derivatives refer to a nominal recovery that hasn’t even occurred yet. Any financial recovery in banks is clearly because of government support, given the technical insolvency of many of the major banks (especially when off-balance sheet assets are counted), so any economic recovery is strictly nominal and should be met with a corresponding depreciation of the US dollar.

The Federal Reserve is providing massive liquidity to banks through printing money and lowering rates. This credit expansion (similar to the ones Greenspan used to cause the 90s tech bubble and crash and the 00s housing bubble and crash) does not necessarily represent a real (inflation-adjusted) recovery, so any sustainable rise in stocks caused by a sustainable recovery in bank balance sheets should correspond with an even better return in precious metals prices.

But that simply isn’t the case, as gold has remained quite stagnant through this whole rally. The point is, no stock rally is to be trusted unless it corresponds with a similar if not greater rally in gold.

Quick tangent: With the FOMC not announcing additional quantitative easing in its last meeting, you can bet that the impending equity sell-off will provide more than enough public justification to allow the Fed to continue its massive printing campaign so it can depress long bond rates and reflate the bubble into Treasuries through credit expansion.

This should be met with a nice ascent in gold prices, especially significant when the $1000/oz barrier is breached. Once the QE endeavor is complete, banks are sufficiently capitalized, and rates are sufficiently depressed to the Federal Reserve’s contentment, rates will start naturally rising, the Treasury bubble will implode, and gold will go parabolic ($15-20k/oz isn’t out of the question). That represents the forthcoming monetary crisis, probably occurring in 2010-2011, which essentially amounts to holders of Treasuries and dollars (most of which are foreign) financing the American recovery. Note: The real major currencies in crisis will be the Pound and Euro, however, because unlike the Dollar, Great Britain and Eurozone lack the political leverage and intrinsic safe-haven quality of the United States to prevent a systemic run on its currency. China trying to abandon its Treasuries positions would be economic and political suicide, but already British and German bond auctions are failing.

But back to the present. Besides the earnings, Goldman Sachs’s massively increased involvement in program trading, especially in principal shares traded, has been well-documented and discussed, and helped cause the great quant deleveraging that helped prolong and magnify the rally through positive feedback. And like all positive feedback mechanisms, it is unsustainable, yet quite spectacular in the short-run.

The rally has gone parabolic from a lack of liquidity (which is provided by the very funds forced to deleverage as crap stocks surge from unsustainable earnings reports), and once slower money starts deleveraging at a faster rate than fast liquidity, the massive large-block selling will be into a highly illiquid market, leading to a surge in volatility and fear, and a sharp drop in equity prices.

This is what happened in January 2008 when low holiday volume allowed for a parabolic blow-off top to a bear bounce, which was quickly reversed in the following days as volume returned. With the S&P 500 less than 25 points away from its 200DMA (institutional buy/sell point) and less than 15 points away from its January highs (significant technical resistance level), you can bet quant deleveraging is going to catch up with the rest of the market very soon and the impending reversal will be one for the ages.

The higher and faster we ascend, the stronger and quicker we’ll fall. And the public will be the one holding the hot potato at the end of the day. It’s time to liquidate those 401k’s and IRAs into gold (or an ultrashort ETF if you want to place some shorter-term bets).

World, you just got hustled.

Disclaimer: short GS, JPM, BAC, WFC, MS

Source: A Summary of Q1 Bank Earnings: World, You Just Got Hustled