The ShoreBank Rescue

 |  Includes: BAC, C, GE, GS, JPM
by: Felix Salmon

There’s a lot of conspiracy-theorizing going on around the high-level rescue of Chicago’s ShoreBank by Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), Citigroup (NYSE:C), JP Morgan (NYSE:JPM), Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), and General Electric (NYSE:GE). The founder of the bank is BFF with BHO, and Chicago politics being what it is, everybody is assuming that the banks involved are expecting some kind of political quid pro quo down the road, for rescuing one of Chicago’s most-loved financial institutions.

I daresay they are. But on the other hand, it’s not nearly as implausible as everybody seems to think that America’s largest banks would step in to rescue ShoreBank. And to see why, it’s worth looking at what one of ShoreBank’s biggest critics, Tom Brown, has written on the subject.

Recession hasn’t been kind to ShoreBank. Inner-city lending is an iffy proposition even in good times. Once the credit crackup started, the company hit the wall hard: at the end of the first quarter, non-performers accounted for 13.1% of assets, while is Tier 1 risk-based capital ratio came to -0.1%. That’s right, negative. ShoreBank lost $106 million in 2009, and projects it will lose a total of $100 million in 2010 and 2011…

ShoreBank, we now know, has a business model that is fundamentally flawed…

ShoreBank lent so much money to people who didn’t pay it back that the bank’s entire capital has now vaporized. The bank is broke! Its business model and its execution failed. If ShoreBank gets more capital, it will almost certainly make more bad loans and go broke again…

There are reasons most banks don’t do the kind of lending ShoreBank does. To see why, take another look at those capital ratios and NPA numbers. If you want to set up an entity to make provide high-risk, socially enlightened finance, fine. Set up a nonprofit and fund it with voluntary contributions. That’s why God gave us the Ford Foundation.

I don’t know where Brown is getting his figures, but I went to the FDIC’s website (it’s not easy to navigate, I’m warning you, but this link might be a good starting point), and got a bunch of numbers for ShoreBank for the 12 months ending March 31, 2010. Here’s the balance sheet, the performance and condition ratios, and the income statement; if you want the full 69-page call report, it’s here. The numbers are certainly bad. Noncurrent assets and REO accounts for 14.6% of total assets, but the Tier 1 capital ratio is at least positive, at 2.05%, with the bank having $26.2 million in Tier 1 capital remaining. And the total loss for the most recent fiscal year was $17 million, not $106 million.

Certainly, with hindsight, a lot of loans have gone bad. But it took them a while to go bad: it didn’t happen immediately “once the credit crackup started”, as Brown would have you think. Indeed, Dan Gross, in November 2008, held up ShoreBank as a great example of a bank where the loans were not going bad — along with Lower East Side People’s, where I’m on the board, and where we’re doing fine without any kind of bailout at all. Not all community development financial institutions are financially dubious things which should only be funded by non-profits like the Ford Foundation, and America’s largest bankers agree that the underbanked deserve non-predatory financial services, rather than the check cashers, payday lenders, and similar institutions which lend only at usurious rates.

This, I think, is the real reason why the biggest banks in the US are stepping up to rescue ShoreBank. If someone pointed to LES People’s as an example of successfully serving the underbanked, that would carry only a certain amount of weight: our total assets are a fraction of what Lloyd Blankfein got paid in 2007 alone, and we’re in a unique situation, in Manhattan, which doesn’t apply to similar institutions nationwide.

ShoreBank, by contrast, is about 100 times larger than LESPFCU, and if the big banks can make it work, can stand as real-world proof that community lending really is a viable business model, and can scale successfully into becoming a profitable multi-billion-dollar institution. In the best-case scenario, the investors will help to turn ShoreBank around, will learn how to do what it does, and will then themselves become much friendlier towards their low-income customers, because they’ll know how to make money from them the good way — by helping them improve their finances and ultimately to become higher-income customers — rather than the bad way, which is to bleed them dry in a predatory manner.

All of the investors in ShoreBank will get a lot of CRA credit for their investment, which makes it very low-cost for them. By rescuing this storied institution they will help a lot of Chicagoans who need all the help they can get; they will learn how to improve their own products for lower-income customers; and they will help to transition the underbanked part of the US population into becoming banked, which is ultimately good for everybody. So while the cynical take on the deal is understandable, I’m not jumping to any conclusions quite yet.