Remember how Citigroup’s reported $1.6 billion first-quarter profits sparked a rally in financial stocks? Martin Weiss of Weiss Research Inc. thinks Citigroup really suffered a $2.5 billion loss:
Citigroup’s $1.6 billion in first-quarter profit would vanish if accounting were more stringent, says Martin Weiss of Weiss Research Inc. in Jupiter, Florida. “The big banks’ profits were totally bogus,” says Weiss, whose 38-year-old firm rates financial companies. “The new accounting rules, the stress tests: They’re all part of a major effort to put lipstick on a pig.” . . .
Without those accounting benefits, Citigroup would probably have posted a net loss of $2.5 billion in the quarter, Weiss estimates.
And what were the accounting changes that contributed to Citigroup’s $4.1 billion swing?
The accounting rule changes that matter most for the banks came on April 2, when the Financial Accounting Standards Board gave companies greater latitude in how they establish the fair value of assets. Lawmakers, including Representative Paul Kanjorski, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, had complained that existing mark-to-market standards worsened the financial crisis.
Along with that change, FASB also let companies recognize losses on the value of some debt securities on their balance sheets without counting the writedowns against earnings. If banks plan to hold the debt until maturity, they can avoid hurting the bottom line.
At Citigroup, the recipient of $346 billion in fresh capital and asset guarantees from the government, about 25 percent of the quarterly net income came thanks to the debt securities rule change, the bank said.
Another $2.7 billion before taxes came from an accounting rule that lets a company record income when the value of its own debt falls. That reflects the possibility a company could buy back bonds at a discount, generating a profit. In reality, when a bank can’t fund such a transaction, the gain is an accounting quirk, Weiss says.
Citigroup also increased its loan loss reserves more slowly in the first quarter, adding $10 billion compared with $12 billion in the fourth quarter, even as more loans were going bad. Provisions for loan losses cut profits, so adding more to this reserve could have wiped out the quarterly earnings.
Citigroup is not alone in employing these tactics. As Eric Dash explained in the Times, the other banks are also taking advantage of these relaxed, entirely legal accounting rules.
The new accounting standards are just another way we’re following Japan’s faulty policies that led to that country’s “lost decade.”