What’s Inside America’s Banks?

Some four years after the 2008 financial crisis, public trust in banks is as low as ever. Sophisticated investors describe big banks as “black boxes” that may still be concealing enormous risks—the sort that could again take down the economy. A close investigation of a supposedly conservative bank’s financial records uncovers the reason for these fears—and points the way toward urgent reforms.

There is an even lower circle of financial hell. It is populated with complex financial monsters once known as “special-purpose entities.” These were the infamous accounting devices that Enron employed to hide its debts. Around the turn of the millennium, the Texas energy-trading firm used these newly created corporations to borrow money and take on risks without recording the liabilities in its financial statements. These deals were called “off-balance-sheet” transactions, because they did not appear on Enron’s balance sheet.

Suppose a company owns a slice—just a small percentage—of another company that has a lot of debt. The first company might claim that it doesn’t need to include all of the second company’s assets and liabilities on its balance sheet. Let’s say we owned shares of IBM. We aren’t suddenly on the hook for all of the company’s liabilities. But if we owned so many IBM shares that we effectively controlled it, or if we had a side agreement that made us responsible for IBM’s debts, common sense dictates that we should treat IBM’s liabilities as our own. A decade ago, many companies, including Enron, used special-purpose entities to avoid common sense: they kept liabilities off the balance sheet, even when they had such control or side agreements.

As in a horror film, the special-purpose entity has been reanimated, and is now known as the variable-interest entity. In the alphabet soup of Wall Street, the acronym has switched from SPE to VIE, but the idea is the same. Big companies create these entities to borrow money and buy assets, but—like Enron—they do not include them on their balance sheets. The problem is especially worrisome at banks: every major bank has substantial positions in VIEs.

As of the end of 2011, Wells Fargo reported “significant continuing involvement” with variable-interest entities that had total assets of $1.46 trillion. The “maximum exposure to loss” it reports is much smaller, but still substantial: just over $60 billion, more than 40 percent of its capital reserves. The bank says the likelihood of such a loss is “extremely remote.” We can hope.

However, Wells Fargo acknowledges that even these eye-popping numbers do not include its entire exposure to variable-interest entities. The bank excludes some VIEs from consideration, for many of the same reasons Enron excluded its special-purpose entities: the bank says that its continuing involvement is not significant, that its investment is temporary or small, or that it did not design or operate these deals. (Wells Fargo isn’t alone; other major banks also follow this Enron-like approach to disclosure.)

We asked Wells Fargo to explain its VIE disclosures, but its representatives once again simply pointed us back to the annual report. We specifically asked about the bank’s own reported corrections of these numbers (in one footnote, Wells Fargo cryptically says, “ ‘VIEs that we consolidate’ has been revised to correct previously reported amounts”). But the bank would not tell us anything about those corrections. From the annual report, one cannot determine which VIEs were involved, or how big the corrections were.

Don Young calls variable-interest entities “accounting gimmicks to avoid consolidation and disclosure.” The Financial Accounting Standards Board changed the accounting rules that govern them in recent years, but the new rules, he says, are easy to manipulate, just like the old ones were. The presence of VIEs on Wells Fargo’s balance sheet “is a signal that there is $1.5 trillion of exposure to complete unknowns.”

These disclosures make even an ostensibly simple bank like Wells Fargo impossible to understand. Every major bank’s financial statements have some or all of these problems; many banks are much worse. This is an untenable situation. Kevin Warsh, formerly of the Fed, argues that the SEC should tell the biggest banks that their accounts are unacceptably opaque. “The banks should give a full, fair, and accurate account of their financial positions,” he says, “and they are failing that test.”

In the decades following the 1929 crash, banks were understandable. That’s not because they were financially simple—that era had its own versions of derivatives and special-purpose entities—but because the banks’ disclosures were more straightforward and clear. That clarity sprang from the fear of consequences. The law, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said, is a prediction of what a court will do. And the broadly scoped laws of that time gave courts wide latitude.

Going to jail for financial fraud was a real risk back then, and bank executives worried that their reputations would be destroyed if a judge criticized what they had done. Richard Whitney, a broker who had been the president of the New York Stock Exchange, was sent to Sing Sing prison in 1938 for embezzlement. “Sunshine Charlie” Mitchell, the president of National City Bank, the predecessor to Citibank, was indicted for tax evasion after the 1929 crash and was also the first of many bankers to testify before the famous Senate Pecora Committee in 1933. The Pecora investigation galvanized public opinion, and helped usher in the landmark banking and securities laws of 1933 and 1934. The scrutiny and continuing threat of prosecution convinced many bank executives that they should keep their business simple and transparent, or worry about the consequences if they did not.

In the wake of the recent financial crisis, the government has moved to give new powers to the regulators who oversee the markets. Some experts propose that the banking system needs more capital. Others call for a return to Glass‑Steagall or a full-scale breakup of the big banks. These reforms could help, but none squarely addresses the problem of opacity, or the mischief that opacity enables.

The starting point for any solution to the recurring problems with banks is to rebuild the twin pillars of regulation that Congress built in 1933 and 1934, in the aftermath of the 1929 crash. First, there must be a straightforward standard of disclosure for Wells Fargo and its banking brethren to follow: describe risks in commonsense terms that an investor can understand. Second, there must be a real risk of punishment for bank executives who mislead investors, or otherwise perpetrate fraud and abuse.

These two pillars don’t require heavy-handed regulation. The straightforward disclosure regime that prevailed for decades starting in the 1930s didn’t require extensive legal rules. Nor did vigorous prosecution of financial crime.

Until the 1980s, bank rules were few in number, but broad in scope. Regulation was focused on commonsense standards. Commercial banks were not permitted to engage in investment-banking activity, and were required to set aside a reasonable amount of capital. Bankers were prohibited from taking outsize risks. Not every financial institution complied with the rules, but many bankers who strayed were judged, and punished.

Since then, however, the rules have proliferated, the arguments about compliance have become ever more technical, and the punishments have been minor and rare. Not a single senior banker from a major firm has gone to prison for conduct related to the 2008 financial crisis; few even paid fines. The penalties paid by banks are paltry compared with their profits and bonus pools. The cost‑benefit analysis of such a system tilts in favor of recklessness, in large part because of the complex web of regulation: bankers can argue that they comply with the letter of the law, even when they violate its spirit.

As rules have proliferated, arguments about compliance have become more technical, and punishments have been rare. Not one senior banker from a major firm has gone to prison for conduct related to the 2008 financial crisis.

In an important call to arms this past summer, Andrew Haldane, the Bank of England’s executive director for financial stability, laid out the case for an international regulatory overhaul. “For investors today, banks are the blackest of boxes,” he said. But regulators are their facilitators. Haldane noted that a landmark regulatory agreement from 1988 called Basel I amounted to a mere 18 pages in the U.S. and 13 pages in the U.K. Likewise, disclosure rules were governed by a statute that was essentially one sentence long.

Basel II, the second iteration of global banking regulation, issued in 2004, was 347 pages long. Documentation for the new Basel III, Haldane noted, totals 616 pages. And federal regulations governing disclosure are even longer than that. In the 1930s, a bank’s reports to the Federal Reserve might have contained just 80 entries. Yet by 2011, Haldane said, quarterly reporting to the Fed required a spreadsheet with 2,271 columns.

The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which Haldane said was perhaps “the single most influential piece of financial legislation of the 20th century,” was only 37 pages. In contrast, 2010’s Dodd-Frank law was 848 pages and required regulators to create so many new rules (not fully defined by the legislation itself) that it could amount to 30,000 pages of legal minutiae when fully codified. “Dodd-Frank makes Glass-Steagall look like throat-clearing,” Haldane said.

What if legislators and regulators gave up trying to adopt detailed rules after the fact and instead set up broad standards of conduct before the fact? For example, consider one of the most heated Dodd-Frank battles, over the “Volcker Rule,” named after former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. The rule is an attempt to ban banks from being able to make speculative bets if they also take in federally insured deposits. The idea is straightforward: the government guarantees deposits, so these banks should not gamble with what is effectively taxpayer money.

Yet, under constant pressure from banking lobbyists, Congress wrote a complicated rule. Then regulators larded it up with even more complications. They tried to cover any and every contingency. Two and a half years after Dodd-Frank was passed, the Volcker Rule still hasn’t been finalized. By the time it is, only a handful of partners at the world’s biggest law firms will understand it.

Congress and regulators could have written a simple rule: “Banks are not permitted to engage in proprietary trading.” Period. Then, regulators, prosecutors, and the courts could have set about defining what proprietary trading meant. They could have established reasonable and limited exceptions in individual cases. Meanwhile, bankers considering engaging in practices that might be labeled proprietary trading would have been forced to consider the law in the sense Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. advocated.

Legislators could adopt similarly broad disclosure rules, as Congress originally did in the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The idea would be to require banks to disclose all material facts, without specifying how. Bankers would know that whatever they chose to put in their annual reports might be assessed at some future date by a judge who would ask one simple question: Was the report complete, clear, and accurate?

The standard of proof for securities-fraud prosecutions, meanwhile, could and should be reduced from intent, which requires that prosecutors try to get inside the heads of bankers, to recklessness, which is less onerous to prove than intention, but more so than negligence. The goal of this change would be to prevent bankers from being able to hide behind legalese. In other words, even if they did not purposefully violate the law, because they had some technical justification for their conduct, they still might be liable for doing something a reasonable person in their position would not have done.

Senior bank executives should face the threat of prosecution the same way businesspeople do in other areas of the economy. When a CEO or CFO sits holding a pen, about to sign a certification that his or her bank’s financial statements and controls are accurate and adequate, he or she should pause and reflect that the consequences could include jail time. If bank directors and executives had to think through their institution’s risks, disclose them, and then face serious punishment if the disclosures proved inadequate, we might begin to construct a culture of accountability.

A bank seeking to comply with the principles we’ve laid out wouldn’t need to publish a 236-page report with appendices. Instead, it could submit a statement perhaps one‑tenth as long, something that a reader who made it through the introduction to Wells Fargo’s current annual report might actually continue reading. Ideally, a lay reader would be able to understand how much a bank might gain or lose based on worst-case scenarios—what would happen if housing prices drop by 30 percent, say, or the Spanish government defaults on its debt? As for the details, banks could voluntarily provide information on their Web sites, so that sophisticated investors had enough granular facts to decide whether the banks’ broader statements were true. As the 2008 financial crisis was unfolding, Bill Ackman’s Pershing Square obtained the details of complex mortgages and created a publicly available spreadsheet to illustrate the risks of various products and institutions. Banks that wanted to earn back investors’ trust could publish data so that Ackman and others like him could test their more general statements about risk.

Is this just a fantasy? The changes we’ve outlined would certainly be difficult politically. (What isn’t, today?) But in the face of sufficient pressure, bankers might willingly agree to a grand bargain: simpler rules and streamlined regulation if they subject themselves to real enforcement.

Ultimately, these changes would be for the banks’ own good. Banks need to be able to convince the most-sophisticated people in the markets—investors like Bill Ackman—that they are once again “investable.” Otherwise, investors will continue to worry about which bank will be the next JPMorgan—or the next Lehman Brothers. Today, Ackman says the risk of investing in a big bank is too great: “I think the JPMorgan loss was a really bad loss for confidence. If the best CEO in the industry has a loss like that, what about the other banks?” he says. “If JPMorgan can have a $5.8 billion derivative problem, then any of these guys could—and $5.8 billion is not the upper bound.”

The banks provide “a ton of disclosure,” Ackman notes. There are a lot of pages and details in any bank’s annual report, including Wells Fargo’s. But “it’s what you can’t figure out that’s terrifying.” In the gargantuan derivatives-trading positions, for instance, he says, “you can’t figure out whether the bank has got it right or not. That’s faith.”

A combination of clearer, simpler disclosure and stronger enforcement would help clean up the system, just as it did beginning in the 1930s. Not only would shareholders better understand banks’ businesses, but managers would have the incentive to run their businesses more ethically. The broad cultural failure on Wall Street has arisen in part because disclosure rules encourage the banks to be purposefully opaque. Today, their lawyers don’t judge whether statements are clear and meaningful but rather whether they are on the bleeding edge of legality. If bank managers faced real consequences when their descriptions proved inaccurate or incomplete, they would strive to make those descriptions as clear and simple as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

Perhaps there is a silver lining in the loss of sophisticated investors’ trust. The disillusionment of the elites, on top of popular outrage, could foment change. Without such a mobilization, all of us will remain in the dark, neither understanding nor trusting the banks. And the rot will spread.

Frank Partnoy is a law and finance professor at the University of San Diego and the author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. Jesse Eisinger is a senior reporter at ProPublica and a columnist for The New York TimesDealbook section.
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Jesse Eisinger is a senior reporter at ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom in New York City that produces investigative journalism. His email address is Jesse.eisinger@propublica.org.

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