Who needs tea leaves to tell us when the credit crisis will end? We've got experts.
After reviewing the prognostications of several top financial minds, this Fool concludes that ... maybe we'd be better off with the tea leaves.
How do things look?
This week, Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) posted better-than-expected earnings that ignited some optimism and a sense that we might be moving beyond the crisis. But, Lehman (NYSE: LEH ) and Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS ) posted dismal quarters that squashed hopeful feelings and suggested that we are still very much in the throes of the crisis.
Second-quarter bank earnings have come and gone. Yet, there is still little clarity about whether we are through the worst of the credit crisis or how long we can expect it to linger. In such uncertain times, perhaps we should look for answers from some of the top financial people.
What do the experts say?
Several prominent financial people have weighed in on the issue recently. Goldman Sachs warned that the crisis may not peak until 2009 and U.S. banks may have to write off another $65 billion. This is positive thinking compared with Oppenheimer analyst Meredith Whitney, who said, "the real harrowing days of the credit crisis are still in front of us." She predicted that banks will write off another $170 billion by the end of next year. Ouch!
And, while Fitch Ratings estimates that the crisis has cost $400 billion in losses so far, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issued a report that said the crisis could cost as much as $945 billion worldwide before it's over.
Not everyone has such a pessimistic outlook. Some of the more optimistic analysis can be found from prominent bank executives who haven't been fired yet. Richard Fuld, Lehman CEO, proclaimed that the worst of the crisis is "behind us." Going even further, JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) CEO Jamie Diamond says the market turmoil is "maybe 75 percent to 80 percent over."
That sounds great! The problem is that, last summer, bank executives had similar positive-sounding prognostications that proved to be false. One notable example is the former Merrill Lynch CEO who said that he thought the subprime crisis was "reasonably well contained." A cynic might say that such executives tend to be self-servingly optimistic.
What inning is it?
Perhaps the greatest insight into the actual coordinates of the crisis comes from experts who like to use baseball analogies. On Wednesday, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) Chairman Sheila Bair said that we are in the seventh inning of a nine-inning crisis. A few months ago, Morgan Stanley analysts said we were in the third inning. Recently, Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack told investors that the collapse of the subprime market has reached the eighth inning or maybe "the top of the ninth." No wonder Morgan's profits fell around 60% last quarter: They can't even agree about which fictional inning we're in. How long is an inning anyway?
Even if we limit the universe of expert opinions to those who use baseball analogies, the opinions are still all over the map. If you ask 10 experts, you'll get 10 different opinions. How can one ascertain any insight into the longevity of the credit crisis from that? You can't.
What to make of all this
The bottom line is, don't rely on experts to make investment decisions. Rely on common sense. Second-quarter earnings were pretty bad for most major banks. Maybe we are through the worst of the crisis, maybe we're not. Either way, it seems that there is still a lot of bad news left.
In my opinion, certain special banks including, Goldman Sachs, US Bancorp (NYSE: USB ) and Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) , have been navigating the crisis on a far greater level than the other banks. These banks may well be worth buying cheap while the industry is still in crisis mode. But, buying the other major banks here is a far more risky endeavor. They will likely struggle with more write-offs and wallow in bad news for many more months.