It was the news the markets had been waiting for -- hallelujah, the banks are back!
With the preannouncement of stellar earnings from Wells Fargo
But while the gains had my portfolio feeling good -- since I own a few financial shares myself -- I couldn't help but feel just a bit skeptical while the rest of the market drooled on itself and rolled around in confetti. Let's examine three reasons why I'm not ready to go bonkers over bank stocks quite yet.
1. The castrated capital markets
We can blame any number of factors for contributing to our current financial crisis, but the capital-markets divisions of the major banks and brokers have to be near the top of the list. These business groups were responsible for the structuring, pricing, and trading in all kinds of mortgage- and other asset-backed securities. They also played central roles in the downfall of venerable firms such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers as well as the massive losses at others like Citigroup
An interesting question to ponder as we look ahead to the future for banks' bottom lines is how much of the capital-markets moola will continue to flow. Back in 2006, corporate and investment banking made up roughly 30% of Bank of America's revenue, and about a third of its profit. A third of Citigroup's 2006 net income came from the same division. While this business may not disappear totally, it seems unlikely to regain the levels at the heyday. But then again, supporters of the Glass-Steagall Act are grumbling that perhaps this sort of operation never should have been part of a deposit-taking bank.
The bank du jour, Wells Fargo, never relied nearly as heavily on investment banking for its results, so we probably shouldn't be so surprised that it's faring better than the others. Even so, Bloomberg's coverage of Wells Fargo's results noted that the bank benefitted from trading in Wachovia's capital markets division -- a division that Wells Fargo is shrinking. So some of what we saw in Wells' bottom line may not make a repeat performance.
2) Exit strategy for low rates
Of course, Buffett also referred to the government's ongoing actions as a war on the financial crisis. If that's the case, I wonder whether the government has an exit strategy for this particular conflict.
Let's think about it for a moment. Besides dumping lots of money into struggling banks, the government ally of The Federal Reserve has been holding rates down to near zero levels. As noted above, this is great for banks, because of the spread they can get while still lending at low rates. And those low rates attract more customers -- it sounds like much of Wells Fargo's lending activity has been in refinancing transactions. Housing prices are also inversely related to mortgage rates, so even though prices are under pressure from oversupply, sub-5% rates are helping to buoy them.
But what happens when the Fed starts to take this free ride away? The core banking business suddenly isn't quite as rosy, customers aren't in any rush to refi, and the housing market ends up on the wrong side of rising mortgage rates. And let's hope that banks are matching today's lending commitments with long-term low-cost borrowing. I'd hate to see what happens if Fed rates start to rise, and banks are caught with their pants down on truckloads of fixed mortgage loans at 5%.
3) Toxicity levels
I feel like a bit of a broken record on this, but I can't ignore the fact that we're just not getting transparency regarding the balance sheets of the hardest-hit banks. Are they fine and dandy, as Dick Bove has asserted? Or will massive losses continue to mount, as Mike Mayo would have us believe?
Additionally, the fact that the government has done a poor job with transparency thus far means that the market is likely to be skeptical of any steps toward transparency that it takes going forward. The ongoing bank stress tests, for example, have been about as clear as mud to everyone on the outside. The few details of assumptions that have leaked out only make analysts wonder whether there's really much "stress" in the test at all.
Their concerns pertain largely to Citi and B of A, but we can't ignore other major aid recipients such as Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase
There's no place like home
Trust me, I want to be back in Kansas just as much as everyone else, but I'm afraid that closing my eyes and clicking my heels just isn't going to do the trick here. I fully expect that the U.S. economy -- and more so the U.S. citizens -- has the flexibility, drive, and tenacity to get through this rough patch and get back on a sustainable growth path. However, I'm willing to be patient and wait a bit before I stand in front of any "Mission Accomplished" banner.
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Berkshire Hathaway is both a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation and a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.
Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and Bank of America, but does not own shares of any of the other companies mentioned. The Fool's disclosure policy has never once been caught with its pants down. Of course, it doesn't actually wear pants...