The Treasury's stress tests are now, officially, a joke…
First, the outcome looked as if all banks would need to raise capital. Then it was reduced to just three. Now it “might” be “about 10” of the 16 banks subjected to the Treasury's toothless stress tests that may need to raise additional capital to withstand further weakness in the economy.
And the report isn't even supposed to be out until Thursday. The Obama administration is doing its level best to make sure the market is perfectly prepared for the results of the stress tests.
While it's probably wise to consider the impact of the stress tests on the financial markets, I can't say I approve of rigging the tests to achieve a preferred outcome.
The New Bailout
Bloomberg reports that financial stocks made their biggest gains in a month yesterday on “optimism about the tests.”
That “optimism” is better described as the realization that the stress tests are fundamentally flawed and the government is prepared to handle the capital issue by letting the banks convert the preferred stock the government owns from TARP loans into common stock.
So basically, the government is saying that banks don't have to repay TARP loans. The banks can just issue more stock. It's appropriate that shareholders should bear the risk here. It's completely inappropriate that taxpayers have to accept bank stock in lieu of cash.
This is really just another bailout.
Converting preferred shares to common stock gives the banks a convenient way top boost “tangible common equity.” It's basically an accounting trick. But since there's only $110 billion left in TARP, and Congress almost certainly won't approve any more funds, it's a convenient solution.
The stress tests are supposed to establish a bank's viability if the economy gets worse. But apparently the worst-case scenarios that underpin the stress test are nowhere near worst-case.
For instance, for the current period, regulators reportedly used 7.9% unemployment. Current unemployment is 8.1%. For 2010, the stress tests use 10.3% unemployment. But at current rates, unemployment will hit 10.3% this year, not next year.
Of course, it could be a moot point if the economy improves. But what if things do get worse? Geithner is playing a dangerous game here.