There have been some mathematical corrections to this post discussed in the comments. My pencil notes had the numbers right. By the time I got to writing it out errors had entered. Sorry.
Fannie Mae just put out awful looking results based primarily on massive (and increasing) credit loss provisions. Indeed their provisions this quarter were the largest thus far in the cycle.
Its worth looking a little closer because – like it or not – all Americans are owners of Fannie – both the downside (their current book) and the upside (if any) through taxpayer ownership of the common stock.
The nature of credit loss provisions
Each quarter almost every financial institution takes some charges when loans they have made settle at less than 100c in the dollar. At the moment charge-offs are at historic highs.
Every quarter a company makes an estimate of future losses – a “provision” if you will.
Provisions by definition are estimates – whereas charge-offs are real and mostly final.
The difference between provisions and charge-offs goes to a “reserve for future losses” or more commonly just “reserves”.
Most financial institutions are taking more provisions than charge-offs – in other words they are building reserves. This is necessary because there are a lot of delinquencies and a lot of loans in the foreclosure process and – just frankly – a lot of loans that common sense tells you will end in charge-off.
Most institutions build reserves relatively slowly. Bank of America for instance – in broad numbers – has had 13 billion of provisions per quarter for the last three quarters and charge-offs of 6,8 and 9 billion respectively. If the charge-offs skyrocket (say to 20 billion) at bank of America then it will find itself under-reserved – and will wind up having to report very big losses. However if charge-offs slowly level off around 13 billion per quarter then BofA will – ex-post – look OK.
The honest answer in the case of BofA is that we really do not know where charge-offs will wind up but we can make educated guesses. In the last conference call BofA thought charge-offs would peak about the first quarter of 2010. If they are right then their current reserving is right and BofA is probably a steal as a stock right now. If however charge-offs continue to rise for another 18 months peaking out at say $35 billion per quarter then BofA will need to be recapitalised further and may wind up as government property.
I am inclined to think that BofA’s current educated guess (charge-offs peaking early next year) is a little optimistic – but not very optimistic and I am happily long Bank of America common shares. This is – as I stated – an educated guess. Other people I respect have different educated guesses. The (very smart) Chris Whalen has a completely different view arguing (amongst other things) that the liabilities for fraudulently sold securitisations at Countrywide and Merrill will produce losses large enough to render BofA insolvent. I think he is spectacularly wrong – but difference of opinion makes a market.
In BofA’s case 13 billion per quarter is sort of a magic number because it happens to approximate the pre-tax, pre-provision profitability of the bank. Provided actual end charge-offs remain around or below 13 billion per quarter BofA will be able to earn its way of its mess. If charge-offs go to 25 billion per quarter they can’t earn their way out – and hence just the implicit government guarantee they currently have will not be enough to save them.
I note that current charge-offs are comfortably within the 13 billion per quarter so all is well for the moment. As to the future – all we can take are educated guesses. And that is all bank provisioning is. In BofA’s case the 13 billion (plus or minus a couple) of provisions taken each quarter seems a little optimistic to me – and you can understand why when the gun is pointed at the executives head they manage to (miraculously) pick their provisions to roughly match their pre-tax, pre-provision profit. But as I have noted I think the provisions in BofA’s case are only slightly optimistic – and the end charge-offs won’t go very far above 13 billion per quarter.
Analysing the Fannie Mae result in this light
Fannie Mae – as stated - took an enormous loss this quarter. The key to this loss was a credit charge of $22 billion. This credit charge can be broken into two broad categories – which are (a) the actual charge-offs taken, (b) the addition to reserves.
Like BofA, Fannie (and Freddie and just about everyone esle) needs large reserves because – frankly losses and delinquency are still getting worse. The amount you need to add to reserves is an estimate. If your reserves are large enough (which doesn’t seem to be the case in any financial institution I look at outside the GSEs) then you don’t need to add and you might even be able to run the reserves down a little.
In Fannie’s case this quarter there is one more thing complicating the reserves versus charge-offs picture. Fannie changed the way it accounts for one of its loan modification programs (the “Home Affordable Modification Program” or the HAMP) such that when loans are acquired from securitisation trusts for modification they are written down to market. This loss (which Fannie calls a “loss on acquisition”) is not a final loss (as per a normal charge-off) but rather an estimate of the future charge-offs they would take on those loans.
So lets break up the credit charge.
The provision for credit charges was 21.96 billion – which I will round to 22.0 billion – given that the nearest 100 million seems close enough. The charge offs were 10.9 billion (see table 10 in the 10Q). Note 3 to that table tells us that of that 10.9 billion 7.7 billion came from the “loss on acquisition” on the HAMP. The actual loans that were charged-off (final) were 3.2 billion. They were probably a bit higher because there were some HAMP charges taken last quarter and maybe some were finalised this quarter.
But nonetheless the way to think about this is that final losses this quarter were 2.2 billion. Provision for future losses (HAMP losses and provision build) were 19.8 billion. Similar ratios have applied every quarter since Fannie Mae went into conservatorship.
Now I am going to make the obvious point. Bank of America provides roughly 1.5 to 2 times its charge-offs each quarter. Fannie Mae provides 7 times (and has been closer to 10 times in past quarters).
If Bank of America were to provide at the same rate its quarterly losses would be 50-80 billion and it would be completely bereft of capital – it would be totally cactus. It would be – like Fannie Mae – a zombie government property.
What I think is going on…
I think what is going on here is a different standard for Bank of America. And for Wells Fargo. And for Citigroup. And for PNC and for every other major bank in America. There is also a different standard for Goldman Sachs. That standard is different to Fannie Mae. BofA (like everyone else) gets to choose its reserving ratios – and to be a little optimistic. Fannie Mae chooses ratios that are so-off-the-scale high that it is different.
Remember provision build is an estimate not a fact – and Fannie is estimating extraordinarily bearishly and Bank of America’s estimates are slightly generous. But regulators are controlling Fannie in such a way that keeps it down. They are allowing Bank of America to act as if all is well whilst Fannie Mae appears to be a complete zombie. Which I think corresponds roughly to the new policymaker consensus that what is good for big banks is good for America.
It is clear why BofA has chosen the 13 billion of provisions per quarter – which is that it roughly corresponds to their pre-tax pre-provision income. Moreover – in my view the 13 billion per quarter is not far wrong so the decision is defensible.
It is not clear why Fannie has chosen to reserve quite so aggressively. My guess is that there is no active conspiracy – but the pressure to make extraordinary provisions at Fannie is very high for a variety of non-commercial reasons. These provisions are defensible only if you believe the housing market gets substantially worse from here. That seems to belie the evidence on the ground – at least for now. Housing markets in the core bubble states have clearly stopped deteriorating. Current provisions (including mark to market provisions on the HAMP) are now 6 years current charge-offs. They are only 18 months or so at most banks including BofA.
Am I being too harsh?
Is it too harsh to apply the same provision to charge-off ratio to Bank of America as it is to apply it to Fannie Mae? Well if the credit was deteriorating faster at Fannie that BofA I would be too harsh. But if the credit were deteriorating faster at BofA then I would be too generous. The best test of that is non-performing loans.
At year end BofA non-performing loans were 18.2 billion. They were 31.9 billion by the end of the third quarter – a rise of 75 percent.
Fannie Mae NPLs were 111.8 billion at the end of the year (20.4 on balance sheet, 98.4 off balance sheet). They were 197.4 billion at the end of the third quarter – a rise of 76 percent.
75 percent versus 76 percent – I will call that a wash.
Indeed almost however I cut it the situation is getting worse for BofA at roughly the same rate as it is for Fannie Mae.
Except for one thing. The government wants BofA alive. Lots of people want Fannie Mae dead.
Bank of America survives now but for the good grace of the quasi-government guarantee. So do all banks. But Bank of America is – in my view (a view open for dispute) ultimately solvent. Its provisions are optimistic – but not (in my view) excessively so. If the cash losses per quarter rise to (say) 30 billion dollars then BofA will die and will cost the taxpayers a lot of money. I think that is unlikely but it is not impossible. Provision additions are always just an educated guess – not a science.
If the same standard were applied to Fannie Mae as bank of America Fannie would still have needed government assistance. It started with less capital and more levered than BofA. But the position would not look anything like as bad as it does.
You can of course interpret this to suggest that the Fannie Mae standard should be applied to BofA – and indeed to the rest of the financial system. You would (in my educated guess) be wrong. But I would have little ground to dispute it.
Disclosure: Long preference shares of the GSEs, long Bank of America. Could be wrong about both.