Once upon a time I saw loan restructurings as code for faking the accounts. That was with good justification.
Conseco – before it blew up – had a habit of restructuring any loan that was delinquent. After restructure it was no longer delinquent – and lo – the credit metrics seemed OK.
After Conseco finally went bankrupt the truth came out. Loan performance went from sort-of-OK-if-you-ignored-the-fact-that-cash-actually-coming-back-in-payments-was-low to utterly desperate. The AAA strips of Conseco securitisations failed widely.
These days restructuring loans is the stated objective of many powers that be – most notably Sheila Bair. I never quite got that. If you show too many non performing assets (NPAs) Sheila Bair will just confiscate your bank. So the incentive is to restructure and restructure early. If the borrower can perform to restructured spec then presumably they are no longer an NPA. What Sheila Bair appeared to be advocating was government sanctioned account faking.
Then of course some banks tell it straight – and count the restructured loans amongst their NPAs. Here is an extract from the recent Fifth Third conference call. Fifth Third is a problematic bank and in WaMu fashion I own the subordinated debt – not the common – and in WaMu fashion I probably have reason to be nervous. Anyway to quote:
Turning to the consumer portfolio, we also continued to be very aggressive in restructuring consumer loans, modifying over $200 million in the quarter. We believe restructuring loans where appropriate will result in significantly greater likelihood of payment and more value ultimately received by Fifth Third. These activities are beneficial not only to our shareholders, but are also consistent with the needs of our customers. [Sheila Bair’s line precisely – are they pandering?]As of year end, we had $574 million in troubled debt restructurings and NPAs, classified that way because they hadn't met the six-month consecutive performance threshold. [Hey wow – they count restructured loans as non-performing – so they are not producing the Conseco fake numbers… My cynicism is misplaced in this instance.]Fifth Third has been among the most active of banks in the US in restructuring loans for consumer borrowers, a process we began over a year ago. We've been among the most active among our peers in these restructurings only one of the 15 largest US banks reports a higher dollar amount of restructured loans among its nonaccrual loans, according to regulatory filings.
Now this is very odd. $574 million of restructured loans in the NPAs is about the highest in America! But we know lots of banks are restructuring many loans – many billions worth. Sheila Bair is telling them to do it. But if you take Fifth Third at its word (and I think you should here) all the other banks are classifying most those restructured loans as performing.
In other words they are – Conseco like – faking their accounting. And Sheila Bair is not only complicit – she is actively encouraging.
Welcome to modern banking.