Is My Money Safе—part 4
To elaborate on the last two points:
A bank can borrow cheap money from the Central Bank (or pay low interest to its depositors and savers) and invest it in secure government bonds, earning a much higher interest income from the bonds' coupon payments. The end result: a rise in the bank's income and profitability due to a non-productive, non-lasting arbitrage operation. Otherwise, the bank's management can understate the amounts of bad loans carried on the bank's books, thus decreasing the necessary set-asides and increasing profitability. The financial statements of banks largely reflect the management's appraisal of the business. This has proven to be a poor guide.
In the main financial results page of a bank's books, special attention should be paid to provisions for the devaluation of securities and to the unrealized difference in the currency position. This is especially true if the bank is holding a major part of the assets (in the form of financial investments or of loans) and the equity is invested in securities or in foreign exchange denominated instruments.
Separately, a bank can be trading for its own position (the Nostro), either as a market maker or as a trader. The profit (or loss) on securities trading has to be discounted because it is conjectural and incidental to the bank's main activities: deposit taking and loan making.
Most banks deposit some of their assets with other banks. This is normally considered to be a way of spreading the risk. But in highly volatile economies with sickly, underdeveloped financial sectors, all the institutions in the sector are likely to move in tandem (a highly correlated market). Cross deposits among banks only serve to increase the risk of the depositing bank (as the recent affair with Toko Bank in Russia and the banking crisis in South Korea have demonstrated).
Further closer to the bottom line are the bank's operating expenses: salaries, depreciation, fixed or capital assets (real estate and equipment) and administrative expenses. The rule of thumb is: the higher these expenses, the weaker the bank. The great historian Toynbee once said that great civilizations collapse immediately after they bequeath to us the most impressive buildings. This is doubly true with banks. If you see a bank fervently engaged in the construction of palatial branches – stay away from it.
Banks are risk arbitrageurs. They live off the mismatch between assets and liabilities. To the best of their ability, they try to second guess the markets and reduce such a mismatch by assuming part of the risks and by engaging in portfolio management. For this they charge fees and commissions, interest and profits – which constitute their sources of income.
If any expertise is imputed to the banking system, it is risk management. Banks are supposed to adequately assess, control and minimize credit risks. They are required to implement credit rating mechanisms (credit analysis and value at risk – VAR - models), efficient and exclusive information-gathering systems, and to put in place the right lending policies and procedures.
Just in case they misread the market risks and these turned into credit risks (which happens only too often), banks are supposed to put aside amounts of money which could realistically offset loans gone sour or future non-performing assets. These are the loan loss reserves and provisions. Loans are supposed to be constantly monitored, reclassified and charges made against them as applicable. If you see a bank with zero reclassifications, charge offs and recoveries – either the bank is lying through its teeth, or it is not taking the business of banking too seriously, or its management is no less than divine in its prescience. What is important to look at is the rate of provision for loan losses as a percentage of the loans outstanding. Then it should be compared to the percentage of non-performing loans out of the loans outstanding. If the two figures are out of kilter, either someone is pulling your leg – or the management is incompetent or lying to you. The first thing new owners of a bank do is, usually, improve the placed asset quality (a polite way of saying that they get rid of bad, non-performing loans, whether declared as such or not). They do this by classifying the loans. Most central banks in the world have in place regulations for loan classification and if acted upon, these yield rather more reliable results than any management's "appraisal", no matter how well intentioned.
In some countries the Central Bank (or the Supervision of the Banks) forces banks to set aside provisions against loans at the highest risk categories, even if they are performing. This, by far, should be the preferable method.
Of the two sides of the balance sheet, the assets side is the more critical. Within it, the interest earning assets deserve the greatest attention. What percentage of the loans is commercial and what percentage given to individuals? How many borrowers are there (risk diversification is inversely proportional to exposure to single or large borrowers)? How many of the transactions are with "related parties"? How much is in local currency and how much in foreign currencies (and in which)? A large exposure to foreign currency lending is not necessarily healthy. A sharp, unexpected devaluation could move a lot of the borrowers into non-performance and default and, thus, adversely affect the quality of the asset base. In which financial vehicles and instruments is the bank invested? How risky are they? And so on.
No less important is the maturity structure of the assets. It is an integral part of the liquidity (risk) management of the bank. The crucial question is: what are the cash flows projected from the maturity dates of the different assets and liabilities – and how likely are they to materialize. A rough matching has to exist between the various maturities of the assets and the liabilities. The cash flows generated by the assets of the bank must be used to finance the cash flows resulting from the banks' liabilities. A distinction has to be made between stable and hot funds (the latter in constant pursuit of higher yields). Liquidity indicators and alerts have to be set in place and calculated a few times daily.