Hey Morgan Stanley, dost thou protest too much?
The financial firm was the first to announce this week that it was
among the ten banks approved to repay $68 billion in rescue money the
companies had received from the Treasury Department last October. Since
then, executives of Morgan have said that they thought the Stress Test was
“appropriate” and that the financial crisis has bottomed.
Among the ten banks allowed to pay back their Troubled Asset Relief
Program funds, though, Morgan Stanley looks to be the unlikeliest member of
that list. For one, Morgan, unlike many of its rivals is still in the red.
The company lost $177 million in the first quarter a period during which
many of its rivals turned nice profits. Goldman Sachs, for one, which was
also approved to repay its TARP money, made $1.8 billion in the same time.
What’s more, Morgan Stanley is the only bank approved to return TARP funds
that actually failed the stress test. Just a month ago, regulators said
Morgan was short capital $1.8 billion worth. The bank has raised $7.6
billion through stock and asset sales in the past month. But now Morgan said
it plans to repay $10 billion, which is all the money it received from the
Treasury Department back in October. Do the math and the firm now appears to
be about $4 billion short of what the stress test said it needed to be well
capitalized. That along with some other measures of Morgan’s financial
health, has a few analysts proclaiming the firm is weaker than it is letting
“I don’t see any basis for Morgan Stanley being allowed to repay
their TARP money,” says Audit Integrity’s Jim Kaplan, who founded the Los
Angeles-based independent research firm that focuses on accounting and
governance issues. “They have raised capital, but whether it is enough is
A Morgan spokesman says that the stress test and the requirements for paying
back TARP were focused on different types of capital. The stress test was focused on a specific type of bank capitalcommon equity, where Morgan was found to be deficient. TARP repayment requirements, however, are based on the total capital of the firm. And based on that measure, the Morgan spokesman said, Morgan is the strongest of the banks repaying TARP, not the
Indeed, a number of market watchers think that
allowing any of the banks to repay their government rescue is folly.
Observers say the government may have feared not allowing Morgan Stanley to
repay its funds, while permitting Goldman and others to do so, would have
made Morgan seem weaker than it is perceived to be.
In its latest report on TARP, the Congressional Oversight Panel said the
banks may be in much worse financial shape than the government’s stress
tests suggested. The reason: the test only focused on loan losses that would
occur in 2009 and 2010. Look further out, and bank losses, particularly in
commercial real estate, could be much bigger. Additionally, TARP was
supposed to boost lending. So far, it doesn’t seem to have done that. In the
first quarter of this year, bank lending fell by $150 million, according to
“I would like to see the banking industry have the biggest capital
base it can have right now,” says Doug Elliott, a former investment banker
and a fellow at the Brookings Institute. “Even if the banks are largely
fundamentally sound, they are not strong enough to make the volume of loans
we would like them to be able to do.”
Still, Morgan Stanley stands out among those repaying TARP.
Morgan’s biggest problem says Audit Integrity’s Kaplan has to do with the
type of assets on its balance sheet. Nearly 20% of the assets the firm holds
fall into the category of level 3, according to Kaplan, which consists of
assets deemed hard to value. As percentage of total assets, Morgan has more
hard-to-value ones than any of the other TARP repayers. JP Morgan, for
instance, classified just 5% of its total assets as level 3 at the end of
the first quarter.
What specific assets are in the level three basket Morgan doesn’t exactly
say. But Kaplan guesses that a large percentage of those assets are
collateralized debt obligations and other derivatives based on now troubled
home loans. What would happen if those bets on home loans turned out to be
worthless Morgan would be right back at the government’s doorstep.
According to Kaplan, Morgan’s hard-to-value assets now total one and a half
times its total equity.
“The assets are not worthless, but they are worth far less than what the
bank is saying,” says Kaplan. “If Morgan was to value its level 3 assets
properly, they would have no equity.”
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