William Black: “There Are No Real Stress Tests Going On”

By way of background, William Black is a former senior bank regulator, best known for his thwarted but later vindicated efforts to prosecute S&L crisis fraudster Charles Keating. He is currently an Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City.

More germane for the purpose of this post, Black held a variety of senior regulatory positions during the S&L crisis.He managed investigations with teams of examiners reporting to him, redesigned how exams were conducted, and trained examiners.

Via e-mail, he has confirmed our suspicions about the bank stress tests announced by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner: they simply cannot be adequate, given the number and experience of the staff, and perhaps as important, their relationship with the banks (see detailed comments below).

I also asked him about the fact that bank examiners examine banks (duh) and would not have much (any?) experience in the capital markets operations or sophisticated products that the big investment bank, now banks, participated in. Goldman and Morgan Stanley ought to be subject to these exams; Citi, JP Morgan, and Bank of America have large capital markets operations. These firms are where the biggest risks and exposures lie. Do the examiners what to look for in a even the low-risk operations, like repo desks, much the less derivatives and proprietary trading books? He agreed (as presented below) that it was a near certainty that this was beyond their skill level.

Now this begs the question: why has the Treasury Secretary set in motion an obviously bogus process? It suggests the result is pre-ordained.

One possibility is that even a very quick and dirty look at many of the big banks’ books will reveal them to be in very bad shape. In fact, the inadequate staffing could be part of the private conversation: “You know we didn’t send in enough bodies to do this right, and even using your numbers, which we can assume in some cases will be flattering, you look like a goner.”

But all of Geithner’s actions to date are inconsistent with him taking a tough stand. Having a lot of people party to a process that finds that some of the big banks are in trouble would be hard to keep secret (to my knowledge, none of these people have high level security clearances. Government employees and contractors in those cohorts do keep their mouths shut). So I think it is more likely that the banks will get scorecards that show them to be in various stages of peril, but none will be found to be terminal. (They can’t be given a clean bill of health, that would call the whole rationale of the TARP and its various injections into question, and also would put Geithner at considerable risk if any bank declared OK fell over in less than 12 months).

But even the designation of “sick but not ready to be hospitalized” carries with it risk to the Administration. If the banks get sicker than anticipated, how can they explain it? They can’t say, “oh, things got worse than we contemplated”. The whole point of a stress test is to anticipate worst case scenarios. And it is pretty certain a fair number of the big banks will be on such large-scale life support by year end that it will be hard to make a case not to put them in receivership.

Whatever statement Geithner puts out about the results of the stress test is likely to come back to haunt him, as did Colin Powell’s “there are WMD in Iraq” speech before the UN did. And Powell had a better reputation going into Iraq than Geithner has in prosecuting his war.

From William Black:

There are no real stress tests going on.

1) If you did a real stress test, as Geithner explained them, you wouldn’t just have a $2 trillion hole — you’d impose regulatory capital requirements of 50%. (FYI, the regulators have the power to set HIGHER individual capital requirements based on unusually large risks at a particular bank.)

Yves here. By implication, the results of anything approaching a true stress test, plus reasonable regulatory responses, would dictate radical action. We have not seen any corresponding groundwork laid for that sort of thing. Back to Black:

2) You can’t conduct a meaningful stress test without reviewing (sampling) the underlying loan files and it seems likely that the purchasers of securitized instruments (not just mortgages) do not even have the loan file data. Moreover, loss ratios vary enormously depending on the issuer, so even a bank that originates (or has purchased a bank that originates) similar product cannot simply take its own loss rate and extrapolate it to the measure the risk on the value of securitized credit instruments.

3) The regulators are overwhelmed because of personnel cuts (particularly heavy among their best, most experienced examiners that had worked banks that had engaged in sophisticated frauds. Buyouts were common, because more experienced examiners appear more expensive. This isn’t true when you consider effecitiveness and productivity, but management didn’t care about that. Treat what I write after the colon as hearing from me at my most serious and thoughtful: it is vastly more difficult to examine a bank that is engaged in accounting control fraud. You can’t rely on the bank’s books and records. It doesn’t simply take more, far more, FTEs — it takes examiners with experience, care, courage, and investigative instincts and abilities. Very few folks earning $60K are willing to get in the face of the CEO and CFO making $25 million annually and tell them that they are running a fraudulent bank and they are liars. FYI, this is one of the reasons why having “resident examiners” never works. The examiners don’t even get to marry the natives. They get to worship God’s annoited. Effective examination is good for you, but it is very unpleasant, ala a doctor’s finger up your rectum. It requires total independence.

So, the examination force doesn’t have remotely the numbers or the relevant experience and mindset to examine the largest banks with the greatest problems.

Yves here. Black is not using the fraud word lightly. He believe that we have Enron-level accounting fraud happening, now, in the financial services industry. And we have asked repeatedly, why has there been no investigation of fraud at Lehman? There was a $100 billion plus hole in its balance sheet, meaning a substantial negative net worth, when its financial statements presented a completely different picture. Back to Black:

4) As Geithner describes the process, NO ONE can conduct reliable “stress testing.” It inherently requires testing everything in every way any and all aspects of everything could conceivably interact. It also doesn’t provide any meaningful output that can be operationalized (unless you want to force an enormous rise in minimum regulatory capital requirements, which he obviously doesn’t want to do).

5) Examiners certainly can’t A) do the stress testing that Geithner describes or B) evaluate the reliability of a large bank’s proprietary stress test. If they were serious about constructing reliable stress tests, which they aren’t, you’d require their analytics to be made public. You’d have the industry fund independent investigations by rocket scientists chosen by a committee selected by the regulators of the soundness of the analytics. You’d also have the industry fund competitions to rip them apart (a bit like we hire legit hackers to test security by trying to defeat it) and show where they produce absurd results. The geeks would have a field day (that would probably last a decade). There are probably zero examiners that have the modeling skills required to evaluate the most sophisticated stress test models. The concept that there are 100 examiners with these skills, suddenly freed up from all other duties, assigned to CONDUCT stress tests is a lie.

6) It is, however, possible to use even the less experienced examiners to conduct a far more useful examination of the quality and value of nonprime loans. My nightmare scenario which I fear is often true is that A) because the biggest originators of nonprime loans were mortgage bankers, B) because every large mortgage banker that specialized in nonprime loans went bankrups, C) because many of them went into Chapter 7 liquidations and even those that went into Chapter 11’s had little incentive to hang on to files on mortgage loans they had sold to other entities — the loan files on many nonprime loans may no longer exist. (My fervent prayer is that the loan servicers have tapes with copies of the underlying loan files, but I fear that this prayer will not be answered.) Under this nightmare scenario it will be extraordinarily hard to determine loan quality and losses and very hard to foreclose against borrowers that can afford attorneys (admittedly a minority) and that claim fraud in the inducement.

Yves again. Remember, aside from the discussion of the bank’s risk models, he is still framing the stress test in terms of more or less traditional banking activities, that is, that most of the assets that need examining are loans. I asked for how he thought the examiners would fare with more complicated products, like CDOs, CDS, and derivatives. His comments:

Yes, few examiners understand more exotic products. In my experience, nobody understands all the products. I certainly don’t, and if I did I’m sure my knowledge would be out of date within weeks.

The problem is compounded by the fact that understanding how the product is actually used (CDS is a good example) v. how its proponents picture it as being used is essential. Understanding its sensitivity to credit and interest rate risk is well beyond the ken. Understanding the liquidity risks and interaction effects is out of the question.

Examiners rarely know that financial risks are not normally distributed, but have far fatter tails. (Nor do they understand why this makes truncating the VAR a recipe for disaster.) Examiners rarely understand that any econometric analysis undertaken during the expansion phase of a bubble will invariably find the strongest positive correlation with the worst possible business practices (because those practices maximize accounting fraud).

We were, 15 years ago, able to get some strong capital markets people and give them advance training. We sent them out on exams, they impressed the industry — and they were promptly hired away from us at substantial raises

Some countries have found ways around this problem, but they don’t translate well to America. In Japan, the most prestigious jobs are in the top ministries, so they get and hang on to good people. In Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew felt he had to depart from the typical corrupt Asian government norm for Singapore to prosper. Top government bureaucrats are paid like top private sector professionals (think law firm partners). They are well enough paid (or have the prospects of being well enough paid) so as to have an incentive not to screw it up (tough internal audits also help).