updated 4/16/2009 7:02:07 PM ET 2009-04-16T23:02:07

The report cards are almost ready. Federal regulators soon will announce how the nation's 19 largest banks performed on tests gauging their ability to withstand worsening economic conditions.

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The agencies performing the tests — which are coordinated by the Federal Reserve — will put out a "white paper" on April 24 detailing their methods, according to a government official.

The government hopes to have the results "made public in some way on May 4," said the official, who requested anonymity because the plans are still in flux.

The tests, which subject banks' balance sheets to scenarios including escalating job losses and declining home prices, are a centerpiece of the Obama administration's financial rescue efforts.

The results will help officials divide banks into three categories: those that need more capital either from the government or private investors; those that are healthy; and those that are too weak to survive.

Questions have swirled since the tests were announced in February about how the results will be announced. The information is considered very sensitive because it could lead to drastic market swings. In normal times, regulators conduct similar assessments and keep them confidential.

But since major banks have taken billions in federal bailout money, taxpayer advocates and policymakers — including House Financial Services Committee chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass. — have demanded greater transparency. Many want to know what the results will mean, and whether they could lead to additional bailouts.

Treasury has spent much of the $700 billion Congress allowed it to distribute, and the Fed and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. also have provided assorted subsidies.

When regulators describe the banks' performance, they are likely to pursue a middle path, revealing mostly industrywide results while encouraging banks to disclose some specifics about their own performance. The goal is to satisfy calls for transparency while allowing strong banks to provide some cover for weaker ones.

It is "still under discussion" what details will be included in the May 4 announcement, the government official said.

The banks last week received letters from the government asking them not to disclose results as part of their quarterly earnings announcements. The fear then was that banks unable to broadcast encouraging test results could be punished by investors.

The letters followed public statements from bank executives about the tests, including Wells Fargo & Co. Chief Executive Richard Kovacevich's calling the process "asinine." Bank of America Corp. CEO Kenneth Lewis and Citigroup Inc. CEO Vikram Pandit both had alluded to strong performance on separate, internal stress tests in recent memos seeking to build employee confidence.

Wells Fargo has received a $25 billion government bailout; Bank of America and Citigroup each received $45 billion.

Industry groups have groused about regulators forcing healthy banks to take bailouts. Some smaller banks already have returned the government's money — plus interest — because they were unhappy with new conditions Congress had imposed. Large banks, including JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group Inc., have said they want to return the bailout money soon.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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