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U.S. plans to reveal data on health of top banks

NYT: The Obama administration is drawing up plans to disclose the conditions of the 19 biggest banks in the country, according to senior administration officials, as it tries to restore confidence in the financial system.
/ Source: The New York Times

The Obama administration is drawing up plans to disclose the conditions of the 19 biggest banks in the country, according to senior administration officials, as it tries to restore confidence in the financial system without unnerving investors.

The administration has decided to reveal some sensitive details of the stress tests now being completed after concluding that keeping many of the findings secret could send investors fleeing from financial institutions rumored to be weakest.

While all of the banks are expected to pass the tests, some are expected to be graded more highly than others. Officials have deliberately left murky just how much they intend to reveal — or encourage the banks themselves to reveal — about how well they would weather difficult economic scenarios over the next two years.

As a result, the disclosures still run some risk of doing what officials hope to avoid, by indicating which banks are most vulnerable.

Delicate balancing act
The decision on how to handle the stress tests underscores the delicate balancing act by the government, which has spent hundreds of billions in an effort to stabilize banks. Despite some signs of improvement in the financial system, however, many economists remain concerned that banks are still weighed down with toxic assets stemming from the housing bust.

Until now, the Treasury has simply said that it would reveal the amounts of any new infusions of capital into banks that regulators judged to be at risk if the economic downturn is prolonged, or the economy takes a further dive.

The administration’s hand may have been forced in part by Goldman Sachs, which successfully sold $5 billion in newly issued stock on Tuesday and declared that it would use the proceeds and other private capital to repay the $10 billion it accepted from the government in October.

That money came from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, and Goldman’s action was seen as a way of pre-disclosing to the markets the company’s confidence that it would pass the stress tests with flying colors.

Goldman’s action has put pressure on other financial institutions to do the same — or risk being judged in far worse shape by investors. The administration feared that details on healthier banks would inevitably leak out, leaving weaker banks exposed to speculation and damaging market rumors, possibly making further bailouts more costly.

Pressure on the administration
The Goldman move also puts pressure on the administration to decide what conditions will apply to institutions that return their bailout funds. It is unclear if Goldman, for example, will continue to be allowed to benefit from an indirect subsidy effectively worth billions of dollars from a federal government guarantee on its debt, a program that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation adopted last fall when the credit markets froze and it was virtually impossible for companies to raise cash. In ordinary times, regulators do not reveal the results of bank exams or disclose the names of troubled banks, for fear of triggering bank runs or market stampedes out of a stock. But as top Treasury and Federal Reserve officials have focused on the intensity with which the markets would look for signals about the nation’s biggest banks at the conclusion of the stress tests, they have reconsidered their early decision to say little.

“The purpose of this program is to prevent panics, not cause them,” said one senior official involved in the stress tests who declined to speak on the record because the extent of the disclosures are still being debated. “And it’s becoming clearer that we and the banks are going to have to explain clearly where each bank falls in the spectrum.”

Two senior officials said on Tuesday that they are now likely to encourage the banks to reveal a range of information, perhaps including the size of losses the banks could suffer under each of the “stress scenarios.” Critics of the testing system, however, have questioned whether the scenarios are extreme enough.

'Not yet complete'
“The assessments are not yet complete,” Stephanie Cutter, the Treasury’s spokeswoman, said. “When they are, we’ll work with the banks on how best to release the appropriate data and on what timeframe to ensure fairness and minimize market uncertainty.”

The concern about the market impact of the stress tests has been deep enough that, last week, the Federal Reserve, acting on behalf of itself and other regulators, sent e-mail messages to the banks undergoing the stress tests urging them to say nothing about the assessments during the earnings season, including their capital needs or even their plans to return TARP money.

The banks, officials say, have not been informed about any of the results. But since they know what information they have had to reveal, the banks probably can estimate their own results.

Despite the warning, there is evidence that some banks are trying to signal to the markets early that their quarterly results will look good — and, by implication, that investors should not worry about the tests.

Citigroup and Bank of America made positive statements about the current quarter weeks ago, and last week, John Stumpf, the chief executive of Wells Fargo, said the bank was in good shape and expects a $3 billion profit this quarter. The Wells Fargo statement appeared to frustrate some Treasury officials, and regulators clearly fear it will be more difficult for them to issue negative assessments of banks that have already proclaimed that they are in good shape.

A Wells Fargo spokeswoman, Janis Smith Appelton, said the company declined to comment on any interactions with its regulator.

“Given current market conditions we felt it was important to share preliminary results as early as possible,” she said, “and we are not aware of any constituent who would have disagreed.”

After Goldman’s announcement on Monday that it plans to return the TARP funds, releasing it from significant government control, other big banks are looking for ways to do the same. Healthier banks are desperate to get out from under the government’s thumb, believing the heightened scrutiny and the restrictions on executive compensation could cripple their businesses. But senior administration officials made clear they, not the banks, will decide whether to let the institutions return the money — and it will depend largely on their ability to raise fresh capital in the private markets.

The haves and have-nots
“We are going to have some separation between the haves and have-nots,” said Dino Kos, a banking analyst at Portales Partners. “The downside of it is that you are bleeding capital out of the banking system at a time when the banks would be better off with more, rather than less.”

The Treasury Department says it has $134.5 billion left in the TARP fund. That included a “conservative estimate” that the banks would pay back $25 billion, a sign the government will allow at least some big banks to return the money.

Early on, a number of Wall Street chief executives were outspoken about their desire to return the TARP funds. The heads of Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley expressed interest.

At a meeting at the White House in late March, Lloyd C. Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Kenneth I. Chenault of American Express told President Obama that they would like to quickly repay the money. Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase half-jokingly presented the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, with a fake $25 billion check, a gesture that was quickly rejected.

'No timetable in mind'
A few executives appeared to have softened their positions. John J. Mack, Morgan Stanley’s chief executive, said a few days later that the bank had “every intention to pay it back and we will” but it was “the wrong time” to do so immediately. In an interview last week, Howard Atkins, Wells Fargo’s finance chief, said that his bank had “no timetable in mind” to return taxpayer money.

And Robert Stickler, a Bank of America spokesman, said on Tuesday that the company was under strict orders from the government not to discuss its plans to return TARP money.

David E. Sanger reported from Washington and Eric Dash from New York. Louise Story contributed reporting from New York.

This article, "," first appeared in the New York Times.