Client Update – April 2, 2009

Why today may have been significant to our economic future! We would like to share with you an article written by Steve Forbes, Editor and Chief of Forbes magazine. Mr. Forbes writes about the unnecessary regulations and new accounting rules that have brought on many of the problems surrounding our financial crisis: In particular he discusses the so called “mark-to-market” accounting rules that make companies and banks recognize prices for assets that are not realistic but have a profound impact on our financial system. This rule has forced many whose operations are profitable to appear as if they are losing money or insolvent. To the credit of this administration, this rule was greatly changed yesterday, and the stock markets around the world have reacted by going up significantly.

Although many good financial lessons were learned during the Great Depression, unfortunately many of the laws passed at the time to stabilize our financial system have been undone in the past few years: mark-to-market accounting, short sale uptick rule, naked shorting, and the Glass-Stegall Act to name just a few. This article was written about a month ago and he clearly lays out the problems being caused by mark-to-market accounting. Our hope is that it will help you understand the benefits of changing the rules back to where they had been. We don’t need more regulation, we just need to go back to what has worked fairly well for the last 70 years. Here’s the article:

By STEVE FORBES
What is most astounding about President Barack Obama’s radical economic recovery program isn’t its breadth, but its continuation of the most destructive policies of the Bush administration. These Bush policies were in themselves repudiations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Mr. Obama’s hero.
The most disastrous Bush policy that Mr. Obama is perpetuating is mark-to-market or “fair value” accounting for banks,
insurance companies and other financial institutions. The idea seems harmless: Financial institutions should adjust their balance sheets and their capital accounts when the market value of the financial assets they hold goes up or down.
That works when you have very liquid securities, such as Treasury bonds, or the common stock of IBM or GE. But when the
credit crisis hit in 2007, there was no market for subprime securities and other suspect assets. Yet regulators and auditors kept pressing banks and other financial firms to knock down the book value of this paper, even in cases where these obligations were being fully serviced in the payment of principal and interest. Thus, under mark-to-market, even non-suspect assets are being artificially knocked down in value for regulatory capital (the amount of capital required by regulators for industries like banks and life insurance).
Banks and life insurance companies that have positive cash flows now find themselves in a death spiral. Of the more than $700 billion that financial institutions have written off, almost all of it has been book write-downs, not actual cash losses. When banks or insurers write down the value of their assets they have to get new capital. And the need for new capital is a signal to ratings agencies that these outfits might deserve a credit-rating reduction.
So although banks have twice the amount of cash on hand that they did a year ago, they lend only under duress, or apply onerous conditions that would warm Tony Soprano’s heart. This is because they know that every time they make a loan or an investment there is a risk of a book write-down, even if the loan is unimpaired.
If this rigid mark-to-market accounting had been in effect during the banking trouble in the early 1990s, almost every major commercial bank in the U.S. would have collapsed because of shaky Latin American and commercial real estate loans. We would have had a second Great Depression.
But put aside for a moment the absurdity of trying to price assets in a disrupted or non-existent market, of not distinguishing between distress prices and “normal” prices. Regulatory capital by its definition should take the long view when it comes to valuation; day-to-day fluctuations shouldn’t matter. Assets should be kept on the books at the price they were obtained, as long as the assets haven’t actually been impaired.
Mark-to-market accounting does just the opposite. When times are good, it artificially boosts banks’ capital, thereby encouraging more investing and lending. In a downturn it sets off a devastating deflation.
Mark-to-market accounting is the principal reason why our financial system is in a meltdown. The destructiveness of mark-to-market — which was in force before the Great Depression — is why FDR suspended it in 1938. It was unnecessarily destroying banks.
But bad ideas never die. Mark-to-market was resurrected by the Financial Accounting Standards Board and became effective in the fall of 2007 (FASB rule 157) to the approval of the Bush administration, its Treasury Department, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Even as FASB 157 began to take its toll on financial institutions last year, Mr. Bush refused to kill or suspend it. When Congress voiced displeasure last fall, the administration and regulatory authorities made some cosmetic changes, but the poisonous essence remained.
If the president really takes Roosevelt’s legacy seriously, he should suspend mark-to-market accounting rules, restore the uptick rule, and enforce the prohibition against naked short selling. If he doesn’t, historians will look back in utter amazement at Mr. Obama’s preservation of Mr. Bush’s worst economic policies.

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