Honest Man Emerges From Muck of Banking Crisis
Commentary by Jonathan Weil
April 2 (Bloomberg) -- Remember this man’s name: Charles Bowsher. He’s one of the few people leaving the banking crisis behind with his reputation enhanced.
Bowsher, who was comptroller general of the U.S. from 1981 to 1996, had a simple reason for resigning last week as chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank System’s Office of Finance. He didn’t want to put his name on the banks’ combined financial statements, because he was uncomfortable vouching for them. Bowsher, 77, had held the post since April 2007.
With so many top executives complaining they can’t figure out what their companies’ assets are worth, the real wonder is that more corporate directors haven’t quit rather than certify financial reports they don’t understand.
The job Bowsher left is a crucial one. The Office of Finance issues and services all the debt for the 12 regional Federal Home Loan Banks. That’s a lot of debt -- $1.26 trillion as of Dec. 31, making the FHLBank System the largest U.S. borrower after the federal government. The government-chartered banks, which operate independently, in turn supply low-cost loans to their 8,100 member banks and finance companies. If any of the FHLBanks were to fail, taxpayers could be on the hook.
The finance office’s board also oversees the preparation and auditing of the FHLBanks’ combined financial statements. Some of the banks have run into trouble the past year because of plunging values for mortgage-backed securities they own.
“I was not comfortable as an audit-committee member in signing off on the financial statements, after I became aware of the standards and processes for valuing the mortgage-backed securities,” Bowsher told me.
The finance office didn’t say why Bowsher was quitting, when it issued its March 24 press release announcing his resignation. On March 30, a spokesman, Michael Ciota, told me the people who work there didn’t know, including its chief executive, John Fisk. “We’re not aware of any reason,” Ciota said. “There’s not a whole lot to tell.”
After I told Ciota yesterday about Bowsher’s comments to me, Fisk called me back. He confirmed that “Mr. Bowsher has expressed his concerns to me around the complexity of valuing mortgage-backed securities and the process of producing combined financial statements from the 12 home loan banks.” He added: “I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to speak for Mr. Bowsher.”
Bowsher told me he was concerned, in part, with the methods used for determining when losses on hard-to-value securities should be included in banks’ earnings and regulatory capital. The way the accounting rules work, as long as such losses can be labeled “temporary,” they don’t count in net income.
For the fourth quarter of 2008, the FHLBanks said their total preliminary net loss was $672 million. It would have been many times larger, had they included all their red ink.
The year-end balance sheet at the FHLBank of Seattle, for example, showed $5.6 billion of non-government mortgage-backed securities that it says it will hold until maturity. Yet the estimated value of those securities was just $3.6 billion. The bank, which reported a $199.4 million net loss for 2008, said the declines were only temporary. They’ve been anything but fleeting, though. Most of those securities have been worth less than they cost for more than a year.
The FASB’s rules on this subject, which have never been well defined, are now in flux. Today, after caving in to pressure by the banking industry and members of Congress, the Financial Accounting Standards Board is set to vote on a plan to relax its rules on mark-to-market accounting, so that companies can disregard market prices and ignore losses on their securities indefinitely.
Pressing for Change
While that wouldn’t make the banks any healthier, it would make their numbers look prettier. The FHLBanks have been among the most vocal lobbyists pressing for the change.
Bowsher said the process of valuing such assets was fraught with doubt already. “Now if you think about it, the FASB might be changing the whole thing, and everybody might mark their assets up,” he said. “Who wants to be part of that?”
The finance office hasn’t released the banks’ audited combined financial statements for 2008. It was scheduled to do so March 31, but issued a press release saying it would delay the disclosure, because the FHLBank of Boston was late filing its annual report with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Tough stands are nothing new to Bowsher. As comptroller general, he was in charge of the General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. At his direction, the GAO was among the first to warn the public about the brewing savings-and- loan crisis during the 1980s. He testified before Congress in 1994 that there was an “immediate need” for “federal regulation of the safety and soundness” of all major U.S. derivatives dealers. (How’s that for prescient?)
Most recently, in 2007, he led an independent committee that issued a blistering report on financial missteps at the Smithsonian Institution, whose board of regents included U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts.
Now the question for taxpayers is this: If Charles Bowsher can’t get comfortable with these banks’ financial statements, why should anybody else be?
Somebody ought to give this guy a medal.
What’s there to say about this other than the obvious… we need more like him, we need people like him in the Administration, adults should be leading instead of the children who are loose in the candy shop.
Morals and Ethics… hard to find these days.
The FHLB is MASSIVE. What kind of rot is waiting for us there?