Banks are institutions wherein miracles happen regularly. We rarely entrust our money to anyone but ourselves - and our banks. Despite a very chequered history of mismanagement, corruption, false promises and representations, delusions and behavioural inconsistency - banks still succeed to motivate us to give them our money. Partly it is the feeling that there is safety in numbers. The fashionable term today is "moral hazard". The implicit guarantees of the state and of other financial institutions moves us to take risks which we would, otherwise, have avoided. Partly it is the sophistication of the banks in marketing and promoting themselves and their products. Glossy brochures, professional computer and video presentations and vast, shrine-like, real estate complexes all serve to enhance the image of the banks as the temples of the new religion of money.
But what is behind all this? How can we judge the soundness of our banks? In other words, how can we tell if our money is safely tucked away in a safe haven?
The reflex is to go to the bank's balance sheets. Banks and balance sheets have been both invented in their modern form in the 15th century. A balance sheet, coupled with other financial statements is supposed to provide us with a true and full picture of the health of the bank, its past and its long-term prospects. The surprising thing is that - despite common opinion - it does. The less surprising element is that it is rather useless unless you know how to read it.
Financial Statements (Income - aka Profit and Loss - Statement, Cash Flow Statement and Balance Sheet) come in many forms. Sometimes they conform to Western accounting standards (the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, GAAP, or the less rigorous and more fuzzily worded International Accounting Standards, IAS). Otherwise, they conform to local accounting standards, which often leave a lot to be desired. Still, you should look for banks, which make their updated financial reports available to you. The best choice would be a bank that is audited by one of the Big Six Western accounting firms and makes its audit reports publicly available. Such audited financial statements should consolidate the financial results of the bank with the financial results of its subsidiaries or associated companies. A lot often hides in those corners of corporate ownership.
Banks are rated by independent agencies. The most famous and most reliable of the lot is Fitch-IBCA. Another one is Thomson BankWatch-BREE. These agencies assign letter and number combinations to the banks, that reflect their stability. Most agencies differentiate the short term from the long term prospects of the banking institution rated. Some of them even study (and rate) issues, such as the legality of the operations of the bank (legal rating). Ostensibly, all a concerned person has to do, therefore, is to step up to the bank manager, muster courage and ask for the bank's rating. Unfortunately, life is more complicated than rating agencies would like us to believe. They base themselves mostly on the financial results of the bank rated, as a reliable gauge of its financial strength or financial profile. Nothing is further from the truth.
Admittedly, the financial results do contain a few important facts. But one has to look beyond the naked figures to get the real - often much less encouraging - picture.
Consider the thorny issue of exchange rates. Financial statements are calculated (sometimes stated in USD in addition to the local currency) using the exchange rate prevailing on the 31st of December of the fiscal year (to which the statements refer). In a country with a volatile domestic currency this would tend to completely distort the true picture. This is especially true if a big chunk of the activity preceded this arbitrary date. The same applies to financial statements, which were not inflation-adjusted in high inflation countries. The statements will look inflated and even reflect profits where heavy losses were incurred. "Average amounts" accounting (which makes use of average exchange rates throughout the year) is even more misleading. The only way to truly reflect reality is if the bank were to keep two sets of accounts: one in the local currency and one in USD (or in some other currency of reference). Otherwise, fictitious growth in the asset base (due to inflation or currency fluctuations) could result.
Another example: in many countries, changes in regulations can greatly effect the financial statements of a bank. In 1996, in Russia, to take an example, the Bank of Russia changed the algorithm for calculating an important banking ratio (the capital to risk weighted assets ratio). Unless a Russian bank restated its previous financial statements accordingly, a sharp change in profitability appeared from nowhere.
The net assets themselves are always misstated: the figure refers to the situation on 31/12. A 48-hour loan given to a collaborating firm can inflate the asset base on the crucial date. This misrepresentation is only mildly ameliorated by the introduction of an "average assets" calculus. Moreover, some of the assets can be interest earning and performing - others, non-performing. The maturity distribution of the assets is also of prime importance. If most of the bank's assets can be withdrawn by its clients on a very short notice (on demand) - it can swiftly find itself in trouble with a run on its assets leading to insolvency.
Another oft-used figure is the net income of the bank. It is important to distinguish interest income from non-interest income. In an open, sophisticated credit market, the income from interest differentials should be minimal and reflect the risk plus a reasonable component of income to the bank. But in many countries (Japan, Russia) the government subsidizes banks by lending to them money cheaply (through the Central Bank or through bonds). The banks then proceed to lend the cheap funds at exorbitant rates to their customers, thus reaping enormous interest income. In many countries the income from government securities is tax free, which represents another form of subsidy. A high income from interest is a sign of weakness, not of health, here today, there tomorrow. The preferred indicator should be income from operations (fees, commissions and other charges).
There are a few key ratios to observe. A relevant question is whether the bank is accredited with international banking agencies. The latter issue regulatory capital requirements and other defined ratios. Compliance with these demands is a minimum in the absence of which, the bank should be regarded as positively dangerous.
The return on the bank's equity (ROE) is the net income divided by its average equity. The return on the bank's assets (ROA) is its net income divided by its average assets. The (tier 1 or total) capital divided by the bank's risk weighted assets - a measure of the bank's capital adequacy. Most banks follow the provisions of the Basel Accord as set by the Basel Committee of Bank Supervision (also known as the G10). This could be misleading because the Accord is ill equipped to deal with risks associated with emerging markets, where default rates of 33% and more are the norm. Finally, there is the common stock to total assets ratio. But ratios are not cure-alls. Inasmuch as the quantities that comprise them can be toyed with - they can be subject to manipulation and distortion. It is true that it is better to have high ratios than low ones. High ratios are indicative of a bank's underlying strength of reserves and provisions and, thereby, of its ability to expand its business. A strong bank can also participate in various programs, offerings and auctions of the Central Bank or of the Ministry of Finance. The more of the bank's earnings are retained in the bank and not distributed as profits to its shareholders - the better these ratios and the bank's resilience to credit risks. Still, these ratios should be taken with more than a grain of salt. Not even the bank's profit margin (the ratio of net income to total income) or its asset utilization coefficient (the ratio of income to average assets) should be relied upon. They could be the result of hidden subsidies by the government and management misjudgement or understatement of credit risks
- There are numerous sorts of technological know-how that can be used in the K-12 classroom today. Our probable classroom is becoming the existing.