Not so fast, Johnathan Weil: Citigroup & the fair value illusion

Johnathan Weil called on Citigroup today to “properly confess” the “rot on Citigroup’s $2.1 trillion balance sheet.”  Weil is sure the rot is there because if it weren’t Citigroup “wouldn’t have needed last week’s government rescue [including] a new $20 billion investment by the Treasury Department, plus a guarantee covering about $306 billion of the bank’s assets against most losses.” I beg to differ.

The “rot” may well be an illusion created by poorly-drafted accounting principles applied in draconian fashion by auditors spooked by the specter of ruinous lawsuits.  Citigroup’s request for government assistance may well be an appropriate strategic response to the illusion.  In the market place, a good illusion beats a bad reality most any day.

Weil assumes facts not in evidence and arguably misapplies SEC regulations in demanding the Citi book losses now.  Under SEC rules, Citigroup would be obligated to “confess” losses on Form 8-K only if Citi’s board concludes that a material charge for impairment is required under generally accepted accounting principles.  If the board either has concluded that such a charge is not required or has not yet concluded that one is, no Form 8-K confession is called for. Continue reading

Wachovia deal says “fair value” is higher when the government stays away

Great news just in from Wachovia: It’s “fair value” rose by an astonishing 750 percent overnight, to $15.1 billion from $2.16 billion. That’s right. Yesterday at this time, Wachovia was supposedly worth only $2.16 billion — in the eyes of government regulators who were trying to force it into an arranged marriage with Citigroup. Turns out that the regulators were wrong. The market had other ideas.

Congress take note: regulators can get it wrong on both ends — high and low. Lucky for Wachovia’s shareholders — and the financial markets — Wachovia’s board didn’t listen. Best to let the market do its work and get out of the way.

Speaking of which, what about U.S. GAAP’s “fair value” accounting regime? How much was Wachovia really worth 24 hours ago? Either U.S. GAAP was lying then or it’s lying now. What’s the point of having companies report assets at “fair value” when fair value is so context-dependent and fluctuates by 750% in a matter of hours? Fair value makes sense in some contexts, particularly in highly liquid markets. In others, it is likely to be materially misleading.

Memo to Congress: SEC already has power to abolish mark-to-market

Fair value accounting is coming under fire, now, from various directions including Newt Gingrich and a number of banks and economists. Apparently, some banks (though not all) think it unfair that Wachovia should be bought for $2.16 billion when it’s balance sheet reports $75.1 billion in net assets. Continue reading

Lynn Turner: Fair value accounting didn’t cause banking crisis

As fur flies in Washington over technicalities of the government’s proposed bank bailout, ordinary mortals may feel left out of the conversation if for no other reason than the rarified vocabulary of the debate. What, for example, is this thing called “fair value accounting”? Why should anyone but accounting geeks care?

One answer comes courtesy of Lynn Turner, former SEC Chief Accountant, who today circulated a message reproduced below with his permission: Continue reading