Bank of America Edges Closer to Tipping Point: Jonathan Weil

It was only last April that Bank of America Corp. was making fools out of the doomsayers who had called for its nationalization a year earlier. Taxpayers had gotten their bailout cash back. Investors who bought its shares at the bottom were making a killing. Government leaders lauded the company’s rescues, both of them, as a great success.

Now the bank may be on the verge of trouble again. Its stock has fallen 41 percent since April 15. Mortgage-bond investors are demanding untold billions of dollars in refunds. The foreclosure fiasco is metastasizing. A member of the Troubled Asset Relief Program’s oversight panel, AFL-CIO attorney Damon Silvers, openly worried at a hearing last week about the risk that Bank of America might need another bailout.

A few more months like the last one, and we may be wishing Bank of America had never returned its $45 billion of TARP money.

You wouldn’t know there’s anything wrong with Bank of America by an initial look at its balance sheet. The company showed common shareholder equity, or book value, of $212.4 billion as of Sept. 30. And its regulatory capital ratios have risen steadily throughout the year.

Tipping Point

Judging by its shrinking stock price, though, investors are acting as if Bank of America is near a tipping point. Its market capitalization stands at $115.6 billion, or 54 percent of book value. That’s the second-lowest price-to-book ratio among the 24 companies in the KBW Bank Index, and well below the 76 percent ratio the company was at in October 2008 when it landed its first round of TARP dough. Put another way, the market is saying there’s a $96.8 billion hole in Bank of America’s balance sheet.

When I asked Jerry Dubrowski, a Bank of America spokesman, about the disparity, he said: “I’m not going to comment on the book value and the stock price.”

It may be the shares are a bargain at $11.52, if the company’s books are right. Another plausible scenario is that Bank of America’s management, led by Chief Executive Officer Brian Moynihan, has lost so much credibility with investors that the stock’s decline might start feeding on itself.

The problem for anyone trying to analyze Bank of America’s $2.3 trillion balance sheet is that it’s largely impenetrable. Some portions, though, are so delusional that they invite laughter. Consider, for instance, the way the company continues to account for its acquisition of Countrywide Financial, the disastrous subprime lender at the center of the housing bust, which it bought for $4.2 billion in July 2008.

Goodwill Purchase

Here’s how Bank of America allocated the purchase price for that deal. First, it determined that the fair value of the liabilities at Countrywide exceeded the mortgage lender’s assets by $200 million. Then it recorded $4.4 billion of goodwill, a ledger entry representing the difference between Countrywide’s net asset value and the purchase price.

That’s right. Countrywide’s goodwill supposedly was worth more than Countrywide itself. In other words, Bank of America paid $4.2 billion for the company, even though it thought the value there was less than zero.

Since completing that acquisition, Bank of America has dropped the Countrywide brand. The company’s home-loan division has reported $13.5 billion of pretax losses. Yet Bank of America still hasn’t written off any of its Countrywide goodwill.

Dubrowski, the company spokesman, declined to comment when I asked him why not. In its latest quarterly report with the SEC, Bank of America said it had determined the asset wasn’t impaired. It might as well be telling the public not to believe any of the numbers on its financial statements.

No Surprise

Combine that with Bank of America’s reaction to the robo- signer scandal. (Working on it! Wait, halt foreclosure sales! No, restart them! Whoops, still checking records!) Add in the $141.6 billion of home-equity loans on Bank of America’s books, the real value of which is unknown. And it should be no surprise that the company’s stock price has been plunging.

So, does Bank of America need to issue new common stock to raise capital? Its executives say no. They point to the usual regulatory benchmarks, as well as their own calculations of tangible common equity. This is a bare-bones capital gauge, showing a company’s ability to absorb future losses, which excludes preferred stock and most intangible assets.

Using Bank of America’s $129.5 billion figure for tangible common equity, though, that’s still about $14 billion more than the company’s market cap. So the market isn’t just discounting the intangibles, most of which don’t count in regulatory capital. Investors are wary of the company’s other numbers, too.

Artifice of Strength

The tough part for Bank of America executives is that the company’s future may be out of their hands. Writing off more worthless assets or boosting reserves for future losses might help their credibility. (The bank wrote off $10.4 billion of goodwill unrelated to Countrywide last quarter.) Or, the market might perceive such moves as a sign that the artifice of strength is broken. It’s hard to tell.

As for the government’s too-big-to-fail guarantee, it’s probably still there. But who knows? Republicans have won back the House. The answer is up in the air.

The only certainty is there is none, aside from the knowledge that Bank of America’s top executives have no idea what goes on inside the bowels of their company. For all we know the stock could double, or be a donut. The fate of the financial system hangs in the balance. Once again, we’re all on the hook.

Jonathan Weil is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jonathan Weil in New York at jweil6@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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