Weil on Finance: The Fed’s Red Ink

Jonathan Weil joined Bloomberg News as a columnist in 2007, and his columns on finance and accounting won Best in the Business awards from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers in 2009 and 2010.
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Welcome back to morning links. Here's a new batch for you.

No, the Federal Reserve will not go bankrupt next year

Minyanville goes way too far with this headline for an article by Edward Hoofnagle about the Federal Reserve. It says, "2014: The Year the Federal Reserve Goes Bankrupt?" First, I'll answer the question directly: No! It won't be! But putting the awful headline aside for a moment, the article itself is good, because it highlights a big challenge for anyone trying to make sense of the Fed's financial statements. You see, the Fed doesn't use mark-to-market accounting for the bonds it owns. So that's how it could have $189 billion of unrealized losses without anyone paying much attention. Of course, if the Fed's capital position ever turned negative, there's a fix. As Hoofnagle says, "the Fed could always print more money to cover the deficit."

Gutsy move to sell stock at a time like this

Barnes & Noble Inc.'s chairman and biggest shareholder, Leonard Riggio, disclosed that he sold $27.6 million of his stock in the company, which he said was for "tax planning purposes." (Sure it was, Len!) The sale came less than a week after the bookseller said the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating its accounting, although it hasn't given much information about the probe. Business isn't so great these days, either, between Amazon and the whole Nook disaster. Motley Fool contributor John Maxfield writes: "It's against this backdrop, in turn, that Riggio cut his stake in the company. So, I'll ask again: Do you really think he did so for `tax planning purposes'?"

The week wouldn't be complete without a new JPMorgan police-blotter story

A bunch of news outlets are reporting that JPMorgan Chase & Co. is nearing a deferred-prosecution agreement with the Justice Department over its relationship with the Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff. The New York Times said the penalties would be about $2 billion, which amounts to peanuts for JPMorgan. But a deferred-prosecution agreement could be a big deal potentially, because it probably would mean that JPMorgan has to promise not to violate the law again for some number of years. And following the law is something JPMorgan has recently had trouble doing from time to time. But even if it did get caught breaking the law again, the government probably would still find some rationale for not indicting the bank. So all in all, this settlement may be no big whoop.

The week also wouldn't be complete without another "Jamie Dimon said what?" story

Here's the quote that stumped me from Jamie Dimon's appearance yesterday at an investor conference sponsored by Goldman Sachs. "We have control issues we've got to fix," the JPMorgan chief executive officer said. "We're taking an ax to it. We're going to fix the problems that have been identified." This is an interesting thing for him to say, because in JPMorgan's latest quarterly report, Dimon certified that JPMorgan's disclosure controls and procedures were effective. The company didn't flag any problems with the bank's internal accounting controls, either. I'm sure there must be an explanation for how to reconcile his comments at the investor conference with the statements in the bank's quarterly report. And it would be great if Dimon at some point would say what that explanation is. Maybe the rules let some companies with control problems avoid disclosing any useful information about them.

People like reading about dogs more than they do finance

This is an established fact. Studies show, as they say. So take a look at Scout, a nine-year-old terrier who can balance objects on his head: "A traffic cone, three hamburgers and even a glass of tomato juice present no problem for the patient pet," says the U.K.'s Daily Express. The pictures are a must-see.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Weil at jweil16@bloomberg.net