Thursday, January 24, 2013

Financials Still Look Good: Part 1

JP Morgan Earnings
So JPM announced earnings and things look pretty good to me.  Sure, there is still steady NIM pressure and this will be an issue this year too.  I think they said it will be a $400 million or so headwind in 2013.  But otherwise, things look pretty good.

I know people say that earnings actually aren't so great as they benefited from a refinancing boom and reserve releases, but I really don't find that a problem at this point.  Reserve releases just means that they over-reserved in the past so to the extent that it benefits earnings now, it just means that earnings were less bad in the past.  As for the refinancing boom, this is a function of lower interest rates so this offsets the NIM decline.  There's nothing wrong with that. 

Of course, at some point if conditions don't improve, reserve releases go away and mortgage refinancings peter out, it will put pressure on earnings for sure.  This is definitely a concern.

But the way I see it, things are still in a pretty depressed state.  Housing, for example, is recovering but is doing nothing compared to what it can do.  I'm not talking about going back to the boom times of the mid-2000s, but a more solid, firmer recovery is very possible if not likely.  In that case, all sorts of areas that are depressed now will start to come back slowly.

The investment bank too seems to be doing very well and it is hardly boom times in that area too.

I still think "normal" is much higher than here for the banks so any reduction in mortgage refinancings, reserve releases and stuff like that is something I fully expect will be offset by "normalization" in other areas.

Also, for many of the banks, legal and other costs are very elevated now and that will also start to come down over the next few years as these problems are settled.

In any case, I don't intend to get into the details, so I'll just look at one thing I do like to look at.  First, let's remember what Dimon said in the 2011 annual report letter to shareholders:
Our tangible book value per share is a good, very conservative measure of shareholder value.  If your assets and liabilities are properly valued, if your accounting is appropriately conservative, if you have real earnings without taking excessive risk and if you have strong franchises with defensible margins, tangible book value book value should be a very conservative measure of value.

So how did JPM do in 2012 based on tangible book value?  Here's an update of the tangible book value per share from 2006 through 2012:

             Tangible BPS      Return on Tangible Equity
2006      $18.88                          22%
2007      $21.96                          21%
2008      $22.52                            6%
2009      $27.09                          11%
2010      $30.18                          15%
2011      $33.69                          15%
2012      $38.75                          15%

So in a not so exciting year for the economy or the banking industry (remember the fiscal cliff?), JPM earned a return on tangible equity of 15%.  And this is in the year of the whopping whale loss.  Not bad at all, and we see how tangible book value can be a very conservative valuation for JPM.

OK, so let's take a detour for a second.  The other day on CNBC, a prominent analyst explained his Apple stock price target of $750/share.

His rationale is that he sees AAPL earning EPS of $50 in 2013 and $60 next year. At the end of next year, he estimates they will have $200 billion in cash. Since a lot is overseas, take 75% of that cash and it comes to $150/share.

So 10x $60 estimate is $600/share plus $150/share in cash is $750.

Apple is stuck at around $500/share now so if Apple gets there in two years, that's a return of 22%/year.  It should actually get there a little sooner than that as stock prices discount earnings before it is realized. 

But let's just hold that thought for a moment.   (I have more to say about Apple, but perhaps in a future post. I realize that Apple is now down 10%, but analyst price targets are apparently coming down now too, so I'll just leave the above alone).

Back to JPM
So tangible book value per share is a conservative estimate of the fair value of JPM. What is it worth?  Given it's return on tangible equity record of the recent past and Dimon's statement that they should earn at least 15% ROTE over time, I think 1.5x tangible equity is not unreasonable at all.

Assuming JPM can grow tangible book value per share at 12%/year like it has in the recent past, that gets us to a tangible BPS of $48.61/share by the end of 2014.  Put a 1.5x multiple on it and yet get a stock price of $72.92/share.

With the stock selling now at $46.50, that's 25%/year return from here (before dividends), better than Apple! 

OK, I am just comparing JPM to AAPL for fun so don't bother with the hate mail.  I know the rest of the world far prefers Apple to an opaque, highly levered, scary bank.  But I thought it was sort of interesting.  This is not to suggest that JPM is a better investment than AAPL.    JPM has a lot of risk and so does AAPL.

But What About NIM?!
NIM to me is still the primary risk in investing in banks.  I don't worry about another whale loss at all.  But we have to remember that banks are dynamic institutions, not static, unmanaged entities.  If NIM continues to go down, then I am confident that unlike Japanese banks, it will be managed accordingly.  If NIM becomes too thin, uneconomic loans won't be made.  If certain business lines don't earn a hurdle return rate on capital, then the business won't be done.  This is not how business is done in Japan (maybe more on that in a later post).   If there is excess capital because of that, excess capital will be returned to shareholders.

As long as the bank(s) is well managed, I think things should be OK.

Whale Loss Report / Atlantic Magazine Article
I read the JP Morgan task force report on the CIO incident (see here) and it was a great read.  Or, I should say, an unpleasant read for a shareholder.  Does it scare me that this happened?  Not really.  It is actually quite shocking that they tried to manage such a large, complex position with billions in notional amount outstanding on a spreadsheet with a junior employee cutting and pasting data from one spreadsheet to another.   There are other scary things in there.

But the reason why I am not so worried about this is that from the beginning I knew that this blowup occured because the CIO was treated differently than the rest of the company.  It was sort of like a teacher's pet project; Dimon had such faith and confidence in Ina Drew that he gave her a lot of rope and didn't have the firm risk management on top of CIO like it had on other business lines.  As far as Dimon was concerned, if Drew was OK, he didn't need to have anyone else check it out.   I think that was the critical error on the part of Dimon and JPM.

So in that sense, it is highly unlikely that anyone else can be doing something similar elsewhere in the firm.  Of course it's possible.  Nobody can say it can't ever happen.  But I feel like I understand the personal / political dynamic that was going on at JPM at the time.

I also quickly skimmed the recent Atlantic Magazine article on how a whale-like blow-up can happen again and I thought the article was ridiculous.  This is not to say that it can't happen.  But the article really doesn't raise anything new and uses large numbers that do tend to scare people, like the notional amount of derivatives sitting on bank balance sheets.

The article mentions that Bill Ackman thought "for once I thought you could trust the carrying values on bank books" after the crisis and bought $1 billion of Citigroup stock in 2010 and then sold out last year at a loss of $400 million.  Ackman is quoted as saying, “For the first seven years of Pershing Square, I believed that an investor couldn’t invest in a giant bank. Then I felt I could invest in a bank, and I did—and I lost a lot of money doing it.”

But does this have anything to do with bank disclosure or bad trading on the part of Ackman?   I don't think there was a disclosure/opacity issue responsible for his loss.

Notional Amount is Not Indicative of Risk
Also, as is usual in these articles, they raise the issue of the astoundingly large notional amounts of derivatives outstanding.  Wells Fargo has $2.8 trillion on it's books, but that's nothing compared to $72 trillion on JPM's books.  These are huge numbers.   These figures are usually compared to GDPs.

This figure is really not all that relevant in measuring risk.  I don't know if accounting and ISDA standards have changed since I've been in the business, but if it hasn't changed much, this notional amount is of very little value in measuring risk.

If I was a bank and you are a customer, you may want to fix your floating rate obligation.  So we can do an interest rate swap where you pay me a fixed rate and I pay you a floating rate.  Let's say we do this on a notional amount of $1 million.  Then let's say short term interest rates go down and you think it will keep going down so you want to go back to paying a floating rate.  We can do another swap on the $1 million.  Then we have two swaps outstanding for a total notional amount of $2 million.

So the notional amount outstanding on my book went up from $1 million to $2 million, but my risk actually went down as my exposure to you has been eliminated by an offsetting swap.  Under ISDA rules, whatever obligation we have to each other can be netted out.   Go back and forth again two more times and my notional outstanding can go up to $4 million, but my risk including credit exposure to you, has not increased at all; in fact it can be absolutely zero.  You would not know that from the $4 million outstanding notional amount figure.

People always talk about Buffett's costly unwinding of Gen Re's derivatives positions. The marks were good until they reached for it; once they started to trade out of it, the marks didn't reflect reality and it cost them a lot to get out of.   And yet, Buffett personally owns a million shares of JPM stock with $72 trillion notional of weapons of mass destruction on the books. 

How can this be?  I think it's important to remember that the sort of derivatives on JPM's books and on someone like Gen Re's (or AIG's) can be very different in nature.  Why?  JPM's credit rating and role as lead bank for many large global blue chip corporations means that it is the primary counterparty for simple, plain vanilla derivatives used to hedge foreign currency and interest rate exposure.  When Proctor and Gamble wants to hedge global FX risk, they do swaps with the likes of JPM or other major city bank.  They typically will not go to AIG or Gen Re who are not their bankers.

A major corporation like IBM may sell bonds to the public; some institutions may have a need for floating rate instruments while IBM wants to offer fixed rate, straight debt.  Someone like JPM can do the offering and do a swap with the investor (do a fix-float swap), or have IBM offer a floating rate bond and do a swap with IBM.  This can happen across currencies (IBM may offer yen bonds, swap it into fixed dollar payments etc...).

This is why the major city banks have such large notional derivatives outstanding.

Why are other institutions' derivatives more toxic and tricky?  It's because Gen Re, AIG and others can't compete and make money in plain vanilla derivatives.  They can go to Johnson and Johnson and say, hey, we want to help you manage your interest rate risk.  But they won't be able to compete with JNJ's bankers.  It could be a credit rating issue or just a banking relationship issue (main banks may be willing to do hedging transactions for very low margin as part of maintaining a relationship.  Pricing may also be more competitive as big money center banks have many similar counterparties to offset differing hedging needs etc...  There is a network effect here too).

Most likely, it will be that JNJ will already have derivatives outstanding with a few of the large banks already and to do a deal with an existing counterparty is just more efficient from a documentation, collateral management, netting and other issues.

It's hard to break into that side of the business.  This is why other institutions often have to compete in more exotic derivatives that are harder to price (and have wider spreads).

Also, most of the notional outstanding are FX or interest rate swaps.  Very little of the notional outstanding is based on equities, commodities or other volatile instruments.  Why is this important?   Think about a fix-float swap.  One counterparty agrees to pay fix and receive float from someone.  If the counterparty goes under and if the swap is effectively terminated, future payments just stop.  If the bust counterparty can't pay their fixed rate payment, then you don't pay your floating rate payment.  There is no loss of principle or anything like that.  What would usually happen is that there might be a hedging loss; whatever hedge you put on you will have to unwind and you may take a loss on it.  Typically, such losses would be covered by collateral held so no loss would be incurred unless there was a large market move after the termination of the swap.

During the financial crisis, notional derivatives outstanding was not an indication of how much risk a bank had.  In fact, people always thought that JPM would be the first domino to fall due to their derivatives book.  (Critics will say if the financial system fell, JPM would have fallen too. Dimon denies that and I side with Dimon on that one (or at least he said they would have been fine even if things got far worse; I don't know about a total collapse).  But either way, if the financial system failed and everyone went under, then it would be moot anyway; banks with less derivatives outstanding would have failed too).

The first banks to fall were the subprime lenders, then some of the regional banks like IndyMac and Wamu (not known for large derivatives outstanding).  Bear Stearns and Lehman both failed due to pretty plain vanilla positions (mortgages in the case of BSC and commercial real estate loans in the case of Lehman (the then CFO did say that commercial real estate loans was what killed Lehman; they were plain vanilla, straight loans).   AIG failed due to derivatives, yes.  But it wasn't the size that did them in but the one-sided, unhedged bets that killed them (and they were neither a bank nor an investment bank).  Citigroup's large losses occured in SIVs, a security that didn't even appear on the balance sheet; it had nothing to do with the notional derivatives outstanding.

This is not to say that there isn't some funky stuff in JPM or WFC's derivatives books.  There usually are some funky/exotic things in any book.  But they tend to be a very small part of the trillions in notional outstanding.

Other Losses
The article also mentioned a proprietary trading loss of $14 million and an economic hedging loss of $1 million (at Wells Fargo) and noted that these figures are small, but how do we know how big it could have gotten?  They talk about these small losses and tell us that it could have been far, far worse, but we wouldn't know because Wells Fargo doesn't tell us how much risk they are taking.  I found this to be reaching a bit too much.    This seems a bit silly to me.

This is not to say that there aren't any risks.   Banks / investment banks are risky businesses.

OK, I was going to talk about Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley (just brief comments, nothing deep) but this post is already really long so I'll send this out first and finish my thought in the next post.  Plus I haven't posted in a while so it'd be nice to get something out there now.


  1. Great post (as usual).

    What do you think of Bruce Berkowitz's theory of post-crash financial stock returns? (he's extremely bullish)


    1. Hi,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I do tend to believe in cycles, and we are coming off of a low point for financials. Before the crisis, you had complacency, high bank valuations, reckless lending, high leverage, boom mentality etc... After the crisis, it's been reversed; low bank valuations, low leverage, stingy lending, stronger risk management, low sentiment/bearishness etc...

      So as that pendulum swings back to more 'normal' levels, financials can do really well.

  2. Although $JPM has above average ROE, I wouldn't go that far as to apply 1.5x multiple, but may be 1.2x-ish. Berkowitz talked about 10%ROE / 1.0x BV average for the big banks, some time ago and eventually $JPM should "return to the mean". The other day I was actually thinking about selling $JPM, because I feel that it is close to its (my estimate) fair value $50-60.
    Somebody asked Dimon if JPM was too hard to manage some conference calls ago, and he simply said, No. However, I don't believe that this is the case, considering it's a multi-trillion bank. Buffett's bet in the case of JPM is on the jokey, not the bank itself, and until the superstar CEO's (premium) there everything should be fine. But what happens when, not if, he leaves? A break-up?

    Great blog by the way. Keep on writing.

    1. Hi,

      Thanks for posting and the nice comment.

      Yeah, 10% ROE 1.0 BPS sounds good. My 1.5x multiple is on tangible book and JPM has achieved 15% ROE consistently, so it comes to the same 10%-type figure.

      I agree that Buffett's bet on JPM is a jockey bet. But he also owns BAC so I think he does see franchise value at JPM too in both the investment bank and the commercial/consumer bank.

      But yes, I wouldn't be as excited about JPM post-Dimon.

  3. "Dimon had such faith and confidence in Ina Drew that he gave her a lot of rope and didn't have the firm risk management on top of CIO like it had on other business lines."

    You may well be correct about this, which raises an interesting question. If you're right wouldn't this be a pretty clear violation of Sarb/Ox internal controls and certification requirements? And if it is why isn't Dimon being prosecuted?

    1. Hi,

      Good question. I don't really see it as a Sarbox issue. It might be, but I don't see it that way. They did restate Q1 financial statements that Dimon may have certified (I don't know if that happens on a quarterly basis or just on the annual financials), but the difference wasn't really material as it didn't change the financial condition of JPM.

      I'm not a lawyer and law is not my strong point so I may be wrong.

      As for internal controls, there was obviously a problem. But on the other hand, how material was this "whale" event anyway? It counted for a tiny portion of shareholders equity; they did earn a 15% return on tangible equity even with the loss fully booked.

      I think it may be different if the firm blew up or something, like MF Global. But strangely enough, it seems like nobody is being prosecuted on that blowup to this day either.

      But again, the whale loss is certainly not an MF Global situation. Despite the whale loss, you can say that they had enough controls in place not to put the firm at risk, which is the most important thing.


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