Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Zombie Banks’ Distressed Assets

John Reeder’s post Distressed Assets Market and FDIC Closures on Real Property Alpha is a must read for those that want to understand what’s going on with regional banks. An excerpt:

Our business working in the commercial real estate industry (see the Deal Breaker site, or upcoming Sperry Van Ness auction) puts us on the front lines of the current blow-up that is going on in the banking industry.  Capitalization levels in financial institutions have a large impact on whether they are willing or able to dispose of distressed construction loans, commercial REO, or A&D loans.  The general rule of thumb is that the more distressed the bank, the less potential that you are going to be able to make a deal with that Bank on their non-performing assets.  It’s difficult to digest this reality as the potential that a distressed bank offers in the way of inventory can be enticing.    However, the chances are that the bank has not written down the value of the asset to real current market, so selling at today’s prices means that the bank has to take an additional hit to their capital and the really distressed banks can ill afford the additional hit.

Read the whole post, there’s much more. I have two small contributions to John’s points:

  • Even if a bank conscientiously marks its bad assets to market, it will still probably incur smaller losses at any given point in time if it holds the asset instead of disposing it. The marks are based on appraisals less a discount for sales costs. This number will almost always be higher than what a bank actually realizes on a sale, because appraisal values tend to lag actual market trends (more on that in the Lansner on Real Estate post “Were Appraiser’s Late to the Price Collapse?”). So, a bank can adopt a hold strategy and still be in regulatory and accounting compliance. The risk, of course, is that by hanging on to the asset, the bank continues to be exposed to further value losses if the market continues to deteriorate, and may ultimately incur an even bigger loss.
  • In most cases the management and staff working on the problem assets at the smaller banks are the same people who originated the deals. There are whole sets of cognitive biases which predispose people to overvalue what they own (endowment effect, post-purchase rationalization), continue to do what they've done in the past (status quo bias, sunk cost effects, loss aversion), and expect a positive outcome to their choices (optimism bias, and valence effects). The consequence is the management at these banks may genuinely believe these assets can be salvaged given time, while someone with less involvement would say it’s time to take the loss.

My point is that, while I am sure some banks are consciously manipulating their accounting, I am also sure many banks believe they are doing the right thing.