This is earnings-report season for America's banks, and lo, what signs and wonders it has wrought.
Goldman Sachs reported $1.66 billion in profits in the first quarter. JPMorgan Chase posted $2.1 billion in earnings. Bank of America, $4.2 billion. Even Citigroup, the biggest and most beleaguered of America's banks, reported a $1.6 billion gain, its first in 18 months.
Among them, these four big banks alone have received more than $125 billion in federal bailout funds, plus help from the Federal Reserve in buying up government debt. So do these earnings reports indicate the rescue is working?
Yes, if you're a credulous shareholder. Not so much if you're trying to get a loan or a taxpayer wondering what's being done with your money.
These earnings are ephemeral. Goldman Sachs changed its accounting calendar. JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup counted the loss in value of its debt as a positive. Bank of America counted $2.2 billion in gains from its acquisition of Merrill Lynch simply by re-pricing Merrill's assets. Nobody knows what the assets are really worth, but assuming they are ever sold, it probably will be at deep discount.
The last six months apparently taught bankers nothing about the suicidal folly of using accounting tricks to disguise financial realities. We're surprised only that Lehman Brothers didn't rise from the grave to report a billion dollars in earnings.
There are many reasons for the bankers' legerdemain. They want to keep shareholders happy. They want to reassure Congress and the public. They want to look healthy enough so the Obama administration will allow them returns on their bailout money, thus freeing them to pay themselves more than $500,000 a year.
The people of the United States, and indeed, the people of the world, are suffering because of a financial collapse brought on, in large part, by bankers and their cronies. So successfully have they taken control of the apparatus of government that it's become nearly impossible to hold them accountable. Lending by the 20 largest banks in the Troubled Asset Relief Program has remained flat, even though the TARP funds were supposed to free up credit.
So far, President Barack Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner have tried to work with the banks, on the theory (probably correct) that unhappy bankers could make things much worse. This week, Geithner suggested that Treasury may seek to take an equity position in banks in return for suspending interest payments on federal bailout loans.
That move is overdue. The fundamental question is this: Do you trust the banks?
Do you trust their earnings reports, their lending policies, their devotion to the public good? Or do you suspect bankers' first allegiance is to preserving the sweet deal they have created for themselves in the last 25 years?
Before answering, read Simon Johnson's "The Quiet Coup," an article in the May edition of The Atlantic magazine (online at www.theatlantic.com). The former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund says the United States has developed what is, in effect, a "banana republic" oligarchy among financial and government interests.
"Even leaving aside fairness to taxpayers," Mr. Johnson writes, "the government's velvet-glove approach with the banks is deeply troubling, for one simple reason: It is inadequate to change the behavior of a financial sector accustomed to doing business on its own terms."
To coin a phrase, we need change we can believe in.
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