Banks are institutions wherein miracles happen regularly. We rarely entrust our money to anyone but ourselves – and our banks. Despite a very chequered history of mismanagement, corruption, false promises and representations, delusions and behavioural inconsistency – banks still succeed to motivate us to give them our money. Partly it is the feeling that there is safety in numbers. The fashionable term today is “moral hazard”. The implicit guarantees of the state and of other financial institutions moves us to take risks which we would, otherwise, have avoided. Partly it is the sophistication of the banks in marketing and promoting themselves and their products. Glossy brochures, professional computer and video presentations and vast, shrine-like, real estate complexes all serve to enhance the image of the banks as the temples of the new religion of money.
But what is behind all this? How can we judge the soundness of our banks? In other words, how can we tell if our money is safely tucked away in a safe haven?
The reflex is to go to the bank’s balance sheets. Banks and balance sheets have been both invented in their modern form in the 15th century. A balance sheet, coupled with other financial statements is supposed to provide us with a true and full picture of the health of the bank, its past and its long-term prospects. The surprising thing is that – despite common opinion – it does. The less surprising element is that it is rather useless unless you know how to read it.
Financial Statements (Income – aka Profit and Loss – Statement, Cash Flow Statement and Balance Sheet) come in many forms. Sometimes they conform to Western accounting standards (the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, GAAP, or the less rigorous and more fuzzily worded International Accounting Standards, IAS). Otherwise, they conform to local accounting standards, which often leave a lot to be desired. Still, you should look for banks, which make their updated financial reports available to you. The best choice would be a bank that is audited by one of the Big Six Western accounting firms and makes its audit reports publicly available. Such audited financial statements should consolidate the financial results of the bank with the financial results of its subsidiaries or associated companies. A lot often hides in those corners of corporate ownership.
Banks are rated by independent agencies. The most famous and most reliable of the lot is Fitch-IBCA. Another one is Thomson BankWatch-BREE. These agencies assign letter and number combinations to the banks, that reflect their stability. Most agencies differentiate the short term from the long term prospects of the banking institution rated. Some of them even study (and rate) issues, such as the legality of the operations of the bank (legal rating). Ostensibly, all a concerned person has to do, therefore, is to step up to the bank manager, muster courage and ask for the bank’s rating. Unfortunately, life is more complicated than rating agencies would like us to believe. They base themselves mostly on the financial results of the bank rated, as a reliable gauge of its financial strength or financial profile. Nothing is further from the truth.
Admittedly, the financial results do contain a few important facts. But one has to look beyond the naked figures to get the real – often much less encouraging – picture.
Consider the thorny issue of exchange rates. Financial statements are calculated (sometimes stated in USD in addition to the local currency) using the exchange rate prevailing on the 31st of December of the fiscal year (to which the statements refer). In a country with a volatile domestic currency this would tend to completely distort the true picture. This is especially true if a big chunk of the activity preceded this arbitrary date. The same applies to financial statements, which were not inflation-adjusted in high inflation countries. The statements will look inflated and even reflect profits where heavy losses were incurred. “Average amounts” accounting (which makes use of average exchange rates throughout the year) is even more misleading. The only way to truly reflect reality is if the bank were to keep two sets of accounts: one in the local currency and one in USD (or in some other currency of reference). Otherwise, fictitious growth in the asset base (due to inflation or currency fluctuations) could result.