Nov. 2 (Bloomberg) — Citigroup Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. are hoarding cash as if another crisis were on the way.
Citigroup has almost doubled its cash to $244.2 billion in the year since Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. filed for bankruptcy, the biggest such stockpile of any U.S. bank. The lender, which last year came so close to a funding shortfall it had to get a $45 billion government infusion, is under pressure from the Treasury Department and regulators to keep more money on hand for emergencies, even as markets improve.
The caution, which may help restore confidence in the financial system, offers little comfort to shareholders, who can expect to see shrinking returns as banks put money into liquid investments that yield one-twelfth the interest rates of loans.
“It’s a smart longer-term move, but it will take down the rates of returns these companies can generate,” said Eric Hovde, chief executive officer of Washington-based Hovde Capital Advisors LLC, a hedge fund with $1 billion of financial-industry and real estate investments. “If you start to see more economic stabilization, then liquidity levels would start dropping, but they’ll never go back to the insane level they were pre- crisis.”
Regulators say banks got too aggressive in the years leading up to last year’s credit-market seizure, operating with too little equity capital and putting too much money into illiquid investments such as loans and complex, hard-to-trade securities and derivatives.
A lack of funds “can contribute as much or more to the firm’s failure as insufficient capital,” the Treasury Department said in a Sept. 3 statement of “core principles” on financial regulation. Lehman, the New York-based securities firm that declared bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008, after losing access to its funding, had said in a statement five days earlier that it had a “strong capital base.”
Banks should “hold a pool of unencumbered, liquid assets sufficient to cover likely funding shortfalls in the event of an acute liquidity stress scenario,” the Treasury said. Such a scenario might occur when depositors rush to pull their money, companies suddenly draw down credit lines or trading partners unexpectedly demand additional collateral, the department said.
Banks worldwide have raised $1.4 trillion of capital since the start of the credit crisis in mid-2007, diluting shareholders’ stakes while shoring up the buffer that insulates depositors in the event of a failure.
The four largest U.S. banks by assets — Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan, Citigroup and Wells Fargo & Co. — have increased their combined liquidity by 67 percent to $1.53 trillion as of Sept. 30 from $914.2 billion in June 2008, before Lehman’s collapse, according to the companies’ third-quarter reports. The amount equals 21 percent of the banks’ total assets, up from 15 percent.
Liquidity includes cash, deposits at other banks and debt securities that can be pledged as collateral in exchange for overnight borrowings from the Federal Reserve or other banks.
Citigroup’s total liquidity as of Sept. 30 was $450.3 billion, or 24 percent of assets, up from 16 percent in June 2008. The shift was reflected in the bank’s third-quarter results, when interest income fell by $1.4 billion from a year earlier and pushed New York-based Citigroup, headed by CEO Vikram S. Pandit, to an operating loss of $750 million.
The $244.4 billion Citigroup holds in cash and deposits is $131.4 billion more than it had as of June 30, 2008. That’s five times as much as the $47.1 billion cash hoard Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. had at its peak in the third quarter of 2007. Financial firms typically keep more liquid assets than other companies to comply with regulatory requirements.
“In my 44 years in the business, I have never seen a company with remotely as much cash as this,” said Richard X. Bove, an analyst at Rochdale Securities in Lutz, Florida.
If Citigroup’s cash and deposits, which earn 0.63 percent, had been put into loans, which fetch 7.2 percent, the bank would be getting at least $8.65 billion more in annual interest revenue. The risk is that some of those loans go bad, and the bank ends up losing more than the incremental revenue.
In the third quarter, the four biggest U.S. banks posted a combined 2.1 percent decline from the previous quarter in net interest revenue — what they earn on loans and investments minus what they pay out on deposits and borrowings.
“Even though it makes no sense for a bank to have $245 billion in cash, Pandit has no choice,” said Bove, who rates Citigroup “buy.” “I don’t think it’s something to either praise him for or criticize him for. That’s simply the fact. You either keep that cash or you’re dead.”
JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon said last week at a securities- industry conference that “the chance of Armageddon is over.” The view hasn’t stopped him from tripling JPMorgan’s pile of cash and debt securities that can be used as collateral over the past year. The New York-based bank’s total liquidity was $453.6 billion as of Sept. 30, including $80.7 billion in cash and deposits at other banks. The larger figure is 22 percent of its total assets, up from 9.5 percent before Lehman’s bankruptcy.
“JPMorgan has talked incessantly about the concept of the fortress balance sheet, and as long as Jamie’s running the company, they’re not going to wind up in the position where they’re forced into a corner because of access to funding,” said Jordan Posner, senior portfolio manager at New York-based Matrix Asset Advisors, which owns about 793,000 JPMorgan shares.
The bank said in an Aug. 10 regulatory filing that its strategy is “to ensure liquidity and diversity of funding sources to meet actual and contingent liabilities through both stable and adverse conditions.” Spokeswoman Jennifer Zuccarelli declined to comment.
Bank of America, which also got a $45 billion U.S. bailout, has increased its holdings of cash, time deposits and debt securities to $422.6 billion, or 19 percent of overall assets, from 17 percent in June 2008, according to company reports. Mark Linsz, treasurer of the Charlotte, North Carolina-based bank, didn’t return a call for comment.
At San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, which got $25 billion of bailout funds last year, the ratio of cash and debt securities to total assets dropped to 16 percent as of Sept. 30 from 17 percent before Lehman’s bankruptcy. The bank’s total liquidity is $201 billion.
Wells Fargo needs fewer liquid assets because it gets a majority of its funding from customer deposits, which are “much more stable in times of economic and market stress” than the short-term borrowings rivals rely on, bank spokeswoman Mary Eshet said. The bank acquired Wachovia Corp. last December.
“We have seen unprecedented growth in our deposit base over the last 18 months,” Eshet said.
Customer deposits, long-term debt and shareholder equity represent a combined 92 percent of overall assets, according to Wells Fargo’s financial statements. That compares with 75 percent at Bank of America, 72 percent at Citigroup and 63 percent at JPMorgan.
Rochdale’s Bove predicted in an Oct. 23 report that Wells Fargo’s net interest revenue, which accounted for 52 percent of the bank’s third-quarter total, will fall “for the next few quarters,” partly because of government pressure to increase the bank’s holdings of lower-yielding liquid assets.
“The bank simply is not as liquid as its peers,” wrote Bove, who rates Wells Fargo a “sell.”
The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, a 35-year-old panel that sets international capital guidelines, plans to propose a “new minimum global liquidity standard” by the end of this year, according to a Sept. 15 statement from the Financial Stability Board, which is coordinating financial regulatory reform on behalf of the Group of 20 nations.
Bondholders may benefit from an explicit threshold, said Baylor Lancaster, an analyst at CreditSights Inc. in New York. “From a credit perspective, it’s a positive,” she said. The market rate to insure $10 million of Citigroup bonds for five years has tumbled to $180,000 a year, from a record $667,000 in April.
Last November, when Pandit had to seek emergency aid from the Treasury, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Federal Reserve, a run on the bank’s then-$780.3 billion of deposits was only one of his worries. He also faced soaring interest costs on $29 billion of short-term commercial paper, the threat of $400.7 billion of corporate loan commitments getting tapped and the possibility that Citigroup might have to provide funding to more than $400 billion of off-balance-sheet financing vehicles.
The government’s assurance of support, along with the promise of FDIC debt guarantees and at least $1.86 trillion of federal programs set up to ease the U.S. banking industry’s funding demands, helped staved off Citigroup’s collapse.
“When you go through a near-death experience, it focuses the mind, and none of these people want to ever go through it again,” said Charles Bobrinskoy, a former Citigroup investment banker who’s now director of research at Chicago-based Ariel Investments LLC, which oversees about $4 billion.
Citigroup has increased its deposits by $52.3 billion and reduced its commercial paper outstanding to $10 billion as of Sept. 30. The bank has sold about $65 billion of FDIC-backed debt while letting its loan portfolio decline by $95 billion to $622.2 billion.
The bank has a “deliberately liquid and flexible balance sheet,” Citigroup Treasurer Eric Aboaf said on an Oct. 16 investor conference call. The bank plans to refinance only $15 billion of about $45 billion of debt coming due next year and may use some of its cash to meet the payments, he said. Citigroup spokesman Stephen Cohen declined to comment.
Pandit probably can’t use his cash to pay back the $20 billion Citigroup still owes the U.S. government since that would reduce its capital, which regulators want the bank to maintain until the financial crisis has passed, said Chris Kotowski, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. in New York who rates the shares “market perform.” Treasury earlier this year converted $25 billion of its bailout money into Citigroup common shares that are free to be sold.
The banks are nowhere near as liquid as they were in the mid-1940s, when cash and securities accounted for 83 percent of total assets, according to CreditSights, citing FDIC data.
The failure of about 9,000 banks during the Depression “shell-shocked” the survivors, which then bolstered their reserves to “sleep better at night,” said Richard Sylla, a financial historian and economics professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. In the late 1930s the U.S. government doubled reserve requirements and in the ‘40s pressured banks to buy war bonds, he said.
The liquidity percentage stayed above 40 percent until the early 1970s, and above 20 percent until a few years ago, according to CreditSights.
“Gradually the banks ran down their liquidity levels and got back into the business of making loans, but it didn’t happen overnight,” Sylla said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Bradley Keoun in New York at email@example.com.
Last Updated: November 1, 2009 19:00 EST