Is Bank of America at Risk of a Death Spiral?

Bloomberg’s Jonathan Weil took a look at Bank of America’s stock price, which is trading at less than half of the Charlotte bank’s book value, and discussed whether the bank is at risk of a serious crisis. If a levered financial firm’s stock trades at a severe discount from book value, it is not attractive to raise equity via selling shares (the dilutive impact on existing shareholders is punitive). Yet the steep discount is a sign that the market doubts the strength of the concern’s equity base. If those worries persist, and the company is not able to shore up its balance sheet via earnings (ie, either its profits are impaired or they are offset by writeoffs), first long term and eventually short-term lenders will start to demand higher interest rates. Once that happens, it is easy for confidence to vanish and a death spiral to start.

Weil enumerates the reasons for doubt. First, the bank has been overly optimistic. It refused to write down $4.4 billion of goodwill from Countrywide until late last year, and maintained it would only suffer $4.4 billion [yes, the same number] in mortgage-related losses, then wrote off $19.2 billion more last quarter. Second, the bank appears to be in denial:

The crucial question today is whether Bank of America needs fresh capital to strengthen its balance sheet. Moynihan emphatically says it doesn’t, pointing to regulatory-capital measures that would have us believe it’s doing fine. The market is screaming otherwise, judging by the mammoth discount to book value. Then again, for all we know, the equity markets might not be receptive to a massive offering of new shares anyway, even if the bank’s executives were inclined to try for one.

Weil correctly depicts BofA as a systemic risk. And this confirms a point made by critics of so-called financial reforms, including yours truly, that the banks were not dealt harshly enough in the crisis. Both Citi and BofA were at risk of failure in early 2009. Citi at least was forced to divest many of its operations (note that isn’t an adequate remedy, since the bank is still too big to fail, but at least it is easier for managers and regulators to oversee). Bank of America, by contrast, was allowed to soldier on. The authorities have grossly underestimated the severity of the housing crisis and are still refusing to confront some of its key elements, such as the broken servicing model and chain of title problems.

And let us tell you a dirty secret: while Bank of America, thanks to Countrywide, is patient zero of the housing mess, Wells is next in line. Residential real estate is proportionately even bigger relative to the bank’s earnings and balance sheet, its accounting has been somewhere between aggressive and misleading, and despite its pious claims otherwise, it is no better than any of the other big banks. Stay tuned.

This post originally appeared on Naked Capitalism and is reproduced here with permission.