Experts expect dozens of banks to fail in the months to come.
But how can you tell if your bank could be one of them?
Ironically, if you look to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) for guidance – as most investors do right now – you won't have a clue. That's because its list of so-called "troubled institutions" is a closely guarded secret. The FDIC will tell you that 117 banks are currently on the list, up 30% from 90 at the end of the first quarter. And, in its desire to be ever so helpful, the agency also will tell you that the combined assets of troubled banks recently rose to $78 billion, a jump of 200% from only $26 billion at the close of the first quarter. Capital-loss provisions rose 240% to $50.2 billion.
But the FDIC won't tell you – no matter how politely you ask – which institutions are most at risk (nor which are the healthiest) even though the government has this information at its fingertips. The FDIC says that it maintains this secrecy to prevent a run on troubled banks and enhance the overall stability of the banking community.
To me that seems an awful lot like asking investors to buy insurance after they've crashed their car.
So we've got to turn to other sources in an effort to protect our capital.
One of our favorites is the IRA Bank Industry Stress Index published by Los Angeles-based Institutional Risk Analytics. What makes the IRA Stress Index so compelling is that it's based on the FDIC's own data. That means it's sort of like a financial X-ray that allows you to see what's really under the hood – even though the government won't tell you.
"Problems in the financial industry are of a scale that most people simply can't imagine," says IRA co-founder Christopher Whalen. "Existing ratings and research coverage are clearly inadequate. That means we've got to come up with new ways to look at bank safety and soundness – particularly when it comes to increasing consumer awareness of transparency. And safety."
Martin Hutchinson, a fellow editor at Money Morning and a 30-year veteran of the banking industry, agrees, noting that "knowledge, after all, is power. Particularly when consumers are caught in the middle like they are now."
Although this financial intelligence originally was designed for institutions trying to make sense of the FDIC's database, IRA recently created a personal report that allows individual investors to X-ray their own banks. Available for $50, the report classifies data into six broad categories at combine to create what IRA calls the "Key Safety and Soundness Indicators:"
- An overall "Stress Rating."
- Return on Equity (ROE).
- Loan defaults.
- Lending capacity.
In contrast to other free services that simply provide a numerical grade or a star ranking without much in the way of helpful context, IRA provides an industry benchmark for each category so that investors can make "apples-to-apples" comparisons between banks. It also helps investors judge for themselves how risky any U.S. financial institution tracked by the FDIC actually is – or isn't.
Whalen notes that the IRA model frequently provides early warnings, too. In the early months of 2006, for instance, he noted that the "Overall Industry Banking Stress Index began climbing at a time when most of Wall Street was in denial."
Pointing to a sample report on Washington Mutual Inc. (OTC: WAMUQ), which he shared with Money Morning, Whalen said that, "in June 2008, just before Uncle Sam crashed WaMu's party, the beleaguered bank had an Overall Stress Rating of 21.6 – versus an industry average of 1.4."
In other words, according to IRA's calculations, WaMu was more than 10 times riskier – which equates to more than a full order of magnitude – than the average bank. WaMu has since been purchased by JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM).
Obviously, WaMu is hardly alone. And it won't be the last bank to fail.
According to Whalen, the IRA Overall Industry Banking Stress Index is still rising and as many as "110 banks with assets approaching $850 billion are likely to fail between July 2008 and next summer."
But individual investors no longer have to fly blind, for they now have a tool to gauge whether or not their bank is likely to be on the FDIC's "likely to fail" list.
To find out more, please click here.
Money Morning/The Money Map Report
[Editor's Note: Money Morning's annual economic outlook series is under way and promises to be much more detailed that last year's forecasting series. "Money Morning Outlook 2009" kicked off with Martin Hutchinson's in-depth look at the profit opportunities that could emanate from the projected new policies of President-elect Barack Obama. Next week, look for two more key installments in that series: A 2009 forecast for the U.S. stock market by Keith Fitz-Gerald, a former professional trade advisor who is now a well-known market commentator, and a forecast for the U.S. economy by R. Shah Gilani, a retired hedge fund manager who has emerged as a national expert on the U.S. credit crisis.]
News and Related Story Links:
- Money Morning Outlook 2009 Series:
Money Morning Outlook 2009: Obamanomics Offers Investors Plenty of Profit Plays in the New Year.
- Money Morning News:
JPMorgan Chase Biggest U.S. Bank With Its Purchase of Failed WaMu.
- Corporate Web Site:
Institutional Risk Analytics.
About the Author
Keith Fitz-Gerald has been the Chief Investment Strategist for the Money Morning team since 2007. He's a seasoned market analyst with decades of experience, and a highly accurate track record. Keith regularly travels the world in search of investment opportunities others don't yet see or understand. In addition to heading The Money Map Report, Keith runs High Velocity Profits, which aims to get in, target gains, and get out clean, and he's also the founding editor of Straight Line Profits, a service devoted to revealing the "dark side" of Wall Street... In his weekly Total Wealth, Keith has broken down his 30-plus years of success into three parts: Trends, Risk Assessment, and Tactics – meaning the exact techniques for making money. Sign up is free at totalwealthresearch.com.