by Jesse Eisinger, ProPublica

Later this month, the Federal Reserve is going to let banks know how they did on its most recent round of “stress tests.”

Federal Reserve Bank_Exterior_iStock_000004494755XSmallBanks are eager to bring doctors’ notes to their meetings with investors, displaying their bills of health. They want regulators to allow them to start paying, or increasing, dividends to investors or to initiate stock buyback programs.

This set of exams, announced in November, is Son of Stress Test 2009, a follow-up to the tests the Fed conducted in the wake of the financial crisis.

But something seems different this time around. It’s almost as if the banks knew their results, even before the testing was complete.

Since the end of last year, banks have been bragging about their rude health. Bank of America’s chief executive, Brian T. Moynihan, suggested that the bank would raise its dividend above its current token amount. Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase’s leader, did the same. Warren E. Buffett suggested in his shareholder letter that Wells Fargo was about to pass with flying colors.

Of course, banks ought to have a good idea of the results. They came up with the questions — and the answers.

The Fed gave the banks one economic assumption — a recession — to test their books against, but otherwise the measures were chosen by banks themselves. The Fed just vetted them. Seems like a low bar.

“It’s a take-home exam where you supply the math and then it’s pass/fail,” said Joshua Rosner, an analyst with the independent research firm Graham-Fisher & Company.

Though the Fed isn’t labeling these exams an official banking system stress test, it could be every bit as consequential. Just as the 2009 tests required some banks to raise money — and the most fragile improved their capital to the tune of about $77 billion — this Stress Test Lite could allow some banks to slough off capital.

Unfortunately, declarations of banking system vigor seem premature. Housing has resumed its fall, and many analysts expect national prices to fall on average this year. Commercial real estate is a looming problem. Unemployment remains obdurately high.

In 2009, critics complained that the stress tests were driven by appearances and that the government’s true, and thinly disguised, goal was to shore up confidence in the markets. The conclusion — that, over all, the system was sound — was inevitable.

“The stress tests were designed to reassure the capital markets that the government was not going to restructure the banks,” said Damon A. Silvers, who serves on the Congressional Oversight Panel, which monitors the Troubled Asset Relief Program. “But the capital raises compared to the problem assets were not that big.”

In the first round, the Fed disclosed the economic assumptions, a baseline and an “adverse” situation, which the banks had to test against. (In that event, even the adverse situation for 2009 wasn’t as dire as reality.)

Unfortunately, the central bank didn’t disclose enough information to actually judge the results. The Congressional Oversight Panel enlisted two University of California, Berkeley professors who specialized in banking and risk assessment to judge the tests. They had to throw up their hands.

The two “were interpreting shapes on the wall,” said Eric Talley, a professor of law at Berkeley, who worked on the project. “We couldn’t see what the shapes were, so had to look at residue to see if those were the shapes you would normally want to use.”

This time, the Fed hasn’t made even that cursory amount of criteria public.

The first round of tests was based on self-reported data of asset quality and loss estimates. This time around, that weakness is squared. Now the banks are reporting on their own internal capital plans based on their own asset assessment.

“It could be that banks have been really assiduous about own risk portfolios,” Professor Talley said. “Or it could be that too much control over the process has been handed over to banks. It’s hard to tell.”

While the Fed got hammered by critics who assailed the tests as too deferential to the banks, the central bank was doing something unprecedented and holding the banks to what it viewed as a solid capital standard.

Inevitably, though privately, banks screamed to the regulators about how harsh they were. They were reluctant to do so publicly because we were still in that fleeting period when bankers displayed a modicum of chagrin for the debacle they had caused. That moment has passed.

It would be alarming if the regulators had internalized their complaints. The operating theory of supervision from the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, and the banking regulators continues to hold: we can push banks to restructure, without forcing them. Banks can be made to raise capital and reduce their risky activities, largely through encouragement and moral suasion. They can please shareholders and be safe at the same time.

We had better hope that the banks actually are healthy. The banks say ‘Trust us,’ and the Fed is doing just that.

ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.   This article is republished with permission under a Creative Commons license.

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