Is My Money Safe part 2

← Back to homepage

Banks are rated by independent agencies. The most famous and most reliable of the lot is Fitch Ratings. Another one is Moody’s. 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 have us 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.

Another example: in many countries, changes in regulations can greatly effect the financial statements of a bank. In 1996, in Russia, for example, the Bank of Russia changed the algorithm for calculating an important banking ratio (the capital to risk weighted assets ratio).

Unless a Russian bank restated its previous financial statements accordingly, a sharp change in profitability appeared from nowhere.

The net assets themselves are always misstated: the figure refers to the situation on 31/12. A 48-hour loan given to a collaborating client can inflate the asset base on the crucial date. This misrepresentation is only mildly ameliorated by the introduction of an "average assets" calculus. Moreover, some of the assets can be interest earning and performing – others, non-performing. The maturity distribution of the assets is also of prime importance. If most of the bank's assets can be withdrawn by its clients on a very short notice (on demand) – it can swiftly find itself in trouble with a run on its assets leading to insolvency.