>Prins: Enron Accounting for US Banks

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Nomi Prins writes about what I’ve been saying now for months, big banks are rigging their books….Enron style. A few snipets from this former Goldman Sachs Managing Director:

After two weeks sifting through over one thousand pages of SEC filings for the largest banks, I have the same concerns. While Washington ponders what to do, or not do, about reforming Wall Street, the nation’s biggest banks, plumped up on government capital and risk-infused trading profits, have been moving stuff around their balance sheets like a multi-billion dollar musical chairs game.

I was trying to answer the simple question that you’d think regulators should want to know: how much of each bank’s revenue is derived from trading (taking risk) vs. other businesses? And how can you compare it across the industry—so you can contain all that systemic risk? Only, there’s no uniformity across books. And, given the complexity of these mega-merged firms, those questions aren’t easy to answer.

With taxpayers now on the hook, we need an objective, consistent evaluation of bank balance sheets complete with probing questions about trading and speculative revenues, allowing for comparisons across the banking industry. This lack of transparency leaves room to misrepresent risk and trading revenue.

The long-term solution is bringing back Glass-Steagall. Being big doesn’t just risk bringing down a financial system—it means you can also more easily hide things. Remember the lesson from the Enron saga: when things look too good to be true, they usually are.

Nomi Prins is author of It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bonuses, Bailouts, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street (Wiley, September, 2009). Before becoming a journalist, she worked on Wall Street as a managing director at Goldman Sachs, and running the international analytics group at Bear Stearns in London.

Scott Dauenhauer CFP, MSFP, AIF

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