Wall Streeters sometimes call it the "kitchen sink quarter" because unusual items can appear in fourth-quarter earnings reports, but analysts say bank stock investors are mostly getting the real story this year.
The quality of reported earnings for most companies has improved, said Abbey Joseph Cohen, market strategist at Goldman, Sachs & Co., New York, in a recent report. But she cautioned that dust from fourth-quarter housekeeping can still cloud the results.
"There are still numerous legitimate ways in which company accounts can be made obscure," she said. Reported earnings can be smoothed or manipulated by tactics like raising loss reserves or improving the company profile through merger accounting methods.
Bank analysts are quick to agree on the possibilities, particularly when the books are being closed on a less-than-stellar year. But they say the industry's recent fourth-quarter earnings have had a "what you see is what you get" quality to them.
"There is still a lot of discretion in some of the line items of the average bank," said Sandra Flannigan, a bank analyst at Merrill Lynch & Co., New York. But by and large, fourth-quarter earnings "are fairly close to normal. We are not seeing a lot of bottom-line surprises - positive or negative - and that is not bad news."
A major factor in the increased precision of bank earnings reports has been the more conservative approaches advocated by the Financial Accounting Standards Board, analysts say.
Still, industry analyst Elizabeth Summers of Ryan Beck & Co., West Orange, N.J., contended that the profit reporting procedures for some smaller banks can still be wanting.
While the bigger banks tend to "fax pages and pages" to analysts, describing any changes that may have occurred over the quarter, smaller banks may just send a two-page press release, she notes.
"Big companies give you a good idea where things are, " she said. "Analysts need to take more care with smaller banks because their disclosure is less specific."
And the minimalist disclosure often is reflected in the stock prices of smaller companies, Ms. Summers said.
"There is a huge discount in their stock prices," she said. "There isn't the same confidence in the earnings estimates."
Analyst Thomas D. McCandless of Natwest Securities Inc., New York, said that banks have become "very obvious" in their earnings reports. Nevertheless, easier access to the capital markets can obscure the picture.
"Ongoing asset securitization will inflate fee income and enhance capital ratios," said Mr. McCandless. "And on the liability side, the use of derivatives artificially depresses interest costs and enhances the margin and overhead ratio."
Another industry analyst, Frank W. Anderson of Stephens Inc., Little Rock, agrees that securitization can indeed be problematic - but not for banks.
"I haven't heard a lot of concern regarding commercial banks, but there has been some among nonbanks, such as auto finance companies," he said.
In fact, the banks take a fairly conservative view on securitization, said Mr. Anderson, who argues that the procedure makes it tough to forecast future losses.
"The fourth quarter for banks and any industry is to clean out things, but for the most part bank earnings have been strong and have been right on target," he said.