When bank and securities regulators announced a plan in March to promote a "clearer understanding" of loan-loss reserves, bankers were encouraged. An end to months of contradictory signals seemed to be in sight.
But the cooperative spirit among regulators was short-lived. If anything, the rules on loan-loss allowances have grown murkier.
On one side stands the Securities and Exchange Commission. Duty-bound to make bank finances transparent to investors, and obsessed, critics say, with the notion of accounting purity, the SEC has repeatedly warned banks not to use reserves as a "cookie jar" to level out earnings.
On the opposite side stand the bank and thrift regulators. Guardians of the depositor and taxpayer, always looking out for fading loan quality and economic malaise, these agencies argue that reserves are a vital hedge against the unknown.
Both camps have claimed the moral high ground. That is why the March agreement, in which they embraced each other's institutional values, was so extraordinary. Regulators finally appeared ready to speak with a single voice.
Moreover, they offered a clear-cut plan for revamping the loan-loss landscape. Three groups would divide the work and recommend changes over the next two years. Together, they would create order.
But a recent spate of unilateral moves and interagency dart-tossing has begun to undo the bonds, further confusing bankers.
It did not take much to melt the glue. The catalyst was an article published April 12 by the Financial Accounting Standards Board, one of the three groups working on updating the rules.
Weeks before the article was published, bank regulators urged the quasi- private agency to let banks comment on a draft. FASB refused.
The SEC also turned a deaf ear. In addition to endorsing the FASB article May 20, the agency told banks that, if necessary, they should make a one-time, no-fault adjustment to their reserves in their next quarterly financial statements.
Three banking agencies-the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and the Office of Thrift Supervision- responded by firing off a letter the next day to ranking members of the House and Senate banking committees. They said banks might interpret the SEC's announcement as a directive to reduce reserves.
Congressional hearings are scheduled for later this month. Meanwhile, Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., is demanding the SEC provide a list of all banks being examined for possible loan-loss irregularities.
But the FASB article did not just reopen the fissure between securities and bank regulators. It also created a gap between the bank regulators themselves.
The Federal Reserve Board did not sign the May 21 letter to Congress. It also was alone in issuing guidelines on the latest loan-loss developments, including the FASB article and the SEC endorsement.
It was the first time that the four bank agencies have not acted jointly on the issue since this controversy erupted last fall. The rift began when the SEC delayed SunTrust Banks Inc.'s acquisition of Crestar Financial Corp. until Atlanta-based SunTrust agreed to restate its 1994-1996 earnings and cut reserves by $100 million.
For all the high drama, however, what divides the banking agencies is not entirely clear.
All four continue to voice the same conclusions on substantive questions. For example, an FDIC official recently said his agency did not disagree with a single line in the Fed's guidelines, and is considering sending a very similar letter to its own banks.
Then why not act in sync? Plenty of rumors are circulating. One has the Fed siding with the SEC to ensure solidarity on financial reform legislation. But both agencies have other, unrelated reasons for their common position.
Another idea is that the Fed was trying to prevent an imminent SEC crackdown on a large Fed-regulated bank's reserves. But that also seems unlikely, particularly since Bankers Trust Co., one of the Fed's three largest banks, recently disclosed that the SEC is investigating its reserves.
The real reason tensions resumed between securities and bank regulators is simple: Despite their March agreement, neither camp has broadened its view. The SEC continues to think banks are overreserving, while bank regulators worry they are not reserving enough.
The drama is far from over. Under the March agreement, a joint group of securities and bank regulators are assembling a list of "best practices" for documenting and disclosing probable loan losses, with a target date of March 2000.
Separately, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants' loan-loss task force is working to clarify for banks the difference between current and future losses in a loan portfolio. Those guidelines are due in about two years.