It's true that putting things into perspective enables priorities to be established and, more, executed. After slogging through 18 months of writedowns, bank seizures and management failings, there is no better time for the industry to take control of its own destiny. Here are five things to consider when digging out of this recessionary ditch so the industry is stronger in its aftermath.
1. Refine implementation of the Troubled Assets Relief Program and all of its scattershot acronym progeny - CPP, TALF, etc. The by-the-seat-of-our-pants-and-crossing-our-fingers actions of the Treasury, while well intended from the outset in the face of a ballooning crisis, helped turn the markets into a basket case of uncertainty. What's needed is an equity-led recovery plan, the merits of which are outlined for taxpayers, recognized and used by strong banks as a means to fuel sustainable performance over the long term and welcomed by investors. Only then can the industry see stabilization.
2. Regulate the unregulated. The banking industry - already highly regulated - needs to apply pressure to regulators to focus on the unregulated, including mortgage brokers and investment banks. No-doc loans? Forget it. As for derivatives, they should be traded on an exchange. Price transparency will follow. Fast-track clearinghouses for credit default swaps, and mandate that all CDS holders/issuers participate. Then draw up exchange contracts for CDS.
Yes, there will be more regulation. But what is politically delightful is often dreadful in the end. Remember when the chart lines were all pointing up? That brought on the Great Deregulation. Now some critics want a cop for every spreadsheet. Make the new rules simple and fair, but make sure they apply to all.
3. Take on mark-to-market accounting. The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 required The Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve, and the Treasury Department to study the ramifications of mark-to-market standards "on a financial institution's balance sheet [and] the impacts of such accounting on bank failures," among other things. The SEC welcomed "feedback at any time from investors, financial institutions, auditors and others."
The report to Congress is due this month, but the drive to unseat this onerous convention must continue in earnest. Why? Mark-to-market accounting ranks toward the bottom of the list when it comes to how to accurately price anything.
Start preparing for the switch from the U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles to the International Financial Reporting Standards. Some of the largest institutions will be IFRS-ready by their 2009 annual reports; others are slated for 2010-2013. Companies have to convert the prior two years of financials before the switch, and it isn't a snap.
4. Identify mortgage solutions. It is long overdue for Congress, regulators, banks and consumer advocates to hammer out a foreclosure solution - one than covers subprime and prime borrowers alike. Make a deal that doesn't punish the banks, yet doesn't throw people out of their homes. Take that big monkey off the back of the housing market so prices can stabilize. Going one step further, it's in the best interest of the industry to rework mortgages in collateralized debt obligations. A provision for reworking these instruments is a necessary step to establish their true worth. Would it be a legal and operational nightmare? Yes. "You can't trample the capital structure [of the securities]," says Aite Group senior analyst John Jay. But by bringing current subprime borrowers into the FHA's guarantee program, the mortgages would show up as refis rather than modifications, thereby not altering the capital structure. The FHA guarantee program could then serve as a blueprint for similar initiatives to redo other at-risk and tainted mortgages, security by security.
5. Name an official liaison who can represent the interests of bankers to regulators, Congress and the Obama Administration. The banking industry needs a point man if it is to start managing its way out of this crisis. An industry-anointed liaison working with Beltway insiders to strengthen the financial system will not only be good for business, but also will help banks to regain the public's trust. Who's already got their ear and their respect? JPMorgan Chase chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon. Given his credentials, Dimon could articulate the steps necessary to help lead the U.S. economy out of this recession, first by outlining the pitfalls of what's being mulled at present - the easing of bankruptcy laws, for example, which would lead to far greater losses for banks - and, looking forward, what makes sense to ensure tranparency without compromising capitalism.