Could conservative accounting policies become a problem for Chase Manhattan Corp., Fleet Financial Group, Wells Fargo & Co., or Citigroup?
The four big banking companies were among those named Wednesday by analysts as potential targets in the Securities and Exchange Commission's crackdown on over-reserving.
The SEC recently ordered SunTrust Banks Inc. to restate earnings because it had set too much aside for loan losses and thus distorted its earnings reports. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the SEC has targeted three more institutions.
The SEC and spokesmen for individual banks declined to comment on the situation. But analysts have zeroed in on a handful of natural candidates: those with the highest ratios of reserves against loans and against loan losses.
But the SEC may not be so exacting, some observers said. "Any banking company that made a significant provision to their loan reserves without any explanation why could draw the attention of the SEC," said Charles Horn, banking attorney at Mayer, Brown & Platt, Washington.
The over-reserving issue has driven a wedge between securities regulators and banking regulators, who favor strong loan-loss reserves to protect the deposit insurance fund against losses. The topic was suddenly on everyone's lips this week, as Congress heard testimony on financial reform and regulation.
If the SEC forces a bank to restate earnings, it can be a boon on paper to shareholders, because the money that had been placed in reserve is put back into earnings per share. But the expense of revising figures eats into companies' current earnings, industry experts said.
"The need to restate past reserves would tend to increase expenses and thereby potentially lead to lower reported earnings," said Michael Mayo, banking analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston.
Analysts cited several potential candidates for SEC scrutiny.
Norwest, now Wells Fargo, "has always dealt on the side of conservatism in building their loan-loss reserves," said Frank Barkocy, banking analyst at Josephthal & Co. "It's basically the same scenario as SunTrust."
"Wachovia would fit if the SEC is using SunTrust as a template," said Sean Ryan, banking analyst at Bear, Stearns & Co.
"You might think of someone who is extremely conservative, like a Fifth Third Bancorp that has a strong capital base and solid reserves," said another analyst.
The American Bankers Association is keeping a close eye on the developments. "It's obviously a very important issue for us," said Donna Fisher, the ABA's director for tax and accounting. "Banks feel they are following the accounting rules and the SEC has sent up a flare," saying it feels they may not be."
Analysts also said the SEC may well broaden its focus to look at the way banks are reporting restructuring charges in connection with mergers.
One analyst said First Union could come under scrutiny for the way it is now accounting for loans in connection with its purchase of The Money Store, a home equity lender.
The SEC might hone in on banking companies that have set aside significant reserves for foreign operations, experts said.
For instance, BankAmerica might be singled out because of a $500 million reserve it set for international operations in the third quarter.
"Anyone who has significant Latin American or Asian exposure has probably been very conservative as to reporting reserves and that could get the SEC's attention," said one industry expert.
The SEC may see a place for itself because of tension between bank regulatory agencies. "Maybe the SEC sees an opportunity with the friction it perceives between the Treasury and the Federal Reserve," one observer said.
Still, analysts doubt banking regulators are likely to back down. "I can't imagine any changes in the current reporting methods that bank regulators wouldn't resist fiercely," said Mr. Ryan of Bear, Stearns.
"In general it makes sense for the SEC to look at earnings managing," said Mr. Mayo of Credit Suisse. "But the way they're going about it, at a time when asset quality isn't getting any better, doesn't seem to be the best approach."