The following article is brought to you by Gary Weiss at The Street.Com.
NEW YORK (TheStreet) — “The whole world is watching!” is the battle cry of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, usually heard when New York’s Finest decide that the maintenance of law and order requires arrests (or socking some guy in the jaw).
But there’s something even more outrageous, and more relevant to the point of those demonstrations, taking place just a few blocks from where the protestors and cops have been mixing it up.
I’m referring to the quarterly phenomenon known as “bank earnings,” in particular, the earnings announced today by Bank of America, Tuesday by JPMorgan Chase and Monday by Citigroup. The spectacle of these three bailed-out denizens of American capitalism raking in billions in windfall profits, while nickel-and-diming their customers and keeping a tight lid on lending, is perhaps the best example we have of the inequities that gave rise to the OWS protests. Last week I described the kind of demands that these demonstrators ought to make. Today I’ll touch on the kind of daily horror that makes those demands justified.
Now, I know what people are going to say: I should be happy that the Street is raking in billions because these banks are drivers of the New York economy, yadda yadda. There’s some truth to that. But really, folks, if these guys are going to be robber barons, can’t they be honestrobber barons? My beef with these banks is not just the old one, which is that they are brazenly profiting from a bailed-out system, but that this time they’ve boosted their profits by taking advantage of accounting gimmickry.
Let’s start by taking a look at JPMorgan’s earnings announcement, which declared that the company’s third-quarter profits — which had fallen $100 million to a paltry $4.3 billion, the poor dears — were goosed by $1.9 billion from something called a “debt valuation adjustment,” or DVA.
CEO Jamie Dimon explained the DVA thusly: “The DVA gain reflects an adjustment for the widening of the Firm’s credit spreads which could reverse in future periods and does not relate to the underlying operations of the company.”
Here’s an analogy: Let’s say you own a house, and, like most homeowners, you have a mortgage on that house. Because of market conditions, totally unrelated to anything you’ve done, the market value of your mortgage — were it to be sold as such things often are — has declined. In other words, the market value of your debt has declined. Well, lucky you! If you were a bank, that is. Under harebrained accounting rules, banks can record a profit when that happens because they could theoretically buy back their debt for less money (which, admittedly, is not something you or I could do).