IE Focus || Is this the solution to all debt problems?

By Ignacio de la Torre, professor at IE Business School

Investment banking has once again shown us the way to address the world’s enormous and recurring debt problem. It is, of course, by cheating.Although it may not have been noticed, investment banking has shown us the way solve the world’s enormous and recurring debt problem. What did the last entry in Lehman Brothers profit and loss statement show? Enormous profit. Let’s see why. The results of the third quarter of 2011 for Lehman Brothers produced “profits” as a consequence of the fall in value of the debt market of the banks themselves. In other words, if the risk of bankruptcy of, for instance, Morgan Stanley, increases, the price of its bonds falls, which means its “profits” will rise. Intuitive? That’s why the last entry in Lehman’s books was actually an enormous profit. The five main investment banks have posted “profits” totaling 15,000 million dollars obtained this way in the third quarter, which means that the position of the bank’s “own” funds is skewed by an equivalent amount, as is its solvency, measured in relative terms (value at risk) or absolute terms (leverage). In short, over 80% of the profits posted by investment banks in the third quarter of 2011 is a result of this fantasy.

Thus the profits of 6,200 million dollars posted by Bank of America contain a bonus dividend of 3,600 and a “profit” due to a fall of 1,700 million dollars in the amount of debt. Citigroup’s profits have risen by 74% to 3,800 million dollars thanks to the recognition of a “profit” derived from the drop of 1,900 million in its debt level. Morgan Stanley posted a profit of 2,150 million dollars, of which 3,400 were the result of a fall in the value of its debt, and JP Morgan posted a profit of 1,900 million dollars using the same system, beating the market with a profit of 1.02 dollars instead of the expected 91 cents (its shares fell by 4.8% – the market is not quite as simple as it looks). Unfortunately, this practice is also being employed in Europe, where UBS has posted a profit of 1,800 million Francs as a result of the fall in value of its debts. Its total profit was 1,000 million Francs, which means that if it hadn’t used the trick it would have posted losses, not profits, as a result of its trading scandal (2,300 million dollar loss).

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