By the time it was finally announced, there was little suspense: the 19 major banks subjected to the federal government's "stress test" got a passing grade. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, in announcing the results, said all the banks are solvent and should resume lending.
The idea of a stress test was the government's way of determining which of the large, "too-big-to-fail" banks had enough assets to remain solvent, even if the recession gets worse. All had received "bailout" money from the government, though some, like JPMorgan Chase, said they want to return the money because they dont need it.
However, even though they were deemed solvent, ten large banks were told they need to add to their capital reserves. Ten of the 19 banks have been ordered to raise a total of $74.6 billion within the next six months. In addition, some may be forced to "sell" more stock to the government, which in turn could dictate changes in management.
While it was known that banks like Citigroup and Bank of America were certain to need more cash, the list contained a few surprises, including Wells Fargo and Morgan Stanley. Wells Fargo said it would raise $6 billion by selling stock to the public. Morgan Stanley said it plans to sell stocks and bonds to raise $5 billion.
But nearly all banks, the Fed said, should be able to raise the additional capital on their own. Only one bank, GMAC, is likely to need additional help from the taxpayers.
Banks are required by law to maintain a certain percentage of assets to balance their loans and liabilities. Prior to the economic meltdown, most large banks had invested billions of dollars in mortgage backed securities, which lost most of their value as the subprime mortgage market collapsed and took real estate down with it.
Those "toxic" assets precipitated last fall's credit crunch, as banks could not lend money. The idea behind the stress test was to restore confidence in the banking system so that lending will resume.
For the average consumer, the stress test doesn't mean much, other than improved confidence in banks should help the overall economy recover faster. Those with a stock portfolio may regain some of the value they lost if Wall Street, as expected, responds favorably to the results.
Consumers shouldn't be concerned that their bank was deemed to need more money. Even if a bank failed, deposits of up to $250,000 are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Besides, the whole idea behind the stress test was to make sure than none of the 19 banks fail.
And don't expect your credit card rates to go down anytime soon. Banks may be on the road to improved health, but they still need cash. Higher rates on consumer credit — especially on any credit that could be considered risky — are likely here to stay.