On the Soundness of Our Banks

Partly it is the feeling that there is safety in numbers. The fashionable term today is “moral hazard”. The implicit guarantees of the state and of other financial institutions move us to take risks which we would, otherwise, have avoided. Partly it is the sophistication of the banks in marketing and promoting themselves and their products. Glossy brochures, professional computer and video presentations and vast, shrine-like, real estate complexes all serve to enhance the image of the banks as the temples of the new religion of money.


But what is behind all this? How can we judge the soundness of our banks? In other words, how can we tell if our money is safely tucked away in a safe haven?

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The reflex is to go to the bank’s balance sheets. Banks and balance sheets have been both invented in their modern form in the 15th century. A balance sheet, coupled with other financial statements is supposed to provide us with a true and full picture of the health of the bank, its past and its long-term prospects. The surprising thing is that – despite common opinion – it does.

But it is rather useless unless you know how to read it.

Financial statements (Income – or Profit and Loss – Statement, Cash Flow Statement and Balance Sheet) come in many forms. Sometimes they conform to Western accounting standards (the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, GAAP, or the less rigorous and more fuzzily worded International Accounting Standards, IAS). Otherwise, they conform to local accounting standards, which often leave a lot to be desired. Still, you should look for banks, which make their updated financial reports available to you. The best choice would be a bank that is audited by one of the Big Four Western accounting firms and makes its audit reports publicly available. Such audited financial statements should consolidate the financial results of the bank with the financial results of its subsidiaries or associated companies. A lot often hides in those corners of corporate holdings.