February 23, 2015
In 1494, a 47-year old Franciscan friar named Luca Pacioli invented something that was revolutionary.
Pacioli was, in fact, a friend and contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, and the two collaborated frequently.
So you’re probably guessing that Pacioli was a co-designer in Leonardo’s famed flying machine, or a new architectural technique.
On the contrary.
Pacioli’s invention was the double-entry accounting system; in fact he’s known by bean counters today as the father of accounting.
This was a major and much needed innovation at the time.
In the 15th century, Italy was dominating global trade and commerce.
Yet unlike in the centuries before where merchants were primarily transporters and traders of exotic goods, 15th century merchants had essentially become proto-bankers whose primary business was extending and trading credit.
This was a major change in the way that business was done, and it absolutely demanded a new way to keep track of it all.
That’s exactly what Pacioli invented. And his system of accounting is still being used today, over 500 years later.
This was a seminal moment in business history—the near simultaneous birth and convergence of credit-based money, banking, and accounting that would eventually become the global financial system.
It revolutionized everything.
Back then, just as today, few people really understood it. And those who did were often clever enough to find loopholes in the system to hide their fraud. Especially banks.
There are some really stunning (and sometimes hilarious) examples of early banks who learned how to cook their books and misstate their capital using Pacioli’s system.
Curiously very little has changed. Banks still use accounting tricks to hide their true condition.
Bloomberg showcased one such technique last year, exposing the way that many US banks are rebooking their assets from “available for sale (AFS)” to the “held-to-maturity (HTM)” designation.
This is a very subtle move that means nothing to most people.
But to banks, it’s a highly effective way of concealing losses they’ve suffered in their investment portfolios.
Banks ordinarily buy bonds and other securities with the purpose of generating a return on that money until they have to, you know, give it back to their depositors.
That’s why they’re called “available for sale,” because the bank has to sell these assets to pay their depositors back.
But here’s the problem– many of these investments have either lost money, or they soon will be. And banks don’t want to disclose those losses.
So instead, they simply redesignate assets as HTM.
It’s like saying “I don’t care that these bonds aren’t worth as much money as when I bought them because I intend to hold them forever.”
Thing is, this simply isn’t true. Banks don’t have the luxury of holding some government bond for the next 30-years.
This is money they might have to repay their customers tomorrow, which makes the entire charade intellectually dishonest.
That doesn’t stop them.
JP Morgan alone boosted its HTM mortgage bonds from less than $10 million to nearly $17 billion (1700x higher) in just one year. This is a huge shift.
Nearly every big bank is doing this, and is doing it deliberately. This is no accident. And there’s only one reason to do it—to use accounting minutia to conceal losses.
But the accounting tricks don’t stop there. And in many cases they’re fueled by the government.
One recent example is how federal regulators created a new ‘rule’ which allows banks to consciously reduce the risk-weighting they assigns their assets.
The Federal Financial Institution Examination Council recently told banks that, “if a particular asset . . . has features that could place it in more than one risk category, it is assigned to the category that has the lowest risk weight.”
This gives banks extraordinary latitude to underreport the risk levels of their investments.
Bankers can now arbitrarily decide that a risky asset ‘has features’ of a lower risk asset, and thus they can completely misrepresent their investments.
Bottom line, it’s becoming extremely difficult to have confidence in western banks’ financial health.
They employ every trick in the book to overstate their capital ratios and understate their risk levels.
This, backed by a central bank that is borderline insolvent and a federal government that is entirely insolvent.
It certainly begs the question—is it really worth keeping 100% of your savings in this system?
I would respectfully suggest finding a new home for at least a portion of your savings.
After all, it’s 2015. You no longer need to bank in the same place as you live and work.
It’s possible to establish an account offshore—at a safe, stable, well-capitalized bank overseas in a country with no debt.
You might even find that the bank will pay you a reasonable interest rate that actually exceeds inflation (shocking!).
And in many cases you may be able to do all of this without leaving your living room.
It’s hard to imagine anyone would be worse off.