Wall Street enjoyed another brief rally overnight as oil fell and more and more US groups report average to indifferent quarterly results. Caterpillar did very well outside the US from the resources boom in countries like Australia and China (and so has Kerry Stokes). The huge transport group, UPS, reported a 21% slump in earnings as Americans sent fewer parcels to one another and United Airlines lost $US2.7 billion, thanks to the impact of cutbacks and higher oil prices.

Oil hit a low of $US125.63 a barrel, before recovering to close just over $US127 a barrel: that’s $US20 down from the all time high hit on 11 July.

In Britain the world’s biggest mobile company, Vodafone, saw its shares suffer the biggest fall in 20 years, down 14% as the company revealed its revenue will slow and management confessed that the outlook had grown so problematic that they were taking things one day at a time.

In the US Wachovia, the country’s fourth largest bank, revealed total losses and write-downs of $9 billion. That included the forecast $2.67 billion loss from normal business. Its shares rose when the new CEO said the bank would cut $US2 billion from costs, but seeing as it has now lost billions over the past nine months, that’s a game promise.

Washington Mutual, America’s largest Savings and Loan group, revealed yet more losses: it was rescued in the quarter by a group, led by TPG, pumping in around $US7 billion in new capital and funds. It lost another $US3.3 billion in the quarter (it would have been insolvent if that extra money hadn’t been pumped in). Management says it’s going to cut costs by $US1 billion and the shares rose.

And there were a number of poor results from a group of regional banks, such as Fifth Third Bank of Ohio, KeyCorp and Regions Financial, and SunTrust Banks. In fact SunTrust’s results illustrated the deep damage the credit crunch and slowing economy is doing to the fabric of US banking.

The crunch has forced one of the oldest relationships in US business to be broken. SunTrust sold much of the holding in Coca Cola it had held for nearly a century through various banks. That raised around $US2 billion in new capital in the quarter as the bank quietly disposed on the holding. News of the sale would have panicked the market because of the closeness of the relationship, which was maintained by one other long term involvement. The secret formula for Coke is held in a safe deposit box in the vaults of the main SunTrust bank in Atlanta, where Coke in headquartered.

That relationship will continue, but so desperate was the bank’s need for capital that it quit its holding of 43.6 million Coke shares as the bank suffered a 21% drop in second quarter earnings. SunTrust will dispose of 30 million shares in the next seven years, while collecting part of the money now.

Selling off the crown jewels, cutting costs, reducing lending are all part and parcel of the current method of running US banks and trying to retain stockmarket favour. But the whole idea of banking is to recycle deposits and borrowings by lending the money to customers, especially in housing. That’s not happening and all the banks reporting are chopping back lending to home owners and business, and cutting unwanted assets.

The next big move that the market will greet with joy is takeovers and mergers between the game, lame and crippled among the US banks, from Citigroup down to the smallest suburban bank: all are fair game. But as we have found in the crunch, size is no protection against incompetent management and business judgement.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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