US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner stuffed-up the release of bank help plans in February and was then forced to hurriedly tidy up the mess and confusion.

Now the much anticipated results of the stress tests on the 19 biggest American banks, that were a key part of the help plans, has also been botched.

The results are due to be revealed next Monday and although the banks received their results last Friday, they will supposedly remain silent.

But speculation has started about the state of the two biggest basket cases, Citigroup and Bank Of America, with reports this morning claiming BofA needs another $US70 billion in capital and Citi billions more as well.

This comes as sanity and calm returned to the financial markets, especially banking. Apart from the questionable results from some US banks in the first quarter, banks from Australia (the NAB), Germany, (Deutsche, where trading profits helped, as with some US peers) and BBVA in Spain, have produced solid quarterly or six month results that clearly show all is not lost.

Interest rates continue to fall, cash deposits at central banks (such as the RBA here) are falling as banks increasingly believe that each will be around to continue trading.

The only worrying thing is that the cut in US Government bond yields engineered by the Fed last month, when it revealed its plans for Quantitative Easing, has gone. The yields on 10-year bonds was 3.01% before the Fed moved to this radical policy around six weeks or so ago, they fell to around 2.53%, stayed low, but have risen in the past week and closed overnight at 3.01%. The Fed started its latest meeting overnight and will issue a statement in the morning at 4.15am local time.

Interest rates will remain steady, but the Fed is expected to comment on the state of financial markets and the growing signs the intensity of the slump is easing.

But the stress test kerfuffle has the capacity to undermine the growing calm and confidence in the banking and money markets.

That’s even though many banks have imposed global or market specific counterparty limits on some of the weaker banks, such as Citi, Bank of America and a couple of others until their futures are clarified. Those limits have been tightened ahead of the release of the stress test results next Monday.

Central banks around the world will be making sure that there’s enough liquidity around over the weekend and early next week to handle any shock. On top of that there’s the chance of Chrysler going into bankruptcy on Thursday or Friday if its banks and other bondholders won’t agree to a debt for equity swap.

But now that’s being undone as partial leaks seep out of banks and their advisers about the capital needs of the likes of Citi and Bank of America.

The Financial Times Lex column summed up the situation this way:

Bureaucrats have long come up with plans that are messy in the short term and pointless in the long term. The US Treasury’s stress tests add to this history. At first, banks were told to keep schtum over their scores; the Treasury would reveal all after May 4. Now it seems banks may present their own results that week anyway.

That would guarantee a crazy five days with banks filing at different times and numbers being presented in the most flattering way or challenged outright. Worse, banks already know their results. Those that have passed will not fire anyone for leaking. Meanwhile, rumours are flying round that Citigroup, Bank of America, and a clutch of regional banks have failed. Shares in Citigroup on Tuesday morning fell by nearly 5 per cent while those of Bank of America tumbled almost 7 per cent after earlier losses were mitigated by an unexpectedly sharp rise in consumer confidence data for April. This is no way to run a financial market. The Treasury should simply forget the deadline and come clean now.

This muffed handling of such a sensitive issue has come at a time when the swine flu is at its most hysterical, which is affecting sentiment even as markets calm amid signs of an easing in the sharp slump in the US and parts of the global economy.

And with consumer confidence rising sharply in America in recent days and the sharp fall in house prices in the US easing, but not stopping (as shown by the Standard & Poor’s Case Schiller Index) the stress test release should have been clean. Last Friday or Monday of this week would have been ideal.

After all, the US banks got their results last Friday, and a weekend should have been enough to discuss them and deal with Geithner and the Treasury.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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