Today's Outrage: Bank Earnings Don't Add Up

I can't make heads or tails out of all these bank earnings.

On the surface, it looks like we're seeing a clear divide between the winners and losers in the post-bailout era that is beginning.

But below the surface, everything is muddled by one-time items, accounting changes and other gobbledygook.

Some banks blame the government because of the cost of repaying taxpayer bailout money. Those that can't afford to pay back the government are saddled with the cost of paying preferred dividends to Uncle Sam (I look at that as a special bailout tax).

Some banks say they are benefitting from improved investment returns and others are bemoaning the high cost of credit. It's all making my head spin. Yours will too after this quick review of what we've learned from the banks so far:

Wells Fargo ( WFC) seems to be pulling out all the stops to prove it's the strongest bank alive, saying second-quarter profit and revenue set new company records that topped even the most optimistic analyst's prediction.

Clearly, Wells didn't want to be outdone by Goldman Sachs ( GS), which earlier this month posted its biggest profit since becoming a publicly traded company on the back of big returns from its fixed income, currencies and commodities division.

Citigroup ( C) did its best to stay in the game by producing a surprise profit that was bolstered by a one-time gain from the merger of its Smith Barney unit with Morgan Stanley's ( MS) brokerage business. Meanwhile,

Morgan Stanley is blaming its second-quarter loss on an accounting oddity.

Bank of America ( BAC) said its profit slipped a bit mainly because of the cost of paying preferred dividends (which go in large measure to the Treasury), but it still beat Wall Street expectations largely due to a series of one-off events such as the sale of stock in China Construction Bank.

JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) also blamed the cost of repaying taxpayers for eroding its second-quarter profit, but touted record investment banking fees to show its strength despite a deteriorating consumer loan business.

State Street ( STT), among the first to repay taxpayer bailout money, fell to a loss in part due to the cost of buying back preferred shares from the government and recognizing asset-backed commercial paper conduits on its balance sheet.

US Bancorp ( USB)'s profit dropped by half because of higher credit costs, but the bank still topped analyst expectations and is still in the black.

SunTrust (STI) says higher credit costs hit it even harder and pushed the bank into the red.

All in all, the only conclusion I can draw is that investing in the banking sector requires more due diligence and careful scrutiny of the underlying business than ever. The headline numbers and corporate spin don't mean anything.

So if you're not prepared to look deeper and spend more time scouring the fine print, then you may be in for some nasty surprises down the road.

Glenn Hall is the editor of TheStreet.com. Previously, he served as deputy editor and chief innovation officer at The Orange County Register and as a news manager at Bloomberg News in Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Washington, D.C. As a reporter, he covered business and financial markets, worked in both print and television in the U.S. and Europe, and conducted in-depth investigative coverage at The Journal-Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. His work also has been published in a variety of newspapers including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and International Herald Tribune. Hall received a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science from The Ohio State University and a certificate in project and program management from Boston University.

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