TIME Retail

People Are Buying More Fancy Toilet Paper Than Ever

And that could be a good sign for the economy

You may not be able to poop gold, but at least you can wipe with luxe toilet paper.

Luxury toilet paper sales reached $1.4 billion last year, outselling regular toilet paper for the first time in 10 years, reports the Washington Post, citing data from market research company Euromonitor International. Luxury toilet paper sales have grown more than 70% since 2000, and are expected to grow another 9% over the next five years.

Analysts say that while luxury toilet paper (the cushy, quilted, scented varieties) is more expensive than regular toilet paper, it doesn’t break the bank for most consumers—which means it’s a small luxury many Americans feel they can afford.

That’s why some experts say luxury toilet paper sales may even be a sign of economic strength. The last times the luxury brands outsold generic toilet paper were in 2005 and 2000, both boom years for consumer spending.

[Washington Post]

MONEY stocks

Why You Shouldn’t Reach to Grab New Stocks

150312_ISK_SkepticalInvestor
Taylor Callery

As Shake Shack's recent slide demonstrates, while the IPO boom gives you lots of hot companies to take a flier on, you’ll most likely fall flat.

Do you regret missing out on the stunning debuts of Alibaba ALIBABA GROUP HOLDING LTD BABA -0.8% and Shake Shack SHAKE SHACK INC SHAK 1.27% ? Are you now waiting to hail Uber or snap up Snapchat when they go public, as expected?

Before you jump in, remember that when you pick a stock, you’re already taking a leap of faith—but with a newly public company, you’re taking two leaps. First, do you really know enough about the business? Second, has the market had sufficient time to draw its own conclusions so that you are buying at a fairly rational price?

“Anything that’s been trading for a while has been vetted by a whole host of investors,” says John Barr, a manager with the Needham Funds. Not so at or just after an initial public offering, and that’s why you have to tread carefully.

You’ll pay for the honeymoon

IPOs attract big headlines on day one, but surprises inevitably crop up. From 1970 to 2012, the typical IPO gained just 0.7% in its second six months, after the honeymoon effect had a chance to wear off. That’s five percentage points less than other similar-size stocks, finds Jay Ritter, a finance professor at the University of Florida. The year after that, the average IPO lagged by eight points.

Chinese e-tailer Alibaba, which soared 38% on its first day in September, is getting its dose of reality a bit ahead of schedule. Shares are down 28% lately, after the company surprisingly missed revenue-growth forecasts.

Themes get overdone

It’s easy to be lured by a story. Shake Shack doubled on its first day, thanks to the buzz surrounding high-quality fast-food chains like Chipotle CHIPOTLE MEXICAN GRILL INC. CMG -1.11% . But riding a food trend is hard. A decade ago, overexpansion killed investors’ ravenous appetite for Krispy Kreme doughnuts KRISPY KREME KKD 0.65% , and the company’s shares remain 56% off their peak.

Shake Shack has also entered a crowded battle for foodie dollars: the Habit Restaurants HABIT RESTAURANTS HABT -0.69% , Potbelly POTBELLY CORP COM USD0.01 PBPB 1.73% , and Noodles & Co. NOODLES & CO COM USD0.01 CL'A' NDLS -0.34% all went public recently, and all more than doubled in the first day. Odds are the market is overoptimistic about most of them. Since 2013, 15 stocks have doubled on day one; only two—both biotech firms—are trading above their first day’s close.

The fact is, unless you gain access to an IPO at a great price at issuance, you can’t view those stocks as buy-and-hold investments. And you should avoid any richly priced new stock altogether.

Shake Shack trades at 650 times its earnings. To justify that valuation, Ritter figures the burger chain must grow from 63 stores to nearly 700, each half as profitable as a Chipotle restaurant. That’s a big leap indeed, given that Shake Shack locations aren’t even a third as profitable at the moment.

This story was originally published in the April issue of MONEY magazine. Subscribe here.

TIME Oil

The Real (and Troubling) Reason Behind Lower Oil Prices

green-gasoline-pump
Getty Images

It isn't supply and demand, as most people believe

I am obsessed with how the top tier of finance has undermined, rather than fueled, the real economy. In part, that’s because of I’m writing a book about the topic, but also because so many market stories I come across seem to support this notion. The other day, I had lunch with Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets for Morgan Stanley Investment Management and chief of macroeconomics for the bank, who posited a fascinating idea: the major fall in oil prices since this summer may be about a shift in trading, rather than a change in the fundamental supply and demand equation. Oil, he says, is now a financial asset as much as a commodity.

The conventional wisdom about the fall in oil prices has been that it’s a result of both slower demand in China, which is in the midst of a slowdown and debt crisis, but also the increase in US shale production and the unwillingness of the Saudis to stop pumping so much oil. The Saudis often cut production in periods of slowing demand, but this time around they have not. This is in part because they are quite happy to put pressure on the Iranians, their sectarian rivals who need a much higher oil price to meet their budgets, as well as the Russians, who likewise are on the wrong side of the sectarian conflict in the Middle East via their support for the Syrian regime.

Sharma rightly points out, though, that supply and demand haven’t changed enough to create a 50% plunge in prices. Meanwhile, the price decline began not on the news of slower Chinese growth or Saudi announcements about supply, but last summer when the Fed announced that it planned to stop its quantitative easing program. Sharma and many others believe this program fueled a run up in asset buying in both emerging markets and commodities markets. “Easy money had kept oil prices artificially high for much longer than fundamentals warranted, as Chinese demand and oil supply had started to turn back in 2011, and oil prices have now merely returned to their long-term average,” says Sharma. “The end of the Fed’s quantitative easing has finally pricked the oil bubble.”

If this is the case, the fact that hot money could have such an effect on such a crucial everyday resource is worrisome. And the fact that the Fed’s QE, which was designed to buoy the real economy, has instead had the unintended and perverse effect of inflating asset prices is particularly disturbing. I think that regulatory attention on the financialization of the commodities markets will undoubtedly grow; for more on how it all works, check out this New York Times story on Goldman’s control of the aluminum markets. Amazing stuff.

Correction: The original version of this story misidentified Ruchir Sharma. He is the head of emerging markets for Morgan Stanley Investment Management.

Read next: The U.S. Will Spend $5 Billion on Energy Research in 2015 – Where Is It Going?

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Economy

No Failures in Fed’s Annual Bank Stress Tests

The U.S. Federal Reserve Bank Building in Washington.
J. Scott Applewhite—AP The U.S. Federal Reserve Bank Building in Washington.

All 31 banks the Federal Reserve tested were deemed strong enough

For the first time since the financial crisis, the Fed isn’t handing out any Fs.

On Thursday, the Federal Reserve released the results of its annual bank stress tests. Of the 31 banks the Fed tested—which included the largest U.S. banks, like Bank of America, Citi, and Wells Fargo—as well as some sizable regional banks and the U.S. divisions of large international banks, all were deemed strong enough to weather a severe economic meltdown without any help from the government.

Still, a number of banks, including Goldman Sachs, weren’t far above levels that the Fed requires to pass its test. Regional bank Zions Bancorp, too, just cleared the Fed’s minimum on certain accounts. Zion was the only U.S. bank to fail the stress test last year.

Still, as was the case a year ago, the banks collectively cleared the test by a wider margin than they did in 2014. And the banks didn’t just have more capital — the amount of money they have in reserves to cover losses — than a year ago. The Fed also projected they would have fewer bad loans and fewer trading losses.

The positive stress test results serve as yet another example of how far the economy and the banking sector have recovered since the financial crisis. Lending in 2014 rose nearly twice as fast as it did in any year since the financial crisis. On Friday, the government’s employment report is expected to show that employers added 230,000 positions in February, which would be the 12th straight month in which that figure has surpassed 200,000.

Recently, though, U.S. banks have seen their bottom lines falter. That’s in part because of low interest rates, which has made lending less profitable. But some have wondered whether new regulations and other long-term changes to the financial system have made banks less profitable. Shares of the big banks have lagged the market for the past year.

Others stress the fact that the banks are now safer than they used to be, and that’s better for both the economy and investors. Some economists have even argued the shares of safer banks should be worth more.

All told, the Federal Reserve estimated that the 31 banks would lose just over $490 billion dollars if the economy were to enter a recession similar to the one we experienced in the late 2000s. That’s down from just over $500 billion in bank losses the Fed projected a year ago. Among the nation’s largest financial firms, Morgan Stanley came out looking the weakest. A key ratio the Fed looks at to measure financial strength, the so-called tier 1 common ratio, was projected to drop to the lowest level (among the U.S.’s six biggest banks) at Morgan Stanley. Goldman was in the second worst position. A Fed official said that the regulator included higher losses in stock and bond markets than in the past. That might have hurt Morgan Stanley and Goldman more than the other banks because both banks are more closely tied to trading markets than their immediate competitors.

The initial results appear to be a win for Citigroup and CEO Michael Corbat. Among the big banks, Citi had the highest tier one common ratio. JPMorgan Chase, again, had relatively disappointing results in the Fed’s stress test, coming out only slightly above Morgan Stanley and Goldman. JPMorgan’s large investment bank and trading operations could have hurt the bank’s performance.

The Fed conducted its stress test by looking at how much the banks could stand to lose in their loan portfolios and trading books under an adverse economic scenario. The scenario included a rise in the unemployment rate to 10%, a 60% drop in the Dow Jones industrial average, and a 25% drop in housing prices.

After simulating those losses, the Fed then figured how much capital a bank would have left as a percentage of its remaining loans and investments, weighted for risk. The Fed generally deems a bank healthy if it has enough capital to cover a 5% drop in its assets. At the worst of the financial crisis, the average so-called capital ratio at the largest banks dropped to 5.6%. But the Fed said the average capital ratios of the big banks would only dip to 8.5% in this year’s stress test. That was up from 7.6% a year ago.

This year’s results, though, were skewed by particularly strong results from Deutsche Bank, which scored a tier 1 common ratio of nearly 35% under the Fed’s severely adverse scenario. Then again, Fed officials said that only a small part, perhaps 15%, of Deutsche’s U.S. operations were examined in the test.

Besides the main test, the Fed also tested how banks would do under an economic scenario that was less severe but one that included quickly rising interest rates. The banks weathered that scenario as well.

A Fed official cautioned that while all the banks met the minimum capital levels, the regulator might still reject a bank’s request to increase dividends based on qualitative factors. The Fed will release those results next week.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com.

MONEY investing strategy

The Track Records of Wall Street’s Top Strategists Are Worse Than You Think

fever graph on screen
Richard Drew—AP

Listening to Wall Street's top strategists is no better than random guessing.

This is embarrassing.

There are 22 “chief market strategists” at Wall Street’s biggest banks and investment firms. They work at storied firms such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. They have access to the best information, the smartest economists, and teams of brilliant analysts. They talk to the largest investors in the world. They work hard. They are paid lots of money.

One of their most important — and certainly highest-profile — jobs is forecasting what the stock market will do over the next year. Strategists do this every January by predicting where the S&P 500 will close on Dec. 31.

You won’t be shocked to learn their track record isn’t perfect. But you might be surprised at how disastrously bad it is. I certainly was.

On average, chief market strategists’ forecasts are worse than those made by a guy I call the Blind Forecaster. He’s a brainless idiot who assumes the market goes up 9% — its long-term historic average — every year, regardless of circumstances.

Here’s the average strategist’s forecast versus actual S&P 500 performance since 2000:

Some quick math shows the strategists’ forecasts were off by an average of 14.7 percentage points per year.

How about the Blind Forecaster? Assuming the market would rise 9% every year since 2000 provided a forecast that was off by an average of 14.1 percentage points per year.

Underperforming the Blind Forecaster isn’t due to 2008, which forecasters like to write off as an unforeseeable “black swan.” Excluding 2008, the strategists’ error rate is 12 percentage points per year, versus 11.6 percentage points per year for the Blind Forecaster. Our idiot still wins.

The Blind Forecaster wasn’t a good forecaster, mind you. He was terrible. He missed bear markets and underestimated bull markets. In only one of the last 14 years was his annual forecast reasonably close to being accurate. But he was still better than the combined effort of 22 of Wall Street’s brightest analysts.

And the Blind Forecaster required no million-dollar salary. He worked no late nights. He attended no conference calls, meetings, or luncheons. He made no PowerPoint presentations, and never appeared on CNBC. He has no beach house, and was granted no bonuses. He works free of charge, offering his services to anyone who will listen.

Amazingly, these stories aren’t rare. In 2007, economists Ron Alquist and Lutz Kilian looked atcrude futures, a market used to predict oil prices. These markets were actually less accurate at predicting oil prices than a naïve “no-change” forecast, which assumes the future price of oil is whatever the current price is now. The no-change forecast was terrible at predicting oil prices, of course. But it was better than the collective effort of the futures market.

This raises two questions: Why do people listen to strategists? And why are they so bad?

The first question is easy. I think there’s a burning desire to think of finance as a science like physics or engineering.

We want to think it can be measured cleanly, with precision, in ways that make sense. If you think finance is like physics, you assume there are smart people out there who can read the data, crunch the numbers, and tell us exactly where the S&P 500 will be on Dec. 31, just as a physicist can tell us exactly how bright the moon will be on the last day of the year.

But finance isn’t like physics. Or, to borrow an analogy from investor Dean Williams, it’s not like classical physics, which analyzes the world in clean, predictable, measurable ways. It’s more like quantum physics, which tells us that — at the particle level — the world works in messy, disorderly ways, and you can’t measure anything precisely because the act of measuring something will affect the thing you’re trying to measure (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle). The belief that finance is something precise and measurable is why we listen to strategists. And I don’t think that will ever go away.

Finance is much closer to something like sociology. It’s barely a science, and driven by irrational, uninformed, emotional, vengeful, gullible, and hormonal human brains.

If you think of finance as being akin to physics when it’s actually closer to sociology, forecasting becomes a nightmare.The most important thing to know to accurately forecast future stock prices is what mood investors will be in in the future. Will people be optimistic, and willing to pay a high price for stocks? Or will they be bummed out, panicked about some crisis, pissed off at politicians, and not willing to pay much for stocks? You have to know that. It’s the most important variable when predicating future stock returns. And it’s unknowable. There is no way to predict what mood I’ll be in 12 months from now, because no matter what you measure today, I can ignore it a year from now. That’s why strategists have such a bad record.

Worse than a Blind Forecaster.

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel’s columns.

The more you know about the most common mistakes that investors make, the better your likelihood of building lasting wealth. Click here for more commentary on how I think about investing and money.

Contact Morgan Housel at mhousel@fool.com. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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MONEY Markets

What the Greek Crisis Means for Your Money

Global markets seem safe enough for now, but a so-called “Grexit” could have unpredictable effects.

As government officials in Greece and the rest of the European Union continue to haggle over the terms of its bailout agreement, you may be wondering: Does this have anything to do with me?

If you are investing in a retirement account like a 401(k) or an IRA, the answer is likely “yes.” About a third of holdings in a fairly typical target-date mutual fund, like Vanguard Target Retirement 2035, are in foreign stocks. Funds like this, which hold a mix of stocks and bonds, are popular choices in 401(k)s.

Of those foreign stocks, only a small number are Greek companies. Vanguard Total International Stock (which the 2035 fund holds), for example, has only about 0.1% of assets in Greek companies. But about 20% of the foreign holdings in a typical target date fund are in euro-member countries, and if Greece leaves the euro, that could affect the whole continent.

What’s the worst that could happen? For one, investors and citizens in some troubled economies like Spain and Italy could start pulling their euros out of banks. Also, borrowing costs could go up, and that could hurt economic growth and weigh down stock prices. And if fear of European instability drives investors to seek out safe assets like U.S. Treasuries, then bond yields and interest rates could keep staying at their unusually low levels.

There are some market watchers who see a potential upside to the conflict over Greece, however.

“If you believe the euro is an average of its currencies, it could actually rise if Greece leaves,” says BMO Private Bank chief investment officer Jack Ablin. A higher euro would make European stocks more valuable in dollar terms.

Additionally, he says, if Athens is thrown into pandemonium, then it’s actually less likely other countries will want to follow Greece out of the currency union.

The Greek situation will also have an impact on the bond market. If fear of European instability drives investors to seek out safe assets like U.S. Treasuries, then many bond funds will do well, and yields and interest rates would stay at their unusually low levels.

Perhaps the most insidious thing right now, says Ablin, is uncertainty. Again, a Greek exit from the euro would be unprecedented, and that makes the effect unpredictable—and potentially very scary for the global market. So investors would be wise to keep in mind the possibility of “black swans,” a term coined by statistician Nassim Taleb to describe market events that seem unimaginable (like black swans used to be) until they actually occur.

MONEY Markets

Oil Prices: Freaking Investors Out for 150 Years and Counting

Oil derricks moving up and down
Getty Images

The entire oil and gas industry has pretty much maneuvered from crisis to crisis since its inception.

Whenever I read or watch financial media coverage of oil prices lately, the image that comes to mind is a bunch of kids who just ate half their weight in candy, washed it down with a gallon of Red Bull, and then run around the playground at warp speed. They both move so fast and sporadically that is almost impossible to keep up with them.

Here is just a small example of headlines that have been found at major financial media outlets in just the past week:

  • Citi: Oil Could Plunge to $20, and This Might Be ‘the End of OPEC’
  • OPEC sees oil prices exploding to $200 a barrel
  • Oil at $55 per barrel is here to stay
  • Gas prices may double by year’s end: Analyst

What is absolutely mind-boggling about these statements is that these sorts of predictions are accompanied with the dumbest thing that anyone can say about commodities: This time it’s different.

No it’s not, and we have 150 years worth of oil price panics to prove it.

Oil Prices: From one hysterical moment to another

The thought of oil prices moving 15%-20% is probably enough to make the average investor shudder. The assumption is that when a move that large happens, something must be wrong with the market that could change your investment thesis. Perhaps the supply and demand curves are a little out of balance, maybe there is a geopolitical conflict that could compromise a critical producing nation.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s just what oil prices do over time.

Ever since 1861 — two years after the very first oil well was dug in the U.S. — there have been:

  • 88 years with a greater than 10% change, once every year and a half
  • 69 years with a greater than 15% change, or once every 2.25 years
  • 44 years with a greater than 25% change, once every 3.5 years
  • 13 years with a greater than 50% change, once every dozen years or so

Also keep in mind, these are just the change in annual price averages. So it’s very likely that these big price pops and plunges are even more frequent than what this chart shows.

Investing in energy takes more stomach than brains

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of basing all of your energy investing decisions on the price of oil and where it will go. On the surface it makes sense because the price of that commodity is the lifeblood of these companies. When the price of oil drops as much as 50% over a few months, it will likely take a big chunk out of revenue and earnings power.

As you can see from this data, though, the frequency of major price swings is simply too much for the average investor to try to time the market. Heck, even OPEC, the organization that is supposed to be dedicated to regulating oil prices through varying production is bad at predicting which way oil prices will go.

The reality is, being an effective energy investor doesn’t require the skill to know where energy prices are headed — nobody has that skill anyways. The real determining factor in effectively investing in this space is identifying the best companies and holding them through the all the pops and drops.

Let’s just use an example here. In 1980, the price of oil — adjusted for inflation — was at a major peak of $104. From there it would decline for five straight years and would never reach that inflation adjusted price again until 2008. For 15 of those 28 years oil prices were one-third what they were in 1980. If we were to use oil prices as our litmus test, then any energy investment made in 1980 would have been a real stinker.

However, if you had made an investment in ExxonMobil in 1980 and just held onto it, your total return — share price appreciation plus dividends — would look a little something like this.

XOM Total Return Price Chart

So much for all those pops and drops.

What a Fool believes

The entire oil and gas industry has pretty much maneuvered from crisis to crisis since its inception, we just seemed to have forgotten that fact up until a few months ago because we had two years of relative calm. The important thing to remember is that the world’s energy needs grow every day and the companies that produce it will invest and make more money off of it when prices are high and less money when prices are low.

Based on the historical trends of oil, analysts will continue to go on their sugar-high proclamation streak and say that oil will go to absurd highs and lows so they can get their name in a financial piece, and they will try to tell you that this time it’s different because of xyz. We know better, and they should as well.

There’s 150 years of evidence just waiting to prove them wrong.

MONEY financial crisis

By This Measure, Banks Are Safer Today Than Before the Financial Crisis

150209_INV_BanksSafer
iStock

At least from the standpoint of liquidity, the nation's banks have come a long way over the last few years to build a safer and more stable financial system.

If you study the history of bank failures, one thing stands out: While banks typically get into trouble because of poor credit discipline, their actual failure is generally triggered by illiquidity. Fortunately, banks appear to have learned this lesson — though we probably have the 2010 Dodd Frank Act to thank for that — as lenders like Bank of America BANK OF AMERICA CORP. BAC 1.37% and others have taken significant steps over the last few years to reduce liquidity risk.

It’s important to keep in mind that banks are nothing more than leveraged funds. They start with a sliver of capital, borrow money from depositors and creditors, and then use the combined proceeds to buy assets. The difference between what they earn on those assets and what they pay to borrow the funds makes up their net revenue — or, at least, a significant part of it.

Because this model allows you to make money with other peoples’ money, it’s a thing of beauty when the economy is growing and there are no warning signs on the horizon. But it’s much less so when things take a turn for the worse. This follows from the fact that a bank’s funding could dry up if creditors lose faith in its ability to repay them, or if they need the money themselves. And if a bank’s funding sources dry up, then it may be forced to dispose of assets quickly and at fire-sale prices in order to pay its creditors back.

This is why some funding sources are better than others. Deposits are the best because they are the least likely to flee at the first sign of trouble. Within deposits, moreover, insured consumer deposits are preferable, at least in this respect, to large foreign, corporate, or institutional deposits, which carry a greater threat of flight risk because they often exceed the FDIC’s insurance limit.

The second most stable source of funds is long-term debt, as this typically can’t be called by creditors until it matures. Finally, the least stable source consists of short-term debt, including overnight loans from other banks as well as funds from the “repo” and/or commercial paper markets. Because these must be rolled over at regular intervals, sometimes even nightly, they give a bank’s creditors the option of not doing so.

It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the biggest bank failures in history stemmed from an over-reliance on either short-term credit or on large institutional depositors. This was the reason scores of New York’s biggest and most prestigious banks had to suspend withdrawals in the Panic of 1873, during which correspondent banks located throughout the country simultaneously rushed to withdraw their deposits from money center banks after panic broke out on Wall Street. This was also the case a century later, when Continental Illinois became the first too-big-to-fail bank in 1984. It was the case at countless savings and loans during the 1980s. And it’s what took down Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Washington Mutual in the financial crisis of 2008-09.

A corollary to this rule is that one way to measure a bank’s susceptibility to failure — which, as I discuss here, should always be at the forefront of investors, analysts, and bankers’ minds — is to gauge how heavily it relies on short-term credit and institutional deposits as opposed to retail deposits and long-term loans. If a bank relies too heavily on the former, particularly in relation to its illiquid assets, then that’s an obvious sign of weakness. If it doesn’t, then that’s a sign of strength — though, it’s by no means a guarantee that a bank is otherwise prudently managed.

One way to gauge this is simply to look at what percentage of a bank’s funds derive from short-term loans as opposed to more stable sources. As you can see in the chart below, for instance, Bank of America gets roughly 16% of its funds from the short-term money market. That’s worse than a smaller, simpler bank like U.S. Bancorp, which looks to the money market for only 9% of its liquidity, but it’s nevertheless better than, say, Bank of America’s former reliance on short-term funds, which came in at 31% in 2005. Indeed, as William Cohen intimates in House of Cards, one of the “dirty little secret[s]” of Wall Street companies prior to the crisis was how much they relied on overnight repo funding to prop up their operations.

A second way to measure this is to compare a bank’s funding sources to the liquidity of its assets, and loans in particular, as loans are one of the least liquid types of assets held on a bank’s balance sheet. This is the function of the loan-to-deposit ratio, which estimates whether a bank’s deposits can singlehandedly fund its loan book. If deposits exceed loans — though, remember that not all deposits are created equal — then a bank could theoretically withstand a liquidity run by pruning its securities portfolio or using parts thereof as collateral in exchange for cash. This would protect it from the need to unload loans at fire-sale prices which, in turn, could render the bank insolvent.

Overall, as the chart above illustrates, the bank industry has aggressively reduced its loan-to-deposit ratio since the crisis. In 2006, it was upwards of 96%. Today, it’s closer to 70%. It can’t be denied that some of this downward trend has to do with the historically low interest rate environment, which reduces the incentive of depositors to alternate out of deposits and into low-yielding securities. But it’s also safe to assume that banks have intentionally brought this number down to shore up their balance sheets, and in response to the heightened liquidity requirements of the post-crisis regulatory regime.

Whatever the motivations are behind these trends, one thing is certain: At least from the standpoint of liquidity, the nation’s banks have come a long way over the last few years to build a safer and more stable financial system. This doesn’t mean we won’t have banking crises and liquidity runs in the future, as history speaks clearly on the point that we will. But it does mean that, for the time being anyhow, this is one less thing for bank investors to worry about.

TIME finance

The S&P Settlement Is Odious—And Business as Usual

S&P Index Reports Record Drop In U.S. Home Prices
David McNew—Getty Images GLENDALE, CA - NOVEMBER 27: A reduced price sign sits in front of a house November 27, 2007 in Glendale, California. U.S. home prices plummeted 4.5 percent in the third quarter from the year before. It is the biggest drop since the start of Standard & Poor’s nationwide housing index 20 years ago, the research group announced. Prices also fell 1.7 percent from the previous three-month period in the largest quarter-to-quarter decline in the index’s history. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The settlement is huge news and proof that the shady arrangement between Wall Street and Washington is back to business as usual

The bill finally came due for Standard & Poor’s Financial Services: $1.37 billion. That’s what the company will pay to the federal, state and D.C. governments to resolve the culpability of its ratings agency in draining trillions of dollars from our bank accounts, 401ks and home equity not to mention contributing mightily to the global financial crisis.

As Attorney General Eric Holder put it: “As S&P admits under this settlement, company executives complained that the company declined to downgrade underperforming assets because it was worried that doing so would hurt the company’s business. While this strategy may have helped S&P avoid disappointing its clients, it did major harm to the larger economy, contributing to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

But S&P got off cheap and the fact that none of the people in charge of the company at the time are going to jail tells you it’s business as usual between Washington and Wall Street. It’s just a speeding ticket, people. Move along. The company was quick to point out that it wasn’t guilty of what it admitted to: “The settlement contains no findings of violations of law by the Company, S&P Financial Services or S&P Ratings,” the company’s press release asserts.

Nope, just a level of odiousness that still resonates eight years later.

S&P, part of McGraw Hill Financial, Inc. rates bonds for a living—it still does—and it was living well up to the financial crisis by rubber stamping its top, AAA rating to tranche after tranche of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOS) from 2004 to 2007. The way this works is that the bond issuers pay the ratings agencies to rate them. No conflict there, right? Triple-A is the rating reserved for the best of the best. But RMBs and CDOs that S&P was rating were partially underwritten by the vast number of no-doc, “liar loan” and other mortgages being handed out by equally sleazy outfits such as Countrywide Financial.

It all collapsed like the Ponzi scheme it was when these unfit buyers started to default on their mortgages and the value of the bonds crashed. It would lead to cascading calamities including the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the bailout of AIG, Freddie and Fannie Mac (quasi-government mortgage agencies) not to mention widespread contagion in the auto industry. S&P will also pay $125 million to calPERS, the California pension fund that, like many other pension funds, bought some of these AAA bonds under the guise that they were safe.

Nice work, that. For years, S&P was able to fend off lawsuits by claiming that its ratings were merely statements of opinion protected by the First Amendment, which particularly ticked me off. Don’t use our free-press/free-speech amendment to shelter your atrocious behavior. But that defense finally collapsed after the government took another tack: alleging that S&P committed fraud. “As S&P knew,” read the Justice Department’s lawsuit, “these representations were materially false, and concealed material facts, in that S&P’s desire for increased revenue and market share in the RMBS and CDO ratings markets led S&P to downplay and disregard the true extent of the credit risks posed by RMBS and CDO tranches in order to favor the interests of large investment banks and others involved in the issuance of RMBS and CDOs.”

S&P continued to resist, despite the DOJ uncovering emails that showed S&P employees knew they had clearly underestimated the risk of the RMBs and CDOs. Here’s my personal favorite: “Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters.” (Some, in fact, did and are.) S&P’s other defense is essentially that the bankers all knew we were full of it.

In the agreement that S&P signed with prosecutors it admits to the fact that the company was selling garbage. The DOJ also made S&P eat the company’s assertion that the lawsuit was retaliation for S&P’s downgrading the debt of the United States in 2011. S&P was wrong about the quality of its bonds and wrong about the quality of U.S. treasuries. Treasuries have never been more desirable.

So now S&P is free to go about its business, which is an oligopoly that it shares with Fitch and Moody’s, the same threesome that controlled the rating market in 2007. In its reregulation of the financial industry, Congress left the ratings agencies alone. Which means that at some point in the future you can expect the same problems to crop again.

TIME Companies

This Brilliant 29-Year-Old Has the Hardest Job in Silicon Valley

Box, Inc. Chairman, CEO & co-founder Aaron Levie, second from right, gets a high-five during opening bell ceremonies to mark the company's IPO at the New York Stock Exchange on Jan. 23, 2015.
Richard Drew—AP Box, Inc. Chairman, CEO & co-founder Aaron Levie, second from right, gets a high-five during opening bell ceremonies to mark the company's IPO at the New York Stock Exchange on Jan. 23, 2015.

Well, one of the hardest. The CEO of recently IPO'ed Box faces tough competitors and a quickly changing market

Well, so much for that first-day pop. After pricing at $14 a share on Jan. 22, Box saw it stock rise as much as 77% on its first day of trading. In the six trading days since then, it’s lost more than a quarter of its peak value, closing just above $18 a share on Monday.

The first-day pop is both an honored Wall Street tradition and a sucker’s bet that individual investors keep falling for. Most tech IPOs that start out the gate overvalued yet with momentum behind them are as a rule trading significantly below those initial highs several months later. It only took Box a matter of days, not months.

The success of Box’s IPO isn’t important just for the company’s shareholders, buy for other tech companies – especially those in the enterprise market – planning on going public in coming months. The thing is, the outlook for Box is devilishly hard to predict because it’s a grab bag of challenges and opportunities, of promise and peril alike.

Box is a company growing revenue by 80% a year but it’s lost in aggregate nearly half a billion dollars, mostly on sales and marketing costs to win customers. It has one of the most respected young CEOs in Silicon Valley, influential partners and blue-chip customers but it’s toiling in a market that’s fragmented, changing quickly and growing more competitive by the week.

The bear case on Box is easier to articulate and so it may be gaining the upper hand among investors right now. First there are the losses, shrinking but still substantial. Net loss totaled $129 million in the nine months through October, down from $125 million in the year-ago period.

The hope is that as Box grows, losses will keep declining and eventually disappear as the company pushes into the black. But that may not happen as quickly as some expect. In the most recent quarter, net loss grew by 21% from the previous quarter, nearly double the 10% growth in revenue for the same period.

Then, there’s the valuation. Without profits, defenders point to the price-to-sales ratio but even here Box’s valuation is high. Box’s market value of $2.2 billion is equal to 11 times its revenue over the past 12 months. Even at its $14 a share offering price, Box was priced at 9 times its revenue.

Finally, in a stock market where the most coveted private tech companies are delaying IPOs, Box’s approach to the public market had more than its share of glitches. The company disclosed its IPO plans last March then delayed the offering until this year. Box initially planned to raise $250 million in the offering, then lowered the take to $175 million.

And yet there is reason to think that, if enough goes right for Box in the next year or so, Box could still have a bright future ahead of it. That’s because – unlike IBM, Oracle and other enterprise software giants – Box is well positioned to benefit from the inevitable shift from bloated, aging old business productivity software to an era where content is not just stored securely in the cloud but is created and collaborated there.

One unusual twist about Box’s long journey to its IPO is that, even while people disparaged the company’s worrisome financials, few if any had bad things to say about its CEO. Aaron Levie has a knack for seeing market shifts in advance. He founded Box in 2005 after seeing that online storage was finally ready to take off.

As Box competed with popular startups like Dropbox and, increasingly, with giants like Microsoft, Levie pushed Box away from simple online storage to areas of the enterprise cloud that will grow. Lower costs and stronger security are enticing companies in most industries to conduct more internal communications on the cloud as opposed to local networks that have been vulnerable to outside hackers.

Of course, Dropbox, Microsoft and others are also gunning toward this online-collaboration market. So rather than a generalized service like Office 365, Box is pushing to tailer its offerings to individual industries. In October, it bought MedXT, a startup working to allow sharing of radiology and medical imaging with doctors and patients. Box is also working on other industry-specific software for retail, advertising and entertainment.

To move quickly and reach out to customers in these industries, Box has had to spend more on sales and marketing than it was bringing in in revenue. That meant burning through about $23 million a quarter, which meant tapping public and private markets quickly to finance the sales push.

So Box, as ugly as the financials look now, is also an bet that the company is sitting on the edge of a big shift in the way companies communicate internally and externally -from desktops to mobile, from LANs to the cloud – and can provide a platform that helps them do it privately and securely. That bet is expensive and risky, but the payoff is possible.

That first-day pop was meaningless, as they so often are. Box will need time to prove its mettle, but it may well do so. For now, the uncertainty surrounding its prospects is likely to bring its stock price lower over the coming months. But for investors who are inclined to believe Box can execute on its vision, a cheaper stock may make taking the risk more worthwhile.

Read next: Amazon’s Plan to Buy Old RadioShacks Is a Brilliant Master Stroke—If It Happens

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