Another case arising from the financial crisis has been settled with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which charged the holding company of Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank and its former chief financial officer with improper accounting of commercial real estate loans in the midst of the 2008 mortgage crisis.
Fifth Third agreed to pay $6.5 million to settle the SEC’s charges, and Daniel Poston agreed to pay a $100,000 penalty and be suspended from practicing as an accountant on behalf of any publicly traded company or other entity regulated by the SEC.
“Improper accounting by Fifth Third and Poston misled investors during a time of significant upheaval and financial distress for the company,” said George S. Canellos, co-director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. “It is important for investors to know the financial consequences of decisions made by management, so accounting rules that depend on management’s intent must be scrupulously observed.”
According to the SEC’s order instituting settled administrative proceedings, Fifth Third experienced a substantial increase in “non-performing assets” as the real estate market declined in 2007 and 2008 and borrowers failed to repay their loans as originally required. Fifth Third decided in the third quarter of 2008 to sell large pools of these troubled loans.
Once Fifth Third formed the intent to sell the loans, U.S. accounting rules required the company to classify them as “held for sale” and value them at fair value. Proper accounting would have increased Fifth Third’s pretax loss for the quarter by 132 percent, but instead, Fifth Third continued to classify the loans as “held for investment,” which incorrectly suggested that the company had not made the decision to sell the loans.
According to the SEC’s order, Poston was familiar with the company’s loan sale efforts, which included entering into agreements with brokers during the third quarter of 2008 to market and sell loans. Despite understanding the relevant accounting rules, Poston failed to direct Fifth Third to classify and value the loans as required. He also made inaccurate statements to Fifth Third’s auditors about the company’s loan classifications and certified the company’s inaccurate results for the third quarter of 2008, according to a statement issued by the SEC.
“By failing to classify large pools of loans as required, Fifth Third and Poston kept investors from knowing the full truth behind its commercial real estate loan portfolio,” said Stephen L. Cohen, an associate director in the SEC’s Division of Enforcement.
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