Leverage ratio

Improving resilience: banks and non-bank intermediaries

Debt causes fragility. When banks lack equity funding, even a small adverse shock can put the financial system at risk. Fire sales can undermine the supply of credit to healthy firms, precipitating a decline in economic activity. The failure of key institutions can threaten the payments system. Authorities naturally respond by increasing required levels of equity finance, ensuring that intermediaries can weather severe conditions without damaging others.

Readers of this blog know that we are strong supporters of higher capital requirements: if forced to pick a number, we might choose a leverage ratio requirement in the range of 15% of total exposure (see here), roughly twice recent levels for the largest U.S. banks. But as socially desirable as high levels of equity finance might be, the fact is that they are privately costly. As a result, rather than limit threats to the financial system, higher capital requirements for banks have the potential to shift risky activities beyond the regulatory perimeter into non-bank intermediaries (see, for example here).

Has the increase of capital requirements since the financial crisis pushed risk-taking beyond the regulated banking system? So far, the answer is no. However, in some jurisdictions, especially the United States, the framework for containing systemic risk arising from non-bank financial institutions remains inadequate….

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Size is Overrated

This month, in the guise of supporting community banks, the U.S. Senate passed a bill (S.2155) that eases regulation of large banks. We share the critics’ views that this wide-ranging dilution of existing regulation will reduce the resilience of the U.S. financial system.

In its best known and most publicized feature, the Senate bill raises the asset size threshold that Dodd-Frank established for subjecting a bank to strict scrutiny (such as the imposition of stress tests, liquidity requirements, and resolution plans) from $50 billion to $250 billion. In this post, we examine the role of asset size in determining the systemic importance of a financial intermediary. It turns out that (aside from the very largest institutions, where it does in fact dominate) balance sheet size is not a terribly useful indicator of the vulnerability a bank creates. We conclude that Congress should ease the strict oversight burden on institutions that pose little threat to the financial system without raising the Dodd-Frank threshold dramatically.

Judge makes an elegant proposal for accomplishing this. For institutions with assets between $100 billion and $250 billion, Congress should just flip the default. Rather than obliging the Fed to prove a mid-sized bank’s riskiness, give the bank the opportunity to prove it is safe. This approach gives institutions the incentive to limit the systemic risk they create in ways that they can verify. It also sharply reduces the risk of litigation by banks that the Fed deems risky...

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Tougher capital regulation pays off

Banks continue to lobby for weaker financial regulation: capital requirements are excessive, liquidity requirements are overly restrictive, and stress tests are too burdensome. Yes, in the aftermath of the 2007-09 financial crisis, we needed reforms, they say, but Basel III and Dodd-Frank have gone too far.

Unfortunately, these complaints are finding sympathetic ears in a variety of places. U.S. authorities are considering changes that would water down existing standards. In Europe, news is not promising either. These developments are not only discouraging, but they are self-defeating. Higher capital clearly improves resilience. And, at current levels of capitalization, it does not limit banks’ ability to support economic activity.

As it turns out, on this particular subject, there may be less of a discrepancy between private and social interests than is commonly believed. The reason is that investors reward banks in jurisdictions where regulators and supervisors promote social welfare through tougher capital standards....

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Bank Financing: The Disappearance of Interbank Lending

Retail bank runs are mostly a thing of the past. Every jurisdiction with a banking system has some form of deposit insurance, whether explicit or implicit. So, most customers can rest assured that they will be compensated even should their bank fail. But, while small and medium-sized depositors are extremely unlikely to feel the need to run, the same cannot be said for large short-term creditors (whose claims usually exceed the cap on deposit insurance). As we saw in the crisis a decade ago, when they are funded by short-term borrowing, not only are banks (and other intermediaries) vulnerable, the entire financial system becomes fragile.

This belated realization has motivated a large shift in the structure of bank funding since the crisis. Two complementary forces have been at work, one coming from within the institutions and the other from the authorities overseeing the system. This post highlights the biggest of these changes: the spectacular fall in uncollateralized interbank lending and the smaller, but still dramatic, decline in the use of repurchase agreements. The latter—also called repo—amounts to a short-term collateralized loan....

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Understanding Bank Capital: A Primer

Over the past 40 years, U.S. capital markets have grown much faster than banks, so that banks’ share of credit to the private nonfinancial sector has dropped from 55% to 34% (see BIS statistics here).  Nevertheless, banks remain a critical part of the financial system. They operate the payments system, supply credit, and serve as agents and catalysts for a wide range of other financial transactions. As a result, their well-being remains a key concern. A resilient banking system is, above all, one that has sufficient capital to weather the loan defaults and declines in asset values that will inevitably come.

In this primer, we explain the nature of bank capital, highlighting its role as a form of self-insurance providing both a buffer against unforeseen losses and an incentive to manage risk-taking. We describe some of the challenges in measuring capital and briefly discuss a range of approaches for setting capital requirements. While we do not know the optimal level of capital that banks (or other intermediaries) should be required to hold, we suggest a practical approach for setting requirements that would promote the safety of the financial system without diminishing its efficiency....

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Basel's Refined Capital Requirements

After nearly a decade of negotiations, last month, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision completed the Basel III post-crisis reforms to capital regulation. The final standards include refinements to: credit risk measurement and the computation of risk-weighted assets; the calculation of off-balance-sheet exposures and of the requirements to address operational risk; and the leverage ratio requirement for global systemically important banks (G-SIBs).

In this post, we focus on revisions to the way in which banks compute risk-weighted assets. To foreshadow our conclusion: the new approach adds unnecessarily to regulatory complexity. If the concern is that current risk-based requirements result in insufficient capital, it would be better simply to raise the requirements.

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Better capitalized banks lend more and lend better

Many people seem to think that when authorities increase capital requirements, banks lend less. The advocates of this view go on to argue that, since credit is essential for economic growth, we should not impose overly tough constraints on banks. Put another way, a number of people believe that we have gone too far in making the financial system safe and the cost is lower growth and employment.

Treasury Secretary-designate Steven Mnuchin appears to share the view that financial regulation has restrained the supply of credit: in a recent interview, he is quoted as saying “The number one problem with Dodd-Frank is that it’s way too complicated and cuts back lending.” One interpretation of this is that Secretary-designate Mnuchin will support proposals like House Financial Services Chair Jeb Hensarling’s Financial CHOICE Act to allow banks to opt for a simple capital standard as an alternative to strict regulatory scrutiny.

Our reaction to this is three-fold. First, for most banks, which are very small and pose little threat to the financial system, a shift toward simpler capital requirements—so long as they are high enough—may be both effective and efficient; for the largest, most systemic intermediaries, higher capital requirements should still be accompanied by strict oversight. Second, we see no evidence that higher bank capital is associated with lower lending. In fact, quite the opposite. Third, given that the 2007-09 financial crisis was the result of too much borrowing—and that over-borrowing is a leading indicator of financial crises—it follows that not all reductions in lending are bad. We take each of these points in turn...


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Making Finance Safe

Walter Wriston, Citicorp’s chief for nearly two decades until 1984, used to argue that banks’ didn’t need much, if any, capital. The global financial crisis put that view to rest. Today, we know that if banks are going to be able to absorb large unforeseen losses that would otherwise threaten financial stability, they need to finance themselves with equity, not just debt.

But how much capital do banks need to have to ensure the financial system is safe? Even after the financial crisis, answers to this question range widely, making it the single most contentious source of debate among bankers, regulators, and academics...

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