Are banks a special kind of company (or at least different)?

This is a big topic, and somewhat irredeemably technical, but I have come to believe that there are some unique features of banks that make them quite different from other companies. Notwithstanding the technical challenges, I think it is important to understand these distinguishing features if we are to have a sensible debate about the optimum financing structure for a bank and the kinds of returns that shareholders should expect on the capital they contribute to that structure.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Australian debate about optimum capital has been resolved by the “unquestionably strong” benchmark that APRA has set and which all of the major banks have committed to meet. However, agreeing what kind of return is acceptable on unquestionably strong capital remains contentious and we have only just begun to consider how the introduction of a Total Loss Absorbing Capital (TLAC) requirement will impact these considerations.

The three distinctive features of banks I want to explore are:

  • The way in which net new lending by banks can create new bank deposits which in turn are treated as a form of money in the financial system (i.e. one of the unique things banks do is create a form of money);
  • The reality that a large bank cannot be allowed to fail in the conventional way (i.e. bankruptcy followed by reorganisation or liquidation) that other companies and even countries can (and frequently do); and
  • The extent to which bank losses seem to follow a power law distribution and what this means for measuring the expected loss of a bank across the credit cycle.

It should be noted at the outset that Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig (who are frequently cited as authorities on the issues of bank capital discussed in this post) disagree with most if not all of the arguments I intend to lay out. So, if they are right, then I am wrong. Consequently, I intend to first lay out my understanding of why they disagree and hopefully address the objections they raise. They have published a number of papers and a book on the topic but I will refer to one titled “The Parade of the Bankers’ New Clothes Continues: 31 Flawed Claims Debunked” as the primary source of the counter arguments that I will be attempting to rebut. They are of course Professors whereas I bring a lowly masters degree and some practical experience to the debate. Each reader will need to decide for themselves which analysis and arguments they find more compelling.

Given the size of the topic and the technical nature of the issues, I also propose to approach this over a series of posts starting with the relationship between bank lending and deposit creation. Subsequent posts will build on this foundation and consider the other distinctive features I have identified before drawing all of the pieces together by exploring some practical implications.

Do banks create “money”? If so, how does that impact the economics of bank funding?

The Bank of England (BoE) released a good paper on the first part of this question titled “Money creation in the modern economy” .  The BoE paper does require some banking knowledge but I think demonstrates reasonably clearly that the majority of bank deposits are created by the act of a bank making a new loan, while the repayment of bank loans conversely reduces the pool of deposits. The related but more important question for the purposes of this discussion is whether you believe that bank deposits are a form of money.

Admati and Hellwig identify the argument that “banks are special because they create money” as Flawed Claim #5 on the grounds that treating deposits as money is an abuse of the word “money”. They are not disputing the fact that monetary economists combine cash with demand deposits in one of the definitions of money. As I understand it, the essence of their argument is that deposits are still a debt of the issuing bank while “real” money does not need to be repaid to anyone.

It is true that deposits are a bank debt and that some deposits are repayable on demand. However, I believe the bigger issues bearing on the economics of bank financing stem from the arguments Admati and Hellwig advance to debunk what they label as Flawed Claim #4 that “The key insights from corporate finance about the economics of funding, including those of Modigliani and Miller, are not relevant for banks because banks are different from other companies“.

Their argument appears to focus on using Modigliani and Miller (“M&M”) as an “analytical approach” in which the cost (contractual or expected) of the various forms of financing are connected by a universal law of risk and reward. Their argument is that this universal law (analogous to the fundamental laws of physics) demands that using more or less equity (relative to debt) must translate to a lower or higher risk of insolvency and that rational debt investors will respond by adjusting the risk premium they demand.

I have no issue with the analytical approach or the premise that funding costs should be related to risk. What happens however when one of the primary forms of debt funding is largely protected from the risk of insolvency? In the case of the major Australian banks, deposits account for over half of a bank’s total funding but are largely isolated from the risk of insolvency by a number of features. One is the Banking Act that confers a preferred claim in favour of Australian depositors over the Australian assets of the bank. The other is government guaranteed deposit insurance coverage capped at $250,000 per person per bank. The rationale for these acts of apparent government generosity is a contentious subject in itself but, for the purposes of this post, my working hypothesis is that the preferred claim and deposit insurance are a consequence of the fact that the community treats bank demand deposits as a form of money.

Consequently, the risk that an Australian depositor will face a loss of principal in the already remote event of insolvency is arguably de minimis and the way that demand deposits are priced and the way they are used as a substitute for cash reflects this risk analysis. There remains a related, though separate, risk that a bank may face a liquidity problem but depositors (to the extent they even think about this) will assume that central bank Lender of Last Resort liquidity support covers this.

Admati and Hellwig do not, to the best of my knowledge, consider the implications of these features of bank funding. In their defence, I don’t imagine that the Australian banking system was front of mind when they wrote their papers but depositor preference and deposit insurance are not unique Australian innovations. However, once you consider these factors, the conclusion I draw is that the cost of a substantial share of a bank’s debt financing is relatively (if not completely) insensitive to changes in the amount of equity the bank employs in its financing structure.

One consequence is that the higher levels of common equity that Australian banks employ now, compared to the position prior to the GFC, has not resulted in any decline in the cost of deposit funding in the way that M&M say that it should. In fact, the more conservative funding and liquidity requirements introduced under Basel III have required all banks to compete more aggressively for the forms of deposit funding that are deemed by the prudential requirements to be most stable thereby driving up the cost.

The point here is not whether these changes were desirable or not (for the record I have no fundamental issue with the Unquestionably Strong capital benchmark nor with more conservative funding and liquidity requirements). The point is that the cost of deposit funding, in Australian banking at least, has not declined in the way that Admati and Hellwig’s analytical approach and universal law demands that it should.

Summing up, it is possible that other forms of funding have declined in cost as Admati and Hellwig claim should happen, but there is both an analytical rationale and hard evidence that this does not appear to be the case, for Australian bank deposits at least.

The next post will consider the other main (non equity) components of a bank funding structure and explore how their risk/cost has evolved in response both to the lessons that investors and rating agencies took away from the GFC and to the changes in bank regulation introduced by Basel III. A subsequent post will review issues associated with measuring the Expected Loss and hence the true “Through the Cycle” profitability of a bank before I attempt to bring all of the pieces together.

There is a lot of ground to cover yet. At this stage, I have simply attempted to lay out a case for why the cost of bank deposits in Australia has not obeyed the universal analytical law posited by Admati and Hellwig as the logical consequence of a bank holding more equity in its financing structure but if you disagree tell me what I am missing …

Tony

Post script: The arguments I have laid out above could be paraphrased as “banks deposits differ from other kinds of debt because banks themselves create deposits by lending” which Admati and Hellwig specifically enumerate as Flawed Claim #6. I don’t think their rebuttal of this argument adds much to what is discussed above but for the sake of completeness I have copied below the relevant extract from their paper where they set out why they believe this specific claim is flawed. Read on if you want more detail or have a particular interest in this topic but I think the main elements of the debate are already covered above. If you think there is something here that is not covered above then let me know.

Flawed Claim 6: Bank deposits differ from other kinds of debt because banks create deposits by lending.

What is wrong with this claim? This claim is often made in opposition to a “loanable funds” view of banks as intermediaries that collect deposits in order to fund their loans. Moreover, this “money creation through lending” is said to be the way money from the central bank gets into the economy.19 The claim rests on a confusion between stocks and flows. Indeed, if a commercial bank makes a loan to a nonfinancial firm or to a private household it provides its borrowers with a claim on a deposit account. Whereas this fact provides a link between the flow of new lending and the flow of new deposits, it is hardly relevant for the bank’s funding policy, which concerns the stocks of different kinds of debt and equity that it has outstanding, which must cover the stocks of claims on borrowers and other assets that the bank holds.

A nonfinancial firm or household that receives a loan from a bank will typically use the associated claim on a deposit account for payments to third parties. The recipients of these payments may want to put some of the money they get into deposits, but they may instead prefer to move the money out of the banking system altogether, e.g., to a money market fund or a stock investment fund. 20

From the perspective of the individual bank, the fact that lending goes along with deposit creation does not change the fact that the bank owes its depositors the full amount they deposited. The key difference between deposits and other kinds of debt is not that deposits are “like money” or that deposits may be created by lending, but rather that the bank provides depositors with services such as payments through checks and credit cards or ATM machines that make funds available continuously. The demand for deposits depends on these services, as well as the interest that the bank may offer, and it may also depend on the risk of the bank becoming insolvent or defaulting.21

The suggestion that bank lending is the only source of deposit creation is plainly false.22 Deposits are created when people bring cash to the bank, and they are destroyed when people withdraw cash. In this case, the reduction in deposits – like any reduction in funding – goes along with a reduction in the bank’s assets, i.e., a shortening of its balance sheet, but this reduction affects the bank’s cash reserves rather than its lending. The impact of such withdrawals on banks and entire banking systems are well known from the Great Depression or from the recent experience of Greece. In Greece in the spring and summer of 2015, depositors also were worried about the prospect that in the event of the country’s exit from the euro, their denomination of their deposits would be changed, whereas a stack of bills under a matrass would not be affected.

Author: From the Outside

After working in the Australian banking system for close to four decades, I am taking some time out to write and reflect on what I have learned. My primary area of expertise is bank capital management but this blog aims to offer a bank insider's outside perspective on banking, capital, economics, finance and risk.

10 thoughts on “Are banks a special kind of company (or at least different)?”

  1. hi tony,

    are you free for a coffee tomorrow afternoon to talk about your blog? if so, i’ll also bring the wine for you.

    steve

    Like

  2. I’m really enjoying the design and layout of your blog.

    It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes
    it much more enjoyable for me to come here and visit more often. Did you
    hire out a developer to create your theme? Outstanding
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    Like

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