Capital adequacy – an option to add transparency and flexibility into the “Unquestionably Strong” mix

Two of my earlier posts (here and here) discussed the potential to improve the capital adequacy framework by revisiting the calibration and operation of regulatory capital buffers. Some of the issues discussed in those posts are touched on in a discussion paper APRA has released titled “Improving the transparency, comparability and flexibility of the ADI capital framework“.

APRA is open to alternatives but sets out two options for discussion

In APRA’s words, the DP outlines

“… options to modify the ADI capital framework to improve transparency and comparability of reported capital ratios. The main conceptual approaches APRA is considering and seeking feedback on are:

  • developing more consistent disclosures without modifying the underlying capital framework; and

  • modifying the capital framework by adjusting the methodology for calculating capital ratios.”

The First Approach– “Consistent disclosure” – seems to be a beefed up version of the status quo in which APRA gets more directly involved in the comparability process by adding its imprimatur to the internationally harmonised ratios some Australian banks currently choose to disclose as an additional informal measure of capital strength.

“Under this approach, ADIs would continue to determine regulatory capital ratios using APRA’s definitions of capital and RWA. However, APRA would also specify a methodology for ADIs to determine certain adjustments to capital and RWA that could be used for disclosure (Pillar 3) purposes. As noted above, the methodology would focus on aspects of relative conservatism that are material in size and able to be calculated simply and objectively.”

APRA argues that “The supplementary disclosure would allow all stakeholders to better assess the capital strength of an ADI on a more comparable basis. However, it would result in two APRA-endorsed capital ratios: an APRA regulatory capital ratio to be compared against minimum requirements, and an additional disclosure-only capital ratio for, in particular, international comparison.”

A Second Approach – “Capital ratio adjustments” would involve APRA modifying the calculation of regulatory capital ratios to utilise more internationally harmonised definitions of capital and RWA.

The DP explains that this “… alternative approach would involve APRA modifying the calculation of regulatory capital ratios to utilise more internationally harmonised definitions of capital and RWA. This would involve removing certain aspects of relative conservatism from ADIs’ capital ratio calculations and lifting minimum regulatory capital ratio requirements in tandem. This increase in regulatory capital ratio requirements could be in the form of a transparent adjustment to minimum capital ratio requirements—for the purposes of this paper, such an adjustment is termed the ‘APRA Overlay Adjustment’.”

“To maintain overall capital adequacy, the APRA Overlay Adjustment would need to be calculated such that the total dollar amount of Prudential Capital Requirement (PCR) and Capital Conservation Buffer (CCB) would be the same as that required if these measures were not adopted. In other words, the risk-based capital requirements of ADIs would be unchanged in absolute dollar terms, maintaining financial safety, but adjustments to the numerator and the denominator of the capital ratio to be more internationally comparable would increase reported capital ratios.”

APRA clarify that

“These options are not mutually exclusive, and there is potential for both approaches to be adopted and applied in different areas.”

Approach 2 has some clear advantages …

It would make the “unquestionably strong” capital ratios more directly comparable with international peers, thereby reducing the potential for the perception of this strength to be obscured or misunderstood.

“Perception” is the key word here. It matters that the strength of Australian banks is simple, transparent and evident rather than being something where the perceivers must understand a sequence of relatively obscure and complex adjustments to fully appreciate the strength of a bank’s capital. More importantly perception matters most when the system is under stress and people do not have the time, or the inclination, to look beyond the reported numbers.

The adjusted capital ratio approach also provides opportunity to increase the flexibility of the ADI capital framework in times of stress but only to the extent to which the Overlay Adjustment is applied to the capital buffer, rather than increasing the minimum capital requirements. Higher minimum requirements would do nothing to enhance flexibility and may even be a backward step.

I believe a non zero baseline for the CCyB would also enhance the flexibility of the capital framework by virtue of the fact that it improves the odds that the banks (and APRA) have a flexible buffer in place before it is needed. This opportunity for enhanced flexibility is an option under both approaches so long as the Unquestionably Strong Benchmark maintains a material surplus over the Capital Conservation Buffer as it currently does.

But also some challenges …

APRA notes that the Adjusted Capital Ratio approach:

  • May significantly increase operational complexity for ADIs by virtue of the fact that the application of the APRA Overlay Adjustment would result in variable capital ratio requirements,

• Potentially results in variable minimum capital requirements which introduces complexity in analysing capital buffers and may undermine the desired transparency, and

• Reduces the dollar value of the 5.125 per cent (of RWA) loss absorption trigger point.

Do the advantages of the Adjusted Capital Ratio approach outweigh the challenges?

The short answer, I think, is yes … albeit with some qualifications.

So far as I can see, the added complexity only enters the discussion to the extent that some of the APRA Overlay Adjustment is applied to increase the minimum capital requirement. Most, if not all, of the operational complexity is avoided if the “Overlay Adjustment” is confined to increasing the size of the capital buffer.

Conversely, the benefits of increased responsiveness (or risk sensitivity) and flexibility lie in an increased capital buffer.

It follows then that the best way to pursue this approach is for any harmonised adjustments to the reported capital ratio to be confined to a higher CCB. This begs the question whether all the Overlay Adjustment should be applied to the capital buffer. I address that question in my responses below to some of the questions APRA has posed to solicit industry feedback.

One issue not covered in the Discussion Paper in any detail is that the capital ratios under Approach 2 will be more sensitive to any changes in the numerator. This is a simple mathematical consequence of RWA being lower if more harmonised measures are adopted. I do not see this as a problem but the heightened risk sensitivity of the framework needs to be clearly understood beforehand to minimise the potential for larger changes in capital ratios to be misunderstood. A more risk sensitive capital ratio may even be an advantage. This may not be obvious but there is a body of research which suggests a more responsive, more volatile, measure of capital adequacy can be beneficial to the extent that it prompts greater risk awareness on the part of bank management and external stakeholders. Greg Ip’s book “Foolproof” offers an introduction to some of this research but a simple example illustrating the point is the way that the benefits of improved braking in modern cars is offset to some extent by people driving faster.

APRA concludes its discussion paper with some direct questions.

There are 8 questions in all but in the context of this post I will have a go at addressing 3 of them, questions 2, 7 and 8.

Question 2: If APRA were to apply a combination of Approach 1 and Approach 2, which aspects of relative conservatism are best suited to be treated under Approach 2?

If you accept the argument that the minimum capital requirement should continue to be a set value (i.e. not subject to periodic adjustment), then the aspects of relative conservatism best suited to Approach 2 are those which can reasonably be assigned to an increase in, and regular adjustment of, one or more of the capital buffers.

Running through the list of adjustments currently applied to generate the internationally harmonised capital ratios, we can distinguish three broad categories of APRA conservatism:

  1. The extra credit risk related losses a bank might expect to experience under a very severe recession or financial crisis style scenario but not necessarily a gone concern where losses extend into the tail of the loss distribution
  2. Assets whose value depends on the ADI being a going concern and consequently are less certain to be realisable if the bank is in liquidation or has otherwise reached a point of non-viability
  3. Capital deduction intended to avoid “double counting” capital invested outside the ADI include

There are very few areas of black and white in the response to this question, but the first group are the items of APRA conservatism that I think have the clearest claim to be included in the capital buffer. These reflect potential loss scenarios that are conservative but still within the domain of plausibly severe downturns in the business cycle; this would encompass the following capital ratio adjustments:

  • the 20 per cent loss given default (LGD) portfolio constraint required for residential mortgage exposures;
  • the LGD parameter for unsecured non-retail exposures;
  • credit conversion factors (CCFs) for undrawn non-retail commitments;
  • use of supervisory slotting and the scaling factor for specialised lending;
  • risk weights for other retail exposures covered by the standardised approach to credit risk; and
  • the exchange rate used to convert Euro-denominated thresholds in the Basel capital framework into Australian dollars.

The second category are assets which have a value if the bank is a going concern but cannot necessarily be relied upon in non viability scenarios; I.e.

  • deferred tax assets arising from timing differences;
  • capitalised expenses and transaction costs
  • the capital requirement applied by APRA for IRRBB (I am open to arguments that I am being too harsh on IRRBB)

The third category captures capital that is committed to risks where the bank is taking a first loss exposure including

  • investments in other financial institutions;
  • holdings of subordinated tranches of securitisations.
  • investments in commercial entities;

Another way to explore this question is to map these three categories to the traditional graphic expression of a bank loss distribution and establish whether they are expected to lie:

  • closer to the middle of the loss distribution (sometimes framed as a 1 in 25 year downturn or the kinds of losses we expect in a severe downturn)
  • Or closer to the “tail” of the loss distribution (typically expressed as a 1 in 1000 year loss in regulatory capital terms).

To be clear, I am not seeking to ascribe any level of precision to these statistical probabilities; simply to distinguish between the relative likelihood of the items of conservatism that APRA has embedded in its current measure of capital adequacy. These three items tend to be treated as equivalent under the current approach and enhanced disclosure per Approach 1 will do nothing to address this conflation of risks.

Question 7: Would increasing the size of capital buffers (either by increasing the CCB or by setting a non-zero baseline CCyB) relative to PCR appropriately balance capital strength with financial stability through the cycle?

I have advocated the benefits of a non zero baseline CCYB in previous posts. One of these posts focused on the approach adopted by the Bank of England where I identified two advantages.

Firstly, it directly addresses the problem of failing to detect/predict when systemic risk in the banking system requires prudential intervention. A lot of progress has been made in dealing with this challenge, not the least of which has been to dispense with the idea that central banks had tamed the business cycle. The financial system however retains its capacity to surprise even its most expert and informed observers so I believe it is better to have the foundations of a usable counter cyclical capital buffer in place as soon as possible after the post crisis repair phase is concluded rather than trying to predict when it might be required.

The BOE approach still monitors a range of core indicators for the CCyB grouped into three categories.

• The first category includes measures of ‘non-bank balance sheet stretch’, capturing leverage in the broader economy and in the private non-financial (ie household and corporate) sector specifically.

• The second category includes measures of ‘conditions and terms in markets’, which capture borrowing terms on new lending and investor risk appetite more broadly.

• The third category includes measures of ‘bank balance sheet stretch’, which capture leverage and maturity/liquidity transformation in the banking system.

However the BOE implicitly accepts that it can’t predict the future so it substitutes a simple, pragmatic and error resilient strategy (put the default CCyB buffer in place ASAP) for the harder problem of trying to predict when it will be needed. This strategy retains the option of increasing the CCyB, is simpler to administer and less prone to error than the standard BCBS approach. The BOE might still miss the turning point but it has a head start on the problem if it does.

The BOE also integrates its CCyB strategy with its approach to stress testing. Each year the stress tests include a scenario:

“intended to assess the risks to the banking system emanating from the financial cycle – the “annual cyclical scenario”

The severity of this scenario will increase as risks build and decrease after those risks crystallise or abate. The scenario might therefore be most severe during a period of exuberance — for example, when credit and asset prices are growing rapidly and risk premia are compressed. That might well be the point when markets and financial institutions consider risks to be lowest. And severity will be lower when exuberance has corrected — often the time at which markets assess risks to be largest. In leaning against these tendencies, the stress-testing framework will lean against the cyclicality of risk taking: it will be countercyclical.”

The Bank of England’s approach to stress testing the UK banking system – October 2015 (page 5)

I have discussed the BOE approach at length but the Canadian supervisor has also introduced some interesting innovations in the way that it uses a capital buffer to address the systemic risk of large banks that are worth considering as part of this review.

The second reason I favour a non zero baseline is because I believe it is likely to result in a more “usable” buffer once risk crystallizes (not just systemic risk) and losses start to escalate.

In theory, the standard capital conservation buffer (CCB) introduced under Basel III can absorb any unexpected increase in losses and allow banks the time to progressively rebuild the buffer when economic conditions improve

In practice, the upper boundary of the CCB acts as a de facto minimum requirement such that banks face strong market pressure to immediately rebuild the buffer potentially at material cost to shareholders

There are no guarantees for what happens to banking systems under stress, but a flexible buffer that is sensitive to the state of the credit cycle is I think far more fit for purpose.

It is important to note that a non zero CCYB is an option under both approaches. There is potentially enough surplus capital in the Unquestionably Strong calibration for a non-zero CCYB to be introduced without requiring banks to raise any more capital. This would be so under either of the approaches that APRA has outlined.

So a larger buffer would be desirable from the perspective of increased comparability and transparency but the advantages of a non zero CCYB could also be pursued under the Unquestionably Strong status quo or Approach 1.

Question 8: What may be some of the potential impacts if APRA increases the prescribed loss absorption trigger point above 5.125 per cent of RWA?

The rationale for increasing the PONV Trigger is that APRA believes it is important to preserve the value of the trigger in dollar terms.

I can see that it is important to have a PONV trigger well before a bank reaches the point of insolvency (I.e. where liabilities exceed assets).

It is less clear that the reduction in the dollar value of the trigger point is sufficiently material to matter.

What really matters is the amount of contingent capital available to be converted into common equity if the PONV conversion trigger is pulled.

In the absence of this source of new capital, the fact that a bank has X billion dollars more or less of book equity (according to the financial accounts) at the point of deemed non-viability is arguably irrelevant to whether it remains a going concern.

I am also pretty sure that we do not want the operational complexity associated with a PONV trigger that moves around over time as a result of seeking to compensate for the impact of the Overlay Adjustment on capital deductions and RWA.

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.

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