Bank capital buffers – room for improvement

I recently flagged a speech by Sam Woods (a senior official at the UK Prudential Regulation Authority) which floated some interesting ideas for what he describes as a “radically simpler, radically usable” version of the multi-layered capital buffers currently specified by the BCBS capital accord. At the time I was relying on a short summary of the speech published in the Bank Policy Institute’s “Insights” newsletter. Having now had a chance to read the speech in full I would say that there is a lot to like in what he proposes but also some ideas that I am not so sure about.

Mr Woods starts in the right place with the acknowledgment that “… the capital regime is fiendishly complex”. Complexity is rarely (if ever?) desirable so the obvious question is to identify the elements which can be removed or simplified without compromising the capacity to achieve the underlying economic objectives of the regime.

While the capital regime is fiendishly complex, its underlying economic goals are fairly simple: ensure that the banking sector has enough capital to absorb losses, preserve financial stability and support the economy through stresses.

… my guiding principle has been: any element of the framework that isn’t actually necessary to achieve those underlying goals should be removed. …

With that mind, my simple framework revolves around a single, releasable buffer of common equity, sitting above a low minimum requirement. This would be radically different from the current regime: no Pillar 2 buffers; no CCoBs, CCyBs, O-SII buffer and G-SiB buffers; no more AT1.

In practice, Mr Woods translates this simple design principle into 7 elements:

1. A single capital buffer, calibrated to reflect both microprudential and macroprudential risks.

2. A low minimum capital requirement, to maximise the size of the buffer.

3. A ‘ladder of intervention’ based on judgement for firms who enter their buffer – no mechanical triggers and thresholds.

4. The entire buffer potentially releasable in a stress.

5. All requirements met with common equity.

6. A mix of risk-weighted and leverage-based requirements.

7. Stress testing at the centre of how we set capital levels.

The design elements that appeal to me:
  • The emphasis on the higher capital requirements of Basel III being implemented via buffers rather than via higher minimum ratio thresholds
  • The concept of a “ladder of intervention” with more room for judgment and less reliance on mechanical triggers
  • The role of stress testing in calibrating both the capital buffer but also the risk appetite of the firm
I am not so sure about:
  • relying solely on common equity and “no more AT1” (Additional Tier 1)
  • the extent to which all of the components of the existing buffer framework are wrapped into one buffer and that “entire buffer” is potentially usable in a stress

No more Additional Tier 1?

There is little debate that common equity should be the foundation of any capital requirement. As Mr Woods puts it

Common equity is the quintessential loss-absorbing instrument and is easy to understand.

The problem with Additional Tier 1, he argues, is that these instruments …

… introduce complexity, uncertainty and additional “trigger points” in a stress and so have no place in our stripped-down concept …

I am a huge fan of simplifying things but I think it would be a retrograde step to remove Additional Tier 1 and other “bail-in” style instruments from the capital adequacy framework. This is partly because the “skin in the game” argument for common equity is not as strong or universal as its proponents seem to believe.

The “skin in the game” argument is on solid foundations where an organisation has too little capital and shareholders confronted with a material risk of failure, but limited downside (because they have only a small amount of capital invested), have an incentive to take large risks with uncertain payoffs. That is clearly undesirable but it is not a fair description of the risk reward payoff confronting bank shareholders who have already committed substantial increased common equity in response to the new benchmarks of what it takes to be deemed a strong bank.

I am not sure that any amount of capital will change the kinds of human behaviour that see banks mistakenly take on outsize, failure inducing, risk exposures because they think that they have found some unique new insight into risk or have simply forgotten the lessons of the past. The value add of Additional Tier 1 and similar “bail-in” instruments is that they enable the bank to be recapitalised with a material injection of common equity while imposing a material cost (via dilution) on the shareholders that allowed the failure of risk management to metastasise. The application of this ex post cost as the price of failure is I think likely to be a far more powerful force of market discipline than applying the same amount of capital before the fact to banks both good and bad.

In addition to the potential role AT1 play when banks get into trouble, AT1 investors also have a much greater incentive to monitor (and constrain) excessive risk taking than the common equity holders do because they don’t get any upside from this kind of business activity. AT1 investors obviously do not get the kinds of voting rights that common shareholders do but they do have the power to refuse to provide the funds that banks need to meet their bail-in capital requirements. This veto power is I think vastly underappreciated in the current design of the capital framework.

Keep AT1 but make it simpler

Any efforts at simplification could be more usefully directed to the AT1 instruments themselves. I suspect that some of the complexity can be attributed to efforts to make the instruments look and act like common equity. Far better I think to clearly define their role as one of providing “bail-in” capital to be used only in rare circumstances and for material amounts and define their terms and conditions to meet that simple objective.

There seems, for example, to be an inordinate amount of prudential concern applied to the need to ensure that distributions on these instruments are subject to the same restrictions as common equity when the reality is that the amounts have a relatively immaterial impact on the capital of the bank and that the real value of the instruments lie in the capacity to convert their principal into common equity. For anyone unfamiliar with the way that these instruments facilitate and assign loss absorption under bail-in I had a go at a deeper dive on the topic here.

One buffer to rule them all

I am not an expert on the Bank of England’s application of the Basel capital accord but I for one have always found their Pillar 2B methodology a bit confusing (and I like to think that I do mostly understand capital adequacy). The problem for me is that Pillar 2B seems to be trying to answer much the same question as a well constructed stress testing model applied to calibration of the capital buffer. So eliminating the Pillar 2B element seems like a step towards a simpler, more transparent approach with less potential for duplication and confusion.

I am less convinced that a “single capital buffer” is a good idea but this is not a vote for the status quo. The basic structure of a …

  • base Capital Conservation Buffer (CCB),
  • augmented where necessary to provide an added level of safety for systemically important institutions (either global or domestic), and
  • capped with a variable component designed to absorb the “normal” or “expected” rise and fall of losses associated with the business cycle

seems sound and intuitive to me.

What I would change is the way that the Countercyclical Capital Conservation Buffer (CCyB) is calibrated. This part of the prudential capital buffer framework has been used too little to date and has tended to be applied in an overly mechanistic fashion. This is where I would embrace Mr Woods’ proposal that stress testing become much more central to the calibration of the CCyB and more explicitly tied to the risk appetite of the entity conducting the process.

I wrote a long post back in 2019 where I set out my thoughts on why every bank needs a cyclical capital buffer. I argued then that using stress testing to calibrate the cyclical component of the target capital structure offered an intuitive way of translating the risk appetite reflected in all the various risk limits into a capital adequacy counterpart. Perhaps more importantly,

  • it offered a way to more clearly define the point where the losses being experienced by the bank transition from expected to unexpected,
  • focussed risk modelling on the parts of the loss distribution that more squarely lay within their “zone of validity”, and
  • potentially allowed the Capital Conservation Buffer (CCB) to more explicitly deal with “unexpected losses” that threatened the viability of the bank.

I have also seen a suggestion by Douglas Elliott (Oliver Wyman) that a portion of the existing CCB be transferred into a larger CCyB which I think is worth considering if we ever get the chance to revisit the way the overall prudential buffers are designed. This makes more sense to me than fiddling with the minimum capital requirement.

As part of this process I would also be inclined to revisit the design of the Capital Conservation Ratio (CCR) applied as CET1 capital falls below specified quartiles of the Capital Conservation Buffer. This is another element of the Basel Capital Accord that is well intentioned (banks should respond to declining capital by retaining an increasing share of their profits) that in practice tends to be much more complicated in practice than it needs to be.

Sadly, explaining exactly why the CCR is problematic as currently implemented would double the word count of this post (and probably still be unintelligible to anyone who has not had to translate the rules into a spreadsheet) so I will leave that question alone for today.

Summing up

Mr Woods has done us all a service by raising the question of whether the capital buffer framework delivered by the Basel Capital Accord could be simplified while improving its capacity to achieve its primary prudential and economic objectives. I don’t agree with all of the elements of the alternative he puts up for discussion but that is not really the point. The important point is to realise that the capital buffer framework we have today is not as useful as it could be and that really matters for helping ensure (as best we can) that we do not find ourselves back in a situation where government finds that bailing out the banks is its least worst option.

I have offered my thoughts on things we could do better but the ball really sits with the Basel Committee to reopen the discussion on this area of the capital adequacy framework. That will not happen until a broader understanding of the problems discussed above emerges so all credit to Mr Woods for attempting to restart that discussion.

As always let me know what I am missing …

Tony – From the Outside

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.

3 thoughts on “Bank capital buffers – room for improvement”

  1. Thing is, you say hybrids “enable the bank to be recapitalised with a material injection of common equity” but the solvency of a bank does not change one joy when an AT1 is converted into ordinary shares. The solvency is created when the hybrid is sold on issue and the only thing that changes if it’s converted into ordinary shares is governance and maybe taxation.

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    1. Adrian. We may have to agree to disagree but I think it is generally agreed that common equity is better than hybrid instruments. Personally I would be quite happy with the bail-in instrument being debt like in its format so long as it can be used to generate common equity when required. I also feel the fact that the conversion imposes a price/cost on the existing common equity is a useful feature. There should be a cost of failure.

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      1. Adrian. Have reflected a bit more on your comment recognising that you will most likely be much more the expert on these instruments than I. Another way to express my point is to argue that it is not just about “being solvent”, it is (I think) about “being seen to be solvent”. The pre bail-in capital stack sets a benchmark for an amount of capital that meets the target degree of strength the bank has decided on. Bail-in, apart from exacting a cost on the bank for having got to the point of non-viability, also sends a very public signal that capital has been strengthened.

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