Bank deposits – turning unsecured loans to highly leveraged companies into (mostly) risk free assets – an Australian perspective

The ability to raise funding via “deposits” is one of the things that makes banks different from other types of companies. As a rule bank deposits benefit from a variety of protections that transform what is effectively an unsecured loan to a highly leveraged company into an (arguably) risk free asset.

This rule is not universal however. The NZ banking system, for example, has a distinctly different approach to bank deposits that not only eschew the protections Australian depositors take for granted but also has the power, via its Open Banking Resolution regime, to write down the value of bank deposits if required to ensure the solvency and viability of a bank. But some form of protection is common.

I previously had a go at the question of “why” bank deposits should be protected here.

This post focuses on the mechanics of “how” AUD denominated deposits held with APRA authorised deposit-taking institutions incorporated in Australia (“Australian ADIs” or “Australian banks”) are protected. In particular, I attempt to rank the relative importance of the various protections built into the Australian system. You may not necessarily agree with my ranking and that is OK – I would welcome feedback on what I may be missing.

Multiple layers of protection

Australian bank deposits benefit from multiple layers of protection:

  1. The risk taking activities of the banks are subject to a high level of supervision and regulation (that is true to varying degrees for most banking systems but Australian standards do seem to be at the more conservative end of the spectrum where Basel Committee standards offer a choice),
  2. The target level of Common Equity Tier 1 (CET1) capital required to support that risk must meet the standard of being “Unquestionably Strong”,
  3. This core capital requirement is supported by a series of supplementary layers of loss absorbing capital that can be converted into equity if the viability of the bank as a going concern comes into doubt,
  4. The deposits themselves have a priority super senior claim on the Australian assets of the bank should it fail, and
  5. The timely repayments of AUD deposits up to $250,000 per person per bank is guaranteed by the Australian Government.

Deposit preference rules …

The government guarantee might seem like the obvious candidate for the layer of protection that counts for the most, but I am not so sure. All the layers of protection obviously contribute but my vote goes to deposit preference. The capacity to bail-in the supplementary capital gets an honourable mention. These seem to me to be the two elements that ultimately underwrite the safety of the majority of bank deposits (by value) in Australia.

The other elements are also important but …

Intensive supervision clearly helps ensure that banks are well managed and not taking excessive risks but experience demonstrates that it does not guarantee that banks will not make mistakes. The Unquestionably Strong benchmark for CET1 capital developed in response to one of the recommendations of the 2014 Financial System Inquiry also helps but again does not guarantee that banks will not find some new (or not so new) way to blow themselves up.

At face value, the government guarantee seems like it would be all you need to know about the safety of bank deposits (provided you are not dealing with the high quality problem of having more than AUD250,000 in you bank account). When you look at the detail though, the role the government guarantee plays in underwriting the safety of bank deposits seems pretty limited, especially if you hold you deposit account with one of the larger ADIs. The first point to note is that the guarantee will only come into play if a series of conditions are met including that APRA consider that the ADI is insolvent and that the Treasurer determines that it is necessary.

In practice, recourse to the guarantee might be required for a small ADI heavily reliant on deposit funding but I suspect that this chain of events is extremely unlikely to play out for one of the bigger banks. That is partly because the risk of insolvency has been substantially reduced by higher CET1 requirements (for the larger ADI in particular) but also because the government now has a range of tools that allow it to bail-in rather than bail-out certain bank creditors that rank below depositors in the loss hierarchy. There are no great choices when dealing with troubled banks but my guess is that the authorities will choose bail-in over liquidation any time they are dealing with one of the larger ADIs.

If deposit preference rules, why doesn’t everyone do it?

Banking systems often seem to evolve in response to specific issues of the day rather than being the result of some grand design. So far as I can tell, it seems that the countries that have chosen not to pursue deposit preference have done so on the grounds that making deposits too safe dilutes market discipline and in the worst case invites moral hazard. That is very clearly the case in the choices that New Zealand has made (see above) and the resources they devote to the disclosure of information regarding the relative risk and strength of their banks.

I understand the theory being applied here and completely agree that market discipline should be encouraged while moral hazard is something to be avoided at all costs. That said, it does not seem reasonable to me to expect that the average bank deposit account holder is capable of making the risk assessments the theory requires, nor the capacity to bear the consequences of getting it wrong.

Bank deposits also function as one of the primary forms of money in most developed economies but need to be insulated from risk if they are to perform this role. Deposit preference not only helps to insulate this component of our money supply from risk, it also tends to transfer the risk to investors (debt and equity) who do have the skills and the capacity to assess and absorb it, thereby encouraging market discipline.

The point I am making here is very similar to the arguments that Grant Turner listed in favour of deposit protection in a paper published in the RBA Bulletin.

There are a number of reasons why authorities may seek to provide greater protection to depositors than to other creditors of banks. First, deposits are a critical part of the financial system because they facilitate economic transactions in a way that wholesale debt does not. Second, they are a primary form of saving for many individuals, losses on which may result in significant adversity for depositors who are unable to protect against this risk. These two characteristics also mean that deposits are typically the main source of funding for banks, especially for smaller institutions with limited access to wholesale funding markets. Third, non-deposit creditors are generally better placed than most depositors to assess and manage risk. Providing equivalent protection arrangements for non-deposit creditors would weaken market discipline and increase moral hazard.

Depositor Protection in Australia, Grant Turner, RBA Bulletin December Quarter 2011 (p45)

For a more technical discussion of these arguments I can recommend a paper by Gary Gorton and George Pennacchi titled “Financial Intermediation and Liquidity Creation” that I wrote about in this post.

Deposit preference potentially strengthens market discipline

I argued above that deposit preference potentially strengthens market discipline by transferring risk to debt and equity investors who have the skills to assess the risk, are paid a risk premium for doing so and, equally as importantly, the capacity to absorb the downside should a bank get into trouble. I recognise of course that this argument is strongest for the larger ADIs which have substantial layers of senior and subordinated debt that help ensure that deposits are materially insulated from bank risk. The capacity to bail-in a layer of this funding, independent of the conventional liquidation process, further adds to the protection of depositors while concentrating the role of market discipline where it belongs.

This market discipline role is one of the chief reasons I think “bail-in” adds to the resilience of the system in ways that higher equity requirements do not. The “skin in the game” these investors have is every bit as real as that the equity investors do, but they have less incentive to tolerate excessive or undisciplined risk taking.

The market discipline argument is less strong for the smaller ADIs which rely on deposits for a greater share of their funding but these entities account for a smaller share of bank deposits and can be liquidated if required with less disruption with the assistance of the government guarantee. The government guarantee seems to be more valuable for these ADIs than it is for the larger ADIs which are subject to a greater level of self-insurance.

Deposit preference plus ex ante funding of the deposit guarantee favours the smaller ADI

Interestingly, the ex ante nature of the funding of the government guarantee means that the ADIs for which it is least valuable (the survivors in general and the larger ADI’s in particular) are also the ones that will be called upon to pay the levy to make good any shortfalls not covered by deposit preference. That is at odds with the principle of risk based pricing that features in the literature about deposit guarantees but arguably a reasonable subsidy that assists the smaller ADIs to compete with larger ADI that have the benefit of risk diversification and economies of scale.

Summing up

If you want to dig deeper into this question, I have summarised the technical detail of the Australian deposit protection arrangements here. It is a little dated now but I can also recommend the article by Grant Turner published in the RBA Bulletin (December 2011) titled “Depositor Protection in Australia” which I quoted from above.

As always, it is entirely possible that I am missing something – if so let me know.

Tony – From The Outside

Banks Are Managing Their Stress – Bloomberg

The ever reliable Matt Levine discusses the latest stress test results for the US banks. In particular the disconnect between the severity of the assumptions in the hypothetical scenario and the actual results observed to date. He notes that it is still early and plenty of room for the actual outcomes to catch up with the hypothetical. However, one of the issues with stress testing is the way you model the way people (and governments) respond to stress.

As Matt puts it …

But another important answer is that, when a crisis actually happens, people do something about it. They react, and try to make it better. In the case of the coronavirus crisis, the Fed and the U.S. government tried to mitigate the effect of a real disaster on economic and financial conditions. Unemployment is really high, but some of the consequences are mitigated by stimulus payments and increased unemployment benefits. Asset prices fell sharply, but then rose sharply as the Fed backstopped markets. Financing markets seized up, and then the Fed fixed them.

The banks themselves also acted to make things better, at least for themselves. One thing that often happens in a financial crisis is that banks’ trading desks make a killing trading for clients in turbulent markets, which helps to make up for some of the money they lose on bad loans. And in fact many banks had blowout first quarters in their trading divisions: Clients wanted to trade and would pay a lot for liquidity, and banks took their money.

In a hypothetical stress test, you can’t really account for any of this. If you’re a bank, and the Fed asks you to model how you’d handle a huge financial crisis, you can’t really write down “I would simply make a ton of money trading derivatives.” It is too cute, too optimistic. But in reality, lots of banks just went and did that.

Similarly, you obviously can’t write down “I would simply rely on the Fed to backstop asset prices and liquidity.” That is super cheating. Much of the purpose of the stress tests is to make it so the Fed doesn’t have to bail out the banking system; the point is to demonstrate that the banks can survive a financial crisis on their own without government support. But in reality, having a functioning financial system is better than not having that, so the Fed did intervene; keeping people in their homes is better than foreclosing on them, so the government supported incomes. So the banks are doing much better than you might expect with 13.3% unemployment.

So it is likely that the Fed’s stress test is both not harsh enough, in its economic scenario, and too harsh, in its assumption about how that scenario will affect banks.

Notwithstanding the potential for people to respond to and mitigate stress, there is still plenty of room for reality to catch up with and exceed the hypothetical scenario. Back to Matt…

But the fact that the stress test imagines an economic crisis that is much nicer than reality is still a little embarrassing, and the Fed can’t really say “everything is fine even in the terrible downside case of 10% unemployment, the banks are doing great.” So it also produced some new stress-test results (well, not quite a full stress test but a “sensitivity analysis”) assuming various scenarios about the recovery from the Covid crisis (“a rapid V-shaped recovery,” “a slower, more U-shaped recovery,” and “a W-shaped double dip recession”). The banks are much less well capitalized in those scenarios than they are either (1) now or (2) in the original stress tests, though mostly still okay, and the Fed is asking the banks to reconsider stress and capital based on current reality. Also stop share buybacks:

Worth reading

Tony – From the Outside

Climate change – a central banking perspective

A BIS paper titled “Green Swan 2 – Climate change and Covid-19: reflections on efficiency versus resilience” initially caught my attention because of the reference to the tension between efficiency versus resilience. This tension is, for me at least, one of the issues that has tended to be ignored in the pursuit of growth and optimised solutions. The papers mainly deal with the challenges that climate change creates for central banks but I think there are also some insights to be drawn on what it means for bank capital management.

A core argument in the paper is that challenges like climate change and pandemics ….

“… require us to rethink the trade-offs between efficiency and resilience of our socio-economic systems … one way to address this issue is to think about buffers or some necessary degree of redundancy for absorbing such large shocks. Countries build FX reserves, banks maintain capital buffers as required by regulators, and so on. Perhaps similar “buffers” could be used in other areas of our societies. For example, could it be time to reassess our production systems, which are meant to be lean and less costly for maximum efficiency?”

The paper draws on a (much longer and more technical) BIS research paper titled “The green swan: Central banking and financial stability in the age of climate change”. Both papers contain the usual caveat that the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of their respective institutions. With that warning noted, this post draws on both papers to make some observations about what the papers say, and what this means for bank capital management.

There is a lot of content in the combined papers but the points that resonated the most with me were

  1. Climate change shares some of the features of a Black Swan event but is better thought of a distinct type of risk which the authors label a “Green Swan”.
  2. Green swan problems are created in part by choices we have made regarding the value of efficiency over resilience – part of the solution lies in rethinking these choices but this will not be easy.
  3. Climate change is a “collective action” problem which cannot be addressed by individual actors (including banks) operating independently – market based solutions like a carbon price may also be insufficient to bring about a solution that does not involve an unacceptable level of financial disruption.
  4. Scenario analysis (including stress testing) appears to be one of the better tools for dealing with climate change and similar types of risk – but it needs to be used differently (by both the supervised and the supervisors) from the way it is applied to conventional risks.

I am not an expert on climate change modelling, but Chapter 3 of the second paper also has what looks to be a useful overview of the models used to analyse climate change and how the outputs of these models are used to generate economic impacts.

Black, white and green swans

Climate change clearly operates in the domain of radical uncertainty. As such it shares some common elements with “black swan” events; in particular the fact that conventional risk models and analysis are not well suited to measuring and managing the potential adverse impacts. It is equally important however to understand the ways in which climate change differs from a classic black swan event. There is a longer list but the ones that I found most relevant were:

  1. Predictability – Black Swans are, by definition, not predictable whereas the potential for adverse Climate Change outcomes is well understood even if not universally accepted. The point is that understanding the potential for adverse impact means we have a choice about what to do about it.
  2. Impact – Black Swan events can have substantial impacts but the system can recover (e.g. the GFC has left a lasting impact but economic activity did recover once the losses were absorbed). The impacts of climate change, in contrast, may be irreversible and have the potential to result in people dying in large numbers.

Given the conceptual differences, the authors classify Climate Change as a distinct form which they label a “Green Swan”. To the best of my knowledge, this may be the first time the term has been used in this way. That said, the general point they are making seems to be quite similar to what other authors have labelled as “Grey Rhinos” or “Black Elephants” (the latter an obvious allusion to the “elephant in the room”, a large risk that is visible to everyone but no one wants to address).

A typology of swans
Categorising climate risk

The papers distinguish two main channels through which climate change can affect financial stability – physical risks and transition risks.

Physical risks are defined as

… “those risks that arise from the interaction of climate-related hazards […] with the vulnerability of exposure to human and natural systems” (Batten et al (2016)). They represent the economic costs and financial losses due to increasing frequency and severity of climate-related weather events (eg storms, floods or heat waves) and the effects of long-term changes in climate patterns (eg ocean acidification, rising sea levels or changes in precipitation). The losses incurred by firms across different financial portfolios (eg loans, equities, bonds) can make them more fragile.

Transition risks are defined as those

“… associated with the uncertain financial impacts that could result from a rapid low-carbon transition, including policy changes, reputational impacts, technological breakthroughs or limitations, and shifts in market preferences and social norms.

A rapid and ambitious transition to lower emissions, for example, would obviously be desirable from the perspective of addressing climate change but might also mean that a large fraction of proven reserves of fossil fuel cannot be extracted, becoming “stranded assets”. The write down of the value of these assets may have potentially systemic consequences for the financial system. This transition might occur in response to policy changes or by virtue of some technological breakthrough (e.g. problem of generating cheap energy by nuclear fusion is solved).

Efficiency versus resilience

I started this post with a quote from the first (shorter) paper regarding the way in which the Covid 19 had drawn attention to the extent to which the pursuit of efficiency had made our economies more fragile. The paper explores the ways in which the COVID 19 pandemic exhibits many of the same features that we see in the climate change problem and how the global response to the COVID 19 pandemic might offer some insights into how we should respond to climate change.

The paper is a useful reminder of the nature of the problem but I am less confident that it offers a solution that will work without some form of regulation or public sector investment in the desired level of redundancy. The paper cites bank capital buffers introduced post GFC as an example of what to do but this was a regulated outcome that would most likely not be acceptable for non-financial companies in countries that remain committed to free market ideology.

The Economist published an article on this question that offered numerous examples of similar problems that illustrate the propensity of “humanity, at least as represented by the world’s governments … to ignore them until forced to react” .

Thomas Friedman’s article (“How we broke the world”) is also worth reading on this question …

If recent weeks have shown us anything, it’s that the world is not just flat. It’s fragile.

And we’re the ones who made it that way with our own hands. Just look around. Over the past 20 years, we’ve been steadily removing man-made and natural buffers, redundancies, regulations and norms that provide resilience and protection when big systems — be they ecological, geopolitical or financial — get stressed. We’ve been recklessly removing these buffers out of an obsession with short-term efficiency and growth, or without thinking at all.

The New York Times, 30 May 2020
Managing collective action problems

The second paper, in particular, argues that it is important to improve our understanding of the costs of climate change and to ensure that these costs are incorporated into the prices that drive the resources we allocate to dealing with the challenge (e.g. via a carbon price or tax). However one of its key conclusions is that relying on markets to solve the problem is unlikely to be sufficient even with the help of some form of carbon price that reflects a more complete account of the costs of our current carbon based economy.

In short, the development and improvement of forward-looking risk assessment and climate- related regulation will be essential, but they will not suffice to preserve financial stability in the age of climate change: the deep uncertainty involved and the need for structural transformation of the global socioeconomic system mean that no single model or scenario can provide sufficient information to private and public decision-makers. A corollary is that the integration of climate-related risks into prudential regulation and (to the extent possible) into monetary policy would not suffice to trigger a shift capable of hedging the whole system again against green swan events.

The green swan: Central banking and financial stability in the age of climate change; Chapter 5 (page 66)
Using scenario based methodologies to assess climate related risks

Both papers highlight the limitations of trying to measure and understand climate change using conventional probability based risk management tools. The one area they do see as worth pursuing is using scenario based approaches. This makes sense to me but it is also important to distinguish this kind of analysis from the standard stress testing used to help calibrate capital buffers.

The standard application of stress testing takes a severe but plausible macro economic scenario such as a severe recession and determines what are the likely impacts on capital adequacy ratios. This offers a disciplined way of deciding how much capital surplus is required to support the risk appetite choices a bank has made in pursuit of its business objectives.

A simplistic application of climate based stress testing scenarios might take the same approach; i.e. work out how much the scenario impacts the capital and ensure that the buffer is sufficient to absorb the impact. That I think is not the right conclusion and my read of the BIS papers is that they are not advocating that either. The value of the scenario based modelling is to first get a handle on the size of the problem and how exposed the bank is to it. A capital response may be required but the answer may also be to change the nature of your exposure to the risk. That may involve reduced risk limits but it may also involve active participation in collective action to address the underlying problem. A capital management response may be part of the solution but it is far from the first step.

Conclusion

I have only scratched the surface of this topic in this post but the two papers it references are worth reading if you are interested in the question of what climate change, and related Green Swan or Black Elephant problems, mean for the banking system and for central banking. There is a bit more technical detail in the appendix below but it is likely only of interest for people working at the sharp end of trying to measure and manage the problem.

I want to dig deeper into the question of how you use stress testing to assess climate change and related types of risk but that is a topic best left for another post.

Tony – From the outside

Appendix – Modelling the impacts of climate change

Section 3 of the longer paper (“Measuring climate-related risks with scenario-based approaches”) discusses the limitations of the models that are typically used to generate estimates of the ecological and financial impacts of climate change scenarios. There is plenty of material there for climate sceptics but it also assists true believers to understand the limits of what they can actually know and how coming to terms with the radical uncertainty of how climate change plays out shapes the nature of our response.

I have copied some extracts from the chapter below that will give you a flavour of what it has to say. It is pretty technical so be warned …

“… the standard approach to modelling financial risk consisting in extrapolating historical values (eg PD, market prices) is no longer valid in a world that is fundamentally reshaped by climate change (Weitzman (2011), Kunreuther et al (2013)). In other words, green swan events cannot be captured by traditional risk management.

The current situation can be characterised as an “epistemological obstacle” (Bachelard (1938)). The latter refers to how scientific methods and “intellectual habits that were useful and healthy” under certain circumstances, can progressively become problematic and hamper scientific research. Epistemological obstacles do not refer to the difficulty or complexity inherent to the object studied (eg measuring climate-related risks) but to the difficulty related to the need of redefining the problem”

Page 21

nothing less than an epistemological break (Bachelard, 1938) or a “paradigm shift” (Kuhn (1962)) is needed today to overcome this obstacle and more adequately approach climate-relate risks (Pereira da Silva (2019a)).

In fact, precisely an epistemological break may be taking place in the financial sector: recently emerged methodologies aim to assess climate-related risks while relying on the fundamental hypothesis that, given the lack of historical financial data related to climate change and the deep uncertainty involved, new approaches based on the analysis of prospective scenarios are needed. Unlike probabilistic approaches to financial risk management, they seek to set up plausible hypotheses for the future. This can help financial institutions integrate climate-related risks into their strategic and operational procedures (eg for the purpose of asset allocation, credit rating or insurance underwriting) and financial supervisors assess the vulnerability of specific institutions or the financial system as a whole

Climate-economic models and forward-looking risk analysis are important and can still be improved, but they will not suffice to provide all the information required to hedge against “green swan” events.

As a result of these limitations, two main avenues of action have been proposed. We argue that they should be pursued in parallel rather than in an exclusive manner. First, central banks and supervisors could explore different approaches that can better account for the uncertain and nonlinear features of climate-related risks. Three particular research avenues (see Box 5 below) consist in: (i) working with non- equilibrium models; (ii) conducting sensitivity analyses; and (iii) conducting case studies focusing on specific risks and/or transmission channels. Nevertheless, the descriptive and normative power of these alternative approaches remain limited by the sources of deep and radical uncertainty related to climate change discussed above. That is, the catalytic power of scenario-based analysis, even when grounded in approaches such as non-equilibrium models, will not be sufficient to guide decision-making towards a low-carbon transition.

As a result of this, the second avenue from the perspective of maintaining system stability consists in “going beyond models” and in developing more holistic approaches that can better embrace the deep or radical uncertainty of climate change as well as the need for system-wide action (Aglietta and Espagne (2016), Barmes (2019), Chenet et al (2019a), Ryan-Collins (2019), Svartzman et al (2019)). 

Pages 42 – 43

Embracing deep or radical uncertainty therefore calls for a second “epistemological break” to shift from a management of risks approach to one that seeks to assure the resilience of complex adaptive systems in the face of such uncertainty (Fath et al (2015), Schoon and van der Leeuw (2015)).38 In this view, the current efforts aimed at measuring, managing and supervising climate-related risks will only make sense if they take place within a much broader evolution involving coordination with monetary and fiscal authorities, as well as broader societal changes such as a better integration of sustainability into financial and economic decision-making.

Page 48

Capital adequacy reform – new learnings from the crisis

A speech by APRA Chair Wayne Byres released today had some useful remarks on the post 2008 capital adequacy reforms and what we have learned thus far. A few observations stood out for me. Firstly, a statement of the obvious is that the reforms are getting their first real test and we are likely to find areas for improvement

“… the post-2008 reforms will be properly tested, and inevitably we will find areas they can be improved.”

The speech clarifies that just how much, if any, change is required is not clear at this stage

“Before anyone misinterprets that comment, I am not advocating a watering down of the post-2008 reforms. It may in fact turn out they’re insufficient, and we need to do more. Maybe they just need to be reshaped a bit. I do not know. But inevitably there will be things we learn, and we should not allow a determination not to backtrack on reforms to deter us from improving them.”

Everyone is focused on fighting the COVID 19 fire at the moment but a discussion paper released in 2018 offered some insights into the kinds of reforms that APRA was contemplating before the crisis took priority. It will be interesting to see how the ideas floated in this discussion paper are refined or revised in the light of what we and APRA learn from this crisis. One of the options discussed in that 2018 paper involved “APRA modifying the calculation of regulatory capital ratios to utilise more internationally harmonised definitions of capital and RWA“. It was interesting therefore to note that the speech released today referred to the internationally comparable ratios rather than APRA’s local interpretation of Basel III.

“We had been working for some years to position our largest banks in the top quartile of international peers from a capital adequacy perspective, and fortuitously they had achieved that positioning before the crisis struck. On an internationally comparable basis, our largest banks are operating with CET1 ratios in the order of 15-16 per cent, and capital within the broader banking system is at a historical high – and about twice the level heading into the 2008 crisis.”

The speech makes a particular note of what we are learning about the capacity to use capital buffers.

“One area where I think we are learning a lot at present is the ability to use buffers. It is not as easy as hoped, despite them having been explicitly created for use during a crisis. One blockage does seem to be that markets, investors and rating agencies have all adjusted to contemporary capital adequacy ratios as (as the name implies) ‘adequate capital’. But in many jurisdictions, like Australia, ratios are at historical highs. We often hear concern about our major banks’ CET1 ratios falling below 10 per cent. This is even though, until a few years ago, their CET1 ratios had never been above 10 per cent and yet they were regarded as strong banks with AA ratings. So expectations seem to have shifted and created a new de facto minimum. We need to think about how to reset that expectation.”

I definitely agree that there is more to do on the use of capital buffers and have set out my own thoughts on the topic here. One thing not mentioned in the speech is the impact of procyclicality on the use of capital ratios.

This chart from a recent Macquarie Wealth Management report summarises the disclosure made by the big four Australian banks on the estimated impact of the deterioration in credit quality that banks inevitably experience under adverse economic conditions such as are playing out now. The estimated impacts collated here are a function of average risk weights calculated under the IRB approach increasing as average credit deteriorates. This is obviously related to the impact of increased loan loss provisioning on the capital adequacy numerator but a separate factor driving the capital ratios down via its impact on the denominator of the capital ratio.

There are almost certainly issues with the consistency and comparability of the disclosure but it does give a rough sense of the materiality of this factor which I think is not especially well understood. This is relevant to some some observations in Wayne Byres speech about the capital rebuilding process.

A second possible blockage is possibly that regulatory statements permitting banks to use their buffers are only providing half the story. Quite reasonably, what banks (and their investors) need to understand before they contemplate using buffers is the expectation as to their restoration. But we bank supervisors do not have a crystal ball – we cannot confidently predict the economic pathway, so we cannot provide a firm timetable. The best I can offer is that it should be as soon a circumstances reasonably allow, but no sooner. In Australia, I would point to the example of the way we allowed Australian banks to build up capital to meet their ‘unquestionably strong’ benchmarks in an orderly way over a number of years. We should not be complacent about the rebuild, but there are also risks from rushing it.”

Given that the estimated impacts summarised in the chart above are entirely due to “RWA inflation” as credit quality deteriorates, it seems reasonable to assume that part of the capital buffer rebuild will be generated by the expected decline in average risk weights as credit quality improves. The capital buffers will in a sense partly self repair independent of what is happening to the capital adequacy numerator.

I think we had an academic understanding of the capital ratio impact of this RWA inflation and deflation process pre COVID 19 but will have learned a lot more once the dust settles.

Tony – From the Outside

When safety proves dangerous …

… is the title of a post on the Farnham Street blog that provides a useful reminder of the problem of “risk compensation”; i.e. the way in which measures designed to make us safer can be a perverse prompt for us to take more risk because we feel safer. I want to explore how these ideas apply to bank capital requirements but will first outline the basic ideas covered by Farnham Street.

we all internally have a desired level of risk that varies depending on who we are and the context we are in. Our risk tolerance is like a thermostat—we take more risks if we feel too safe, and vice versa, in order to remain at our desired “temperature.” It all comes down to the costs and benefits we expect from taking on more or less risk.

The notion of risk homeostasis, although controversial, can help explain risk compensation.

The classic example is car safety measures such as improved tyres, ABS braking systems, seat belts and crumple zones designed to protect the driver and passengers. These have helped reduce car fatality rates for the people inside the car but not necessarily reduced accident rates given that drivers tend to drive faster and more aggressively because they can. Pedestrians are also at greater risk.

Farnham Street suggests the following lessons for dealing with the problem risk compensation:

  1. Safety measures are likely to be more effective is they are less visible
  2. Measures designed to promote prudent behaviour are likely to be more effective than measures which make risky behaviour safer
  3. Recognise that sometimes it is better to do nothing if the actions we take just leads to an offset in risk behaviour somewhere else
  4. If we do make changes then recognise that we may have to put in place other rules to ensure the offsetting risk compensating behaviour is controlled
  5. Finally (and a variation on #3), recognise that making people feel less safe can actually lead to safer behaviour.

If you are interested in this topic then I can also recommend Greg Ip’s book “Foolproof” which offers a good overview of the problem of risk compensation.

Applying these principles to bank capital requirements

The one area where I would take issue with the Farnham Street post is where it argues that bailouts and other protective mechanisms contributed to scale of the 2008 financial crisis because they led banks to take greater risks. There is no question that the scale of the crisis was amplified by the risks that banks took but it is less obvious to me that the bailouts created this problem.

The bailouts were a response to the problem that banks were too big to fail but I can’t see how they created this problem; especially given that the build up of risk preceded the bailouts. Bailouts were a response to the fact that the conventional bankruptcy and restructure process employed to deal with the failure of non-financial firms simply did not work for financial firms.

It is often asserted that bankers took risks because they expected that they would be bailed out; i.e/ that banks deliberately and consciously took risk on the basis that they would be bailed out. I can’t speak for banks as a whole but I have never witnessed that belief in the four decades that I worked in the Australian banking system. Never attribute to malice what can be equally explained by mistaken beliefs. I did see bankers placing excessive faith in the economic capital models that told them they could safely operate with reduced levels of capital. That illusion of knowledge and control is however a different problem altogether, largely to do with not properly understanding the distinction between risk and uncertainty (see here and here).

If I am right, that would suggest that making banks hold more capital might initially make them safer but might also lead to banks looking for ways to take more risk. This is a key reason why I think the answer to safer banks is not just making them hold higher and higher levels of common equity. More common equity is definitely a big part of the answer but one of the real innovations of Basel 3 was the development of new forms of loss absorbing capital that allow banks to be recapitalised by bail-in rather than bail-out.

If you want to go down the common equity is the only solution path then it will be important to ensure that Farnham Street Rule #4 above is respected; i.e. bank supervisors will need to ensure that banks do not simply end up taking risks in places that regulation or supervision does not cover. This is not a set and forget strategy based on the idea that increased “skin in the game” will automatically lead to better risk management.

Based on my experience, the risk of common equity ownership being diluted by the conversion of this “bail-in” capital is a far more effective constraint on risk taking than simply requiring banks to hold very large amounts of common equity. I think the Australian banking system has this balance about right. The Common Equity Tier 1 requirement is calibrated to a level intended to make banks “Unquestionably Strong”. Stress testing suggest that this level of capital is likely to be more than sufficient for well managed banks operating with sensible risk appetites but banks (the larger ones in particular) are also required to maintain a supplementary pool of capital that can be converted to common equity should it be required. The risk that this might be converted into a new pool of dilutive equity is a powerful incentive to not push the boundaries of risk appetite.

Tony – From the Outside

Navigating a radically uncertain world

The distinction between risk and uncertainty is a long running area of interest for me so I have enjoyed reading John Kay and Mervyn King’s book “Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making for an Unknowable Future”. My initial post on the book offered an overview of the content and a subsequent post explored Kay and King’s analysis of why the world is prone to radical uncertainty.

This post looks at how Kay and King propose that we navigate a world that is prone to radical uncertainty. Kay and King start (Ch 8) with the question of what it means to make rational choices.

No surprises that the answer from their perspective is not the pursuit of maximum expected value based on a priori assumptions of what is rational in a world ruled by probability (“axiomatic reasoning”). They concede that there are some problems that can be solved this way. Games of chance where you get repeated opportunities to play the odds is one, but Kay and King are firmly in the camp that the real world is, for the most part, too complex and unknowable to rely on this approach for the big issues.

It is not just that these models do not offer any useful insight into these bigger world choices. They argue, convincingly I think, that these types of precise quantitative models can also tend to create an illusion of knowledge and control that can render the systems we are seeking to understand and manage even more fragile and more prone to uncertainty. An obvious example of this risk is the way in which the advanced measures of bank capital requirements introduced under Basel II tended to encourage banks to take (and bank supervisors to approve) more leverage.

Their argument broadly makes sense to me but there was nothing particularly new or noteworthy in this part of the book. It goes over familiar ground covered equally well by other writers – see for example these posts Epsilon Theory, Bank Underground, Paul Wilmott and David Orrell, Andrew Haldane which discuss contributions these authors have made to the debate.

However, there were two things I found especially interesting in their analysis.

  • One was the argument that the “biases” catalogued by behavioural finance were not necessarily irrational when applied to a radically uncertain world.
  • The other was the emphasis they place on the idea of employing abductive reasoning and reference narratives to help navigate this radically uncertain future.

Behavioural Finance

Kay and King argue that some of the behaviours that behavioural finance deems to be irrational or biased might be better interpreted as sensible rules of thumbs that people have developed to deal with an uncertain world. They are particularly critical of the way behavioural finance is used to justify “nudging” people to what behavioural finance deems to be rational.

Behavioural economics has contributed to our understanding of decision-making in business, finance and government by introducing observation of how people actually behave. But, like the proselytisers for the universal application of probabilistic reasoning, practitioners and admirers of behavioural economics have made claims far more extensive than could be justified by their findings…

…. a philosophy of nudging carries the risk that nudgers claim to know more about an uncertain world than they and their nudgees do or could know.

I struggled with this part of the book because I have generally found behavioural finance insights quite useful for understanding what is going on. The book reads at times like behavioural finance as a whole was a wrong turn but I think the quote above clarifies that they do see value in it provided the proponents don’t push the arguments too far. In particular they are arguing that rules of thumb that have been tested and developed over time deserve greater respect.

Abductive Reasoning and Reference Narratives

The part of Kay and King’s book I found most interesting was their argument that “abductive reasoning” and “reference narratives” are a useful way of mapping our understanding of what is going on and helping us make the right choices to navigate a world prone to enter the domain of radical uncertainty.

If we go back to first principles it could be argued that the test of rationality is that the decisions we make are based on reasonable beliefs about the world and internal consistency. The problem, Kay and King argue, is that this approach still does not address the fundamental question of whether we can ever really understand a radically uncertain world. The truely rational approach to decision making has to be resilient to the fact that our future is shaped by external events taking paths that we have no way of predicting.

The rational answer for Kay and King lies in an “abductive” approach to reasoning. I must confess that I had to look this up (and my spell checker still struggles with it) but it turns out that this is a style of reasoning that works with the available (not to mention often incomplete and ambiguous) information to form educated guesses that seek to explain what we are seeing.

Abduction is similar to induction in that it starts with observations. Where it differs is what the abductive process does with the evidence. Induction seeks to derive general or universal principles from the evidence. Abduction in contrast is context specific. It looks at the evidence and tries to fit “an explanation” of what is going on while being careful to avoid treating it as “the explanation” of what is going on.

Deductive, inductive and abductive reasoning each have a role to play in understanding the world, and as we move to larger worlds the role of the inductive and abductive increases relative to the deductive. And when events are essentially one-of-a-kind, which is often the case in the world of radical uncertainty, abductive reasoning is indispensable.

Reference Narratives

If I have understood their argument correctly, the explanations or hypotheses generated by this abductive style of reasoning are expressed in “reference narratives” which we use to explain to ourselves and others what we are observing. These high level reference narratives can then provide a basis for longer term planning and a framework for day-to-day choices.

Deductive, inductive and abductive reasoning each have a role to play in understanding the world, and as we move to larger worlds the role of the inductive and abductive increases relative to the deductive. And when events are essentially one-of-a-kind, which is often the case in the world of radical uncertainty, abductive reasoning is indispensable.

Kay and King acknowledge that this approach is far from foolproof and devote a considerable part of their book to what distinguishes good narratives from bad and how to avoid the narrative being corrupted by groupthink.

Good and Bad Reference Narratives

Kay and King argue that credibility is a core feature distinguishing good and bad narratives. A good narrative offers a coherent and internally consistent explanation but it also needs to avoid over-reach. A warning sign for a bad narrative is one that seeks to explain everything. This is especially important given that our species seems to be irresistibly drawn to grand narratives – the simpler the better.

Our need for narratives is so strong that many people experience a need for an overarching narrative–some unifying explanatory theme or group of related themes with very general applicability. These grand narratives may help them believe that complexity can be managed, that there exists some story which describes ‘the world as it really is’. Every new experience or piece of information can be interpreted in the light of that overarching narrative.

Kay and King use the fox and the hedgehog analogy to illustrate their arguement that we should always be sceptical of the capacity of any one narrative to explain everything,

…. The hedgehog knows one big thing, the fox many little things. The hedgehog subscribes to some overarching narrative; the fox is sceptical about the power of any overarching narrative. The hedgehog approaches most uncertainties with strong priors; the fox attempts to assemble evidence before forming a view of ‘what is going on here’.

Using Reference Narratives

Kay and King cite the use of scenario based planing as an example of using a reference narrative to explore exposure to radical uncertainty and build resilience but they caution against trying too hard to assign probabilities to scenarios. This I think is a point well made and something that I have covered in other posts (see here and here).

Scenarios are useful ways of beginning to come to terms with an uncertain future. But to ascribe a probability to any particular scenario is misconceived…..

Scenario planning is a way of ordering thoughts about the future, not of predicting it.

The purpose is … to provide a comprehensive framework for setting out the issues with which any business must deal: identifying markets, meeting competition, hiring people, premises and equipment. Even though the business plan is mostly numbers–many people will describe the spreadsheet as a model–it is best thought of as a narrative. The exercise of preparing the plan forces the author to translate a vision into words and numbers in order to tell a coherent and credible story.

Kay and King argue that reference narratives are a way of bringing structure and conviction to the judgment, instinct and emotion that people bring to making decisions about an uncertain future

We make decisions using judgement, instinct and emotions. And when we explain the decisions we have made, either to ourselves or to others, our explanation usually takes narrative form. As David Tuckett, a social scientist and psychoanalyst, has argued, decisions require us ‘to feel sufficiently convinced about the anticipated outcomes to act’. Narratives are the mechanism by which conviction is developed. Narratives underpin our sense of identity, and enable us to recreate decisions of the past and imagine decisions we will face in the future.

Given the importance they assign to narratives, Kay and King similarly emphasise the importance of having a good process for challenging the narrative and avoiding groupthink.

‘Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here. Then, I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until the next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement, and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.’

Alfred P. Sloan (Long time president chairman and CEO of General Motors Corporation) quoted in the introduction to Ch 16: Challenging Narratives

These extracts from their book nicely captures the essence of their argument

Knowledge does not advance through a mechanical process of revising the probabilities people attach to a known list of possible future outcomes as they watch for the twitches on the Bayesian dial. Instead, current conventional wisdom is embodied in a collective narrative which changes in response to debate and challenge. Mostly, the narrative changes incrementally, as the prevalent account of ‘what is going on here’ becomes more complete. Sometimes, the narrative changes discontinuously – the process of paradigm shift described by the American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn.

the mark of the first-rate decision-maker confronted by radical uncertainty is to organise action around a reference narrative while still being open to both the possibility that this narrative is false and that alternative narratives might be relevant. This is a very different style of reasoning from Bayesian updating.

Kay and King argue that the aim in challenging the reference narrative is not simply to find the best possible explanation of what is going on. That in a sense is an almost impossible task given the premise that the world is inherently unpredictable. The objective is to find a narrative that seems to offer a useful guide to what is going on but not hold too tightly to it. The challenge process also tests the weaknesses of plans of action based on the reference narrative and, in doing so, progressively secures greater robustness and resilience.


The quote below repeats a point covered above but it does nicely capture their argument that the pursuit of quantitative precision can be a distraction from the broader objective of having a robust and resilient process. By all means be as rigorous and precise as possible but recognise the risk that the probabilities you assign to scenarios and “risks” may end up simply serving to disguise inherent uncertainties that cannot be managed by measurement.

The attempt to construct probabilities is a distraction from the more useful task of trying to produce a robust and resilient defence capability to deal with many contingencies, few of which can be described in any but the sketchiest of detail.

robustness and resilience, not the assignment of arbitrary probabilities to a more or less infinite list of possible contingencies, are the key characteristics of a considered military response to radical uncertainty. And we believe the same is true of strategy formulation in business and finance, for companies and households.

Summing Up

Overall a thought provoking book. I am not yet sure that I am ready to embrace all of their proposed solutions. In particular, I am not entirely comfortable with the criticisms they make of risk maps, bayesian decision models and behavioural finance. That said, I do think they are starting with the right questions and the reference narrative approach is something that I plan to explore in more depth.

I had not thought of it this way previously but the objective of being “Unquestionably Strong” that was recommended by the 2014 Australian Financial System Inquiry and subsequently fleshed out by APRA can be interpreted as an example of a reference narrative that has guided the capital management strategies of the Australian banks.

Tony – From The Outside

Debt jubilees revisited

I flagged a post by Michael Reddell (Croaking Cassandra) on the (admittedly wonky) topic of debt jubilees. This is not a general interest topic by any means but I am interested in economic history and the role of debt in the economy in particular so this caught my interest.

Michael has returned to the topic here focussing on a book by Michael Hudson titled “… and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from the Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year” and a call by Steve Keen calling for widespread government funded debt forgiveness as part of the response to the COVID 19 recession. Michael is not a fan of the idea and I think sets out a quite good summary of the case against a modern debt jubilee.

I have copied a short extract from his post here

Keen, for example, emphasises the high level of housing debt in countries like New Zealand and Australia.  But it is mostly a symptom not of hard-hearted banks but of governments (central and local) that keep on rendering urban land artificially scarce, and then –  in effect –  compelling the young to borrow heavily from, in effect, the old to get on the ladder of home ownership.   I count that deeply unconscionable and unjust.  But the primary solution isn’t debt forgiveness –   never clear who is going to pay for this –  but fixing the problem at source, freeing up land use law.  The domestic-oriented elites of our society might not like it –  any more than their peers in ancient Mesopotomia were too keen on the remission –  but that is the source of the problem.  Fix that and then there might be a case for some sort of compensation scheme for those who had got so highly-indebted, but at present –  distorted market and all –  the highly indebted mostly have an asset still worth materially more (a very different situation from a subsistence borrowing in the face of extreme crop failure).

… and you can read the whole post here.

Michael has I think some good points to make regarding the causes of escalating housing debt. One thing he does not cover is the extent to which direct bail outs and extraordinary monetary policy support has contributed to the escalating level of debt. This is a huge topic in itself but I suspect that some of the increasing debt burden can be attributed to the fact that we have chosen not to allow debts to be written down or restructured in previous crises. I think there were legitimate reasons for not imposing losses on bank debt during the GFC but the subsequent development of a “bail-in” capacity should mean that bank supervisors and the government will have a better set of choices in the next banking crisis.

Tony – From The Outside

Why we fail to prepare for disasters

Tim Harford (The Undercover Economist) offers a short and readable account here of some of the reasons why, faced with clear risks, we still fail to act. We can see the problem, typically one of many, but don’t do enough to manage or mitigate the risk. New Orleans’ experiences with severe weather events features prominently as does (not surprisingly) COVID 19.

This, then, is why you and I did not see this coming: we couldn’t grasp the scale of the threat; we took complacent cues from each other, rather than digesting the logic of the reports from China and Italy; we retained a sunny optimism that no matter how bad things got, we personally would escape harm; we could not grasp what an exponentially growing epidemic really means; and our wishful thinking pushed us to look for reasons to ignore the danger.

Why we fail to prepare for disasters; Tim Harford (The Undercover Economist)

Another big part of the problem is that the cost of being fully prepared can be more than we are willing to pay. Especially when there is continuous pressure to find cost economies in the here and now

Serious scenarios are useful, but … no use if they are not taken seriously. That means spending money on research that may never pay off, or on emergency capacity that may never be used. It is not easy to justify such investments with the day-to-day logic of efficiency.

So the key points I took from his post:

  • Sometimes it can be something genuinely new and unexpected (i.e. Black Swan events) but risks we are well aware of can be equally damaging
  • Part of the problem is that we are social animals and take our cues from what the rest of the herd is doing (“normalcy bias” or “negative panic”)
  • Even where we understand the statistics and know that someone will be impacted, we tend to assume it will be someone else or someone else’s family (“optimism bias”)
  • We are especially bad at understanding risks that have an exponential driver (“exponential myopia”)
  • We are also quite good at finding reasons to justify ignoring risks we want to ignore or otherwise find inconvenient (“wishful thinking”)
  • Last, but far from least, efficiency is the enemy of resilience.

We need to remember that most of the factors listed above can also be useful in many other contexts (arguably most of the time). A tendency not to panic can be pretty useful and optimism has helped dreamers and ordinary people achieve many great things that have benefited the herd. Efficiency as a rule seems like a good thing to strive for.

Harford does not offer any easy answers but his post touches on issues that I have also been considering in Kay and King’s book titled “Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making for an Unknowable Future”. I have done a couple of posts on that book already (here and here) and am working on a final one that focuses on Chapters 8-16 which set out their ideas for how we navigate a world prone to radical uncertainty.

Tony – From the Outside

Talking about a debt jubilee

This might be post for the super wonks but Michael Reddell (Croaking Cassandra) is debating with Steve Keen on the merits of writing down the value of debt under what is known as a debt “jubilee”. For those unfamiliar with the term, Michael offers a short summary including a link to the passage in the Old Testament where the practice appears to have started.

“In the Western tradition, the idea of the year of jubilee comes to us from the Old Testament. The idea was to avoid permanent alienation of people from their ancestral land – in effect, land transfers were term-limited leases, and if by recklessness or bad luck or whatever people lost their land it was for no more than fifty years. In the fiftieth year – the Year of Jubilee – all would be restored: land to the original owners and hired workers could return to their land. It wasn’t a recipe for absolute equality – the income earned wasn’t returned etc – but about secure long-term economic and social foundations.

My understanding is that the process was a lot simpler in biblical times in part because all the players knew that the write-down would occur (and so adjusted their lending behaviour accordingly) and also because the debt was owed, for the most part, to the King and the political elite associated with the King. From my reading, this was not just an act of generosity on the part of the King. Michael refers to its place in securing the economic and social foundations of the kingdom which included the capacity to raise an army from the population when required.

If you are interested then you can read his whole post here …

A debt jubilee? https://croakingcassandra.com/2020/04/30/a-debt-jubilee/

The why of Radical Uncertainty

A recent post offered an overview of a book by John Kay and Mervyn King titled “Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making for an Unknowable Future”. It is a rich topic and this post covers the underlying drivers that tend to result in radically uncertain outcomes.

Kay and King nominate “reflexivity” as a key driver of radical uncertainty

The sociologist Robert K. Merton identified reflexivity as a distinctive property of social systems–the system itself is influenced by our beliefs about it. The idea of reflexivity was developed by the Austrian émigré philosopher Karl Popper and became central to the thinking of Popper’s student, the highly successful hedge fund manager George Soros. And it would form part of the approach to macroeconomics of the Chicago economist Robert Lucas and his followers … although their perspective on the problem and its solution would be very different.

Reflexivity undermines stationarity. This was the essence of ‘Goodhart’s Law’–any business or government policy which assumed stationarity of social and economic relationships was likely to fail because its implementation would alter the behaviour of those affected and therefore destroy that stationarity.

Kay and King, Chapter 3: Radical Uncertainty is Everywhere”

Radical uncertainty also features in Richard Bookstaber’s book “The End of Theory: Financial Crises, the Failure of Economics, and the Sweep of Human Interaction”. Bookstaber identifies four broad phenomena he argues are endemic to financial crises

Emergent phenomena.
“When systemwide dynamics arise unexpectedly out of the activities of individuals in a way that is not simply an aggregation of that behavior, the result is known as emergence”.

Non-ergodicity.
“An ergodic process … is one that does not vary with time or experience.
Our world is not ergodic—yet economists treat it as though it is.”

Radical uncertainty.
“Emergent phenomena and non-ergodic processes combine to create outcomes that do not fit inside defined probability distributions.”

Computational irreducibility.
“There is no formula that allows us to fast-forward to find out what the result will be. The world cannot be solved; it has to be lived.

Bookstaber, Chapter 2: Being Human

If you want to delve into the detail of why the world can be radically uncertain then Bookstaber arguably offers the more detailed account; albeit one couched in technical language like emergent phenomena, ergodicity and computational irreducibility. In Chapter 10 he lays out the ways in which an agent based modelling approach to the problem of radical uncertainty would need to specify the complexity of the system in a structured way that takes account of the amount of information required to describe the system and the connectedness of its components. Bookstaber also offers examples of emergent phenomena in seemingly simple systems (e.g. Gary Conways’s “Game of Life”) which give rise to surprisingly complex outcomes.

I am not sure if either book makes this point explicitly but I think there is also an underlying theme in which the models that provide the illusion of control over an uncertain future create an incentive to “manage” risk in ways that increases the odds of bad outcomes based on insufficient resilience. That seems to be the clear implication of Kay and King’s discussion of the limits of finance theory (Chapter 17: The World of Finance). They acknowledge the value of the intellectual rigour built on the contributions of Harry Markowitz, William Sharpe and Eugene Fama but highlight the ways in which it has failed to live up to its promiseI .

We note two very different demonstrations of that failure. One is that the models used by regulators and financial institutions, directly derived from academic research in finance, not only failed to prevent the 2007–08 crisis but actively contributed to it. Another is to look at the achievements of the most successful investors of the era – Warren Buffett, George Soros and Jim Simons. Each has built fortunes of tens of billions of dollars. They are representative of three very different styles of investing.

Kay and King, Chapter 17 The World of Finance

I plan to do one more post exploring the ways in which we navigate a world of radical uncertainty.

Tony (From the Outside)