Australian bank capital adequacy – “a more flexible and resilient capital framework”

This post looks at a Discussion Paper published by APRA in late 2020 titled “A more flexible and resilient capital framework for ADIs” setting out how it proposes to wrap up a number of prior consultations on a variety of aspects of ADI (authorised deposit-taking institution) capital reform in Australia. The next step in the roll out of the revised framework is to conduct a quantitive impact study (QIS) with selected ADIs to ensure that the proposed final standards are appropriately calibrated.

Key elements of the revised framework (effective 1 January 2023) include:
  • More risk-sensitive risk weights (mostly for residential mortgages but also SME lending) that are expected to reduce average risk weights by approximately 10% for Internal Ratings Based (IRB) banks and 7% for banks operating under the Standardised Approach (SA) to capital adequacy,
  • Support for enhanced competition between the big and small ADIs via a series of initiatives intended to limit the differences between the IRB and SA, approaches (though APRA also offers evidence that the existing differences are not as great as some claim),
  • Improved transparency and comparability both with international peer banks and between the big IRB banks and the smaller SA banks
  • Improved flexibility in capital requirements via an increase in the size of regulatory capital buffers.
Improved risk sensitivity (lower risk weights)

Improved risk sensitivity is obviously a two edged sword (capital requirements could increase) but APRA estimates that the overall impact of the proposed revisions will be to reduce average risk weights for IRB ADIs by 10% and by 7% for Standardised ADIs. I have published a couple of posts already on the proposed changes to residential mortgage risk weights (see here and here) so I don’t intend to cover that in any detail in this post.

The main points to note regarding residential mortgages are:

  • Standardised ADIs get
  • IRB ADIs see
    • the higher than Basel “correlation adjustment” currently used to narrow the difference between IRB and SA risk weights replaced by a simple “scalar” adjustment,
    • the existing 20% LGD floor reduced to 10% for approved LGD models and
    • recognition of the risk reduction value of Lenders’ Mortgage Insurance (LMI) in line with the SA.

I have not looked closely at the changes impacting the other RWA exposures but list them here for completeness:

  • SME lending
    • Standardised ADIs – RW applied under the SA will recognise the value of commercial property security while RW for loans not secured by property will be reduced from 100% to 75% for loans less than $1.5m and 85% otherwise
    • IRB ADIs – the thresholds for applying the Retail SME approach and the Corporate SME approach will be increased
  • Other credit portfolios
    • Standardised ADIs see no real change (existing RW are already largely aligned with the Basel framework)
    • IRB ADIs will see the overall credit scalar in the IRB RW formula increased from 1.06x to 1.1x, risk estimates will be more closely aligned to those of overseas peers (but still higher than those peers) and models will be permitted for the calculation of capital requirements for commercial property exposures
  • New Zealand based exposures
    • RWA determined under RBNZ requirements will be used for group capital requirements
Enhanced competition, increased transparency and comparability

The main points to note here are:

  • The risk weight initiatives listed above should address a long standing complaint from the Standardised ADIs that the higher risk weights they are subject to place them at a competitive disadvantage relative to IRB ADIs
  • Note however that APRA has also provided evidence that the difference in capital requirements is not as large as is often claimed and can be justified by differences in the risk of the loan portfolios that different types of ADIs typically hold
  • The extent of any competitive disadvantage due to capital requirements will be further clarified by the requirement that IRB ADIs also publish capital ratios under the Standardised Approach
  • The extent of the differences between the capital requirements applied by APRA and those used to calculate the ratios reported by international peer banks will also be reduced thereby enhancing the transparency of the Australian ADI capital strength versus the international peer groups. This will make the “top quartile” test employed to determine the “unquestionably strong” benchmark simpler and more transparent.
Increased resilience via larger more flexible capital buffers

We noted above that RWA are expected to reduce by around 10 per cent on average for IRB banks and 7 per cent on average for standardised banks. All other things being equal this will translate into a very visible increase in reported capital ratios which requires a recalibration of the balance between minimum requirements and capital buffers:

  • The minimum Prudential Capital Requirement (PCR) remains unchanged in percentage terms (4.5%), as does the minimum threshold for Point of Non-Viability (PONV) conversion (5.125%), but these requirements fall in dollar terms due to the decline in average RWA
  • The Capital Conservation Buffer (CCB) – will be increased by 150 basis points (but only for IRB ADIs)
  • The default Countercyclical Capital Buffer (CCyB) – will be set at 100 basis points (versus zero under the current approach)

Minimum capital requirements

At face value, a reduction in minimum capital requirements sounds like a cause for concern. In theory you can argue that there is a slightly lower amount of CET1 capital available in a scenario in which a bank has breached the PONV threshold that triggers the conversion of Additional Tier 1 and any other layers of loss absorbing capital. In practice, however, this theoretical risk is more than offset by the increase in the CCB and the CCyB. APRA is at pains to emphasise that, all other things being equal, the dollar value of capital that ADI’s currently hold consistent with the Unquestionably Strong benchmarks introduced in 2017 does not change under the revised framework.

With amendments across a number of dimensions, reported capital ratios will inevitably change … However, APRA remains committed to its previous position that an ADI that currently meets the ‘unquestionably strong’ benchmarks under the current framework should have sufficient capital to meet any new requirements. Changing the presentation of capital ratios will not impact overall capital strength or the quantum of capital required to be considered ‘unquestionably strong’; but instead improves comparability, supervisory flexibility and international alignment.

“A more flexible and resilient capital framework for ADIs, APRA Discussion Paper, 8 December 2020 (page 5)

In addition to the increased base levels of CET1, the systemically important ADI are holding increasing amounts of “Additional Loss Absorbing Capital” that can be bailed-in to create CET1 capital in the event that a bank is at risk of breaching the PONV threshold. There are differences of opinion on whether APRA would be willing to pull the trigger to convert these instruments. We won’t know for sure until the time comes, but my colours are nailed to the assumption that APRA will much prefer to see shareholders get diluted rather than having to use government funds to bail-out a bank.

Capital Conservation Buffer

The 150bp expansion in the CCB only applies to IRB ADIs. APRA attributes this to the need to respond to “the greater level of risk sensitivity inherent in the IRB approach” (page 16 of the Discussion Paper). They don’t actually use the term but I think of this as a means of absorbing some of the pro-cyclicality that is inherent in any risk sensitive capital adequacy measure.

A simple way to think about this change is to link the 150bp increase to the roughly equivalent benefit of the 10% decline in RWA expected to flow from RWA changes set out in the paper. We note however that SA gets 7% decline due to improved risk sensitivity but no equivalent increase in CCB. So we get enhanced risk sensitivity in the IRB approach via the revised risk weights without exacerbating the concern about the difference in capital requirements.

However the increased risk sensitivity of the IRB approach also manifests in heightened sensitivity to an economic downturn. All other things being equal both Standardised and IRB ADIs should face similar increases in loan loss charges. The impact on IRB ADI capital ratios is however amplified by the increase in average RWs under stress. I don’t have any hard data to refer to but would not be surprised if the RWA inflation effect contributed another 150bp to the decline in capital ratios we see quoted in stress testing results under this new framework.

Viewed from this perspective the expanded CCB not only neutralises the benefit of lower IRB risk weights, it also helps absorb the increased sensitivity to declines in capital ratios that IRB ADIs can be expected to experience under a stress scenario.

Counter-cyclical Capital Buffer

The CCyB has, for me at least, always been a sound idea badly executed. It became part of the international macro prudential toolkit in 2016 and is intended to ensure that, under adverse conditions, the banking sector in aggregate has sufficient surplus capital on hand required to maintain the flow of credit in the economy without compromising its compliance with prudential requirements.

A key feature in the original Basel Committee design specification is that the buffer is intended to be deployed in response to high levels of aggregate credit growth (i.e high relative to the sustainable long term trend rates whatever that might be) which their research has identified as an indicator of heightened systemic risk. That does not preclude bank supervisors from deploying the buffer at other times as they see fit, but pro-actively responding to excess credit growth has been a core part of the rationale underpinning its development.

The idea of having a buffer that can be released in response to a downturn makes perfect sense but the analytical structure the Basel Committee developed to guide its deployment seems unnecessarily complex. The simple non-zero default level that APRA proposes to adopt is arguably a better (if not the best) approach and one that other countries are already pursuing (see here, here and here).

None of this pro-cyclicality benefit is spelled out in the material APRA released so I may be reading too much into the material. If I am analysing it correctly if is a subtle but still useful benefit of the package of changes that APRA is pursuing.

Conclusion

Broadly speaking, I think there is a lot to like in the revised framework that APRA is pursuing

  • Risk weights that are both more risk sensitive but also more closely aligned under the two approaches to capital adequacy measurement (IRB and Standardised)
  • An increased share of the capital requirement allocated to buffers that can be used rather than minimum requirements that can’t
  • A better approach to setting the CCyB

My primary concern is that the amplified pro-cyclicality in capital ratios that is seemingly inherent in any risk sensitive capital framework seems likely to increase but there is very little discussion of this factor . There are tools to manage the impact but one of the key lessons I have taken away from four decades in this game is that the markets hate surprises. Far better to quantify the extent of any amplified pro-cyclicality in capital ratios prior to the next crisis than to try to explain the impacts when capital ratios start to decline more quickly than expected during the next downturn/crisis.

Let me know what I am missing …

Tony – From the Outside

Some of the backstory

The idea that Australian banks needed to be “Unquestionably Strong” has dominated the local capital adequacy discussion for the past few years. The idea originated in a recommendation of the Australian Financial System Inquiry (2014) based on the rationale that Australian banks should both be and, equally importantly, be perceived to be more resilient than the international peers with which they compete for funding in the international capital markets.In July 2017, APRA translated the FSI recommendation into practical guidance in an announcement supported by a longer information paper.

For most people, this all condensed into a very simple message, the systemically important Australian banks needed to maintain a Common Equity Tier 1 ratio of at least 10.5%. The smaller banks have their own Unquestionably Strong benchmark but most of the public scrutiny seems to have focussed on the larger banks.

In the background, an equally important discussion has been playing out regarding the extent to which the Unquestionably Strong framework should take account of the “comparability” and “transparency” of that measure of strength and the ways in which “flexibility” and “resilience” could be added to the mix. This discussion kicked off in earnest with a March 2018 discussion paper (covered in more detail here) and has come to a conclusion with the December 2020 release of the APRA Discussion Paper explored in the post above.

The dark art of measuring residential mortgage risk

Residential mortgages are one of the seemingly more plain vanilla forms of bank lending. Notwithstanding, comparing capital requirements applied to this category of lending across different types of banks can be surprisingly complicated and is much misunderstood. I have touched on different aspects of this challenge in a number of mortgage risk weight “fact check” posts (see here and here), focussing for the most part on the comparison of “standardised” capital requirements compared to those applied to banks operating under the “internal rating based” (IRB) approach.

A discussion paper (“A more flexible and resilient capital framework for ADIs”, 8 December 2020) released by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) offers a good summary (see p27 “Box 2”) of the differences in capital requirements not captured by simplistic comparisons of risk weights. However, one of the surprises in the discussion paper was that APRA chose not to address one of these differences by aligning the credit conversion factors applied to off-balance sheet (non-revolving) residential mortgage exposures.

Understanding why APRA chose to maintain a different treatment of CCFs across the two approaches offers some insights into differences in the way that the two approaches recognise and measure the underlying risks.

Before proceeding we need to include a short primer on “off-balance exposures” and “CCFs”. Feel free to skip ahead if you already understand these concepts.

  • Off-balance sheet exposures are the difference between the maximum amount a bank has agreed to lend and the actual amount borrowed at any point in time.
  • The CCF is the bank’s estimate of how much of these undrawn limits will in fact have been called on (converted to an on balance sheet exposure) in the event a borrower defaults.
  • In the case of “non-revolving” residential mortgages, these off-balance sheet exposures typically arise because borrowers have got ahead of (“pre-paid”) their contractual loan repayments.

APRA noted that the credit conversion factor (CCF) currently applied to off-balance sheet exposures was much higher for IRB banks than for standardised, thereby partially offsetting the lower risk weights applied under the IRB approach. It had been expected that APRA would address this inconsistency by applying a 100% CCF under both approaches.

Contrary to this expectation, APRA has proposed to revise the CCFs applying to (non-revolving) off-balance sheet residential mortgage exposures as follows:

Current

Standardised 0-50%

IRB 100%

Proposed

40%

100% (unchanged)

The interesting nuance here is that APRA is not saying that standardised banks are likely to experience a lower percentage drawdown of credit limits in the event a borrower defaults. In the “Response to Submissions” that accompanied the Discussion Paper, APRA noted that “Borrowers do not typically enter default until they have fully drawn down on their available limit, including any prepayments ahead of their scheduled balance.

However, APRA also noted that loans with material levels of prepayment are also likely to be lower risk based on the demonstrated greater capacity to service and repay the loan.

Under the IRB approach, the greater capacity to repay the loan is generally recognised through a lower PD estimate which the IRB formula translates into lower risk weights reflecting the lower risk. In the absence of some equivalent risk recognition mechanism in the standardised approach, APRA is proposing to use a concessional CCF treatment to reflect the lower risk of loans with material levels of prepayment. It notes that the concessional CCF treatment will also contribute to ensuring the difference in residential mortgage capital requirements between the standardised and IRB approaches remains appropriate.

Summing up:

  • Looked at in isolation, 100% is arguably the “right” value for the CCF to apply to off-balance sheet exposures for a non-revolving residential mortgage irrespective of whether it is being measured under the standardised or IRB approach
  • But a “concessional” CCF is a mechanism (fudge?) that allows the standardised approach to reflect the lower risk associated with loans with material levels of prepayment

Tony – From the Outside

Low Risk Residential Mortgage Risk Weights

I have posted a number of times on the question of residential mortgage risk weights, either on the general topic of the comparison of the risk weights applied to the standardised and IRB ADIs (see here) or the reasons why risk weights for IRB ADIs can be so low (see here).

On the question of relative risk weights, I have argued that the real difference between the standardised and IRB risk weights is overstated when framed in terms of simplistic comparisons of nominal risk weights that you typically read in the news media discussion of this question. I stand by that general assessment but have conceded that I have paid insufficient attention to the disparity in risk weights at the higher quality end of the mortgage risk spectrum.

A Discussion Paper released by APRA offers a useful discussion of this low risk weight question as part of a broader set of proposals intended to improve the transparency, flexibility and resilience of the Australian capital adequacy framework.

In section 4.2.1 of the paper, APRA notes the concern raised by standardised ADIs…

A specific concern raised by standardised ADIs in prior rounds of consultation has been the difference in capital requirements for lending at low LVRs. Stakeholders have noted that the lowest risk weight under the standardised approach would be 20 per cent under the proposed framework, but this appears to be significantly lower for the IRB approach. In response to this feedback, APRA has undertaken further analysis at a more detailed level, noting the difference in capital requirements that need to be taken into account when comparing capital outcomes under the standardised and IRB approaches (see Box 2 above).

But APRA’s assessment is that the difference is not material when you look beyond the simplistic comparison of risk weights and consider the overall difference in capital requirements

APRA does not consider that there is a material capital difference between the standardised and IRB approaches at the lower LVR level. For loans with an LVR less than 60 per cent, APRA has estimated that the pricing differential that could be reasonably attributed to differences in the capital requirements between the two approaches would be lower than the differential at the average portfolio outcome.

In explaining the reasons for this conclusion, APRA addresses some misconceptions about the IRB approach to low LVR lending compared to the standardised approach

In understanding the reasons for this outcome, it is important to understand the differences in how the standardised and IRB approaches operate. In particular, there are misconceptions around the capital requirement that would apply to low LVR lending under the IRB approach. For example, it would not be appropriate to solely equate the lowest risk weight reported by IRB ADIs in market disclosures with low LVR loans. The IRB approach considers a more complex range of variable interactions compared to the standardised approach. Under the standardised approach, a low risk weight is assigned to a loan with a low LVR at origination.

One of the key points APRA makes is that IRB ADIs do not get to originate loans at the ultra low risk weights that have been the focus of much of the concern raised by standardised ADIs.

In particular, IRB estimates are more dynamic through the life of the loan, for example, they are more responsive to a change in borrower circumstances or movements in the credit cycle. Standardised risk weights generally do not change over the life of a loan. For an IRB ADI, the lowest risk weight is generally applied to loans that have significantly prepaid ahead of schedule. A low LVR loan on the standardised approach is not necessarily assigned the lowest risk weight under the IRB approach at origination.

APRA states that it is not appropriate to introduce “dynamic”factors into the standardised risk weight framework.

APRA is not proposing to include dynamic factors in determining risk weights under the standardised approach for the following reasons:

– the standardised approach is intended to be simple and aligned with Basel III. For the standardised approach, APRA considers it more appropriate to focus on origination rather than behavioural variables as this has more influence on the quality of the portfolio and leads to less procyclical capital requirements; and

– the average difference between standardised and IRB capital outcomes is much narrower at the point of origination, which is the key point for competition. While the difference between standardised and IRB capital outcomes could widen over the life of the loan, APRA has ensured that the difference in average portfolio outcomes remains appropriate

But that it does intend to introduce a 5 per cent risk weight floor into the IRB approach to act as a backstop.

That said, APRA is proposing to implement a 5 per cent risk-weight floor for residential mortgage exposures under the IRB approach, to act as a simple backstop in ensuring capital outcomes do not widen at the lower risk segment of the portfolio. This is consistent with the approach taken by other jurisdictions and will limit the difference in capital outcomes between the standardised and IRB approaches for lower risk exposures. This risk-weight floor is in addition to other factors that will reduce the difference in capital outcomes between standardised and IRB ADIs, such as the higher CCB for IRB ADIs and lower CCF estimates for standardised ADIs.

As always, it remains possible that I am missing something. The explanation offered by APRA however gives me confidence that my broad argument about the overstatement of the difference has been broadly correct. Equally importantly, the changes to residential mortgage risk weights proposed in the Discussion Paper will further reduce the gap that does exist.

Tony – From the Outside

Capital adequacy – looking past the headline ratios

Comparing capital adequacy ratios is full of traps for the unwary. I recently flagged a speech by Wayne Byres (Chairman of APRA) that indicated APRA will be releasing a package of capital adequacy changes that will be more aligned with the international minimum standards and result in higher reported capital ratios.

While waiting for this package to be released, I thought it might be useful to revisit the mechanics of the S&P Risk Adjusted Capital (RAC) ratio which is another lens under which Australian bank capital strength is viewed. In particular I want to highlight the way in which the S&P RAC ratio is influenced by S&P’s assessment of the economic risks facing banks in the countries in which the banks operate.

The simplest way to see how this works is to look at an example from 2019 when S&P announced an upgrade of the hybrid (Tier 1 and Tier 2) issues of the Australian major banks. The senior debt ratings were left unchanged but the hybrid issues were all upgraded by 1 notch. Basel III compliant Tier 2 ratings were raised to “BBB+” (from “BBB”) and Tier 1 were raised to “BBB-” (from “BB+”).

S&P explained that the upgrade was driven by a revision in S&P’s assessment of the economic risks facing the Australian banks; in particular the “orderly decline in house prices following a period of rapid growth”. As a consequence of the revised assessment of the economic risk environment,

  • S&P now apply lower risk weights in their capital analysis,
  • This in turn resulted in stronger risk-adjusted capital ratios which now exceed the 10% threshold where S&P deem capital to be “strong” as opposed to “adequate”,
  • Which resulted in the Stand-Alone Credit Profile (SACP) of the Australian majors improving by one-notch and hence the upgrades of the hybrids.

Looking past the happy news for the holders of major bank hybrid issues, what was interesting was how much impact the revised assessment of the economic outlook has on the S&P risk weights. The S&P assessment of the economic outlook is codified in the BICRA score (short for the Banking Industry Country Risk Assessment) which assigns a numeric value from 1 (lowest risk) to 10 (highest risk). This BICRA score in turn determines the risk weights used in the S&P Risk Adjusted Capital ratio.

As a result of S&P revising its BICRA score for Australia from 4 to 3, the risk weights are materially lower with a commensurate benefit to the S&P assessment of capital adequacy (see some selected risk weights in the table below):

BICRA
Residential MortgagesBankCorporate, IPCRE, Business LendingCredit Cards
3302375105
4373387118
% Change
18.9%30.3%13.8%11.0%

The changes were fairly material across the board but the impact on residential mortgages (close to 20% reduction in the risk weight) is particulate noteworthy given the fact that this class of lending dominates the balance sheets of the Australian majors. It is also important to remember that, what the S&P process gives, it can also takeaway. This substantial improvement in the RAC ratio could very quickly reverse if S&P revised its economic outlook score or industry rating.

The other aspect of this process that is worth noting is the way in which the risk weights are anchored to S&P defined downturn scenarios and an 8% capital ratio. In the wake of the Royal Commission into Australian Banking, there has been a lot of focus on the idea of large banks being “Unquestionably Strong”. APRA subsequently determined that a 10.5% CET1 benchmark for capital strength was sufficient for a bank to be deemed to meet this test.

In that context, the S&P assessment that an 8-10% RAC ratio is “adequate” sounds a bit underwhelming. However, my understanding is the S&P risk weights are calibrated to an “A” or “substantial” stress scenario which is defined by the following Key Economic Indicators (KEI)

  • GDP decline of up to 6%
  • Unemployment of up to 15%
  • Stock market decline of ups to 60%

The loss rates expected in response to this level of stress are translated into equivalent risk weights using a 8% RAC ratio. The capital required by an 8% RAC ratio may only be “adequate” in S&P terms, but starts to look a lot more robust when you understand the severity of the scenario driving the risk weights that drive that requirement.

Summing up

I am not suggesting that there is anything fundamentally wrong with the S&P process, my purpose is simply to offer some observations regarding how the ratios in the capital adequacy assessment should be interpreted:

  1. Firstly to recognise that the process is by design anchored to an 8% capital ratio and risk weights that are calibrated to a very severe (“Substantial” is the term S&P uses) stress scenario, and
  2. Secondly, that the process is very sensitive to the BICRA score

This is not an area in which I will claim deep expertise so it is entirely possible that I am missing something. There are people who understand the S&P rating process far better than I do and I am very happy to stand corrected if I have mis-understood or mis-represented anything above.

Tony – From the Outside

Bank capital adequacy – APRA chooses Option 2

APRA released a discussion paper in August 2018 titled “Improving the transparency, comparability and flexibility of the ADI capital framework” which offered two alternative paths.

  • One (“Consistent Disclosure”) under which the status quo would be largely preserved but where APRA would get involved in the comparability process by adding its imprimatur to the “international harmonised ratios” that the large ADIs use to make the case for their strength compared to their international peers, and
  • A second (“Capital Ratio Adjustments”) under which APRA would align its formal capital adequacy measure more closely with the internationally harmonised approach.

I covered those proposals in some detail here and came out in favour of the second option. I don’t imagine APRA pay much attention to my blog but in a speech delivered to the AFR Banking and Wealth Summit Wayne Byres flagged that APRA do in fact intend to pursue the second option.

The speech does not get into too much detail but it listed the following features the proposed new capital regime will exhibit:

– more risk-based – by adjusting risk weights in a range of areas, some up (e.g. for higher risk housing) and some down (e.g. for small business);
 – more flexible – by changing the mix between minimum requirement and buffers, utilising more of the latter;
 – more transparent – by better aligning with international minimum standards, and making the underlying strength of the Australian framework more visible;
 – more comparable – by, in particular, making sure all banks disclose a capital ratio under the common, standardised approach; and
 – more proportionate – by providing a simpler framework suitable for small banks with simple business models.

while also making clear that

… probably the most fundamental change flowing from the proposals is that bank capital adequacy ratios will change. Specifically, they will tend to be higher. That is because the changes we are proposing will, in aggregate, reduce risk-weighted assets for the banking system. Given the amount of capital banks have will be unchanged, lower risk-weighted assets will produce higher capital ratios.

However, that does not mean banks will be able to hold less capital overall. I noted earlier that a key objective is to not increase capital requirements beyond the amount needed to meet the ‘unquestionably strong’ benchmarks. Nor is it our intention to reduce that amount. The balance will be maintained by requiring banks to hold larger buffers over their minimum requirements.

One observation at this stage …

It is hard to say too much at this stage given the level of detail released but I do want to make one observation. Wayne Byres listed four reasons for the changes proposed;

  1. To improve risk sensitivity
  2. To make the framework more flexible, especially in times of stress
  3. To make clearer the fundamental strength of our banking system vis-a-vis international peers
  4. To ensure that the unquestionably strong capital built up prior to the pandemic remains a lasting feature of the Australian banking system.

Pro-cyclicality remains an issue

With respect to increasing flexibility, Wayne Byres went on to state that “Holding a larger proportion of capital requirements in the form of capital buffers main that there is more buffer available to be utilised in times of crisis” (emphasis added).

It is true that the capital buffer will be larger in basis points terms by virtue of the RWA (denominator in the capital ratio) being reduced. However, it is also likely that the capital ratio will be much more sensitive to the impacts of a stress/crisis event.

This is mostly simple math.

  1. I assume that loan losses eating into capital are unchanged.
  2. It is less clear what happens to capital deductions (such as the CET1 deduction for Regulatory Expected Loss) but it is not obvious that they will be reduced.
  3. Risk Weights we are told will be lower and more risk sensitive.
  4. The lower starting value for RWA in any adverse scenario means that the losses (we assume unchanged) will translate into a larger decline in the capital ratio for any given level of stress.
  5. There is also the potential for the decline in capital ratios under stress to be accentuated (or amplified) to the extent the average risk weights increase in percentage terms more than they would under the current regime.

None of this is intended to suggest that APRA has made the wrong choice but I do believe that the statement that “more buffer” will be available is open to question. The glass is however most definitely half full. I am mostly flagging the fact that pro-cyclicality is a feature of any risk sensitive capital adequacy measure and I am unclear on whether the proposed regime will do anything to address this.

The direction that APRA has indicated it intends to take is the right one (I believe) but I think there is an opportunity to also address the problem of pro-cyclicality. I remain hopeful that the consultation paper to be released in a few weeks will shed more light on these issues.

Tony – From the Outside

p.s. the following posts on my blog touch on some of the issues that may need to be covered in the consultation

  1. The case for lower risk weights
  2. A non zero default for the counter cyclical capital buffer
  3. The interplay of proposed revisions to APS 111 and the RBNZ requirement that banks in NZ hold more CET1 capital
  4. Does expected loss loan provisioning reduce pro-cyclicality
  5. My thoughts on a cyclical capital buffer

Restructuring Basel’s capital buffers

Douglas Elliott at Oliver Wyman has written a short post which I think makes a useful contribution to the question of whether the capital buffers in the BCBS framework are serving their intended purpose.

The short version is that he argues the Countercyclical Capital Buffer (CCyB) has worked well while the Capital Conservation Buffer (CCB) has not. The solution he proposes is that the “the Basel Committee should seriously consider shrinking the CCB and transferring the difference into a target level of the CCyB in normal times”. Exactly how much is up for debate but he uses an example where the base rate for the CCyB is 1.0% and the CCB is reduced by the same amount to maintain the status quo.

The idea of having a non-zero CCyB as the default setting is not new. The Bank of England released a policy statement in April 2016 that had a non zero CCyB at its centre (I wrote about that approach in this post from April 2018). What distinguishes Elliott’s proposal is that he argues that the increased CCyB should be seeded by a transfer from the CCB. While I agree with many of his criticisms of the CCB (mostly that it is simply not usable in practice), my own view is that a sizeable CCB offers a margin of safety that offers a useful second line of defence against the risk that a bank breaches its minimum capital requirement. My perspective is heavily influenced by a concern that both bankers and supervisors are prone to underestimate the extent to which they face an uncertain world.

For anyone interested, this post sets out my views on how the cyclical capital buffer framework should be constructed and calibrated. This issue is especially relevant for Australian banks because APRA has an unresolved discussion paper which includes a proposal to increase the size of the capital buffers the Australian banks are expected to maintain. I covered that discussion paper here. A speech that APRA Chair Wayne Byres gave in May 2020 covering some of the things APRA had learned from dealing with the economic fallout of COVID-19 is also worth checking out (covered in this post).

Tony – From the Outside

APRA’s ADI capital regime – Unfinished business

Corporate Plans can be pretty dry reading but I had a quick skim of what is on APRA’s agenda for the next four years. The need to deal with consequences of COVID 19 obviously remains front and centre but APRA has reiterated its commitment to pursue the objectives laid out in its previous corporate plan.

Looking outward (what APRA refers to as “community outcomes”) there are four unchanged objectives

  • maintaining financial system resilience;
  • improving outcomes for superannuation members;
  • transforming governance, culture, remuneration and accountability across all regulated institutions; and
  • improving cyber resilience across the financial system.

Looking inward, APRA’s priorities are:

  • improving and broadening risk-based supervision;
  • improving resolution capacity;
  • improving external engagement and collaboration;
  • transforming data-enabled decision-making; and
  • transforming leadership, culture and ways of working.

What is interesting – from a bank capital management perspective

What I found interesting was a reference in APRA’s four year roadmap for strategy execution to a commitment to “Finalisation of ADI capital regime” (page 26). The schematic provides virtually no detail other than a “Milestone” to be achieved by December 2020 and for the project to be completed sometime in 2022/23.

Based on the outline in the strategic roadmap, my guess is that we will see a consultation paper on capital adequacy released later this year. I don’t have any real insights on exactly what APRA has in mind but a discussion paper APRA released in August 2018 titled “Improving the transparency, comparability and flexibility of the ADI capital framework” may offer some clues.

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.”

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.”

I offered my views on these options here.

Tony – From the Outside

Capital adequacy reform – what we have learned 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

Bank dividends

Matt Levine’s “Money Stuff” column (Bloomberg) offers some interesting commentary on what is happening with bank dividends in the US. Under the sub heading “People are worried about dividends” he writes:

So, again, I am generally pretty impressed by the performance of bank regulation in the current crisis, but this is unfortunate:

US banks’ annual capital plans, due to be submitted to the Federal Reserve on Monday, are expected to include proposals to continue paying dividends, reinforcing comments from prominent bank chief executives in recent days, according to people familiar with the situation.

The bankers, including Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon, Morgan Stanley boss James Gorman and Citigroup chief Mike Corbat, argued that they had the means to continue paying dividends and that cutting them would be “destabilising to investors”.

“We’re in a very different position than what we see in Europe,” said Marty Mosby, a veteran banks analyst at Vining Sparks.

“How we set it up [post-crisis capital requirements] was to be able to not have those dividends collapse [in a crisis]. That’s what creates a financial crisis: when dividends start to be ratcheted lower that shakes confidence.”

What is unfortunate is not so much that U.S. banks want to continue paying dividends; for all I know some of them are so well capitalized and so well equipped to weather this crisis that they will actually make a lot of money and have plentiful profits to pay out to shareholders. What is unfortunate is that their explicit view is that cutting dividends would be destabilizing. Common shareholders are supposed to be the lowest-ranking claimants on a bank’s money. The point of equity capital is that you don’t have to pay it out, that it doesn’t create any cash drain in difficult times. But if your view is “we need to maintain our dividend every quarter or else there will be a run on the bank,” then that means that the dividend is destabilizing; it means that your common stock is really debt; it means that your equity capital is not as good—not as equity-like—as it’s supposed to be.

If you take seriously the claim that banks can’t cut dividends in a generational crisis, for fear of undermining investor confidence, then, fine, I guess, but then the obvious conclusion is that when times are good you can never let banks raise their dividends. Every time a bank raises its dividend, on this theory, it incurs more unavoidable quarterly debt and creates a new drain on its funding, one that can’t be turned off in the bad times for fear of being “destabilising to investors”

Bloomberg Opinion “Money Stuff” 7 April 2020

I get the argument that if banks have the means to pay a dividend then they should be free to make a commercial decision. People may however feel entitled to be skeptical given the ways in which some banks were slow to adjust to the new realities of the GFC. There is also a line where the position some US banks appear to be projecting risks becoming an expectation that the dividend should be stable even under a highly stressed and uncertain outlook. It is not clear if that is exactly what the US banks quoted in his column are saying but that is how Matt Levine frames it and it would clearly be a concern if that is their view. That does seem to a fair description of the view some investors and analysts are expressing.

Jamie Dimon seems to be offering a more nuanced perspective on this question. He has advised JP Morgan shareholders that the Board expects the bank to remain profitable under its base base projections but would consider suspending the dividend under an extremely adverse scenario.

Our 2019 pretax earnings were $48 billion – a huge and powerful earnings stream that enables us to absorb the loss of revenues and the higher credit costs that inevitably follow a crisis. For comparison, the Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review (CCAR) results for 2020 that we submitted to the Federal Reserve in 2019 (which assumed outcomes like U.S. unemployment peaking at 10% and the stock market falling 50%) showed a decline in revenue of almost 20% and credit costs of approximately $20 billion more than what we experienced in 2019. We believe we would perform better than this if the Fed’s scenario were to actually occur. But even in the Fed’s scenario, we would be profitable in every quarter. These stress test results also show that following such a meaningful reduction in our revenue (and assuming we continue to pay dividends), our common equity Tier 1 (CET1) ratio would likely hold at a very strong 10%, and we would have in excess of $500 billion of liquid assets. 

Additionally, we have run an extremely adverse scenario that assumes an even deeper contraction of gross domestic product, down as much as 35% in the second quarter and lasting through the end of the year, and with U.S. unemployment continuing to increase, peaking at 14% in the fourth quarter. Even under this scenario, the company would still end the year with strong liquidity and a CET1 ratio of approximately 9.5% (common equity Tier 1 capital would still total $170 billion). This scenario is quite severe and, we hope, unlikely. If it were to play out, the Board would likely consider suspending the dividend even though it is a rather small claim on our equity capital base. If the Board suspended the dividend, it would be out of extreme prudence and based upon continued uncertainty over what the next few years will bring.

It is also important to be aware that in both our central case scenario for 2020 results and in our extremely adverse scenario, we are lending – currently or plan to do so – an additional $150 billion for our clients’ needs. Despite this, our capital resources and liquidity are very strong in both models. We have over $500 billion in total liquid assets and an incremental $300+ billion borrowing capacity at the Federal Reserve and Federal Home Loan Banks, if needed, to support these loans, as well as meet our liquidity requirements (these numbers do not include the potential use of some of the Fed’s newly created facilities). We could, of course, make our capital and liquidity buffer better by restricting our activities, but we do not intend to do that – our clients need us.

JP Morgan Chairman and CEO Letter to Shareholders 2019 Annual Report

Banks are cyclical investments – who knew?

Stress testing models must of course be treated with caution but what I think this mostly illustrates is that banks are highly cyclical investments. That may seem like a statement of the obvious but there was a narrative post GFC that banks were public utilities and that bank shareholders should expect to earn public utility style returns on their investments.

There is an element of truth in this analogy in so far as banks clearly provide an essential public service. I am also sympathetic to the argument that banking is a form of private/public partnership. This pandemic is however a timely reminder of the limits of the argument that banks are just another low risk utility style of business. Bank shareholders are much more exposed to the cyclical impacts than true utility investments.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have a substantial exposure to bank shares and I for one need a lot more than a single digit return to compensate for the pain that part of my portfolio is currently experiencing. The only upside is that I never bought into the thesis that banks are a low risk utility style investment requiring a commensurately low return.

The higher capital and liquidity requirements built up in response to the lessons of the GFC increase the odds that banks will survive the crisis and be a big part of the solution but banks are, and remain, quintessentially cyclical investments and the return bank investors require should reflect this. I think the lesson here is not to worry about the extent to which dividend cuts would be destabilising to investors but to focus on what kind of return is commensurate with the risk.

I will let APRA have the final say on what to expect …

APRA expects ADIs and insurers to limit discretionary capital distributions in the months ahead, to ensure that they instead use buffers and maintain capacity to continue to lend and underwrite insurance. This includes prudent reductions in dividends, taking into account the uncertain outlook for the operating environment and the need to preserve capacity to prioritise these critical activities. 

Decisions on capital management need to be forward-looking, and in the current environment of significant uncertainty in the outlook, this can be very challenging. APRA is therefore providing Boards with the following additional guidance.2 

During at least the next couple of months, APRA expects that all ADIs and insurers will:

– take a forward-looking view on the need to conserve capital and use capacity to support the economy;

– use stress testing to inform these views, and give due consideration to plausible downside scenarios (periodically refreshed and updated as conditions evolve); and

– initiate prudent capital management actions in response, on a pre-emptive basis, to ensure they maintain the confidence and capacity to continue to lend and support their customers. 

During this period, APRA expects that ADIs and insurers will seriously consider deferring decisions on the appropriate level of dividends until the outlook is clearer. However, where a Board is confident that they are able to approve a dividend before this, on the basis of robust stress testing results that have been discussed with APRA, this should nevertheless be at a materially reduced level. Dividend payments should be offset to the extent possible through the use of dividend reinvestment plans and other capital management initiatives. APRA also expects that Boards will appropriately limit executive cash bonuses, mindful of the current challenging environment.  

“APRA issues guidance to authorised deposit-taking institutions and insurers on capital management”, 7 April 2020

Tony (From the Outside)

Confusing capital and liquidity

I have been planning to write something on the relationship between capital and liquidity for a while. I have postponed however because the topic is complex and not especially well understood and I did not want to contribute to the body of misconceptions surrounding the topic. An article in the APRA Insight publications (2020 Issue One) has prompted me to have a go.

Capital Explained

The article published in APRA’s Insight publication under the title “Capital explained” offers a simple introduction to the question what capital is starting with the observation that …

“Capital is an abstract concept and has different meanings in different contexts.

Capital being abstract and meaning different things in different contexts is a good start but the next sentence troubles me.

“In non-technical contexts, capital is often described as an amount of cash or assets held by a company, or an amount available to invest.”

I am not sure that the author intended to endorse this non-technical description but it was not clear and I don’t think it should be left unchallenged, especially when the casual reader might be inclined to take it at face value. The fact that non-technical descriptions frequently state this is arguably a true statement but the article does not clarify that this description is a source of much confusion and seems to be conflating capital and liquid assets.

The source of the confusion possibly lies in double entry bookkeeping based explanations in which a capital raising will be associated with an influx of cash onto a company balance sheet. What happens next though is that the company has to decide what to do with the cash, it is extremely unlikely that the cash just sits in the company bank account. This is especially true in the case of a bank which has cash flowing into, and out of, the balance sheet every day. The influx of one source of funding (in this case equity) for the bank means that it will most likely choose to not raise some alternate form of funding (debt) on that day. The amount of cash it holds will be primarily driven by the liquidity targets it has set which are related to but in no way the same thing as its capital targets.

Time for me to put up or shut up.

How should we think about the relationship between capital and liquidity including the extent to which holding more liquid assets might, as is sometimes claimed, justify holding less capital.

  • Liquidity risk is mitigated by liquidity management, including holding liquid assets, but this statement offers no insight into the extent to which some residual expected or unexpected aspect of the risk still requires capital coverage (All risks are mitigated to varying extents by management but most still require some level of capital coverage)
  • So the assessment that holding more liquid assets reduces the need to hold capital is open to challenge
  • One of the core functions of capital is to absorb any increase in expenses, liabilities, loan losses or asset write downs associated with or required to resolve an underlying risk issue; the bank may need to recapitalise itself to restore the target level of solvency required to address future issues but the immediate problems are resolved without the consumption of capital compromising solvency
  • Liquid assets, in contrast, buy time to resolve problems but they do not in themselves solve any underlying issues that may be the root cause of the liquidity stress.
  • The relationship between liquidity and solvency is not symmetrical; liquidity is ultimately contingent on a bank being solvent, but a solvent bank can be illiquid.
  • While more liquid assets are not a substitute for holding capital, a more strongly capitalised bank is less likely to be subject to the kinds of liquidity stress events that draw on liquid assets so holding more capital relative to peer banks can reduce liquidity risk
  • Being relatively strong matters in scenarios where uncertainty is high and people resort to simple rules (e.g. withdraw funding from the weakest banks; even if that is not true the risk is that other people express that view and it becomes self-fulfilling)
  • It is important to recognise that the focus of relationship between capital and liquidity risk described above is the capital position relative to peer banks and market expectations, not the absolute stand-alone position
  • The “Unquestionably Strong” benchmark used in the Australian banking system to calibrate the overall target operating range for capital in the ICAAP anchors the bank’s Liquidity Risk appetite setting.
  • Expressed another way, the capital requirements of Liquidity Risk are embedded holistically in the capital buffer the target operating range maintains over prudential minimum capital requirements.

It is entirely possible that I am missing something here – I hope not but let me know if you see an error in my logic