Australian government support for banks

The impending transition to an increased level of Loss Absorbing Capital has prompted speculation on whether this means that the assumption of government support embedded in the senior debt rating of the large Australian banks remains appropriate. This speculation is fuelled in part by precedents established in the European Union and United States where the implementation of increased loss absorption requirements has resulted in the assessment of government supportiveness being downgraded.

Standard and Poor’s addressed this question in the Australian context and the short answer is that continued high government support is the probable outcome.

“In our view, this framework does not propose–nor have the authorities more broadly taken–any concrete actions that would suggest reduced government support despite the stated intent to reduce the implicit government guarantee and the perception that some banks are too big to fail”

“Australian Government Support For Banks: Will There Be More Twists In The Tale?, 8 April 2019 – S&P Global RatingsDirect

APRA’s proposed framework for increased loss absorption

Before digging into the detail of why S&P continue to believe the Australian Government will most likely remain “highly supportive” of systemically important banks, it will be useful to quickly revisit the discussion paper APRA published in November 2018 setting out its proposed response to the Financial System Inquiry recommendation that the Government “Implement a framework for minimum loss absorbing and recapitalization capacity in line with emerging international practice, sufficient to facilitate the orderly resolution of Australian authorised deposit-taking institutions (ADIs) and minimize taxpayer support”.

APRA proposed that selected Australian banks (mostly D-SIBs) be required to hold more loss absorbing capital via an increase in the minimum Prudential Capital Requirement (PCR) applied the Total Capital Ratio (TCR) they are required to maintain under Para 23 of APS 110.

“The minimum PCRs that an ADI must maintain at all times are:
(a) a Common Equity Tier 1 Capital ratio of 4.5 per cent;
(b) a Tier 1 Capital ratio of 6.0 per cent; and
(c) a Total Capital ratio of 8.0 per cent.
APRA may determine higher PCRs for an ADI and may change an ADI’s PCRs at any time.”

APS 110 Paragraph 23

This means that banks have discretion over what form of capital they use but it is assumed they will choose Tier 2 capital as the lowest cost way to meet the requirement.

A post I did on APRA’s discussion paper, identified 5 issues posed by APRA’s proposed response including the question “To what extent would the public sector continue to stand behind the banking system once the proposed level of self insurance is in place?”. My assessment at that time was that …

“… the solution that APRA has proposed seems to me to give the official family much greater options for dealing with future banking crises without having to call on the taxpayer to underwrite the risk of recapitalising failed or otherwise non-viable banks.

It does not, however, eliminate the need for liquidity support. ... The reality is that banking systems built on mostly illiquid assets will likely face future crises of confidence where the support of the central bank will be necessary to keep the financial wheels of the economy turning. ….

… the current system requires the central bank to be the lender of last resort. That support is extremely valuable and is another design feature that sets banks apart from other companies. It is not the same however, as bailing out a bank via a recapitalisation.

“Does more loss absorption and “orderly resolution” eliminate the TBTF subsidy”, posted on From The Outside (November 2018)

I noted that the proposed increase in loss absorbing capital would give APRA and the RBA much greater options for dealing with the solvency aspect of any future crisis but my main point in that initial response to the policy proposal was that the need for a liquidity support backstop remained. In my experience, solvency and liquidity are frequently conflated in the public discussion of bail-outs and my point was that recognising that they are not the same facilitates a more sensible discussion of the role of bail-in and government support. The steps APRA is proposing to take to reduce the implied level of government support do not change the fact that the central bank standing ready to act as the Lender of Last Resort (“LOLR”) will remain a design feature of the financial system we have, not a bug.

The distinction between solvency an liquidity is important but, with the benefit of hindsight, I should have paid equal attention to the extent to which the Australian government might still be expected to go beyond liquidity support if required and the way in which the Australian approach to bail-in differs from that being developed in the U.S. and the E.U.

Standard and Poors continues to rate the Australian government as “highly supportive”

Notwithstanding some ambiguity introduced by the government’s response to the FSI recommendation, S&P continue to believe that the Australian government will remain “highly supportive” towards the systemically important private sector banks. They clarify that support in this context means “… the propensity of a government to provide extraordinary support (typically a capital injection) …”.

The factors underpinning S&P’s (admittedly subjective) assessment are:

  • The Australian economy’s dependence on continued access to offshore funding via the Australian banks
  • The potential risk of contagion across the four major banks due to their interconnectedness
  • No evidence of in-principle political or social opposition to government support should it prove necessary
  • APRA’s proposed framework for increased loss absorption does not hinder government support (in contrast to the resolution frameworks adopted in the European Union and the United States where bail-in is a pre-requisite for a government funded bail-out)
  • Notwithstanding the broad range of powers that APRA has for dealing with a stressed financial institution, S&P do not see any clearly laid out framework that would allow senior creditors to be captured by a bail-in
  • A track record of prompt and decisive action to support banks where required.

The ambiguity referenced above stems from the Government’s response to the FSI in which it stated that it “… agrees that steps should be taken to reduce any implicit government guarantee and the perception that some banks are too big to fail”.

My prior post referred to APRA’s proposed solution giving “… the official family much greater options for dealing with future banking crises without having to call on the taxpayer…”. The fact that the government will have the option to use pre-positioned capital instruments to recapitalise failing banks in the future does not necessarily mean that they have forgone the option of using public funds, if that is deemed to be a better (or least worst) option. It is also worth noting that the Government’s response itself does not contemplate eliminating the implicit guarantee and the perception that some banks are too big to fail, simply to reducing them.

What would stop the Government using bail-in to recapitalise a bank?

The interesting question here is what would preclude the government from using the bail-in option, choosing instead to use public funds to recapitalise one or more non-viable banks. So long as investors in these instruments bought them with full knowledge of the downside, there is no obvious reason why they should be protected. The bigger issue seems to be whether the banking system can cope with this particular class of investor temporarily choosing to withdraw from funding Australian banks.

Here I think it is important to distinguish between a constraint on access to senior funding and a constraint on access to the kinds of contingent debt/capital instruments used to meet the Total Loss Absorption Requirement. The history of bond defaults suggests that investors eventually forgive or forget but it is also safer to assume that any banking system subject to bail-in might be temporarily excluded from access to the kinds of contingent convertible debt instruments that were used to recapitalise it.

That I suspect is a manageable scenario provided the recapitalisation of the banking system is sufficient to address any concerns that the senior bond holders may have regarding the solvency and/or viability of the banks impacted. Some degree of over-capitalisation of the banks may be necessary to achieve this and the cost of funding can be expected to increase also. This is part of the price of failure. There is however no in principle reason why bail-in of Additional Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 capital should impact the senior debt so long as it is clear that senior debt is not subject to the same risk of bail-in.

In the absence of access to Additional Tier 1, Tier 2 or Tier 3 capital, these banks will probably be required to temporarily rely on a greater share of common equity to meet their Total Capital Requirement but that can be regenerated through profit retention. I don’t see the capital rebuilding task being materially different to what would have applied if the bank was initially required to meet its TLAC requirement entirely via CET1 capital (as the RBNZ proposes). This is also where the official family can provide liquidity support with minimal risk of the taxpayer facing a loss. Once the bank has regained the trust of the investors, the option of increasing the share of non CET1 capital in the TLAC mix can be re-established.

The importance of the assumption of government support should not be underestimated

This is a complex topic and one where reasonable people can form different interpretations of the facts so let me know if I am missing something …

Table 1 from the S&P report illustrates that an improvement in the Stand Alone Credit Profile (SACP) of one of the Australian majors is not enough on its own to offset a downgrade in S&P’s assessment of government supportiveness. The SACP of the Australian majors is currently assessed at “a-” with government support translating to a 2 notch improvement in the Issuer Credit Rating (ICR) to “AA-“. If the government support assessment is downgraded, the ICR declines 1 notch to “A+” and is not improved even if the SACP is enhanced to “a”.

Tony (From the Outside)

The Bankers’ New Clothes: Arguments for simpler capital and much reduced leverage

It always pays to make sure you expose yourself to the opposite view. This post looks at some of the arguments for simpler and higher bank capital requirements put forward by Professors Admati and Hellwig. They have published a number of papers and a book on the topic but this post refers chiefly to their book “The Bankers’ New Clothes” and to a paper ‘The Parade of the Banker’s New Clothes Continues: 31 Flawed Claims Debunked”. As I understand it, the key elements of their argument are that:

  • Banks are inherently risky businesses,
  • Excessive borrowing by banks increases their inherent riskiness, but
  • Banks are only able to maintain this excessive level of borrowing because
    • Flawed risk based capital models underestimate the true capital requirements of the business
    • Market discipline also allows excessive borrowing because it is assumed that the government will bail out banks if the situation turns out badly

They identify a variety of ways of dealing with the problem of excessive leverage (controls on bank lending, liquidity requirements and capital requirements) but argue that substantially more common equity is the best solution because:

  • It directly reduces the probability that a bank will fail (i.e. all other things being equal, more common equity reduces the risk of insolvency),
  • A higher level of solvency protection has the added benefit of also reducing the risk of illiquidity, and
  • Contrary to claims by the banking industry, there is no net cost to society in holding more common equity because the dilution in ROE will be offset by a decline in the required return on equity

They concede that there will be some cost associated with unwinding the Too Big To Fail (TBTF) benefit that large banks currently enjoy on both the amount banks can borrow and on the cost of that funding but argue there is still no net cost to society in unwinding this undeserved subsidy. The book, in particular, gets glowing reviews for offering a compelling case for requiring banks to operate with much lower levels of leverage and for pointing out the folly of risk based capital requirements.

There are a number of areas where I find myself in agreement with the points they argue but I can’t make the leap to accept their conclusion that much a higher capital requirement based on a simple leverage ratio calculation is the best solution. I have written this post to help me think through the challenges they offer my beliefs about how banks should be capitalised.

It is useful, I think, to first set out the areas where we (well me at least) might agree in principle with what they say; i.e.

  • Financial crises clearly do impose significant costs on society and excessive borrowing does tend to make a financial system fragile (the trick is to agree what is “excessive”)
  • Better regulation and supervision have a role to play in minimising the risk of bank failure (i.e. market discipline alone is probably not enough)
  • Public policy should consider all costs, not just those of the banking industry
  • All balance sheets embody a trade-off between enterprise risk, return and leverage (i.e. increasing leverage does increase risk)

It is less clear however that:

  • The economics of bank financing are subject to exactly the same rules as that which apply to non-financial companies (i.e. rather than asserting that banks should be compared with non-financial companies, it is important to understand how banks are different)
  • A policy of zero failure for banks is necessarily the right one, or indeed even achievable (i.e. would it be better to engineer ways in which banks can fail without dragging the economy down with them)
  • Fail safe mechanisms, such as the bail in of pre-positioned liabilities, have no prospect of working as intended
  • The assertion that “most” of the new regulation intended to make banks safer and easier to resolve has been “rejected, diluted or delayed” is a valid assessment of what has actually happened under Basel III
  • That liquidity events requiring lender of last resort support from the central bank are always a solvency problem

Drawing on some previous posts dealing with these issues (see here, here and here), I propose to focus on the following questions:

  • How does the cost of bank financing respond to changes in leverage?
  • Are the risk based capital requirements as fundamentally flawed as the authors claim?
  • Are risk management incentives for bankers always better when they are required to hold increasing levels of common equity?
  • Do the increased loss absorption features of Basel III compliant hybrids (in particular, the power to trigger conversion or bail in of the instruments) offer a way to impose losses on failed banks without disrupting the economy or requiring public support

How does leverage affect the cost of bank financing?

Increasing the proportion of equity funding, the authors argue, reduces the risk that shareholders are exposed to because each dollar of equity they have invested

“ will be affected less intensely by the uncertainty associated with the investments”

“when shareholders bear less risk per dollar invested, the rate of return they require is lower”

“Therefore, taking the costs of equity as fixed and independent of the mix of equity and debt involves a fundamental fallacy”.

Banker’sNew Clothes (p101)

The basic facts they set out are not really contentious; the mix of debt and equity does impact required returns. The authors focus on what happens to common equity but changing leverage impacts both debt and equity. This is very clear in the way that rating agencies consider all of the points nominated by the authors when assigning a debt rating. Reduced equity funding will likely lead to a decline in the senior and subordinated debt ratings and higher costs (plus reduced access to funding in absolute dollar terms) while higher equity will be a positive rating factor.

Banks are not immune to these fundamental laws but it is still useful to understand how the outcomes are shaped by the special features of a bank balance sheet. My views here incorporate two of the claims they “debunk” in their paper; specifically

Flawed Claim #4: The key insights from corporate finance about the economics of funding, including those of Modigliani and Miller, are not relevant for banks because banks are different from other companies

Flawed Claim #5: Banks are special because they create money

One of the features that defines a bank is the ability to take deposits. The cost of deposits however tends to be insulated from the effects of leverage. This is a design feature. Bank deposits are a major component of the money supply but need to be insensitive to adverse information about the issuing bank to function as money.

Wanting bank deposits to be information insensitive does not make them so. That is a function of their super senior position in the liability loss hierarchy, supplemented in many, if not most, banking systems by some form of limited deposit insurance (1). I credit a paper by Gary Gorton and George Pennacchi titled “Financial Intermediaries and Liquidity Creation” for crytalising this insight (an earlier post offers a short summary of that paper). Another paper titled “Why Bail-In? And How?” by Joseph Sommer proposes a different rationale for deposits having a super senior position insulated from the risk of insolvency but the implications for the impact of leverage on bank financing costs are much the same.

A large bank also relies on senior unsecured financing. This class of funding is more risky than deposits but still typically investment grade. This again is a design feature. Large banks target an investment grade rating in order to deliver, not only competitive financing costs, but equally (and perhaps more importantly) access to a larger pool of potential funding over a wider range of tenors. The investment grade rating depends of course on there being sufficient loss absorbing capital underwriting that outcome. There is no escaping this law of corporate finance. 

The debt rating of large banks is of course also tied up with the issue of banks being treated as Too Big To Fail (TBTF). That is a distortion in the market that needs to be addressed and the answer broadly is more capital though the rating agencies are reasonably agnostic on the form this capital should take in so far as the senior debt rating is concerned. Subject to having enough common equity anchoring the capital structure, more Tier 2 subordinated debt (or Tier 3 bail-in) will work just as well as more common equity for the purposes of reducing the value of implied government support currently embedded in the long term senior debt rating.

Admati and Hellwig are right – there is no free lunch in corporate finance

At this stage, all of this risk has to go somewhere. On that point I completely agree with Admati and Hellwig. There is no free lunch, the rating/risk of the senior tranches of financing depend on having enough of the right kinds of loss absorbing capital standing before them in the loss hierarchy. Where I part company is on the questions of how much capital is enough and what form it should take.

How much capital is (more than) enough?

Admati and Hellwig’s argument for more bank capital has two legs. Firstly, they note that banks are typically much more leveraged than industrial companies and question how can this be given the fundamental law of capital irrelevancy defined by Modigliani and Miller. Secondly, they argue that risk based capital requirements are fundamentally flawed and systematically under estimate how much capital is required.

Why are banks different?

Admati and Hellwig note that banks have less capital than industrial companies and conclude that this must be a result of the market relying on the assumption that banks will be bailed out. The existence of a government support uplift in the senior debt ratings of large banks is I think beyond debate. There is also broad support (even amongst many bankers) that this is not sound public policy and should ideally be unwound.

It is not obvious however that this wholly explains the difference in observed leverage. Rating agency models are relatively transparent in this regard (S&P in particular) and the additional capital required to achieve a rating uplift equivalent to the existing government support factor would still see banks more leveraged than the typical industrial company. Bank balance sheets do seem to be different from those of industrial companies.

Flawed risk models

The other leg to their argument is that risk based capital fundamentally under estimates capital requirements. I am broadly sympathetic to the sceptical view on how to use the outputs of risk models and have been for some time. An article I wrote in 2008, for example, challenged the convention of using a probability of default associated with the target debt rating to precisely calibrate the amount of capital a bank required.

The same basic concept of highly precise, high confidence level capital requirements is embedded in the Internal Ratings Based formula and was part of the reason the model results were misinterpreted and misused. Too many people assigned a degree of precision to the models that was not warranted. That does not mean however that risk models are totally useless.

Professors Admati and Hellwig use simple examples (e.g. how does the risk of loss increase if a personal borrower increases leverage on a home loan) to argue that banks need to hold more capital. While the basic principle is correct (all other things equal, leverage does increase risk), the authors’ discussion does not draw much (or possibly any?) attention to the way that requiring a borrower to have equity to support their borrowing reduces a bank’s exposure to movements in the value of the loan collateral.

In the examples presented, any decline in the value of the assets being financed flows through directly to the value of equity, with the inference that this would be true of a bank also. In practice, low risk weights assigned by banks to certain (low default – well secured) pools of lending reflect the existence of borrower’s equity that will absorb the first loss before the value of the loan itself is called into question.

A capital requirement for residential mortgages (typically one of the lowest risk weights and also most significant asset classes) that looks way too low when you note that house prices can easily decline by 10 or 20%, starts to make more sense when you recognise that that there is (or should be) a substantial pool of borrower equity taking the brunt of the initial decline in the value of collateral. The diversity of borrowers is also an important factor in reducing the credit risk of the exposures (though not necessarily the systemic risk of an overall meltdown in the economy). Where that is not the case (and hence the renewed focus on credit origination standards and macro prudential policy in general), then low risk weights are not justified.

I recognise that this argument (incorporating the value of the borrower’s equity) does not work for traded assets where the mark to market change in the value of the asset flows directly to the bank’s equity. It does however work for the kinds of assets on bank balance sheets that typically have very low risk weights (i.e. the primary concern of the leverage ratio advocates). It also does not preclude erring on the side of caution when calculating risk weights so long as the model respects the relative riskiness of the various assets impacting the value of equity.

How much also depends on the quality of risk management (and supervision)

The discussion of how much capital a bank requires should also recognise the distinction between how much a well managed bank needs and how much a poorly managed bank needs. In a sense, the authors are proposing that all banks, good and bad, should be made to hold the capital required by bad banks. Their focus on highlighting the risks of banking obscures the fact that prudent banking mitigates the downside and that well managed banks are not necessarily consigned to the extremes of risk the authors present as the norm of banking.

While not expressed in exactly that way, the distinction I am drawing is implicit in Basel III’s Total Loss Absorbing Capital (TLAC) requirements now being put in place. TLAC adds a substantial layer of additional loss absorption on top of already substantially strengthened common equity requirements. The base layer of capital can be thought of as what is required for a well managed, well supervised bank with a sound balance sheet and business model. APRA’s “Unquestionably Strong” benchmark for CET1 is a practical example of what this requirement looks like. The problem of course is that all banks argue they are good banks but the risk remains that they are in fact bad banks and we usually don’t find out the difference until it is too late. The higher TLAC requirement provides for this contingency.

What should count as capital?

I looked at this question in a recent post on the RBNZ’s proposal that virtually all of their TLAC requirement should be comprised of common equity. Admati and Hellwig side with the RBNZ but I believe that a mix of common equity and bail-in capital (along the lines proposed by APRA) is the better solution.

Read my earlier post for the long version, but the essence of my argument is that bail-in capital introduces a better discipline over bank management risk appetite than does holding more common equity. Calibrating common equity requirements to very high standards should always be the foundation of a bank capital structure. Capital buffers in particular should be calibrated to withstand very severe external shocks and to be resilient against some slippage in risk management.

The argument that shareholders’ need to have more “skin in the game” is very valid where the company is undercapitalised. Bail-in capital is not a substitute for getting the basics right. A bank that holds too little common equity, calibrated to an idealised view of both its own capabilities and of the capacity of the external environment to surprise the modellers, will likely find itself suppressing information that does not fit the model. Loss aversion then kicks in and management start taking more risk to win back that which was lost, just as Admati and Hellwig argue.

However, once you have achieved a position that is unquestionably strong, holding more common equity does not necessarily enhance risk management discipline. My experience in banking is that it may in fact be more likely to breed an undesirable sense of complacency or even to create pressure to improve returns. I know that the later is not a a winning strategy in the long run but in the short run the market frequently does not care.

What is the minimum return an equity investor requires?

One of the problems I find with a simplistic application of Modigliani & Miller’s (M&M) capital irrelevancy argument is that it does not seem to consider if there is a minimum threshold return for an equity investment below which the investment is no longer sufficiently attractive to investors who are being asked to take first loss positions in a company; i.e. where is the line between debt and equity where a return is simply not high enough to be attractive to equity investors?

Reframing the question in this way suggests that the debate between the authors and the bankers may be more about whether risk based capital adequacy models (including stress testing) can be trusted than it is about the limitations of M&M in the real world.

Summary

The author’s solution to prudential supervision of banks is a shock and awe approach to capital that seeks to make the risk of insolvency de minimus for good banks and bad. I have done my best to be open to their arguments and indeed do agree with a number of them. My primary concern with the path they advocate is that I do not believe the extra “skin in the game” generates the risk management benefits they claim.

I see more potential in pursuing a capital structure based on

  • a level of common equity that is robustly calibrated to the needs of a well managed (and well supervised) bank
  • incorporating a well designed counter cyclical capital buffer,
  • supplemented with another robust layer of bail-in capital that imposes real costs (and accountability) on the shareholders and management of banks for whom this level of common equity proves insufficent.

The authors argue that the authorities would never use these bail-in powers for fear of further destabilising funding markets. This is a valid area of debate but I believe they conflate the risks of imposing losses on bank depositors with the kinds of risks that professional bond investors have traditionally absorbed over many centuries of banking. The golden era in which the TBTF factor shielded bank bondholders from this risk is coming to the end but this broader investment class of bond holders has dealt with defaults by all kinds of borrowers. I am not sure why banks would be special in this regard if countries can default. The key issue is that the investors enter into the contract with the knowledge that they are at risk and are being paid a risk premium commensurate with the downside (which may not be that large if investors judge the banks to be well managed).

This is a complex topic so please let me know if I have missed something fundamental or have otherwise mis-represented Admati and Hellwig’s thesis. In the interim, I remain mostly unconvinced …

Tony

  1. It is worth noting that NZ has adopted a different path with respect to deposit protection, rejecting both deposit preference and deposit insurance. They also have a unique policy tool (Open Bank Resolution) that allows the RBNZ to impose losses on deposits as part of the resolution process. They are reviewing the case for deposit insurance and I believe should also reconsider deposit preference.

What should count as bank capital?

My last post looked at a RBNZ consultation paper which addressed the question “How much capital is enough?”. The overall quantum of capital the RBNZ arrived at (16% of RWA plus) seemed reasonable but it was less obvious that relying almost entirely on CET1 was the right solution. That prompted me to revisit an earlier consultation paper in which the RBNZ set out its case for why it did not want contingent capital instruments to play a significant role in the capital structure of the banks it supervises. This post explores the arguments the RBNZ marshals to support its position as part of a broader exploration of the debate over what counts as capital.

The traditional approach to this question assumes that common equity is unquestionably the best form of capital from the perspective of loss absorption. Consequently, the extent to which alternative forms of funding count as capital is judged by common equity benchmarks; e.g. the extent to which the funding is a permanent commitment (i.e. no maturity date) and the returns paid to investors depend on the profitability or capacity of the company to pay (failure to pay is not an event of default).

There is no dispute that tangible common equity unquestionably absorbs loss and is the foundation of any company’s capital structure but I believe contingent convertible capital instruments do potentially add something useful to the bank capital management toolkit. I will attempt to make the case that a foundation of common equity, supplemented with some debt that converts to common equity if required, is better than a capital structure comprised solely or largely of common equity.

The essence of my argument is that there is a point in the capital structure where adding contingent convertible instruments enhances market discipline relative to just adding more common equity. The RBNZ discusses the potential value of these structures in their consultation paper:

49. The theoretical literature on contingent debt explores how these instruments might reduce risk (i.e. lower the probability of insolvency) for an individual bank.  

50. Two effects have been identified. Firstly, adding contingent debt to a bank’s balance sheet directly increases the loss absorbing potential of the bank, relative to issuing pure debt (but not relative to acquiring more common equity). This follows directly from the fact that removing the debt is an essential part of every contingent debt instrument. Secondly, depending on the terms, contingent capital may cause bank management to target a lower level of risk (incentive effects). In other words, in theory, a contingent debt instrument both reduces the probability a bank will incur losses and absorbs losses that do eventuate. Because of both these factors, contingent debt is expected, in theory, to reduce the risk of bank failure.  

51. Focusing on the second of these effects, management incentives, it matters whether, when the debt is written off, holders are compensated in the form of newly issued shares (“conversion”). If conversion is on such a scale as to threaten existing shareholders with a loss of control of the bank, it will be optimal for bank management to target a lower level of risk exposure for a given set of circumstances than would have been the case otherwise. For example, bank management may be less tolerant of asset volatility, and more likely to issue new equity to existing shareholders, when capital is low rather than risk triggering conversion.”

RBNZ Capital Review Paper 2: What should qualify as bank capital? Issues and Options (para 49 – 51) – Emphasis added

So the RBNZ does recognise the potential value of contingent debt instruments which convert into common equity but chose to downplay the benefits while placing much greater weight on a series of concerns it identified.

What’s in a name – The RBNZ Taxonomy of Capital

Before digging into the detail of the RBNZ concerns, it will be helpful to first clarify terminology. I am using the term Contingent Convertible Instruments for my preferred form of supplementary capital whereas much of the RBNZ paper focuses on what it refers to as “Contingent debt instruments“, which it defines in part as “debt that absorbs loss via write-off, which may or may not be followed by conversion”.

I had not picked this up on my first read of the RBNZ paper but came to realise we are talking slightly at cross purposes. The key words to note are “contingent” and “convertible”.

  • The “contingent” part of these instruments is non-negotiable if they are to be accepted as bank regulatory capital. The contingency is either a “non-viability event” (e.g. the supervisor determines that the bank must increase common equity to remain viable) or a CET1 ratio of 5.125% or less (what APRA terms a “loss absorption trigger” and the RBNZ refers to as a “going-concern trigger”)
  • “Conversion” however is optional. Loss absorption is non-negotiable for bank regulatory capital but it can be achieved in two ways. I have argued that loss absorption is best achieved by converting these capital instruments into common equity but prudential regulation is satisfied so long as the instruments are written-off.

I had taken it as given that these instruments would be convertible but the RBNZ places more emphasis on the possibility that conversion “may or may not” follow write-off. Small point but worth noting when evaluating the arguments.

Why does conversion matter?

The RBNZ understandably focuses on the write-off part of the loss absorption process whereas I focus on conversion because it is essential to preserving a loss hierarchy that allocates losses to common equity in the first instance. If we ignore for a moment the impact of bail-in (either by conversion or write-off), the order in which losses are applied to the various sources of funding employed by a bank follows this loss hierarchy:

  • Going Concern:
    • Common Equity Tier 1 (CET1)
    • Additional Tier 1 (AT1)
  • Insolvency – Liquidation or restructuring:
    • Tier 2 (T2)
    • Senior unsecured
    • Super senior
      • Covered bonds
      • Deposits
      • Insured deposits

Under bail-in, writing off a contingent capital instrument generates an increase in common equity that accrues to the existing ordinary shareholders thereby negating the traditional loss hierarchy that requires common equity to be exhausted before more senior instruments can be required to absorb loss.

Conversion is a far better way to effect loss absorption because ordinary shareholders still bear the brunt of any loss, albeit indirectly via the dilution of their shareholding (and associated share price losses). In theory, conversion shields the AT1 investors from loss absorption because they receive common equity equivalent in value to the book value of their claim on the issuer. In practice, it is less clear that the AT1 investors will be able to sell the shares received at the conversion price or better but they are still better off than if they had simply seen the value of their investment written-off. If you are interested in digging deeper, this post looks at how loss absorption works under bail-in.

The RBNZ does recognise this dynamic but still chose to reject these advantages so it is time to look at their concerns.

RBNZ concerns with contingent capital

The RBNZ identified six concerns to justify its in principle decision to exclude the use of contingent capital instruments in the NZ capital adequacy framework.

  1. Possible under-estimation of the tax effects of contingent debt
  2. Reliance on parent entities as purchasers of AT1 contingent debt
  3. Not suitable for retail investors
  4. Banks structured as mutual societies cannot offer contingent debt that includes conversion into common equity
  5. Potential for regulatory arbitrage arising from the tension between tax and capital regulation
  6. Difficulties with exercising regulatory oversight of contingent debt

I don’t imagine the RBNZ is much concerned with my opinion but I don’t find the first three concerns to be compelling. I set out my reasons later in the post but will focus for the moment on three issues that I think do bear deeper consideration. You do not necessarily have to agree with the RBNZ assessment, or the weight they assign to them, but I believe these concerns must be addressed if we are to make the case for contingent debt.

Stronger arguments against contingent debt

1) Contingent debt gives the larger, listed banks a competitive advantage over mutual societies that are unable to issue ordinary shares

The RBNZ notes that all New Zealand banks are able to issue a version of contingent debt that qualifies as capital, but that some types of banks may have access to a broader – and cheaper – range of capital opportunities than others. The current definition of capital is thus in part responsible for a somewhat uneven playing field.

The primary concern seems to be banks structured as mutual societies which are unable to issue ordinary shares. They cannot offer contingent debt that includes conversion and must rely on the relatively more expensive option of writing-off of the debt to effect loss absorption.

I think this is a reasonable concern but I also believe there may be ways to deal with it. One option is for these banks to issue Mutual Equity Interests as has been proposed in Australia. Another option (also based on an Australian proposal) is that the increased requirements for loss absorbing capital be confined to the banks which cannot credibly be allowed to fail or be resolved in any other way. I recognise that this option benefits from the existence of deposit insurance which NZ has thus far rejected.

I need to do bit more research on this topic so I plan to revisit the way we deal with small banks, and mutuals in particular, in a future post.

2) Economic welfare losses due to regulatory arbitrage opportunities in the context of contingent debt

The tax treatment of payments to security holders is one of the basic tests for determining if the security is debt or equity but contingent debt instruments don’t fall neatly into either box. The conversion terms tied to PONV triggers make the instruments equity like when the issuer is under financial stress while the contractual nature of the payments to security holders makes them appear more debt like under normal operating conditions.

I can see a valid prudential concern but only to the extent the debt like features the tax authority relied on in making its determination regarding tax-deductibility somehow undermined the ability of the instrument to absorb loss when required.

There have been instances where securities have been mis-sold to unsophisticated investors (the Monte dei Paschi di Sienna example cited by the RBNZ is a case in point) but it is less obvious that retail investment by itself is sufficient cause to rule out this form of capital.

The only real difference I see over conventional forms of debt is the line where their equity like features come into play. Conventional debt is only ever at risk of loss absorption in the event of bankruptcy where its seniority in the loss hierarchy will determine the extent to which the debt is repaid in full. These new forms of bank capital bring forward the point at which a bank balance sheet can be restructured to address the risk that the restructuring undermines confidence in the bank. The economics of the restructuring are analogous so long as losses are allocated by conversion rather than by write-off alone.

3) Difficulties experienced with the regulatory oversight of contingent debt

Possibly their core concern is that overseeing instrument compliance is a complex and resource-intensive process that the RBNZ believes does not fit well with its regulatory model that emphasises self-discipline and market discipline. The RBNZ highlights two concerns in particular.

  • Firstly the RBNZ has chosen to respond to the challenge of vetting these instruments by instituting a “non-objection process” that places the onus on issuers to confirm that their instruments comply with the capital adequacy requirements.
  • Secondly, notwithstanding the non objection process, the added complexity of the instruments relative to common equity, still requires significant call on prudential resources.

This I think, is the strongest objection the RBNZ raises against contingent debt. Contingent debt securities are clearly more complex than common equity so the RBNZ quite reasonably argues that they need to bring something extra to the table to justify the time, effort and risk associated with them. There is virtually no justification for them if they do, as the RBNZ asserts, work against the principles of self and market discipline that underpin its regulatory philosophy.

Three not so compelling reasons for restricting the use of contingent capital instruments (“in my humble opinion’)

1) Possible under-estimation of the tax effects of contingent debt

The first concern relates to the RBNZ requirement that banks must acknowledge any potential tax implications arising from contingent debt and reflect these potential “tax offsets” in the reported value of capital. Banks are required to obtain a binding ruling from the NZ tax authority (or voluntarily take a tax ”haircut”). The RBNZ acknowledges that a binding ruling can provide comfort that tax is fully accounted for under prudential requirements, but quite reasonably argues that this will only be the case if the ruling that is sought is appropriately specified so as to capture all relevant circumstances.

The RBNZ’s specific concern seems to be what happens when no shares are issued in the event of the contingent loss absorption feature being triggered and hence no consideration is paid to investors in exchange for writing off their debt claim. The bank has made a gain that in principle would create a tax lability but it also seems reasonable to assume that the write off could only occur if the bank was incurring material losses. It follows then that the contingent tax liability created by the write off is highly likely to be set off against the tax losses such that there is no tax to pay.

I am not a tax expert so I may well be missing something but I can’t see a practical risk here. Even in the seemingly unlikely event that there is a tax payment, the money represents a windfall gain for the public purse. That said, I recognise that the reader must still accept my argument regarding the value of having the conversion option to consider it worth dealing with the added complexity.

2) A reliance on parent entities as purchasers of AT1 contingent debt

I and the RBNZ both agree that one of the key planks in the case for accepting contingent debt as bank capital is the beneficial impact on bank risk taking generated by the risk of dilution but the RBNZ argues this beneficial impact is less than it could be when the instrument is issued by a NZ subsidiary to its publicly listed parent.

I may be missing something here but the parent is exposed to dilution if the Non-Viability or Going Concern triggers are hit so I can’t see how that reduces the incentive to control risk unless the suggestion is that NZ management will somehow have the freedom to pursue risky business strategies with no input from their ultimate owners.

3) Retail investors have acquired contingent debt

The RBNZ cites some statistical evidence that suggests that, in contrast to the experience overseas, there appears to be limited uptake by wholesale investors of contingent debt issued by the big four banks. This prompts them to question whether the terms being offered on instruments issued outside the parent group are not sufficiently attractive for sophisticated investors. This concern seems to be predicated on the view that retail will always be the least sophisticated investors so banks will seek to take advantage of their relative lack of knowledge.

It is arguably true that retail investors will tend be less sophisticated than wholesale investors but that should not in itself lead to the conclusion that any issue targeted at retail is a cynical attempt at exploitation or that retail might legitimately value something differently to the way other investors do. The extent that the structures issued by the Australian parents have thus far concentrated on retail, for example, might equally be explained by the payment of franking credit that was more highly valued by the retail segment. Offshore institutions might also have been negative on the Australian market therefore pushing Australian banks to focus their efforts in the domestic market.

I retain an open mind on this question and need to dig a bit deeper but I don’t see how the fact that retail investment dominates the demand for these structures at a point in time can be construed to be proof that they are being mis-sold.

The RBNZ’s answer ultimately lies in their regulatory philosophy

The reason that the RBNZ rejects the use of these forms of supplementary capital ultimately appears to lie in its regulatory philosophy which is based on the following principles

  • Self discipline on the part of the financial institutions they supervise
  • Market discipline
  • Deliberately conservative
  • Simplicity

The RBNZ also acknowledges the value of adopting BCBS consistent standards but this is not a guiding principle. It reserves the right to adapt them to local needs and, in particular, to be more conservative. It should also be noted that the RBNZ has quite deliberately rejected adopting deposit insurance on the grounds (as I understand it) that this encourages moral hazard. They take this a step further by foregoing any depositor preference in the loss hierarchy and by a unique policy of Open Bank Resolution (OBR) under which deposits are explicitly included in the liabilities which can be written down in need to assist in the recapitalisation of an insolvent bank.

In theory, the RBNZ might have embraced contingent convertible instruments on the basis of their consistency with the principles of self and market discipline. The threat of dilution via conversion of the instrument into common equity creates powerful incentives not just for management to limit excessive risk taking but also for the investors to exert market discipline where they perceive that management is not exercising self-discipline.

In practice, the RBNZ seems to have discounted this benefit on the grounds that that there is too much risk, either by design or by some operational failure, that these instruments might not convert to common equity. They also seem quite concerned with structures that eschew conversion (i.e. loss absorption effected by write-off alone) but they could have just excluded these instruments rather than a blanket ban. Having largely discounted or disregarded the potential benefit, the principles of deliberate conservatism and simplicity dictate their proposed policy position, common equity rules.

Summing up

This post only scratches the surface of this topic. My key point is that contingent convertible capital instruments potentially add something useful to the bank capital management toolkit compared to relying entirely on common equity. The RBNZ acknowledge the potential upside but ultimately argue that the concerns they identify outweigh the potential benefits. I have reviewed their six concerns in this post but need to do a bit more work to gain comfort that I am not missing something and that my belief in the value of bail-in based capital instruments is justified.

Tony

Loss absorption under bail-in

I recently did a post on a Discussion Paper setting out how APRA proposes to increase the Loss Absorption Capital (LAC) of Australian authorised deposit-taking institutions (ADIs). I came down on the side of this being a desirable (arguably necessary) enhancement of the Australian financial system but noted that the devil was in the detail. One of the issues discussed was the potential impact of the proposal on the statutory and contractual loss hierarchy that defines the sequence in which losses are absorbed by the capital of the bank in the first instance, and by more senior sources of funding in need.  

This post attempts to dig a bit deeper into this question to better understand how losses would be assigned under a bail-in scenario. It is a pretty technical point and possibly of limited interest but I wanted to make sure I had a good handle on how loss absorption plays out in the future. Read on or stop here.

Key points

  • The bail-in of selected, pre-positioned liabilities modifies the traditional loss hierarchy that applies in a liquidation scenario 
    • As a general rule, the absorption of losses is accelerated across all tiers of LAC
    • CET1 investors bear the loss via the dilution of their shareholdings as AT1 and Tier 2 are converted to common equity
    • AT1 investors risk not receiving distributions but otherwise the loss hierarchy between them and T2 investors seems to collapse once their holdings are converted into CET1
    • The only potential advantage to Tier 2 in these scenarios is that these instruments may only face partial conversion but how beneficial depends on the extent to which conversion to common equity offers a better chance to liquidate their holding versus selling the Tier 2 instrument itself into what is likely to be a very illiquid market
  • This has been increasingly true since APRA introduced Point of Non-Viability (PONV) conversion triggers in 2013, and the instruments without this contractual feature progressively matured, but the proposed expansion of the pool of LAC takes us further down this path:
    • partly by virtue of making it easier for APRA to restructure bank capital structures without recourse to taxpayer support (i.e. the odds of bail-in being used in a future crisis are increased if the tool itself is more effective); and
    • partly by increasing the quantum of CET1 dilution that is the mechanism by which losses are allocated to the various tiers of LAC
  • Investors in the various capital tiers will obviously adjust the return they require for the risks they are asked to bear but we should ensure we all have a clear and consistent understanding of how the loss hierarchy is modified, and whether the resulting loss hierarchy is desirable (or indeed equitable)
  • The answer to this question turns in part on whether the outcomes for AT1 and T2 investors are better or worse than the market value they could achieve if they sold their investments prior to bail-in 

Loss Hierarchy – the simple version

Prudential Standard APS 111 (Capital Adequacy: Measurement of Capital) defines the order of seniority amongst the three tiers of prudential capital:

  • CET1 Capital “… rank behind the claims of depositors and other more senior creditors in the event of a winding up of the issuer ” (Para 19 (d))
  • AT1 Capital “… rank behind the claims of depositors and other more senior creditors in the event of a winding up of the issuer” (Para 28 (c))
  • Tier 2 Capital “represents, prior to any conversion to Common Equity Tier 1 … the most subordinated claim in liquidation of the issuer after Common Equity Tier 1 Capital instruments and Additional Tier 1 Capital instruments (Attachment H, Para 1 (b))

APS 111 (Attachment F, Para 10) also explicitly allows AT1 instruments to 1) differentiate as to whether the instrument is required to convert or be written-off in the first instance, and 2) provide for a ranking under which individual AT1 instruments will be converted or written-off. The guidance on Tier 2 is less explicit on this point but there does not seem to be any fundamental reason why a bank could not introduce a similar ranking within the overall level of subordination. I am not aware of any issuer using this feature for either AT1 or T2.

If we ignore for a moment the impact of bail-in (either by conversion or write-off), the order in which losses are applied to the various sources of funding employed by a company follows this loss hierarchy:

  • Going Concern:
    • Common Equity Tier 1 (CET1)
    • Additional Tier 1 (AT1)
  • Insolvency – Liquidation or restructuring:
    • Tier 2 (T2)
    • Senior unsecured
    • Super senior
      • Covered bonds
      • Deposits
      • Insured deposits

CET1 is clearly on the front line of loss absorption (a perpetual commitment of funding with any returns subject to the issuer having profits to distribute and the Capital Conservation Ratio (CCR) not being a constraint). AT1 is subject to similar restrictions, though its relative seniority does offer some protection regarding the payment of regular distributions.

Traditionally, the claims the other forms of funding have on the issuer are only at risk in the event of the liquidation or restructuring of the company but bail-in modifies this traditional loss hierarchy.

What happens to the loss hierarchy under bail in?

First up, let’s define bail-in …

A bail-in is the rescue of a financial institution that is on the brink of failure whereby creditors and depositors take a loss on their holdings. A bail-in is the opposite of a bailout, which involves the rescue of a financial institution by external parties, typically governments that use taxpayers money.” (Investopedia)

Investopedia’s definition above is useful, albeit somewhat generic. Never say never, but the loss hierarchy employed in Australia, combined with the fact that there are substantial layers of more junior creditors for big banks in particular, means that most Australian depositors (even the ones that do not have the benefit of deposit insurance) are pretty well insulated from bail-in risk. Not everyone would share my sanguine view on this question (i.e. the limited extent to which deposits might be bailed in) and some countries (NZ for example) quite explicitly choose to forego deposit insurance and move deposits up the loss hierarchy by ranking them equally with senior unsecured creditors.

The main point of bail-in is that existing funding is used to recapitalise the bank, as opposed to relying on an injection of new capital from outside which may or may not be forthcoming. It follows that pre-positioning sufficient layers of loss absorption, and making sure that investors understand what they have signed up for, is critical.

AT1 has always been exposed to the risk of its distributions being cut. This sounds good in theory for loss absorption but the size of these potential capital outflows is relatively immaterial in any real stress scenario. It could be argued that every dollar helps but my view is that the complexity and uncertainty introduced by making these distributions subject to the Capital Conservation Ratio (CCR) outweigh any contribution they might make to recapitalising the bank. The people who best understand this point are those who have had to calculate the CCR in a stress scenario (you have to get into the detail to understand it). The CCR issue could be addressed by simplifying the way it is calculated and I would argue that simplicity is always a desirable feature of any calculation that has to be employed under conditions of stress and uncertainty. The main point however is that it does very little to help recapitalise the bank because the heavy lifting in any really severe stress scenario depends on the capacity to convert a pool of pre-positioned, contingent capital into CET1.

APRA has had explicit power to bail-in AT1 and T2 since the January 2013 version of APS 111 introduced Point of Non-Viability (PONV) conversion triggers – these enhanced powers do a few things:

  • The impact of losses is brought forward relative what would apply in a conventional liquidation or restructuring process
  • For CET1 investors, this accelerated impact is delivered via the dilution of their shareholdings (and associated share price losses)
  • In theory, conversion shields the AT1 investors from loss absorption because they receive common equity equivalent in value to the book value of their claim on the issuer
  • In practice, it is less clear that the AT1 investors will be able to sell the shares at the conversion price or better, especially if market liquidity is adversely impacted by the events that called the viability of the issuer into question
  • The conversion challenge will be even greater to the extent that T2 investors are also bailed-in and seek to sell the shares they receive

Tier 2 will only be bailed-in after AT1 bail-in has been exhausted, as would be expected given its seniority in the loss hierarchy, but it is hard to see a bail-in scenario playing out where the conversion of AT1 alone is sufficient to restore the viability of the bank. AT1 is likely to represent not much more than the 1.5 percentage points of RWA required to meet minimum requirements but any crisis sufficient to threaten the viability of a bank is likely to require a much larger recapitalisation so full or partial conversion of T2 should be expected.

Partial conversion 

Attachment J – Para 6 provides that “Conversion or write-off need only occur to the extent necessary to enable APRA to conclude that the ADI is viable without further conversion or write-off”. Para 8 of the same attachment also specifies that “An ADI may provide for Additional Tier 1 Capital instruments to be converted or written off prior to any conversion or write-off of Tier 2 Capital instruments”.

This makes it reasonably clear that APRA will not automatically require all AT1 and Tier 2 to be converted or written-off but the basis on which partial conversion would be applied is not covered in the discussion paper. A pro-rata approach (i.e. work out how much of the aggregate Tier 2 is required to be converted and then apply this ratio to each  individual instrument) seems the simplest option and least open to legal challenge but it may be worth considering alternatives.

Converting the Tier 2 instruments closest to maturity in particular seems to offer some advantages over the pro rata approach

  • It generates more CET1 capital than the Tier 2 foregone (because the Tier 2 capital value of an instrument is amortised in its final 5 years to maturity whereas the CET1 capital created by bail-in is the full face value off the instrument)
  • It defers the need to replace maturing Tier 2 capital and maximises the residual pool of LAC post bail-in.

What is the reason for the 20% floor that APS 111 imposes on the conversion price?

The transition to a bail-in regime may be an opportune time to revisit the rationale for placing a floor on the conversion price used to convert AT1 and Tier 2 into common equity. Attachments E and F contain an identically worded paragraph 8 that requires that the share price used to calculate the shares received on conversion cannot be less than 20% of the ordinary share price at the the time the LAC instrument was issued. This floor arguably requires the share price to fall a long way before it has any effect but it is not clear what purpose is served by placing any limit on the extent to which common equity shareholders might see their holdings diluted in a non-viability scenario.

Bail-in via write-off of AT1 or T2

I am concentrating on bail-in via conversion because that seems to be the default loss absorption contemplated by APS 111 and the one that is most consistent with the traditional loss hierarchy. LAC instruments can be designed with write-off as the primary loss absorption mechanism but it is not clear that any issuer would ever choose to go down that path as it would likely be more expensive versus bail-in via conversion. The write-off option seems to have been included as a failsafe in the event that conversion is not possible for whatever reason.

Conclusion

The loss absorption hierarchy under a bail-in based capital regime is a bit more complicated than the simple, progressive three tier hierarchy that would apply in a traditional liquidation scenario. I believe however that this added complexity is justified both by the enhanced level of financial safety and by the extent to which it addresses the advantage big banks have previously enjoyed by virtue of being Too Big To Fail.

The main concern is that AT1 and Tier 2 investors who underwrite the pre-positioning of this contingent source of new CET1 capital properly understand the risks. I must confess that I had to think it through and remain open to the possibility that I have missed something … if so tell me what I am missing.

Tony

 

Does more loss absorption and “orderly resolution” eliminate the TBTF subsidy?

The Australian Government’s 2014 Financial System Inquiry (FSI) recommended that APRA implement a framework for minimum loss-absorbing and recapitalisation capacity in line with emerging international practice, sufficient to facilitate the orderly resolution of Australian authorised deposit-taking institutions (ADIs) and minimise taxpayer support (Recommendation 3).

In early November, APRA released a discussion paper titled “Increasing the loss absorption capacity of ADIs to support orderly resolution” setting out its response to this recommendation. The paper proposes that selected Australian banks be required to hold more loss absorbing capital. Domestic Systemically Important Banks (DSIBs) are the primary target but, depending partially on how their Recovery and Resolution Planning addresses the concerns APRA has flagged, some other banks will be captured as well.

The primary objectives are to improve financial safety and stability but APRA’s assessment is that competition would also be “Marginally improved” on the basis that “requiring larger ADIs to maintain additional loss absorbency may help mitigate potential funding advantages that flow to larger ADIs“. This assessment may be shaped by the relatively modest impact (5bp) on aggregate funding costs that APRA has estimated or simple regulatory conservatism. I suspect however that APRA is under selling the extent to which the TBTF advantage would be mitigated if not completely eliminated by the added layer of loss absorption proposed. If I am correct, then this proposal would in fact, not only minimise the risk to taxpayers of future banking crises, but also represent an important step forward in placing Australian ADIs on a more level playing field.

Why does the banking system need more loss absorption capacity?

APRA offers two reasons:

  1. The critical role financial institutions play in the economy means that they cannot be allowed to fail in a disorderly manner that would have adverse systemic consequences for the economy as a whole.
  2. The government should not be placed in a position where it believes it has no option but to bail out one or more banks

The need for extra capital might seem counter-intuitive, given that ADI’s are already “unquestionably strong”, but being unquestionably strong is not just about capital, the unstated assumption is that the balance sheet and business model are also sound. The examples that APRA has used to calibrate the degree of total loss absorption capacity could be argued to reflect scenarios in which failures of management and/or regulation have resulted in losses much higher than would be expected in a well-managed banking system dealing with the normal ups and downs of the business cycle.

At the risk of over simplifying, we might think of the first layers of the capital stack (primarily CET1 capital but also Additional Tier 1) being calibrated to the needs of a “good bank” (i.e. well-managed, well-regulated) while the more senior components (Tier 2 capital) represent a reserve to absorb the risk that the good bank turns out to be a “bad bank”.

What form will this extra capital take?

APRA concludes that ADI’s should be required to hold “private resources” to cope with this contingency. I doubt that conclusion would be contentious but the issue is the form this self-insurance should take. APRA proposes that the additional loss absorption requirement be implemented via an increase in the minimum Prudential Capital Requirement (PCR) applied to the Total Capital Ratio (TCR) that Authorised Deposit-Taking Institutions (ADIs) are required to maintain under Para 23 of APS 110.

“The minimum PCRs that an ADI must maintain at all times are:
(a) a Common Equity Tier 1 Capital ratio of 4.5 per cent;
(b) a Tier 1 Capital ratio of 6.0 per cent; and
(c) a Total Capital ratio of 8.0 per cent.
APRA may determine higher PCRs for an ADI and may change an ADI’s PCRs at any time.”

APS 110 Paragraph 23

This means that banks have discretion over what form of capital they use, but APRA expect that banks will use Tier 2 capital that counts towards the Total Capital Ratio as the lowest cost way to meet the requirement. Advocates of the capital structure irrelevance thesis would likely take issue with this part of the proposal. I believe APRA is making the right call (broadly speaking) in supporting more Tier 2 rather than more CET1 capital, but the pros and cons of this debate are a whole post in themselves. The views of both sides are also pretty entrenched so I doubt I will contribute much to that 50 year old debate in this post.

How much extra loss absorbing capital is required?

APRA looked at three things when calibrating the size of the additional capital requirement

  • Losses experienced in past failures of systemically important banks
  • What formal requirements other jurisdictions have applied to their banks
  • The levels of total loss absorption observed being held in an international peer group (i.e. what banks choose to hold independent of prudential minimums)

Based on these inputs, APRA concluded that requiring DSIBs to maintain additional loss absorbing capital of between 4-5 percentage points of RWA would be an appropriate baseline setting to support orderly resolution outcomes. The calibration will be finalised following the conclusion of the consultation on the discussion paper but this baseline requirement looks sufficient to me based on what I learned from being involved in stress testing (for a large Australian bank).

Is more loss absorption a good idea?

The short answer, I think, is yes. The government needs a robust way to recapitalise banks which does not involve risk to the taxpayer and the only real alternative is to require banks to hold more common equity.

The devil, however, is in the detail. There are a number of practical hurdles to consider in making it operational and these really need to be figured out (to the best of out ability) before the fact rather than being made up on the fly under crisis conditions.  The proposal also indirectly raises some conceptual issues with capital structure that are worth understanding.

How would it work in practice?

The discussion paper sets out “A hypothetical outcome from resolution action” to explain how an orderly resolution could play out.

“The approximate capital levels the D-SIBs would be expected to maintain following an increase to Total Capital requirements, and a potential outcome following the use of the additional loss absorbency in resolution, are presented in Figure 6. Ultimately, the outcome would depend on the extent of losses.

If the stress event involved losses consistent with the largest of the FSB study (see Figure 2), AT1 and Tier 2 capital instruments would be converted to ordinary shares or written off. After losses have been considered, the remaining capital position would be wholly comprised of CET1 capital. This conversion mechanism is designed to allow for the ADI to be stabilised in resolution and provide scope to continue to operate, and particularly to continue to provide critical functions.”

IMG_5866.JPG

Source – APRA Discussion Paper (page 24)

What I have set out below draws from APRA’s example while adding detail that hopefully adds some clarity on what should be expected if these scenarios ever play out.

  • In a stress event, losses first impact any surplus CET1 held in excess of the Capital Conservation Buffer (CCB) requirement, and then the CCB itself (the first two layers of loss absorption in Figure 6 above)
  • As the CCB is used up, the ADI is subject to progressive constraints on discretionary distributions on CET1 and AT1 capital instruments
  • In the normal course of events, the CCB should be sufficient to cope with most stresses and the buffer is progressively rebuilt through profit retention and through new issuance, if the ADI wants to accelerate the pace of the recapitalisation process
  • The Unquestionably Strong capital established to date is designed to be sufficient to allow ADIs to withstand quite severe expected cyclical losses (as evidenced by the kinds of severe recession stress scenarios typically used to calibrate capital buffers)
  • In more extreme scenarios, however, the CCB is overwhelmed by the scale of losses and APRA starts to think about whether the ADI has reached a Point of Non-Viability (PONV) where ADI’s find themselves unable to fund themselves or to raise new equity; this is where the proposals in the Discussion Paper come into play
  • The discussion paper does not consider why such extreme events might occur but I have suggested above that one reason is that the scale of losses reflects endogenous weakness in the ADI (i.e. failures of risk management, financial control, business strategy) which compound the losses that would be a normal consequence of downturns in the business cycle
  • APRA requires that AT1 capital instruments, classified as liabilities under Australian Accounting Standards, must include a provision for conversion into ordinary shares or write off when the CET1 capital ratio falls to, or below 5.125 per cent
  • In addition, AT1 and Tier 2 capital instruments must contain a provision, triggered on the occurrence of a non-viability trigger event, to immediately convert to ordinary shares or be written off
  • APRA’s simple example show both AT1 and Tier 2 being converted to CET1 (or write-off) such that the Post Resolution capital structure is composed entirely of CET1 capital

Note that conversion of the AT1 and Tier 2 instruments does not in itself allocate losses to these instruments. The holders receive common equity equivalent to the book value of their instrument which they can sell or hold. The ordinary shareholders effectively bear the loss via the forced dilution of their shareholdings. The main risk to the ATI and Tier 2 holders is that, when they sell the ordinary shares received on conversion, they may not get the same price that which was used to convert their instrument. APRA also imposes a floor on the share price that is used for conversion which may mean that the value of ordinary shares received is less than the face value of the instrument being converted. The reason why ordinary shareholders should be protected in this way under a resolution scenario is not clear.

The devil is in the detail – A short (probably incomplete) list of issues I see with the proposal:

  1. Market capacity to supply the required quantum of additional Tier 2 capital required
  2. Conversion versus write-off
  3. The impact of conversion on the “loss hierarchy”
  4. Why not just issue more common equity?
  5. To what extent would the public sector continue to stand behind the banking system once the proposed level of self insurance is in place?

Market capacity to supply the required level of additional loss absorption

APRA has requested industry feedback on whether market appetite for Tier 2 capital will be a problem but its preliminary assessment is that:

” … individual ADIs and the industry will have the capacity to implement the changes necessary to comply with the proposals without resulting in unnecessary cost for ADIs or the broader financial system.

Preliminary estimates suggest the total funding cost impact from increasing the D-SIBs’Total Capital requirements would not be greater than five basis points in aggregate based on current spreads. Assuming the D-SIBs meet the increased requirement by increasing the issuance of Tier 2 capital instruments and reducing the issuance of senior unsecured debt, the impact is estimated by observing the relative pricing of the different instruments. The spread difference between senior unsecured debt and Tier 2 capital instruments issued by D- SIBs is around 90 to 140 basis points.”

I have no expert insights on this question beyond a gut feel that the required level of Tier 2 capital cannot be raised without impacting the current spread between Tier 2 capital and senior debt, if at all. The best (only?) commentary I have seen to date is by Chris Joye writing in the AFR (see here and here). The key points I took from his opinion pieces are:

  • The extra capital requirement translates to $60-$80 billion of extra bonds over the next four years (on top of rolling over existing maturities)
  • There is no way the major banks can achieve this volume
  • Issuing a new class of higher ranking (Tier 3) bonds is one option, though APRA also retains the option of scaling back the additional Tier 2 requirement and relying on its existing ability to bail-in senior debt

Chris Joye know a lot more about the debt markets than I do, but I don’t think relying on the ability to bail-in senior debt really works. The Discussion Paper refers to APRA’s intention that the “… proposed approach is … designed with the distinctive features of the Australian financial system in mind, recognising the role of the banking system in channelling foreign savings into the economy “ (Page 4). I may be reading too much into the tea leaves, but this could be interpreted as a reference to the desirability of designing a loss absorbing solution which does not adversely impact the senior debt rating that helps anchor the ability of the large banks to borrow foreign savings. My rationale is that the senior debt rating impacts, not only the cost of borrowing, but also the volume of money that foreign savers are willing to entrust with the Australian banking system and APRA specifically cites this factor as shaping their thinking. Although not explicitly stated, it seems to me that APRA is trying to engineer a solution in which the D-SIBs retain the capacity to raise senior funding with a “double A” rating.

Equally importantly, the creation of a new class of Tier 3 instruments seems like a very workable alternative to senior bail-in that would allow the increased loss absorption target to be achieved without impacting the senior debt rating. This will be a key issue to monitor when ADI’s lodge their response to the discussion paper. It also seems likely that the incremental cost of the proposal on overall ADI borrowing costs will be higher than the 5bp that APRA included in the discussion paper. That is not a problem in itself to the extent this reflects the true cost of self insurance against the risk of failure, just something to note when considering the proposal.

Conversion versus write-off

APRA has the power to effect increased loss absorption in two ways. One is to convert the more senior elements of the capital stack into common equity but APRA also has the power to write these instruments off. Writing off AT1 and/or T2 capital, effectively represents a transfer of value from the holders of these instruments to ordinary shareholders. That is hard to reconcile with the traditional loss hierarchy that sees common equity take all first losses, with each of the more senior tranches progressively stepping up as the capacity of more junior tranches is exhausted.

Consequently I assume that the default option would always favour conversion over write-off. The only place that I can find any guidance on this question is Attachment J to APS 111 (Capital Adequacy) which states

Para 11. “Where, following a trigger event, conversion of a capital instrument:

(a)  is not capable of being undertaken;

(b)  is not irrevocable; or

(c) will not result in an immediate and unequivocal increase in Common Equity Tier 1 Capital of the ADI,

the amount of the instrument must immediately and irrevocably be written off in the accounts of the ADI and result in an unequivocal addition to Common Equity Tier 1 Capital.”

That seems to offer AT1 and Tier 2 holders comfort that they won’t be asked to take losses ahead of common shareholders but the drafting of the prudential standard could be clearer if there are other reasons why APRA believe a write-off might be the better resolution strategy. The holders need to understand the risks they are underwriting but ambiguity and uncertainty are to helpful when the banking system is in, or a risk of, a crisis.

The impact of conversion on the “loss hierarchy”

The concept of a loss hierarchy describes the sequence under which losses are first absorbed by common equity and then by Additional Tier 1 and Tier 2 capital, if the more junior elements prove insufficient. Understanding the loss hierarchy is I think fundamental to understanding capital structure in general and this proposal in particular:

  • In a traditional liquidation process, the more senior elements should only absorb loss when the junior components of the capital stack are exhausted
  • In practice, post Basel III, the more senior elements will be required to participate in recapitalising the bank even though there is still some book equity and the ADI technically solvent (though not necessarily liquid)
  • This is partly because the distributions on AT1 instruments are subject to progressively higher capital conservation restrictions as the CCB shrinks but mostly because of the potential for conversion to common equity (I will ignore the write-off option to keep things simple)

I recognise that APRA probably tried to simplify this explanation but the graphic example they used (see Figure 6 above) to explain the process shows the Capital Surplus and the CCB (both CET1 capital) sitting on top of the capital stack followed by Tier 2, Additional Tier 1 and finally the minimum CET1 capital. The figure below sets out what I think is a more logical illustration of the capital stack and loss .

IMG_2739

Losses initially impact CET1 directly by reducing net tangible assets per share. At the point of a non-viability based conversion event, the losses impact ordinary shareholders via the dilution of their shareholding. AT1 and Tier 2 holders only share in these losses to the extent that they sell the ordinary shares they receive for less than the conversion price (or if the conversion price floor results in them receiving less than the book value of their holding).

Why not just issue more common equity?

Capital irrelevancy M&M purists will no doubt roll their eyes and say surely APRA knows that the overall cost of equity is not impacted by capital structure tricks. The theory being that any saving in the cost of using lower cost instruments, will be offset by increases in the costs (or required return) of more subordinated capital instruments (including equity).

So this school argues you should just hold more CET1 and the cost of the more senior instruments will decline. The practical problem I think is that, the cost of senior debt already reflects the value of the implied support of being too big, or otherwise systemically important, to be allowed to fail. The risk that deposits might be exposed to loss is even more remote partly due to deposit insurance but, possibly more importantly, because they are deeply insulated from risk by the substantial layers of equity and junior ranking liabilities that must be exhausted before assets are insufficient to cover deposit liabilities.

To what extent would the public sector continue to stand behind the banking system once the proposed level of self insurance is in place?

Assuming the market capacity constraint question could be addressed (which I think it can), the solution that APRA has proposed seems to me to give the official family much greater options for dealing with future banking crises without having to call on the taxpayer to underwrite the risk of recapitalising failed or otherwise non-viable banks.

It does not, however, eliminate the need for liquidity support. I know some people argue that this is a distinction without a difference but I disagree. The reality is that banking systems built on mostly illiquid assets will likely face future crises of confidence where the support of the central bank will be necessary to keep the financial wheels of the economy turning.

There are alternative ways to construct a banking system. Mervyn King, for example, has advocated a version of the Chicago Plan under which all bank deposits must be 100% backed by liquid reserves that would be limited to safe assets such as government securities or reserves held with the central bank. Until we decide to go down that path, or something similar, the current system requires the central bank to be the lender of last resort. That support is extremely valuable and is another design feature that sets banks apart from other companies. It is not the same however, as bailing out a bank via a recapitalisation.

Conclusion

I have been sitting on this post for a few weeks while trying to consider the pros and cons. As always, the risk remains that I am missing something. That said, this looks to me like a necessary (and I would argue desirable) enhancement to the Australian financial system that not only underpins its safety and stability but also takes us much closer to a level playing field. Big banks will always have the advantage of sophistication, scale and efficiency that comes with size but any funding cost advantage associated with being too big to fail now looks to be priced into the cost of the additional layers of loss absorption this proposal would require them to put in place.

Tony