Allowing companies to fail

I suspect (but can’t prove) that creative destruction is one of the under appreciated factors that underpin the health of the economy. There is quite a lot of evidence however that creative destruction has been suppressed since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. The rights and wrongs of the extent to which bail-outs were and continue to be necessary is too big a topic to cover in this post.

For the record, I do believe that the bail-outs of the banks were necessary at the time but that “bail-in” gives bank supervisors a very real option to avoid having to do this in the future. The increase in capital requirements are also likely to reduce the risk of a bail-in being required. Others may disagree and my views chiefly relate to the Australian banking system which is where my professional expertise is based. The issues associated with COVID-19 raise a whole lot of related but, in many ways, different issues. At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s complicated.

Against that background, I found this short article published on the VoxEU website worth reading as another reminder of the value of allowing companies to fail and/or be restructured. The conclusion of the article (copied below) gives you the key points the authors derive from their research

We investigate a large number of stakeholders that could be negatively affected by a fire sale but find little evidence for negative externalities. The main effect of fire sales is a wealth transfer from the seller to the buyer. Thus, from a welfare perspective, the costs associated with fire sales of corporate assets are much lower than previously thought based on an analysis of seller costs only. From a policy perspective, these findings indicate that the merits of bailouts as a response to the potential losses associated with fire sales are limited, especially given the moral hazard and the other distortions caused by these bailouts. 

We recognise that the economic shock caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is unparalleled since the WWII and the Great Depression, and hence, some emergency measures and bailouts were likely necessary to prevent a meltdown of economic activity. However, one difference between the current crisis and the Global Crisis is the apparent lack of fire sales of struggling companies or investments into such companies at fire-sale prices. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, for instance, invested $5 billion in Goldman Sachs in September 2008 and $3 billion in General Electric in October 2008, while Warren Buffett’s firm has not undertaken any major investments during the COVID-19 crisis (Financial Times 2020). Our results therefore suggest that, at least at the margin, fire sales would have been an effective alternative to bailouts, especially for large bailouts such as for the airlines in the US.

“The merits of fire sales and bailouts in light of the COVID-19 pandemic”, Jean-Marie Meier and Henri Servaes, 18 January 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

Multiple layers of protection

Australian bank deposits benefit from multiple layers of protection:

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

Deposit preference rules …

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

The other elements are also important but …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deposit preference potentially strengthens market discipline

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

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

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

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

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

Summing up

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

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

Tony – From The Outside

When safety proves dangerous …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applying these principles to bank capital requirements

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony – From the Outside

Debt jubilees revisited

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

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

I have copied a short extract from his post here

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

… and you can read the whole post here.

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

Tony – From The Outside