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

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

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

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

The main points to note regarding residential mortgages are:

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

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

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

The main points to note here are:

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

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

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

Minimum capital requirements

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

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

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

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

Capital Conservation Buffer

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

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

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

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

Counter-cyclical Capital Buffer

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Let me know what I am missing …

Tony – From the Outside

Some of the backstory

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

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

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

Restructuring Basel’s capital buffers

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

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

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

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

Tony – From the Outside