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

IFRS 9 loan loss provisioning faces its first real test

My long held view has been that IFSR 9 adds to the procyclicality of the banking system (see here, here, and here) and that the answer to this aspect of procyclicality lies in the way that capital buffers interact with loan loss provisioning (here, here, and here).

So it was interesting to see an article in the Financial Times overnight headlined “New accounting rules pose threat to banks amid virus outbreak”. The headline may be a bit dramatic but it does draw attention to the IFRS 9 problem I have been concerned with for some time.

The article notes signs of a backlash against the accounting rules with the Association of German Banks lobbying for a “more flexible handling” of risk provisions under IFRS 9 and warning that the accounting requirements could “massively amplify” the impact of the crisis. I agree that the potential exists to amplify the crisis but also side with an unnamed “European banking executive” quoted in the article saying “IFRS 9, I hate it as a rule, but relaxing accounting standards in a crisis just doesn’t look right”.

There may be some scope for flexibility in the application of the accounting standards (not my area of expertise) but that looks to me like a dangerous and slippery path to tread. The better option is for flexibility in the capital requirements, capital buffers in particular. What we are experiencing is exactly the kind of adverse scenario that capital buffers are intended to absorb and so we should expect them to decline as loan loss provisions increase and revenue declines. More importantly we should be seeing this as a sign that the extra capital put in place post the GFC is performing its assigned task and not a sign, in and of itself, indicating distress.

This experience will also hopefully reinforce the case for ensuring that the default position is that the Counter Cyclical Capital Buffer be in place well before there are any signs that it might be required. APRA announced that it was looking at this policy in an announcement in December 2019 but sadly has not had the opportunity to fully explore the policy initiative and implement it.

Tony

APRA announces that it will consider a non-zero default level for the counter cyclical capital buffer

The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) announced today that it had decided to keep the countercyclical capital buffer (CCyB) for authorised deposit-taking institutions (ADIs) on hold at zero per cent. What was really interesting however is that the information paper also flagged the likelihood of a non-zero default level in the future.

Here is the relevant extract from the APRA media release:

…. the information paper notes that APRA is also giving consideration to introducing a non-zero default level for the CCyB as part of its broader reforms to the ADI capital framework.

APRA Chair Wayne Byres said: “Given current conditions, and the financial strength built up within the banking sector, a zero counter-cyclical buffer remains appropriate.

“However, setting the countercyclical capital buffer’s default position at a non-zero level as part of the ‘unquestionably strong’ framework would not only preserve the resilience of the banking sector, but also provide more flexibility to adjust the buffer in response to material changes in financial stability risks. This is something APRA will consult on as part of the next stage of the capital reforms currently underway.

“Importantly, this would be considered within the capital targets previously announced – it does not reflect any intention to further raise minimum capital requirements.”

“APRA flags setting the countercyclical capital buffer at non-zero level”, APRA media announcement, 11 December 2019

I have argued the case for a non-zero default setting on this buffer in a long form note I published on my blog here, and published some shorter posts on the countercyclical capital buffer here, here and here). One important caveat is is that incorporating a non-zero default for the CCyB does not necessarily means that a bank needs to hold more capital. It is likely to be sufficient to simply partition a set amount of the existing capital surplus. In this regard, it is interesting that APRA has explicitly linked this potential change to the review it it initiated in the August 2018 Discussion Paper on “Improving the transparency, comparability and flexibility of the ADI capital framework”.

I covered that discussion paper in some depth here but one of the options discussed in this paper (“Capital ratio adjustments”) involves APRA modifying the calculation of regulatory capital ratios to utilise more internationally harmonised definitions of capital and Risk Weighted Assets.

Summing up, I would rate this as a positive development but we need to watch how the policy development process plays out.

Tony

Every bank needs a cyclical capital buffer

This post sets out a case for a bank choosing to incorporate a discretionary Cyclical Buffer (CyB) into its Internal Capital Adequacy Assessment Process (ICAAP). The size of the buffer is a risk appetite choice each individual bank must make. The example I have used to illustrate the idea is calibrated to absorb the expected impact of an economic downturn that is severe but not necessarily a financial crisis style event. My objective is to illustrate the ways in which incorporating a Cyclical Buffer in the target capital structure offers:

  • an intuitive connection between a bank’s aggregate risk appetite and its target capital structure;
  • a means of more clearly defining the point where losses transition from expected to unexpected; and
  • a mechanism that reduces both the pro cyclicality of a risk sensitive capital regime and the tendency for the transition to unexpected losses to trigger a loss of confidence in the bank.

The value of improved clarity, coherence and consistency in the risk appetite settings is I think reasonably self evident. The need for greater clarity in the distinction between expected and unexpected loss perhaps less so. The value of this Cyclical Buffer proposal ultimately depends on its capacity to enhance the resilience of the capital adequacy regime in the face of economic downturns without compromising its risk sensitivity.

There are no absolutes when we deal with what happens under stress but I believe a Cyclical Buffer such as is outlined in this post also has the potential to help mitigate the risk of loss of confidence in the bank when losses are no longer part of what stakeholders expect but have moved into the domain of uncertainty. I am not suggesting that this would solve the problem of financial crisis. I am suggesting that it is a relatively simple enhancement to a bank’s ICAAP that has the potential to make banks more resilient (and transparent) with no obvious downsides.

Capital 101

In Capital 101, we learn that capital is meant to cover “unexpected loss” and that there is a neat division between expected and unexpected loss. The extract below from an early BCBS publication sets out the standard explanation …

Expected and unexpected credit loss

Figure 1 – Expected and Unexpected Loss

The BCBS publication from which this image is sourced explained that

“While it is never possible to know in advance the losses a bank will suffer in a particular year, a bank can forecast the average level of credit losses it can reasonably expect to experience. These losses are referred to as Expected Losses (EL) ….”

One of the functions of bank capital is to provide a buffer to protect a bank’s debt holders against peak losses that exceed expected levels… Losses above expected levels are usually referred to as Unexpected Losses (UL) – institutions know they will occur now and then, but they cannot know in advance their timing or severity….”

“An Explanatory Note on the Basel II IRB Risk Weight Functions” BCBS July 2005

There was a time when the Internal Ratings Based approach, combining some elegant theory and relatively simple math, seemed to have all the answers

  • A simple intuitive division between expected and unexpected loss
  • Allowing expected loss to be quantified and directly covered by risk margins in pricing while the required return on unexpected loss could be assigned to the cost of equity
  • A precise relationship between expected and unexpected loss, defined by the statistical parameters of the assumed loss distribution
  • The capacity to “control” the risk of unexpected loss by applying seemingly unquestionably strong confidence levels (i.e. typically 1:1000 years plus) to the measurement of target capital requirements
  • It even seemed to offer a means of neatly calibrating the capital requirement to the probability of default of your target debt rating (e.g. a AA senior debt rating with a 5bp probability of default = a 99.95% confidence level; QED)

If only it was that simple … but expected loss is still a good place to start

In practice, the inherently cyclical nature of banking means that the line between expected and unexpected loss is not always as simple or clear as represented above. It would be tempting to believe that the transition to expected loan loss accounting will bring greater transparency to this question but I doubt that is the case. Regulatory Expected Loss (REL) is another possible candidate but again I believe it falls short of what would be desirable for drawing the line that signals where we are increasingly likely to have crossed from the domain of the expected to the unexpected.

The problem (from a capital adequacy perspective) with both IFRS9 and REL is that the “expected” value still depends on the state of the credit cycle at the time we are taking its measure. REL incorporates a Downturn measure of Loss Given Default (DLGD) but the other inputs (Probability of Default and Exposure at Default) are average values taken across a cycle, not the values we expect to experience at the peak of the cycle downturn.

We typically don’t know exactly when the credit cycle will turn down, or by how much and how long, but we can reasonably expect that it will turn down at some time in the future. Notwithstanding the “Great Moderation” thesis that gained currency prior to the GFC, the long run of history suggests that it is dangerous to bet against the probability of a severe downturn occurring once every 15 to 25 years. Incorporating a measure into the Internal Capital Adequacy Process (ICAAP) that captures this aspect of expected loss provides a useful reference point and a potential trigger for reviewing why the capital decline has exceeded expectations.

Uncertainty is by definition not measurable

One of the problems with advanced model based approaches like IRB is that banks experience large value losses much more frequently than the models suggest they should. As a consequence, the seemingly high margins of safety implied by 1:1000 year plus confidence levels in the modelling do not appear to live up to their promise.

A better way of dealing with uncertainty

One of the core principles underpinning this proposal is that the boundary between risk (which can be measured with reasonable accuracy) and uncertainty (which can not be measured with any degree of precision) probably lies around the 1:25 year confidence level (what we usually label a “severe recession). I recognise that reasonable people might adopt a more conservative stance arguing that the zone of validity of credit risk models caps out at 1:15 or 1:20 confidence levels but I am reasonably confident that 1:25 defines the upper boundary of where credit risk models tend to find their limits. Each bank can makes its own call on this aspect of risk calibration.

Inside this zone of validity, credit risk models coupled with stress testing and sensitivity analysis can be applied to generate a reasonably useful estimate of expected losses and capital impacts. There is of course no guarantee that the impacts will not exceed the estimate, that is why we have capital. The estimate does however define the rough limits of what we can claim to “know” about our risk profile.

The “expected versus unexpected” distinction is all a bit abstract – why does it matter?

Downturn loss is part of the risk reward equation of banking and manageable, especially if the cost of expected downturn losses has already been built into credit risk spreads. Managing the risk is easier however if a bank’s risk appetite statement has a clear sense of:

  • exactly what kind of expected downturn loss is consistent with the specific types of credit risk exposure the risk appetite otherwise allows (i.e. not just the current exposure but also any higher level of exposure that is consistent with credit risk appetite) and
  • the impact this would be expected to have on capital adequacy.

This type of analysis is done under the general heading of stress testing for both credit risk and capital adequacy but I have not often seen evidence that banks are translating the analysis and insight into a specific buffer assigned the task of absorbing expected downturn losses and the associated negative impact on capital adequacy. The Cyclical Buffer I have outlined in this post offers a means of more closely integrating the credit risk management framework and the Internal Capital Adequacy Assessment Process (ICAAP).

What gets you into trouble …

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”

Commonly, possibly mistakenly, attributed to Mark Twain

This saying captures an important truth about the financial system. Some degree of volatility is part and parcel of the system but one of the key ingredients in a financial crisis or panic is when participants in the system are suddenly forced to change their view of what is safe and what is not.

This is one of the reasons why I believe that a more transparent framework for tracking the transition from expected to truly unexpected outcomes can add to the resilience of the financial system. Capital declines that have been pre-positioned in the eyes of key stakeholders as part and parcel of the bank risk reward equation are less likely to be a cause for concern or trigger for panic.

The equity and debt markets will still revise their valuations in response but the debt markets will have less reason to question the fundamental soundness of the bank if the capital decline lies within the pre-positioned operating parameters defined by the target cyclical buffer. This will be especially so to the extent that the Capital Conservation Buffer provides substantial layers of additional buffer to absorb the uncertainty and buy time to respond to it.

Calibrating the size of the Cyclical Buffer

Incorporating a Cyclical Buffer does not necessarily mean that a bank needs to hold more capital. It is likely to be sufficient to simply partition a set amount of capital that bank management believes will absorb the expected impact of a cyclical downturn. The remaining buffer capital over minimum requirements exists to absorb the uncertainty and ensure that confidence sensitive liabilities are well insulated from the impacts of that uncertainty.

But first we have to define what we mean by “THE CYCLE”. This is a term frequently employed in the discussion of bank capital requirements but open to a wide range of interpretation.

A useful start to calibrating the size of this cyclical buffer is to distinguish:

  • An economic or business cycle; which seems to be associated with moderate severity, short duration downturns occurring once every 7 to 10 years, and
  • The “financial cycle” (to use a term suggested by Claudio Borio) where we expect to observe downturns of greater severity and duration but lower frequency (say once every 25 years or more).

Every bank makes its own decision on risk appetite but, given these two choices, mine would calibrated to, and hence resilient against, the less frequent but more severe and longer duration downturns associated with the financial cycle.

There is of course another layer of severity associated with a financial crisis. This poses an interesting challenge because it begs the question whether a financial crisis is the result of some extreme external shock or due to failures of risk management that allowed an endogenous build up of risk in the banking system. This kind of loss is I believe the domain of the Capital Conservation Buffer (CCB).

There is no question that banks must be resilient in the face of a financial crisis but my view is that this is a not something that should be considered an expected cost of banking.

Incorporating a cyclical buffer into the capital structure for an Australian D-SIB

Figure 2 below sets out an example of how this might work for an Australian D-SIB that has adopted APRA’s 10.5% CET1 “Unquestionably Strong”: benchmark as the basis of its target capital structure. These banks have a substantial layer of CET1 capital that is nominally surplus to the formal prudential requirements but in practice is not if the bank is to be considered “unquestionably strong” as defined by APRA. The capacity to weather a cyclical downturn might be implicit in the “Unquestionably Strong” benchmark but it is not transparent. In particular, it is not obvious how much CET1 can decline under a cyclical downturn while a bank is still deemed to be “Unquestionably Strong”.

Figure 2 – Incorporating a cyclical buffer into the target capital structure

The proposed Cyclical Buffer sits on top of the Capital Conservation Buffer and would be calibrated to absorb the increase in losses, and associated drawdowns on capital, expected to be experienced in the event of severe economic downturn. Exactly how severe is to some extent a question of risk appetite, unless of course regulators mandate a capital target that delivers a higher level of soundness than the bank would have chosen of its own volition.

In the example laid out in Figure 2, I have drawn the limit of risk appetite at the threshold of the Capital Conservation Buffer. This would be an 8% CET1 ratio for an Australian D-SIB but there is no fundamental reason for drawing the lone on risk appetite at this threshold. Each bank has the choice of tolerating some level of incursion into the CCB (hence the dotted line extension of risk appetite). What matters is to have a clear line beyond which higher losses and lower capital ratios indicate that something truly unexpected is driving the outcomes being observed.

What about the prudential Counter-Cyclical Capital Buffer?

I have deliberately avoided using the term”counter” cyclical in this proposal to distinguish this bank controlled Cyclical Buffer (CyB) from its prudential counterpart, the “Counter Cyclical Buffer” (CCyB), introduced under Basel III. My proposal is similar in concept to the variations on the CCyB being developed by the Bank of England and the Canadian OFSI. The RBNZ is also considering something similar in its review of “What counts as capital?” where it has proposed that the CCyB should have a positive value (indicatively set at 1.5%) at all times except following a financial crisis (see para 105 -112 of the Review Paper for more detail).

My proposal is also differentiated from its prudential counter part by the way in which the calibration of the size of the bank Cyclical Buffer offers a way for credit risk appetite to be more formally integrated with the Internal Capital Adequacy Process (ICAAP) that sets the overall target capital structure.

Summing up

  • Incorporating a Cyclical Buffer into the target capital structure offers a means of more closely integrating the risk exposure and capital adequacy elements of a bank’s risk appetite
  • A breach of the Cyclical Buffer creates a natural trigger point for reviewing whether the unexpected outcomes was due to an unexpectedly large external shock or was the result of credit exposure being riskier than expected or some combination of the two
  • The role of the Capital Conservation Buffer in absorbing the uncertainty associated with risk appetite settings is much clearer if management of cyclical expected loss is assigned to the Cyclical Buffer

What am I missing …

Tony

The Countercyclical Capital Buffer

This post uses a recent BCBS working paper as a stepping off point for a broader examination of how the countercyclical capital buffer (CCyB) can help make the banking system more resilient.

This post uses a recent BCBS working paper as a stepping off point for a broader examination of how the countercyclical capital buffer (CCyB) can help make the banking system more resilient. The BCBS paper is titled “Towards a sectoral application of the countercyclical capital buffer: A literature review – March 2018” (BCBS Review) and its stated aim is to draw relevant insights from the existing literature and use these to shed light on whether a sectoral application of the CCyB would be a useful extension of the existing Basel III framework under which the CCyB is applied at an aggregate country level credit measure. The views expressed in Working Papers like this one are those of their authors and do not represent the official views of the Basel Committee but they do still offer some useful insights into what prudential supervisors are thinking about.

Key points

  1. I very much agree with the observation in the BCBS Review that the standard form of the CCyB is a blunt instrument by virtue of being tied to an aggregate measure of credit growth
  2. And that a sectoral application of the CCyB (operating in conjunction with other sector focussed macro prudential tools) would be an improvement
  3. But the CCyB strategy that has been developed by the Bank of England looks to be a much better path to pursue
  4. Firstly, because it directly addresses the problem of failing to detect/predict when the CCyB should be deployed and secondly because I believe that it results in a much more “usable” capital buffer
  5. The CCyB would be 1% if APRA adopted the Bank of England strategy (the CCyB required by APRA is currently 0%) but adopting this strategy does not necessarily require Australian banks to hold more capital at this stage of the financial cycle
  6. One option would be to align one or more elements of APRA’s approach with the internationally harmonised measure of capital adequacy and to “reinvest” the increased capital in a 1% CCyB.

First a recap on the Countercyclical Capital Buffer (aka CCyB).

The CCyB 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 BCBS 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) 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 responding to excess credit growth has been a core part of the rationale underpinning its development.

The BCBS Review

The BCBS Review notes that the CCyB works in theory but concedes there is, as yet, virtually no empirical evidence that it will work in practice. This is not surprising given that it has only been in place for a very short period of time but still important to remember. The BCBS Review also repeatedly emphasises the point that the CCyB may help to mitigate the credit cycle but that is a potential side benefit, not the main objective. Its primary objective is to ensure that banks have sufficient surplus capital to be able to continue lending during adverse economic conditions where losses will be consuming capital.

The Review argues that the CCyB is a useful addition to the supervisor’s tool kit but is a blunt instrument that impacts all sectors of the economy indiscriminately rather than just targeting the sectors which are the source of systemic concern. It concludes that applying the CCyB at a sectoral level might be more effective for three reasons

  • more direct impact on the area of concern,
  • stronger signalling power, and
  • smaller effects on the wider economy than the Basel III CCyB.

The Review also discusses the potential to combine a sectoral CCyB with other macro prudential instruments; in particular the capacity for the two approaches to complement each other;

Quote “Generally, macroprudential instruments that operate through different channels are likely to complement each other. The literature reviewed indicates that a sectoral CCyB could indeed be a useful complement to alternative sectoral macroprudential measures, including borrower-based measures such as LTV, LTI and D(S)TI limits. To the extent that a sectoral CCyB is more effective in increasing banks’ resilience and borrower-based measures are more successful in leaning against the sectoral credit cycle, both objectives could be attained more effectively and efficiently by combining the two types of instruments. Furthermore, there is some evidence that suggests that a sectoral CCyB could have important signalling effects and may therefore act as a substitute for borrower-based measures.”

A Sectoral CCyB makes sense

Notwithstanding repeated emphasis that the main point of the CCyB is to ensure banks can and will continue to support credit growth under adverse conditions, the Review notes that there is not much, if any, hard empirical evidence on how effective a release of the CCyB might be in achieving this. The policy instrument’s place in the macro prudential tool kit seems to depend on the intuition that it should help, backed by some modelling that demonstrates how it would work and a pinch of hope. The details of the modelling are not covered in the Review but I am guessing it adopts a “homo economicus” approach in which the agents act rationally. The relatively thin conceptual foundations underpinning the BCBS version of the CCyB are worth keeping in mind.

The idea of applying the CCyB at a sectoral level seems to make sense. The more targeted approach advocated in the Review should in theory allow regulators to respond to sectoral areas of concern more quickly and precisely than would be the case when the activation trigger is tied to aggregate credit growth. That said, I think the narrow focus of the Review (i.e. should we substitute a sectoral CCyB for the current approach) means that it misses the broader question of how the CCyB might be improved. One alternative approach that I believe has a lot of promise is the CCyB strategy adopted by the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee (FPC).

The Bank of England Approach to the CCyB (is better)

The FPC published a policy statement in April 2016 explaining that its approach to setting the countercyclical capital buffer is based on five core principles. Many of these are pretty much the same as the standard BCBS policy rationale discussed above but the distinguishing feature is that it “… intends to set the CCyB above zero before the level of risk becomes elevated. In particular, it expects to set a CCyB in the region of 1% when risks are judged to be neither subdued nor elevated.”

This contrasts with the generic CCyB, as originally designed by the BCBS, which sets the default position of the buffer at 0% and only increases it in response to evidence that aggregate credit growth is excessive. This might seem like a small point but I think it is a material improvement on the BCBS’s original concept for two reasons.

Firstly, it directly addresses the problem of failing to detect/predict when systemic risk in the banking system requires prudential intervention. A lot of progress has been made in dealing with this challenge, not the least of which has been to dispense with the idea that central banks had tamed the business cycle. The financial system however retains its capacity to surprise even its most expert and informed observers so I believe it is better to have the foundations of a usable countercyclical capital buffer in place as soon as possible after the post crisis repair phase is concluded rather than trying to predict when it might be required.

The FPC still monitors a range of core indicators for the CCyB grouped into three categories.

  • The first category includes measures of ‘non-bank balance sheet stretch’, capturing leverage in the broader economy and in the private non-financial (ie household and corporate) sector specifically.
  • The second category includes measures of ‘conditions and terms in markets’, which capture borrowing terms on new lending and investor risk appetite more broadly.
  • The third category includes measures of ‘bank balance sheet stretch’, which capture leverage and maturity/liquidity transformation in the banking system.

However the FPC implicitly accepts that it can’t predict the future so it substitutes a simple, pragmatic and error resilient strategy (put the default CCyB buffer in place ASAP) for the harder problem of trying to predict when it will be needed. This strategy retains the option of increasing the CCyB, is simpler to administer and less prone to error than the BCBS approach. The FPC might still miss the turning point but it has a head start on the problem if it does.

The FPC also integrates its CCyB strategy with its approach to stress testing. Each year the stress tests include a scenario:

“intended to assess the risks to the banking system emanating from the financial cycle – the “annual cyclical scenario”

The severity of this scenario will increase as risks build and decrease after those risks crystallise or abate. The scenario might therefore be most severe during a period of exuberance — for example, when credit and asset prices are growing rapidly and risk premia are compressed. That might well be the point when markets and financial institutions consider risks to be lowest. And severity will be lower when exuberance has corrected — often the time at which markets assess risks to be largest. In leaning against these tendencies, the stress-testing framework will lean against the cyclicality of risk taking: it will be countercyclical.”

The Bank of England’s approach to stress testing the UK banking system – October 2015 (page 5)

The second reason  I favour the FPC strategy is because I believe it is likely to result in a more “usable” buffer once risk crystallizes (not just systemic risk) and losses start to escalate. I must admit I have struggled to clearly articulate why this would be so but I think the answer lies partly in the way that the FPC links the CCyB to a four stage model that can be interpreted as a stylised description of the business cycle. The attraction for me in the FPC’s four stage model is that it offers a coherent narrative that helps all the stakeholders understand what is happening, why it is happening, what will happen next and when it will happen.

The BCBS Review talks about the importance of communication and the FPC strategy offers a good model of how the communication strategy can be anchored to a coherent and intuitive narrative that reflects the essentially cyclical nature of the banking industry. The four stages are summarised below together with some extracts setting out the FPC rationale.

Stage 1: The post-crisis repair phase in which risks are subdued – the FPC would expect to set a CCyB rate of 0%

FPC rationale: “Risks facing the financial system will normally be subdued in a post-crisis repair and recovery phase when the financial system and borrowers are repairing balance sheets. As such, balance sheets are not overextended. Asset and property prices tend to be low relative to assessed equilibrium levels. Credit supply is generally tight and the risk appetite of borrowers and lenders tends to be low. The probability of banks coming under renewed stress is lower than average.”

Stage 2: Risks in the financial system re-emerge but are not elevated – the FPC intends to set a positive CCyB rate in the region of 1% after the economy moves into this phase.

FPC rationale: ‘In this risk environment, borrowers will not tend to be unusually extended or fragile, asset prices are unlikely to show consistent signs of over, or under, valuation, and measures of risk appetite are likely to be in line with historical averages”. As such, it could be argued that no buffer is required but the FPC view is that a pre-emptive strategy is more “robust to the inherent uncertainty associated with measuring risks to financial stability”. It also allows subsequent adjustments to be more graduated than would be possible if the CCyB was zero.

Stage 3: Risks in the financial system become elevated: stressed conditions become more likely – the FPC would expect to increase the CCyB rate beyond the region of 1%. There is no upper bound on the rate that can be set by the FPC.

FPC rationale: “As risks in the financial system become elevated, borrowers are likely to be stretching their ability to repay loans, underwriting standards will generally be lax, and asset prices and risk appetite tend to be high. Often risks are assumed by investors to be low at the very point they are actually high. The distribution of risks to banks’ capital at this stage of the financial cycle might have a ‘fatter tail’ [and] stressed outcomes are more likely.”

Stage 4: Risks in the financial system crystallise – the FPC may cut the CCyB rate, including where appropriate to 0%.

FPC rationale: “Reducing the CCyB rate pre-emptively before losses have crystallised may reduce banks’ perceived need to hoard capital and restrict lending, with consequent negative impacts for the real economy. And if losses have crystallised, reducing the CCyB allows banks to recognise those losses without having to restrict lending to meet capital requirements. This will help to ensure that capital accumulated when risks were building up can be used, thus enhancing the ability of the banking system to continue to support the economy in times of stress.”

The March 2018 meeting of the FPC advised that the CCyB applying to UK exposures would remain unchanged at the 1% default level reflecting its judgement that the UK banking system was operating under Stage 2 conditions.

Calibrating the size of the CCyB

The FPC’s approach to calibrating the size of the CCyB also offers some interesting insights. The FPC’s initial (April 2016) policy statement explained that a “CCyB rate in the region of 1%, combined with other elements of the capital framework, provides UK banks with sufficient capital to withstand a severe stress. Given current balance sheets, the FPC judges that, at this level of the CCyB, banks would have sufficient loss-absorbing capacity to weather a macroeconomic downturn of greater magnitude than those observed on average in post-war recessions in the United Kingdom — although such estimates are inherently uncertain.”

The first point to note is that the FPC has chosen to anchor their 1% default setting to a severity greater than the typical post war UK recession but not necessarily a GFC style event. There is a school of thought that maintains that more capital is always better but the FPC seems to be charting a different course. This is a subtle area in bank capital management but I like the the FPC’s implied defence of subtlety.

What is sometimes lost in the quest for a failure proof banking system is a recognition of the potential for unintended consequence. All other things being equal, more capital makes a bank less at risk of insolvency but all other things are almost never equal in the real world. Banks come under pressure to find ways to offset the ROE dilution associated with more capital. I know that theory says that a bank’s cost of equity should decline as a result of holding more capital so there is no need to offset the dilution but I disagree (see this post for the first in a proposed series where I have started to set out my reasons why). Attempts to offset ROE dilution also have a tendency to result in banks taking more risk in ways that are not immediately obvious. Supervisors can of course intervene to stop this happening but their already difficult job is made harder when banks come under pressure to lift returns. This is not to challenge the “unquestionably strong” benchmark adopted by APRA but simply to note that more is not always better.

Another problem with just adding more capital is that the capital has to be usable in the sense that the capital ratio needs to be able to decline as capital is consumed by elevated losses without the bank coming under pressure to immediately restore the level of capital it is expected to hold. The FPC strategy of setting out how it expects capital ratios to increase or decrease depending on the state of the financial cycle helps create an environment in which this can happen.

Mapping the BOE approach to Australia

APRA has set the CCyB at 0% whereas the BOE approach would suggest a value of at least 1% and possibly more given that APRA has felt the need to step in to cool the market down. It is important to note that transitioning to a FPC style CCyB does not necessarily require that Australian banks need to hold more capital. One option would be to harmonise one or more elements of APRA’s approach to capital measurement (thereby increasing the reported capital ratio) and to “reinvest” the surplus capital in a CCyB. The overall quantum of capital required to be unquestionably strong would not change but the form of the capital would be more usable to the extent that it could temporarily decline and banks had more time to rebuild  the buffer during the recovery phase.

Summing up

A capital adequacy framework that includes a CCyB that is varied in a semi predictable manner over the course of the financial cycle would be far more resilient than the one we currently have that offers less flexibility and is more exposed to the risk of being too late or missing the escalation of systemic risk all together.

Tell me what I am missing …