Mortgage Risk Weights – revisited

I post on a range of topics in banking but residential mortgage risk weights is one that seems to generate the most attention. I first posted on the topic back in Sep 2018 and have revisited the topic a few times (Dec 2018, June 2019#1, June 2019#2, and Nov 2019) .

The posts have tended to generate a reasonable number of views but limited direct engagement with the arguments I have advanced. Persistence pays off however because the last post did get some specific and very useful feedback on the points I had raised to argue that the difference in capital requirements between IRB and Standardised Banks was not as big as it was claimed to be.

My posts were a response to the discussion of this topic I observed in the financial press which just focussed on the nominal difference in the risk weights (i.e. 25% versus 39%) without any of the qualifications. I identified 5 problems with the simplistic comparison cited in the popular press and by some regulators:

  • Problem 1 – Capital adequacy ratios differ
  • Problem 2 – You have to include capital deductions
  • Problem 3 – The standardised risk weights for residential mortgages seems set to change
  • Problem 4 – The risk of a mortgage depends on the portfolio not the individual loan
  • Problem 5 – You have to include the capital required for Interest Rate Risk in the Banking Book

With the benefit of hindsight and the feedback I have received, I would concede that I have probably paid insufficient attention to the disparity between risk weights (RW) at the higher quality end of the mortgage risk spectrum. IRB banks can be seen to writing a substantial share of their loan book at very low RWs (circa 6%) whereas the best case scenario for standardised banks is a 20% RW. The IRB banks are constrained by the requirement that their average RW should be at least 25% and I thought that this RW Floor was sufficient to just focus on the comparison of average RW. I also thought that the revisions to the standardised approach that introduced the 20% RW might make more of a difference. Now I am not so sure. I need to do a bit more work to resolve the question so for the moment I just want to go on record with this being an issue that needs more thought than I have given it to date.

Regarding the other 4 issues that I identified in my first post, I stand by them for the most part. That does not mean I am right of course but I will briefly recap on my arguments, some of the push back that I have received and areas where we may have to just agree to disagree.

Target capital adequacy ratios differ materially. The big IRB banks are targeting CET1 ratios based on the 10.5% Unquestionably Strong Benchmark and will typically have a bit of a buffer over that threshold. Smaller banks like Bendigo and Suncorp appear to operate with much lower CET1 targets (8.5 to 9.0%). This does not completely offset the nominal RW difference (25 versus 39%) but it is material (circa 20% difference) in my opinion so it seem fair to me that the discussion include this fact. I have to say that not all of my correspondents accepted this argument so it seems that we will have to agree to disagree.

You have to include capital deductions. In particular, the IRB banks are required to hold CET1 capital for the shortfall between their loan loss provision and a regulatory capital value called “Regulatory Expected Loss”. There did not appear to be a great awareness of this requirement and a tendency to dismiss it but my understanding is that it can increase the effective capital requirement by 10-12% which corresponds to an effective IRB RW closer to 28% than 25%.

The risk of a mortgage depends on the overall portfolio not the individual loan. My point here has been that small banks will typically be less diversified than big banks and so that justifies a difference in the capital requirements. I have come to recognise that the difference in portfolio risk may be accentuated to the extent that capital requirements applied to standardised banks impede their ability to capture a fair share of the higher quality end of the residential mortgage book. So I think my core point stands but there is more work to do here to fully understand this aspect of the residential mortgage capital requirements. In particular, I would love get more insight into how APRA thought about this issue when it was calibrating the IRB and standardised capital requirements. If they have spelled out their position somewhere, I have not been able to locate it.

You have to include the capital required for Interest Rate Risk in the Banking Book (IRRBB). I did not attempt to quantify how significant this was but simply argued that it was a requirement that IRB banks faced that standardised banks did not and hence it did reduce the benefit of lower RW. The push back I received was that the IRRBB capital requirement was solely a function of IRB banks “punting” their capital and hence completely unrelated to their residential mortgage loans. I doubt that I will resolve this question here and I do concede that the way in which banks choose to invest their capital has an impact on the size of the IRRBB capital requirement. That said, a bank has to hold capital to underwrite the risk in its residential mortgage book and, all other thinks being equal, an IRB bank has to hold more capital for the IRRBB requirement flowing from the capital that it invests on behalf of the residential mortgage book. So it still seems intuitively reasonable to me to make the connection. Other people clearly disagree so we may have to agree to disagree on this aspect.

Summing up, I had never intended to say that there was no difference in capital requirements. My point was simply that the difference is not as big as is claimed and I was yet to see any analysis that considered all of the issues relevant to properly understand what the net difference in capital requirements is. The issue of how to achieve a more level playing field between IRB and Standardised Banks is of course about much more than differences in capital requirements but it is an important question and one that should be based on a firmer set of facts that a simplistic comparison of the 39% standardised versus 25% IRB RW that is regularly thrown around in the discussion of this question.

I hope I have given a fair representation here of the counter arguments people have raised against my original thesis but apologies in advance if I have not. My understanding of the issues has definitely been improved by the challenges posted on the blog so thanks to everyone who took the time to engage.

Tony

What is wrong with Australian banking?

Spoiler alert, I am not going to provide a definitive answer to that question. I do however want to address a couple of the arguments advanced in an interview with Joseph Healy reported in the Chanticleer section of the AFR this week that I think bear closer scrutiny.

Healy has written a book titled “Breaking the Banks – what went wrong with Australian banking”. At this stage I can only rely on what was reported in the AFR so I may be missing some of the nuance of his argument. It is of course always good fun to see an “insider” spilling the beans on an industry but it is also important that we debate the questions raised on the basis of the facts as opposed to a good story. I have no intention of seeking to argue that there is nothing to see here; there are certainly major issues that need to be addressed. That said, some of the claims he asserts seem wrong to me. I offer an alternative perspective below – it is up to the reader to judge which perspective (dare I say set of facts) they find more convincing.

Let’s start with some elements of his thesis that seem to me to have a foundation of truth:

  • Banks operate under a “social licence” that imposes a higher set of responsibilities than what is dictated by a pure free market philosophy
  • The Cost of Equity for Australian banks is around 6-7% per annum and that banks should only earn a modest premium over their cost of equity in a competitive market

Healy cites the “fact” that major bank ROE around 12-13% is substantially higher than their cost of equity and the recent “failure to pass on the full 25 basis point rate cut” as evidence that the major banks are abusing their market power to extract unreasonable rents from the economy.

I don’t have any issue with the premise that banks (not just Australian banks) have a privileged position in the societies in which they operate and that this privilege carries responsibilities. It follows that earning a return that is materially higher than their COE begs the question how this can be justified. However, simplistic comparisons of a bank’s ROE at a relatively benign point in time with the COE that its shareholders require to be compensated for the risk they underwrite across the full business cycle is a fundamental error of analysis and logic. My reasons for this are set out in more detail in this post, but the key point is that this comparison conflates two things which are related but not the same thing.

The other problem I have is the argument that not reducing lending rates by the same amount as the change in the RBA cash rate amounts to a “failure to pass on” the rate cut. Fortunately I don’t need to lay out the detail of why this is wrong because Michael Pascoe and Stephen Bartholomeusz have both done a more than adequate job here and here.

All always, it is entirely possible that I am missing something but I have to call it as I see it. If you have not read the articles by Pascoe and Bartholomeusz then I can recommend them as well worth your time. Bank bashing is a long standing Australian past time and there is much legitimate cause for bashing them. Banking however is too important to allow yourself to join the mob (which sadly seems to include senior politicians) without understanding what criticism is legitimate and what is not.

Tony

Mortgage risk weights fact check revisited – again

The somewhat arcane topic of mortgage risk weights is back in the news. It gets popular attention to the extent they impact the ability of small banks subject to standardised risk weights to compete with bigger banks which are endorsed to use the more risk sensitive version based on the Internal Ratings Based (IRB) approach. APRA released a Discussion Paper (DP) in February 2018 titled “Revisions to the capital framework for authorised deposit-taking institutions”. There are reports that APRA is close to finalising these revisions and that this will address the competitive disadvantage that small banks suffer under the current regulation.

This sounds like a pretty simple good news story – a victory for borrowers and the smaller banks – and my response to the discussion paper when it was released was that there was a lot to like in what APRA proposed to do. I suspect however that it is a bit more complicated than the story you read in the press.

The difference in capital requirements is overstated

Let’s start with the claimed extent of the competitive disadvantage under current rules. The ACCC’s Final Report on its “Residential Mortgage Price Inquiry” described the challenge with APRA’s current regulatory capital requirements as follows:

“For otherwise identical ADIs, the advantage of a 25% average risk weight (APRA’s minimum for IRB banks) compared to the 39% average risk weight of standardised ADIs is a reduction of approximately 0.14 percentage points in the cost of funding the loan portfolio. This difference translates into an annual funding cost advantage of almost $750 on a residential mortgage of $500 000, or about $15 000 over the 30 year life of a residential mortgage (assuming an average interest rate of 7% over that period).”

You could be forgiven for concluding that this differential (small banks apparently required to hold 56% more capital for the same risk) is outrageous and unfair.

Just comparing risk weights is less than half the story

I am very much in favour of a level playing field and, as stated above, I am mostly in favour of the changes to mortgage risk weights APRA outlined in its discussion paper but I also like fact based debates.

While the risk weights for big banks are certainly lower on average than those required of small banks, the difference in capital requirements is not as large as the comparison of risk weights suggests. To understand why the simple comparison of risk weights is misleading, it will be helpful to start with a quick primer on bank capital requirements.

The topic can be hugely complex but, reduced to its essence, there are three elements that drive the amount of capital a bank holds:

  1. The risk weights applied to its assets
  2. The target capital ratio applied to those risk weighted assets
  3. Any capital deductions required when calculating the capital ratio

I have looked at this question a couple of times (most recently here) and identified a number of problems with the story that the higher risk weights applied to residential mortgages originated by small bank places them at a severe competitive disadvantage:

Target capital ratios – The target capital adequacy ratios applied to their higher standardised risk weighted assets are in some cases lower than the IRB banks and higher in others (i.e. risk weights alone do not determine how much capital a bank is required to hold).

Portfolio risk – The risk of a mortgage depends on the portfolio not the individual loan. The statement that a loan is the same risk irrespective of whether it is written by a big bank or small bank sounds intuitively logical but is not correct. The risk of a loan can only be understood when it is considered as part of the portfolio the bank holds. All other things being equal, small banks will typically be less diversified and hence riskier than a big bank.

Capital deductions – You also have to include capital deductions and the big banks are required to hold capital for a capital deduction linked to the difference between their loan loss provisions and a regulatory capital value called “Regulatory Expected Loss”. The exact amount varies from bank to bank but I believe it increases the effective capital requirement by 10-12% (i.e. an effective RW closer to 28% for the IRB banks).

IRRBB capital requirement – IRB banks must hold capital for Interest Rate Risk in the Banking Book (IRRBB) while the small standardised banks do not face an explicit requirement for this risk. I don’t have sufficient data to assess how significant this is, but intuitively I would expect that the capital that the major banks are required to hold for IRRBB will further narrow the effective difference between the risk weights applied to residential mortgages.

How much does reducing the risk weight differential impact competition in the residential mortgage market?

None of the above is meant to suggest that the small banks operating under the standardised approach don’t have a case for getting a lower risk weight for their higher quality lower risk loans. If the news reports are right then it seems that this is being addressed and that the gap will be narrower. However, it is important to remember that:

  • The capital requirement that the IRB banks are required to maintain is materially higher than a simplistic application of the 25% average risk weight (i.e. the IRB bank advantage is not as large as it is claimed to be).
  • The standardised risk weight does not seem to be the binding constraint so reducing it may not help the small banks much if the market looks through the change in regulatory risk measurement and concludes that nothing has changed in substance.

One way to change the portfolio quality status quo is for small banks to increase their share of low LVR loans with a 20% RW. Residential mortgages do not, for the most part, get originated at LVR of sub 50% but there is an opportunity for small banks to try to refinance seasoned loans where the dynamic LVR has declined. This brings us to the argument that IRB banks are taking the “cream” of the high quality low risk lending opportunities.

The “cream skimming” argument

A report commissioned by COBA argued that:

“While average risk weights for the major banks initially rose following the imposition of average risk weight on IRB banks by APRA, two of the major banks have since dramatically reduced their risk weights on residential mortgages with the lowest risk of default. The average risk weights on such loans is now currently on average less than 6 per cent across the major banks.”

“Despite the imposition of an average risk weight on residential home loans, it appears some of the major banks have decided to engage in cream skimming by targeting home loans with the lowest risk of default. Cream skimming occurs when the competitive pressure focuses on the high-demand customers (the cream) and not on low- demand ones (the skimmed milk) (Laffont & Tirole, 1990, p. 1042). Cream skimming has adverse consequences as it skews the level of risk in house lending away from the major banks and towards other ADIs who have to deal with an adversely selected and far riskier group of home loan applicants.”

“Reconciling Prudential Regulation with Competition” prepared by Pegasus Economics May 2019 (page 43)

It is entirely possible that I am missing something here but, from a pure capital requirement perspective, it is not clear that IRB banks have a material advantage in writing these low risk loans relative to the small bank competition. The overall IRB portfolio must still meet the 25% risk weight floor so any loans with 6% risk weights must be offset by risk weights (and hence riskier loans) that are materially higher than the 25% average requirement. I suspect that the focus on higher quality low risk borrowers by the IRB banks was more a response to the constraints on capacity to lend than something that was driven by the low risk weights themselves.

Under the proposed revised requirements, small banks in fact will probably have the advantage in writing sub 50% LVR loans given that they can do this at a 20% risk weight without the 25% floor on their average risk weights and without the additional capital requirements the IRB banks face.

I recognise there are not many loans originated at this LVR band but there is an opportunity in refinancing seasoned loans where the combined impact of principal reduction and increased property value reduces the LVR. In practice the capacity of small banks to do this profitably will be constrained by their relative expense and funding cost disadvantage. That looks to me to be a bigger issue impacting the ability of small banks to compete but that lies outside the domain of regulatory capital requirements.

Maybe this potential arbitrage does not matter in practice but APRA could quite reasonably impose a similar minimum average RW on Standardised Banks if the level playing field argument works both ways. This should be at least 25% but arguably higher once you factor in the fact that the small banks do not face the other capital requirements that IRB banks do. Even if APRA did not do this, I would expect the market to start looking more closely at the target CET1 for any small bank that accumulated a material share of these lower risk weight loans.

Implications

Nothing in this post is meant to suggest that increasing the risk sensitivity of the standardised risk weights is a bad idea. It seems doubtful however that this change alone will see small banks aggressively under cutting large bank competition. It is possible that small bank shareholders may benefit from improved returns on equity but even that depends on the extent to which the wholesale markets do not simply look through the change and require smaller banks to maintain the status quo capital commitment to residential mortgage lending.

What am I missing …

Mortgage risk weights – fact check

It is frequently asserted that the major Australian banks have been “gifted” a substantially lower mortgage risk weight than the smaller banks. To be precise, the assertion is that the major banks are only required to hold capital based on a 25% risk weight versus 39% for smaller banks.

If you are not familiar with the arcane detail of bank capital adequacy, then you could be forgiven for concluding that this differential (small banks apparently required to hold 56% more capital for the same risk) is outrageous and unfair. While the risk weights for big banks are certainly lower on average than those required of small banks, I believe the difference in capital requirements is not as large as the simple comparison of risk weights suggests.

Bank capital requirements involve more than risk weights

To understand why this comparison of risk weights is misleading, it will be helpful to start with a quick primer on bank capital requirements. The topic can be hugely complex but, reduced to its essence, there are three elements that drive the amount of capital a bank holds:

  1. The risk weights applied to its assets
  2. The target capital ratio applied to those risk weighted assets
  3. Any capital deductions required when calculating the capital ratio

Problem 1 – Capital adequacy ratios differ

The comparison of capital requirements based on risk weights implicitly assumes that the regulator applies the same capital ratio requirement to all banks, but this is not the case. Big banks are targeting CET1 ratios based on the 10.5% Unquestionably Strong benchmark set by APRA while there is a greater range of practice amongst the smaller banks. Bendigo and Suncorp appear to be targeting a CET1 ratio in the range of 8.5 to 9.0% while the smaller of the small banks appear to be targeting CET1 ratios materially higher (say 15% or more).

If we confine the comparison to the alleged disadvantage suffered by Bendigo and Suncorp, then the higher risk weights they are required to apply to residential mortgages is substantially offset by the lower CET1 target ratios that they target (the 56% difference in capital required shrinks to something in the order of 30% if you adjust for the difference in target CET1 ratios).

Broadening the comparison to the smaller banks gets even more interesting. At face value the much higher CET1 ratios they appear to target suggest that they are doubly penalised in the required capital comparison but you have to ask why are they targeting such high CET1 ratios. One possible explanation is that the small less diversified mortgage exposures are in fact more risky than the more diversified exposures maintained by their larger competitors.

Problem 2 – You have to include capital deductions

This is quite technical I recognise but, in addition to the capital tied to the risk weight, the big banks are also required to hold capital for a capital deduction linked to the difference between their loan loss provisions and a regulatory capital value called “Regulatory Expected Loss”. This capital deduction increases the effective risk weight. The exact amount varies from bank to bank but I believe it increases the effective capital requirement by 10-12% (I.e. an effective RW closer to 28%). My understanding is that small banks are not required to make the same capital deduction.

Problem 3 – The Standardised risk weights for residential mortgages seem set to change

A complete discussion of the RW difference should also take account of the fact that APRA has proposed to introduce lower RW Categories for the smaller banks such their average RW may be lower than 39% in the future. I don’t know what the average RW for small banks would be under these new RW but that is a question you could put to the banks who use the 39% figure without acknowledging this fact.

Problem 4 – The risk of a mortgage depends on the portfolio not the individual loan

The statement that a loan is the same risk irrespective of whether it is written by a big bank or small bank sounds intuitively logical but is not correct. The risk of a loan can only be understood when it is considered as part of the portfolio the bank holds. Small banks will typically be less diversified than a big bank.

Problem 5 – What about the capital required for Interest Rate Risk in the Banking Book (IRRBB)?

I don’t have sufficient data to assess how significant this is, but intuitively I would expect that the capital that the major banks are required to hold for IRRBB will further narrow the effective difference between the risk weights applied to residential mortgages.

Summing up

My aim in this post was not to defend the big banks but rather to try to contribute some of the knowledge I have acquired working in this area to what I think is an important but misunderstood question. In the interests of full disclosure, I have worked for one of the large Australian banks and may continue to do work for them in the future.

On a pure risk basis, it seems to me that the loan portfolio of a large bank will tend to be more diversified, and hence lower risk, than that of a smaller bank. It is not a “gift” for risk weights to reflect this.

There is a legitimate debate to be had regarding whether small banks should be given (gifted?) an advantage that helps them compete against the big banks. That debate however should start with a proper understanding of the facts about how much advantage the large banks really have and the extent to which their lower risk weights reflect lower risk.

If you disagree tell me what I am missing …

The rise of the normal distribution

“We were all Gaussians now”

This post focuses on a joint paper written in 2012 by Andrew Haldane and Benjamin Nelson titled “Tails of the unexpected”. The topic is the normal distribution which is obviously a bit technical but the paper is still readable even if you are not deeply versed in statistics and financial modelling. The condensed quote below captures the central idea I took away from the paper.

“For almost a century, the world of economics and finance has been dominated by randomness … But as Nassim Taleb reminded us, it is possible to be Fooled by Randomness (Taleb (2001)). For Taleb, the origin of this mistake was the ubiquity in economics and finance of a particular way of describing the distribution of possible real world outcomes. For non-nerds, this distribution is often called the bell-curve. For nerds, it is the normal distribution. For nerds who like to show-off, the distribution is Gaussian.”

The idea that the normal distribution should be used with care, and sometimes not at all, when seeking to analyse economic and financial systems is not news. The paper’s discussion of why this is so is useful if you have not considered the issues before but probably does not offer much new insight if you have.

What I found most interesting was the back story behind the development of the normal distribution. In particular, the factors that Haldane and Nelson believe help explain why it came to be so widely used and misused. Reading the history reminds us of what a cool idea it must have been when it was first discovered and developed.

“By simply taking repeat samplings, the workings of an uncertain and mysterious world could seemingly be uncovered”.
“To scientists seeking to explain the world, the attraction of the normal curve was obvious. It provided a statistical map of a physical world which otherwise appeared un-navigable. It suggested regularities in random real-world data. Moreover, these patterns could be fully described by two simple metrics – mean and variance. A statistical window on the world had been opened.”
Haldane and Nelson highlight a semantic shift in the 1870’s where the term “normal” began to be independently applied to this statistical distribution. They argue that adopting this label helped embed the idea that the “normal distribution” was the “usual” outcome that one should expect to observe. 
“In the 18th century, normality had been formalised. In the 19th century, it was socialised.”
“Up until the late 19th century, no statistical tests of normality had been developed.
Having become an article of faith, it was deemed inappropriate to question the faith.
As Hacking put it, “thanks to superstition, laziness, equivocation, befuddlement with tables of numbers, dreams of social control, and propaganda from utilitarians, the law of large numbers became a synthetic a priori truth. We were all Gaussians now.”

Notwithstanding its widespread use today, in Haldane and Nelson’s account, economics and finance were not early adopters of the statistical approach to analysis but eventually become enthusiastic converts. The influence of physics on the analytical approaches employed in economics is widely recognised and Haldane cites the rise of probability based quantum physics over old school deterministic Newtonian physics as one of the factors that prompted economists to embrace probability and the normal distribution as a key tool.

” … in the early part of the 20th century, physics was in the throes of its own intellectual revolution. The emergence of quantum physics suggested that even simple systems had an irreducible random element. In physical systems, Classical determinism was steadily replaced by statistical laws. The natural world was suddenly ruled by randomness.”
“Economics followed in these footsteps, shifting from models of Classical determinism to statistical laws.”
“Whether by accident or design, finance theorists and practitioners had by the end of the 20th century evolved into fully paid-up members of the Gaussian sect.”

Assessing the Evidence

Having outlined the story behind its development and increasingly widespread use, Haldane and Nelson then turn to the weight of evidence suggesting that normality is not a good statistical description of real-world behaviour. In its place, natural and social scientists have often unearthed behaviour consistent with an alternative distribution, the so-called power law distribution.
“In consequence, Laplace’s central limit theorem may not apply to power law-distributed variables. There can be no “regression to the mean” if the mean is ill-defined and the variance unbounded. Indeed, means and variances may then tell us rather little about the statistical future. As a window on the world, they are broken”
This section of the paper probably does not introduce anything new to people who have spent any time looking at financial models. It does however beg some interesting questions. For example, to what extent bank loan losses are better described by a power law and, if so, what does this mean for the measures of expected loss that are employed in banking and prudential capital requirements; i.e. how should banks and regulators respond if “…the means and variances … tell us rather little about the statistical future”? This is particularly relevant as banks transition to Expected Loss accounting for loan losses.
We can of course estimate the mean loss under the benign part of the credit cycle but it is much harder to estimate a “through the cycle” average (or “expected” loss) because the frequency, duration and severity of the cycle downturn is hard to pin down with any precision. We can use historical evidence to get a sense of the problem; we can for example talk about moderate downturns say every 7-10 years with more severe recessions every 25-30 years and a 75 year cycle for financial crises. However the data is obviously sparse so it does not allow the kind of precision that is part and parcel of normally distributed events.

Explaining Fat Tails

The paper identifies the following drivers behind non-normal outcomes:
  • Non- Linear dynamics
  • Self organised criticality
  • Preferential attachment
  • Highly optimised tolerance
The account of why systems do not conform to the normal distribution does not offer much new but I found reading it useful for reflecting on the practical implications. One of the items they called out is competition which is typically assumed by economists to be a wholly benign force. This is generally true but Haldane and Nelson note the capacity for competition to contribute to self-organised criticality.
Competition in finance and banking can of course lead to beneficial innovation and efficiency gains but it can also contribute to progressively increased risk taking (e.g. more lax lending standards, lower margins for tail risk) thereby setting the system up to be prone to a self organised critical state. Risk based capital requirements can also contribute to self organised criticality to the extent they facilitate increased leverage and create incentives to take on tail risk.

Where Next?

Haldane and Nelson add their voice to the idea that Knight’s distinction between risk and uncertainty is a good foundation for developing better ways of dealing with a world that does not conform to the normal distribution and note the distinguishied company that have also chosen to emphasise the importance of uncertainty and the limitations of risk.
“Many of the biggest intellectual figures in 20th century economics took this distinction seriously. Indeed, they placed uncertainty centre-stage in their policy prescriptions. Keynes in the 1930s, Hayek in the 1950s and Friedman in the 1960s all emphasised the role of uncertainty, as distinct from risk, when it came to understanding economic systems. Hayek criticised economics in general, and economic policymakers in particular, for labouring under a “pretence of knowledge.”
Assuming that the uncertainty paradigm was embraced, Haldane and Nelson consider what the practical implications would be. They have a number of proposals but I will focus on these
  • agent based modelling
  • simple rather than complex
  • don’t aim to smooth out all volatility

Agent based modelling

Haldane and Nelson note that …

In response to the crisis, there has been a groundswell of recent interest in modelling economic and financial systems as complex, adaptive networks. For many years, work on agent-based modelling and complex systems has been a niche part of the economics and finance profession. The crisis has given these models a new lease of life in helping explain the discontinuities evident over recent years (for example, Kirman (2011), Haldane and May (2011))
In these frameworks, many of the core features of existing models need to be abandoned.
  • The “representative agents” conforming to simple economic laws are replaced by more complex interactions among a larger range of agents
  • The single, stationary equilibrium gives way to Lorenz-like multiple, non-stationary equilibria.
  • Linear deterministic models are usurped by non linear tipping points and phase shifts
Haldane and Nelson note that these types of systems are already being employed by physicists, sociologists, ecologists and the like. Since the paper was written (2012) we have seen some evidence that economists are experimenting with “agent based modelling”. A paper by Richard Bookstabber offers a useful outline of his efforts to apply these models and he has also written a book (“The End of Theory”) promoting this path. There is also a Bank of England paper on ABM worth looking at.
I think there is a lot of value in agent based modelling but a few things impede their wider use. One is that the models don’t offer the kinds of precision that make the DSGE and VaR models so attractive. The other is that they require a large investment of time to build and most practitioners are fully committed just keeping the existing models going. Finding the budget to pioneer an alternative path is not easy. These are not great arguments in defence of the status quo but they do reflect certain realities of the world in which people work.

Simple can be more robust than complex

Haldane and Nelson also advocate simplicity in lieu of complexity as a general rule of thumb for dealing with an uncertain world.
The reason less can be more is that complex rules are less robust to mistakes in specification. They are inherently fragile. Harry Markowitz’s mean-variance optimal portfolio model has informed millions of investment decisions over the past 50 years – but not, interestingly, his own. In retirement, Markowitz instead used a much simpler equally-weighted asset approach. This, Markowitz believed, was a more robust way of navigating the fat-tailed uncertainties of investment returns (Benartzi and Thaler (2001)).
I am not a big fan of the Leverage Ratio they cite it as one example of regulators beginning to adopt simpler approaches but the broader principle that simple is more robust than complex does ring true.
The mainstay of regulation for the past 30 years has been more complex estimates of banks’ capital ratios. These are prone to problems of highly-optimised tolerance. In part reflecting that, regulators will in future require banks to abide by a far simpler backstop measure of the leverage ratio. Like Markowitz’s retirement portfolio, this equally-weights the assets in a bank’s portfolio. Like that portfolio, it too will hopefully be more robust to fat-tailed uncertainties.
Structural separation is another simple approach to the problem of making the system more resilient
A second type of simple, yet robust, regulatory rule is to impose structural safeguards on worst-case outcomes. Technically, this goes by the name of a “minimax” strategy (Hansen and Sargent (2011)). The firebreaks introduced into some physical systems can be thought to be playing just this role. They provide a fail-safe against the risk of critical states emerging in complex systems, either in a self-organised manner or because of man-made intervention. These firebreak-type approaches are beginning to find their way into the language and practice of regulation.
And a reminder about the dangers of over engineering
Finally, in an uncertain world, fine-tuned policy responses can sometimes come at a potentially considerable cost. Complex intervention rules may simply add to existing uncertainties in the system. This is in many ways an old Hayekian lesson about the pretence of knowledge, combined with an old Friedman lesson about the avoidance of policy harm. It has relevance to the (complex, fine-tuned) regulatory environment which has emerged over the past few years.
While we can debate the precise way to achieve simplicity, the basic idea does in my view have a lot of potential to improve the management of risk in general and bank capital in particular. Complex intervention rules may simply add to existing uncertainties in the system and the current formulation of how the Capital Conservation Ratio interacts with the Capital Conservation Buffer is a case in point. These two elements of the capital adequacy framework define what percentage of a bank’s earnings must be retained if the capital adequacy ratio is under stress.
In theory the calculation should be simple and intuitive but anyone who has had to model how these rules work under a stress scenario will know how complex and unintuitive the calculation actually is. The reasons why this is so are probably a bit too much detail for today but I will try to pick this topic up in a future post.

Don’t aim to eliminate volatility

Systems which are adapted to volatility will tend to be stronger than systems that are sheltered from it, or in the words of Haldane and Nelson …

“And the argument can be taken one step further. Attempts to fine-tune risk control may add to the probability of fat-tailed catastrophes. Constraining small bumps in the road may make a system, in particular a social system, more prone to systemic collapse. Why? Because if instead of being released in small bursts pressures are constrained and accumulate beneath the surface, they risk an eventual volcanic eruption.”

I am a big fan of this idea. Nassim Taleb makes a similar argument in his book “Antifragile” as does Greg Ip in “Foolproof”. It also reflects Nietzsche’s somewhat more poetic dictum “that which does not kills us makes us stronger”.

In conclusion

If you have read this far then thank you. I hope you found it useful and interesting. If you want to delve deeper then you can find my more detailed summary and comments on the paper here. If you think I have any of the above wrong then please let me know.

“Between Debt and the Devil: Money, Credit and Fixing Global Finance” by Adair Turner (2015)

This book is worth reading, if only because it challenges a number of preconceptions that bankers may have about the value of what they do. The book also benefits from the fact that author was the head of the UK Financial Services Authority during the GFC and thus had a unique inside perspective from which to observe what was wrong with the system. Since leaving the FSA, Turner has reflected deeply on the relationship between money, credit and the real economy and argues that, notwithstanding the scale of change flowing from Basel III, more fundamental change is required to avoid a repeat of the cycle of financial crises.

Overview of the book’s main arguments and conclusions

Turner’s core argument is that increasing financial intensity, represented by credit growing faster than nominal GDP, is a recipe for recurring bouts of financial instability.

Turner builds his argument by first considering the conventional wisdom guiding much of bank prudential regulation prior to GFC, which he summarises as follows:

  • Increasing financial activity, innovation and “financial deepening” were beneficial forces to be encouraged
  • More compete and liquid markets were believed to ensure more efficient allocation of capital thereby fostering higher productivity
  • Financial innovations made it easier to provide credit to households and companies thereby enabling more rapid economic growth
  • More sophisticated risk measurement and control meanwhile ensured that the increased complexity of the financial system was not achieved at the expense of stability
  • New systems of originating and distributing credit, rather than holding it on bank balance sheets, were believed to disperse risks into the hands of those best placed to price and manage it

Some elements of Turner’s account of why this conventional wisdom was wrong do not add much to previous analysis of the GFC. He notes, for example, the conflation of the concepts of risk and uncertainty that weakened the risk measurement models the system relied on and concludes that risk based capital requirements should be foregone in favour of a very high leverage ratio requirement. However, in contrast to other commentators who attribute much of the blame to the moral failings of bankers, Turner argues that this is a distraction. While problems with the way that bankers are paid need to be addressed, Turner argues that the fundamental problem is that:

  • modern financial systems left to themselves inevitably create debt in excessive quantities,
  • in particular, the system tends to create debt that does not fund new capital investment but rather the purchase of already existing assets, above all real estate.

Turner argues that the expansion of debt funding the purchase or trading of existing assets drives financial booms and busts, while the debt overhang left over by the boom explains why financial recovery from a financial crisis is typically anaemic and protracted. Much of this analysis seems to be similar to ideas developed by Hyman Minsky while the slow pace of recovery in the aftermath of the GFC reflects a theme that Reinhart and Rogoff have observed in their book titled “This time is different” which analyses financial crises over many centuries.

The answer, Turner argues, is to build a less credit intensive growth model. In pursuing this goal, Turner argues that we also need to understand and respond to the implications of three underlying drivers of increasing credit intensity;

  1. the increasing importance of real estate in modern economies,
  2. increasing inequality, and
  3. global current account imbalances.

Turner covers a lot of ground, and I do not necessarily agree with everything in his book, but I do believe his analysis of what is wrong with the system is worth reading.

Let me start with an argument I do not find compelling; i.e. that risk based capital requirements are unreliable because they are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between risk (which can be measured) and uncertainty (which cannot):

  • Distinguishing between risk and uncertainty is clearly a fundamental part of understanding risk and Turner is not alone in emphasising its importance
  • I believe that means that we should treat risk based capital requirements with a healthy degree of scepticism and a clear sense of their limitations but that does not render them entirely unreliable especially when we are using them to understand relative differences in risk and to calibrate capital buffers
  • The obvious problem with non-risk based capital requirements is that they create incentives for banks to take higher risk that may eventually offset the supposed increase in soundness attached to the higher capital
  • It may be that Turner discounts this concern because he envisages a lower credit growth/intensity economy delivering less overall systemic risk or because he envisages a more active role for the public sector in what kinds of assets banks lend against; i.e. his support for higher capital may stem mostly from the fact that this reduces the capacity of private banks to generate credit growth

While advocating much higher capital, Turner does seem to part company with M&M purists by expressing doubt that equity investors will be willing to accept deleveraged returns. His reasoning is that returns to equity investments need a certain threshold return to be “equity like” while massively deleveraged ROE still contains downside risks that are unacceptable to debt investors.

Turning to the arguments which I think raise very valid concerns and deserve serious attention.

Notwithstanding my skepticism regarding a leverage ratio as the solution, the arguments he makes about the dangers of excessive credit growth resonate very strongly with what I learned during my banking career. Turner is particularly focussed on the downsides of applying excessive debt to the financing of existing assets, real estate in particular. The argument seems to be similar to (if not based on) the work of Hyman Minsky.

Turner’s description of the amount of money that banks can create as being “infinitely elastic” seems an overstatement to me (especially in the Australian context with the Net Stable Funding Ratio (NSFR) weighing on the capacity to grow the balance sheet) but the general point he is making about the way that credit fuelled demand for a relatively inelastic supply of desirable residential property tends to result in inflated property values with no real social value rings true.

What banks can do about this remains an open question given that resolving the problem with inelastic supply of property is outside their direct control but it is obviously important to understand the dynamics of the market underpinning their largest asset class and it may help them engage more constructively with public policy debates that seek to address the problem.

Turner’s analysis of the downsides of easy monetary policy (the standard response to economic instability) also rings true. He identifies the fact that lower interest rates tend to result in inflated asset values (residential property in particular given its perceived value as a safe asset) which do not address the fundamental problem of over-indebtedness and may serve to increase economic inequality. His discussion of the impact of monetary policy and easy credit on economic inequality is also interesting. The banks providing the credit in the easy money environment may not necessarily be taking undue risk and prudential supervisors have tools to ensure sound lending standards are maintained if they do believe there is a problem with asset quality. What may happen however is that the wealthier segments of society benefit the most under easy money because they have the surplus cash flow to buy property at inflated values while first homebuyers become squeezed out of the market. Again their capacity to address the problem may be limited but Turner’s analysis prompted me to reflect on what increasing economic inequality might mean for bank business models.

In addition to much higher bank capital requirements, Turner’s specific recommendations for moving towards a less credit intensive economy include:

  • Government policies related to urban development and the taxation of real estate
  • Changing tax regimes to reduce the current bias in favour of debt over equity financing (note that Australia is one of the few countries with a dividend imputation system that does reduce the bias to debt over equity)
  • Broader macro prudential powers for central banks, including the power to impose much larger countercyclical capital requirements
  • Tough constraints on the ability of the shadow banking system to create credit and money equivalents
  • Using public policy to produce different allocations of capital than would result from purely market based decisions; in particular, deliberately leaning against the market signal based bias towards real estate and instead favouring other “potentially more socially valuable forms of credit allocation”
  • Recognising that the traditional easy monetary policy response to an economic downturn (or ultra-easy in the case of a financial crisis such as the GFC) is better than doing nothing but comes at a cost of reigniting the growth in private credit that generated the initial problem, creating incentives for risky financial engineering and exacerbating economic inequality via inflating asset prices.

For those who want to dig deeper, I have gone into a bit more detail here on what Turner has to say about the following topics:

  • The way in which inefficient and irrational markets leave the financial system prone to booms and busts
  • The dangers of debt contracts sets out how certain features of these contracts increase the risk of instability and hamper the recovery
  • Too much of the wrong sort of debt describes features of the real estate market that make it different from other asset classes
  • Liberalisation, innovation and the credit cycle on steroids recaps on the philosophy that drove the deregulation of financial markets and what Turner believes to be the fundamental flaws with that approach. In particular his conclusion that the amount of credit created and its allocation is “… too important to be left to bankers…”
  • Private credit and money creation offers an outline of how bank deposits evolved to play an increasing role (the key point being that it was a process of evolution rather than overt public policy design choices)
  • Credit financed speculation discusses the ways in which credit in modern economies tends to be used to finance the purchase of existing assets, in particular real estate, and the issues that flow from this.
  • Inequality, credit and more inequality sets out some ways in which the extension of credit can contribute to increasing economic inequality
  • Capital requirements sets out why Turner believes capital requirements should be significantly increased and why capital requirements (i.e. risk weights) for some asset classes (e.g. real estate) should be be calibrated to reflect the social risk of the activity and not just private risks captured by bank risk models
  • Turner defence against the argument that his proposals are anti-markets and anti-growth.

“The End of Alchemy” by Mervyn King

Anyone interested in the conceptual foundations of money and banking will I think find this book interesting. King argues that the significant enhancements to capital and liquidity requirements implemented since the GFC are not sufficient because of what he deems to be fundamental design flaws in the modern system of money and banking.

King is concerned with the process by which bank lending creates money in the form of bank deposits and with the process of maturity transformation in banking under which long term, illiquid assets are funded to varying degrees by short term liabilities including deposits. King applies the term “alchemy” to these processes to convey the sense that the value created is not real on a risk adjusted basis.

He concedes that there will be a price to pay in foregoing the “efficiency benefits of financial intermediation” but argues that these benefits come at the cost of a system that:

  • is inherently prone to banking crises because, even post Basel III, it is supported by too little equity and too little liquidity, and
  • can only be sustained in the long run by the willingness of the official sector to provide Lender of Last Resort liquidity support.

King’s radical solution is that all deposits must be 100% backed by liquid reserves which would be limited to safe assets such as government securities or reserves held with the central bank. King argues that this removes the risk/incentive for bank runs and for those with an interest in Economic History he acknowledges that this idea originated with “many of the most distinguished economists of the first half the twentieth century” who proposed an end to fractional reserve banking under a proposal that was known as the “Chicago Plan”. Since deposits are backed by safe assets, it follows that all other assets (i.e. loans to the private sector) must be financed by equity or long term debt

The intended result is to separate

  • safe, liquid “narrow” banks issuing deposits and carrying out payment services
  • from risky, illiquid “wide” banks performing all other activities.

At this point, King notes that the government could in theory simply stand back and allow the risk of unexpected events to impact the value of the equity and liabilities of the banks but he does not advocate this. This is partly because volatility of this nature can undermine consumer confidence but also because banks may be forced to reduce their lending in ways that have a negative impact on economic activity. So some form of central bank liquidity support remains necessary.

King’s proposed approach to central bank liquidity support is what he colloquially refers to as a “pawnbroker for all seasons” under which the  central bank agrees up front how much it will lend each bank against the collateral the bank can offer;

King argues that

“almost all existing prudential capital and liquidity regulation, other than a limit on leverage, could be replaced by this one simple rule”.

which “… would act as a form of mandatory insurance so that in the event of a crisis a central bank would be free to lend on terms already agreed and without the necessity of a penalty rate on its loans. The penalty, or price of the insurance, would be encapsulated by the haircuts required by the central bank on different forms of collateral”

leaving banks “… free to decide on the composition of their assets and liabilities… all subject to the constraint that alchemy in the private sector is eliminated”

Underpinning King’s thesis are four concepts that appear repeatedly

  • Disequilibrium; King explores ways in which economic disequilibrium repeatedly builds up followed by disruptive change as the economy rebalances
  • Radical uncertainty; this is the term he applies to Knight’s concept of uncertainty as distinct from risk. He uses this to argue that any risk based approach to capital adequacy is not built on sound foundations because it will not capture the uncertain dimension of unexpected loss that we should be really concerned with
  • The “prisoner’s dilemma” to illustrate the difficulty of achieving the best outcome when there are obstacles to cooperation
  • Trust; he sees trust as the key ingredient that makes a market economy work but also highlights how fragile that trust can be.

My thoughts on King’s observations and arguments

Given that King headed the Bank of England during the GFC, and was directly involved in the revised capital and liquidity rules (Basel III) that were created in response, his opinions should be taken seriously. It is particularly interesting that, notwithstanding his role in the creation of Basel III, he argues that a much more radical solution is required.

I think King is right in pointing out that the banking system ultimately relies on trust and that this reliance in part explains why the system is fragile. Trust can and does disappear, sometimes for valid reasons but sometimes because fear simply takes over even when there is no real foundation for doubting the solvency of the banking system. I think he is also correct in pointing out that a banking system based on maturity transformation is inherently illiquid and the only way to achieve 100% certainty of liquidity is to have one class of safe, liquid “narrow” banks issuing deposits and another class of risky, illiquid institution he labels “wide” banks providing funding on a maturity match funded basis. This second class of funding institution would arguably not be a bank if we reserve that term for institutions which have the right to issue “bank deposits”.

King’s explanation of the way bank lending under the fractional reserve banking system creates money covers a very important aspect of how the modern banking and finance system operates. This is a bit technical but I think it is worth understanding because of the way it underpins and shapes so much of the operation of the economy. In particular, it challenges the conventional thinking that banks simply mobilise deposits. King explains how banks do more than just mobilise a fixed pool of deposits, the process of lending in fact creates new deposits which add to the money supply. For those interested in understanding this in more depth, the Bank of England published a short article in its Quarterly Bulletin (Q1 2014) that you can find at the following link

He is also correct, I think, in highlighting the limits of what risk based capital can achieve in the face of “radical uncertainty” but I don’t buy his proposal that the leverage ratio is the solution. He claims that his “pawnbroker for all seasons” approach is different from the standardised approach to capital adequacy but I must confess I can’t see that the approaches are that different. So even if you accept his argument that internal models are not a sound basis for regulatory capital, I would still argue that a revised and well calibrated standardised approach will always be better than a leverage ratio.

King’s treatment of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” in money and banking is particularly interesting because it sets out a conceptual rationale for why markets will not always produce optimal outcomes when there are obstacles to cooperation. This brings to mind Chuck Prince’s infamous statement about being forced to “keep dancing while the music is playing” and offers a rationale for the role of regulation in helping institutions avoid situations in which competition impedes the ability of institutions to avoid taking excessive risk. This challenges the view that market discipline would be sufficient to keep risk taking in check. It also offers a different perspective on the role of competition in banking which is sometimes seen by economists as a panacea for all ills.

I have also attached a link to a review of King’s book by Paul Krugman