Thinking aloud about Australian bank ROE

I have been wanting to put something down on the question of Australian major bank ROE for a while. The issue generates a lot of heat but the public discussion I have observed has been truncated, in my opinion, by misconceptions.

I think we can agree that banks need to be profitable to be healthy and a healthy banking system underpins the health of the economy as a whole. Excessive profitability however is clearly bad for consumers, business and for the economy as a whole. The problem is determining what level of profitability is excessive. This post is unlikely to be the final word on this topic but hopefully it introduces a couple of considerations that seem to me to be largely missing from the public debate.

Most of what I read on this topic seems to treat the ROE of the Australian majors as self evidently excessive and focuses on what to do about it. Exhibit A is the reported ROE which in the 2019 half year updates varied from 10.05% to 14.10%. This is much less than it was but still substantially better than what is being achieved by most banks outside Australia and by the smaller local banks. Exhibit B is the fact that the Australian banking system is an oligopoly which almost by definition earn excess profits.

Reported ROE exceeds COE – case closed

Any discussion of ROE must be anchored by the estimated Cost of Equity (COE), the minimum return that investors require to hold equity risk. There are a variety of ways of calculating this but all of them generate a number that is much less than the ROE the majors currently earn. So case closed.

There is no question that the Australian majors cover their cost of equity, but it is less clear to me that the margin of excess profitability is as excessive as claimed.

Corporate finance 101 teaches us that we can derive a company’s cost of equity using the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM) which holds that the required return is equal to the Risk Free Return plus the Equity Risk Premium (ERP) multiplied by the extent to which the return the individual stock is correlated with the market as a whole. The general idea of being paid a premium for taking on equity risk makes sense but there are a bunch of issues with the CAPM once you get into the detail. One of the more topical being what do you do when the risk free rate approaches zero.

I don’t want to get into the detail of those issues here but will assume for the purposes of this post that a rate of return in the order of 8-10% can be defended as a minimum acceptable return. I recognise that some of the more mechanical applications of the CAPM might generate a figure lower than this if they simply apply a fixed ERP to the current risk free rate.

Two reasons why a simple comparison of ROE and COE may be misleading

  1. Banking is an inherently cyclical business and long term investors require a return that compensates them for accepting this volatility in returns.
  2. Book value does not define market value

Banking is a highly cyclical business – who knew?

It is often asserted that banking is a low risk, “utility” style business and hence that shareholders should expect commensurately low returns. The commentators making these assertions tend to focus on the fact that the GFC demonstrated that it is difficult (arguably impossible) to allow large banks to fail without imposing significant collateral damage on the rest of the economy. Banks receive public sector support to varying degrees that reduces their risk of failure and hence the risk to shareholders. A variation of this argument is that higher bank capital requirements post the GFC have reduced the risk of investing in a bank by reducing the risk of insolvency.

There is no question that banks do occupy a privileged space in the economy due to the central bank liquidity support that is not available to other companies. This privilege (sometimes referred to as a “social licence”) is I think an argument for tempering the kinds of ROE targeted by the banks but it does not necessarily make them a true utility style investment whose earnings are largely unaffected by cyclical downturns.

The reality is that bank ROE will vary materially depending on the state of the credit cycle and this inherent cyclicality is probably accentuated by accounting for loan losses and prudential capital requirements. Loan losses for Australian banks are currently (October 2019) close to their cyclical low points and can be expected to increase markedly when the economy eventually moves into a downturn or outright recession. Exactly how much downside in ROE we can expect is open to debate but history suggests that loan losses could easily be 5 times higher than what we observe under normal economic conditions.

There is also the issue of how often this can be expected to happen. Again using history as a guide for the base rate, it seems that downturns might be expected every 7-10 years on average and long periods without a downturn seem to be associated with increased risk of more severe and prolonged periods of reduced economic activity.

What kind of risk premium does an investor require for this cyclicality? The question may be academic for shareholders who seek to trade in and out of bank stocks based on their view of the state of the cycle but I will assume that banks seek to cater to the concerns and interests of long term shareholders. The answer for these shareholders obviously depends on how frequent and how severe you expect the downturns to be, but back of the envelope calculations suggest to me that you would want ROE during the benign part of the credit cycle to be at least 200bp over the COE and maybe 300bp to compensate for the cyclical risk.

Good risk management capabilities can mitigate this inherent volatility but not eliminate it; banks are inherently cyclical investments on the front line of the business cycle. Conversely, poor risk management or an aggressive growth strategy can have a disproportionately negative impact. It follows that investors will be inclined to pay a premium to book value for banks they believe have good risk management credentials. I will explore this point further in the discussion of book value versus market value.

Book Value versus Market Value

Apart from the cyclical factors discussed above, the simple fact that ROE is higher than COE is frequently cited as “proof” that ROE is excessive. It is important however to examine the unstated assumption that the market value of a bank should be determined by the book value of its equity. To the best of my knowledge, there is no empirical or conceptual basis for this assumption. There are a number of reasons why a company’s share price might trade at a premium or a discount to its book value as prescribed by the relevant accounting standards.

The market may be ascribing value to assets that are not recognised by the accounting standards.The money spent on financial control and risk management, for example, is largely expensed and hence not reflected in the book value of equity. That value however becomes apparent when the bank is under stress. These “investments” cannot eliminate the inherent cyclicality discussed above but they do mitigate those risk.

A culture built on sound risk management and financial control capabilities is difficult to value and won’t be reflected in book value except to the extent it results in conservative valuation and provisioning outcomes. It is however worth something. Investors will pay a premium for the banks they believe have these intangible strengths while discounting or avoiding altogether the shares of banks they believe do not.

Summing up …

This post is in no way an exhaustive treatment of the topic. Its more modest objective was simply to offer a couple of issues to consider before jumping to the conclusion that the ROE earned by the large Australian banks is excessive based on simplistic comparisons of point in time ROE versus mechanical derivations of the theoretical COE.

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

Tony

Automatic stabilisers in banking capital | VOX, CEPR Policy Portal

I am in favour of cyclical capital buffers but not the kind the BCBS has developed.

I have attached a link to a post by Charles Goodhart and Dirk Schoenmaker which highlights the problems with the BCBS Counter Cyclical Capital Buffer (CCyB) and proposes an alternative more rules based approach.

While banking is procyclical, the capital framework is largely static. The countercyclical capital buffer is discretionary, with potential danger of inaction, and is also limited in scale. This column proposes an expanded capital conservation buffer, which would act as an automatic stabiliser. This could incorporated in the next Basel review and the upcoming Solvency II review.

I have my own preferred alternative approach to the cyclical buffer problem but I agree very much with their critique of the CCyB.

Their post on this question is not long but worth reading.

— Read on voxeu.org/article/automatic-stabilisers-banking-capital

Tony

Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis – Applications in Stress Testing?

One of the issues that we keep coming back to in stress testing is whether the financial system is inherently prone to instability and crisis or the system naturally tends towards equilibrium and instability is due to external shocks. Any stress scenario that we design, or that we are asked to model, will fall somewhere along this spectrum though I suspect most scenarios tend to be based on exogenous shocks. This touches on a long standing area of economic debate and hence not something that we can expect to resolve any time soon. I think it however useful to consider the question when conducting stress testing and evaluate the outcomes.

From roughly the early 1980’s until the GFC in 2008, the dominant economic paradigm has arguably been that the market forces, coupled with monetary and fiscal policy built on a sound understanding of how the economy works, meant that the business cycle was dead and that the primary challenge of policy was to engineer efficient capital allocations that maximised growth. The GFC obviously highlighted shortcomings with the conventional economic approach and drew attention to an alternative approach developed by Hyman Minsky which he labelled the Financial Instability Hypothesis.

Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis (FIH)

Minsky focused on borrowing and lending with varying margins of safety as a fundamental property of all capitalist economies and identified three forms

  • “Hedge” financing under which cash flow covers the repayment of principal and interest
  • “Speculative” financing under which cash flow covers interest but the principal repayments must be continually refinanced
  • “Ponzi” financing under which cash flow is insufficient to cover either interest or principal and the borrower is betting that appreciation in the value of the asset being financed will be sufficient to repay loan principal plus capitalised interest and generate a profit

The terms that Minsky uses do not strictly conform to modern usage but his basic idea is clear; increasingly speculative lending tends to be associated with increasing fragility of borrowers and the financial system as a whole. Ponzi financing is particularly problematic because the system is vulnerable to external shocks that can result in restricted access to finance or which cause asset devaluation cycle as borrowers to sell their assets in order to reduce their leverage. The downward pressure on assets prices associated with the deleveraging process then puts further pressure on the capacity to repay the loans and so on.

The term “Minsky moment” has been used to describe the inflexion point where debt levels become unsustainable and asset prices fall as investors seek to deleverage. Investor psychology is obviously one of the primary drivers in this three stage cycle; investor optimism translates to a willingness to borrow and to pay more for assets, the higher asset valuations in turn allow lenders to lend more against set loan to valuation caps. Lenders can also be caught up in the mood of optimism and take on more risk (e.g. via higher Loan Valuation Ratio limits or higher debt service coverage ratios). Minsky stated that “the fundamental assertion of the financial instability hypothesis is that the financial structure evolves from being robust to being fragile over a period in which the economy does well” (Financial Crises: Systemic or Idiosyncratic by Hyman Minsky, April 1991, p16).

It should also be noted that a Minsky moment does not require an external shock, a simple change in investor outlook or risk tolerance could be sufficient to trigger the reversal. Minsky observed that the tendency of the endogenous process he described to lead to systemic fragility and instability is constrained by institutions and interventions that he described as “thwarting systems” (“Market Processes and Thwarting Systems” by P. Ferri and H. Minsky, November 1991, p2). However Minsky’s FIH also assumes that there is a longer term cycle in which these constraints are gradually wound back allowing more and more risk to accumulate in the system over successive business cycles.

What Minsky describes is similar to the idea of a long term “financial cycle” (25 years plus) being distinct from the shorter duration “business cycle” (typically 7-10 years) – refer this post “The financial cycle and macroeconomics: What have we learnt?” for more detail. An important feature of this longer term financial cycle is a process that gradually transforms the business institutions, decision-making conventions, and structures of market governance, including regulation, which contribute to the stability of capitalist economies.

The transformation process can be broken down into two components

  1. winding back of regulation and
  2. increased risk taking

which in combination increase both the supply of and demand for risk. The process of regulatory relaxation can take a number of forms:

  • One dimension is regulatory capture; whereby the institutions designed to regulate and reduce excessive risk-taking are captured and weakened
  • A second dimension is regulatory relapse; reduced regulation may be justified on the rationale that things are changed and regulation is no longer needed but there is often an ideological foundation typically based on economic theory (e.g. the “Great Moderation” or market discipline underpinning self-regulation).
  • A third dimension is regulatory escape; whereby the supply of risk is increased through financial innovation that escapes the regulatory net because the new financial products and practices were not conceived of when existing regulation was written.

Borrowers also take on more risk for a variety of reasons:

  • First, financial innovation provides new products that allow borrowers to take on more debt or which embed higher leverage inside the same nominal value of debt.
  • Second, market participants are also subject to gradual memory loss that increases their willingness to take on risk

The changing taste for risk is also evident in cultural developments which can help explain the propensity for investors to buy shares or property. A greater proportion of the population currently invest in shares than was the case for their parents or grandparents. These individual investors are actively engaged in share investing in a way that would be unimaginable for the generations that preceded them. Owning your own home and ideally an investment property as well is an important objective for many Australians but less important in say Germany.

These changes in risk appetite can also weaken market discipline based constraints against excessive risk-taking. A book titled “The Origin of Financial Crises” by George Cooper (April 2008) is worth reading if you are interested in the ideas outlined above. A collection of Minsky’s papers can also be found here  if you are interested in exploring his thinking more deeply.

I have been doing a bit of research lately both on the question of what exactly does Expected Loss “expect” and on the ways in which cycle downturns are defined. I may be missing something, but I find this distinction between endogenous and exogenous factors largely missing from the discussion papers that I have found so far and from stress testing itself. I would greatly appreciate some suggestions if anyone has come across any good material on the issue.

Tony

The financial cycle and macroeconomics: What have we learnt? BIS Working Paper

Claudio Borio at the BIS wrote an interesting paper exploring the “financial cycle”. This post seeks to summarise the key points of the paper and draw out some implications for bank stress testing (the original paper can be found here).  The paper was published in December 2012, so its discussion of the implications for macroeconomic modelling may be dated but I believe it continues to have some useful insights for the challenges banks face in dealing with adverse economic conditions and the boundary between risk and uncertainty.

Key observations Borio makes regarding the Financial Cycle

The concept of a “business cycle”, in the sense of there being a regular occurrence of peaks and troughs in business activity, is widely known but the concept of a “financial cycle” is a distinct variation on this theme that is possibly less well understood. Borio states that there is no consensus definition but he uses the term to

“denote self-reinforcing interactions between perceptions of value and risk, attitudes towards risk and financing constraints, which translate into booms followed by busts. These interactions can amplify economic fluctuations and possibly lead to serious financial distress and economic disruption”.

This definition is closely related to the concept of “procyclicality” in the financial system and should not be confused with a generic description of cycles in economic activity and asset prices. Borio does not use these words but I have seen the term “balance sheet recession” employed to describe much the same phenomenon as Borio’s financial cycle.

Borio identifies five features that describe the Financial Cycle

  1. It is best captured by the joint behaviour of credit and property prices – these variables tend to closely co-vary, especially at low frequencies, reflecting the importance of credit in the financing of construction and the purchase of property.
  2. It is much longer, and has a much larger amplitude, than the traditional business cycle – the business cycle involves frequencies from 1 to 8 years whereas the average length of the financial cycle is longer; Borio cites a cycle length of 16 years in a study of seven industrialised economies and I have seen other studies indicating a longer cycle (with more severe impacts).
  3. It is closely associated with systemic banking crises which tend to occur close to its peak.
  4. It permits the identification of the risks of future financial crises in real time and with a good lead – Borio states that the most promising leading indicators of financial crises are based on simultaneous positive deviations of the ratio of private sector credit-to-GDP and asset prices, especially property prices, from historical norms.
  5. And it is highly dependent of the financial, monetary and real-economy policy regimes in place (e.g. financial liberalisation under Basel II, monetary policy focussed primarily on inflation targeting and globalisation in the real economy).

Macro economic modelling

Borio also argues that the conventional models used to analyse the economy are deficient because they do not capture the dynamics of the financial cycle. These extracts capture the main points of his critique:

“The notion… of financial booms followed by busts, actually predates the much more common and influential one of the business cycle …. But for most of the postwar period it fell out of favour. It featured, more or less prominently, only in the accounts of economists outside the mainstream (eg, Minsky (1982) and Kindleberger (2000)). Indeed, financial factors in general progressively disappeared from macroeconomists’ radar screen. Finance came to be seen effectively as a veil – a factor that, as a first approximation, could be ignored when seeking to understand business fluctuations … And when included at all, it would at most enhance the persistence of the impact of economic shocks that buffet the economy, delaying slightly its natural return to the steady state …”

“Economists are now trying hard to incorporate financial factors into standard macroeconomic models. However, the prevailing, in fact almost exclusive, strategy is a conservative one. It is to graft additional so-called financial “frictions” on otherwise fully well behaved equilibrium macroeconomic models, built on real-business-cycle foundations and augmented with nominal rigidities. The approach is firmly anchored in the New Keynesian Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (DSGE) paradigm.”

“The purpose of this essay is to summarise what we think we have learnt about the financial cycle over the last ten years or so in order to identify the most promising way forward…. The main thesis is that …it is simply not possible to understand business fluctuations and their policy challenges without understanding the financial cycle”

There is an interesting discussion of the public policy (i.e. prudential, fiscal, monetary) associated with recognising the role of the financial cycle but I will focus on what implications this may have for bank management in general and stress testing in particular.

Insights and questions we can derive from the paper

The observation that financial crises are based on simultaneous positive deviations of the ratio of private sector credit-to-GDP and asset prices, especially property prices, from historical norms covers much the same ground as the Basel Committee’s Countercyclical Capital Buffer (CCyB) and is something banks would already monitor as part of the ICAAP. The interesting question the paper poses for me is the extent to which stress testing (and ICAAP) should focus on a “financial cycle” style disruption as opposed to a business cycle event. Even more interesting is the question of whether the higher severity of the financial cycle is simply an exogenous random variable or an endogenous factor that can be attributed to excessive credit growth. 

I think this matters because it has implications for how banks calibrate their overall risk appetite. The severity of the downturns employed in stress testing has in my experience gradually increased over successive iterations. My recollection is that this has partly been a response to prudential stress tests which were more severe in some respects than might have been determined internally. In the absence of any objective absolute measure of what was severe, it probably made sense to turn up the dial on severity in places to align as far as possible the internal benchmark scenarios with prudential benchmarks such as the “Common Scenario” APRA employs.

At the risk of a gross over simplification, I think that banks started the stress testing process looking at both moderate downturns (e.g. 7-10 year frequency and relatively short duration) and severe recessions (say a 25 year cycle though still relatively short duration downturn). Bank supervisors  in contrast have tended to focus more on severe recession and financial cycle style severity scenarios with more extended durations. Banks’s have progressively shifted their attention to scenarios that are more closely aligned to the severe recession assumed by supervisors in part because moderate recessions tend to be fairly manageable from a capital management perspective.

Why does the distinction between the business cycle and the financial cycle matter?

Business cycle fluctuations (in stress testing terms a “moderate recession”) are arguably an inherent feature of the economy that occur largely independently of the business strategy and risk appetite choices that banks make. However, Borio’s analysis suggests that the decisions that banks make (in particular the rate of growth in credit relative to growth in GDP and the extent to which the extension of bank credit contributes to inflated asset values) do contribute to the risk (i.e. probability, severity and duration) of a severe financial cycle style recession. 

Borio’s analysis also offers a way of thinking about the nature of the recovery from a recession. A moderate business cycle style recession is typically assumed to be short with a relatively quick recovery whereas financial cycle style recessions typically persist for some time. The more drawn out recovery from a financial cycle style recession can be explained by the need for borrowers to deleverage and repair their balance sheets as part of the process of addressing the structural imbalances that caused the downturn.

If the observations above are true, then they suggest a few things to consider:

  • should banks explore a more dynamic approach to risk appetite limits that incorporated the metrics identified by Borio (and also used in the calibration of the CCyB) so that the level of risk they are willing to take adjusts for where they believe they are in the state of the cycle (and which kind of cycle we are in)
  • how should banks think about these more severe financial cycle losses? Their measure of Expected Loss should clearly incorporate the losses expected from business cycle style moderate recessions occurring once every 7-10 years but it is less clear that the kinds of more severe and drawn out losses expected under a Severe Recession or Financial Cycle downturn should be part of Expected Loss.

A more dynamic approach to risk appetite get us into some interesting game theory  puzzles because a decision by one bank to pull back on risk appetite potentially allows competitors to benefit by writing more business and potentially doubly benefiting to the extent that the decision to pull back makes it safer for competitors to write the business without fear of a severe recession (in technical economist speak we have a “collective action” problem). This was similar to the problem APRA faced when it decided to impose “speed limits” on certain types of lending in 2017. The Royal Commission was not especially sympathetic to the strategic bind banks face but I suspect that APRA understand the problem.

How do shareholders think about these business and financial cycle losses? Some investors will adopt a “risk on-risk off” approach in which they attempt to predict the downturn and trade in and out based on that view, other “buy and hold” investors (especially retail) may be unable or unwilling to adopt a trading approach.

The dependence of the financial cycle on the fiscal and monetary policy regimes in place and changes in the real-economy also has potential implications for how banks think about the risk of adverse scenarios playing out. Many of the factors that Borio argues have contributed to the financial cycle (i.e. financial liberalisation under Basel II, monetary policy focussed primarily on inflation targeting and globalisation in the real economy) are reversing (regulation of banks is much more restrictive, monetary policy appears to have recognised the limitations of a narrow inflation target focus and the pace of globalisation appears to be slowing in response to a growing concern that its benefits are not shared equitably). I am not sure exactly what these changes mean other than to recognise that they should in principle have some impact. At a minimum it seems that the pace of credit expansion might be slower in the coming decades than it has in the past 30 years.

All in all, I find myself regularly revisiting this paper, referring to it or employing the distinction between the business and financial cycle. I would recommend it to anyone interested in bank capital management.