Financing the American home

Marc Rubinstein has written a short piece on his “Net Interest blog” outlining some of the mysteries of the the 30-year fixed-rate fully prepayable mortgage that finances the majority of home purchases in America. Rubinstein draws on Bethany McLean (Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the US Mortgage Giants) and Sarah Quinn (Government Policy, Housing, and the Origins of Securitization, 1780 – 1968) as well as his own experience as an investor in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac junior preferreds (2011 – 2019).

This short extract will give you a flavour of of the piece but I recommend reading it in full

From the consumer’s perspective, it’s an amazing product. It’s a simple loan that offers stable repayments, kept low because they are spread out over such a long period of time. Its kicker is a free option to prepay, which shields the borrower from interest rate risk. If rates go up, borrowers can commend themselves on a great bargain; if they go down, stay calm—the loan can be refinanced without penalty. Win/win.

All the characteristics that make it terrific for the consumer make it terrible for a traditional lender. Thirty years is a long time to have something sitting on your balance sheet, watching the credit risk compound. Especially something that’s loaded with as much interest rate risk as this. If it’s win/win for the consumer, somebody has to be on the other side of that trade.

Sustaining such a one-sided design clearly requires work. An entire ecosystem of complex financial instruments provides one layer of support. But underneath that sits another: the US government, which now controls two-thirds of the market. By removing the credit risk and dispersing the interest rate risk inherent in long-term fixed-rate mortgages, the US government gives them life. As Bethany McLean says, they “accomplished something that Rumpelstiltskin would envy. They took the worst possible investment – a 30-year fixed-rate fully prepayable mortgage – and turned it into the second most liquid instrument in the world, just behind Treasuries.”

To many, the idea that the US, a beacon of the free market, should support its mortgage market so directly seems odd. The former Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, once remarked: “You Americans are so strange. Most countries have socialised healthcare and a private market in mortgages. You have socialised mortgages and a private market in healthcare.”

Tony – From the Outside

Banks Are Managing Their Stress – Bloomberg

The ever reliable Matt Levine discusses the latest stress test results for the US banks. In particular the disconnect between the severity of the assumptions in the hypothetical scenario and the actual results observed to date. He notes that it is still early and plenty of room for the actual outcomes to catch up with the hypothetical. However, one of the issues with stress testing is the way you model the way people (and governments) respond to stress.

As Matt puts it …

But another important answer is that, when a crisis actually happens, people do something about it. They react, and try to make it better. In the case of the coronavirus crisis, the Fed and the U.S. government tried to mitigate the effect of a real disaster on economic and financial conditions. Unemployment is really high, but some of the consequences are mitigated by stimulus payments and increased unemployment benefits. Asset prices fell sharply, but then rose sharply as the Fed backstopped markets. Financing markets seized up, and then the Fed fixed them.

The banks themselves also acted to make things better, at least for themselves. One thing that often happens in a financial crisis is that banks’ trading desks make a killing trading for clients in turbulent markets, which helps to make up for some of the money they lose on bad loans. And in fact many banks had blowout first quarters in their trading divisions: Clients wanted to trade and would pay a lot for liquidity, and banks took their money.

In a hypothetical stress test, you can’t really account for any of this. If you’re a bank, and the Fed asks you to model how you’d handle a huge financial crisis, you can’t really write down “I would simply make a ton of money trading derivatives.” It is too cute, too optimistic. But in reality, lots of banks just went and did that.

Similarly, you obviously can’t write down “I would simply rely on the Fed to backstop asset prices and liquidity.” That is super cheating. Much of the purpose of the stress tests is to make it so the Fed doesn’t have to bail out the banking system; the point is to demonstrate that the banks can survive a financial crisis on their own without government support. But in reality, having a functioning financial system is better than not having that, so the Fed did intervene; keeping people in their homes is better than foreclosing on them, so the government supported incomes. So the banks are doing much better than you might expect with 13.3% unemployment.

So it is likely that the Fed’s stress test is both not harsh enough, in its economic scenario, and too harsh, in its assumption about how that scenario will affect banks.

Notwithstanding the potential for people to respond to and mitigate stress, there is still plenty of room for reality to catch up with and exceed the hypothetical scenario. Back to Matt…

But the fact that the stress test imagines an economic crisis that is much nicer than reality is still a little embarrassing, and the Fed can’t really say “everything is fine even in the terrible downside case of 10% unemployment, the banks are doing great.” So it also produced some new stress-test results (well, not quite a full stress test but a “sensitivity analysis”) assuming various scenarios about the recovery from the Covid crisis (“a rapid V-shaped recovery,” “a slower, more U-shaped recovery,” and “a W-shaped double dip recession”). The banks are much less well capitalized in those scenarios than they are either (1) now or (2) in the original stress tests, though mostly still okay, and the Fed is asking the banks to reconsider stress and capital based on current reality. Also stop share buybacks:

Worth reading

Tony – From the Outside

Banks may be asked to absorb more than their contractual share of the economic fallout of the Coronavirus

We have already seen signs that the Australian banks recognise that they need to absorb some of the fallout from the economic impact of the Coronavirus. This commentator writing out of the UK makes an interesting argument on how much extra cost banks and landlords should volunteer to absorb.

Richard Murphy on tax, accounting and political economy
— Read on

I am not saying banks should not do this but two themes to reflect on:

1) This can be seen as part of the price of rebuilding trust with the community

2) it reinforces the cyclicality of the risk that bank shareholders are required to absorb which then speaks to what is a fair “Through the Cycle” ROE for that risk

I have long struggled with the “banks are a simple utility ” argument and this reinforces my belief that you need a higher ROE to compensate for this risk


Bank funding costs and capital structure – what I missed

A recent post looked at a Bank of England paper that offered evidence that the cost of higher capital requirements will be mitigated by a reduction in leverage risk which translates into lower borrowing costs and a decline in the required return equity. My post set out some reasons why I struggled with this finding.

My argument was that,

  • in banking systems where the senior debt rating of banks assumed to be Too Big To Fail is supported by an implied assumption of government support (such as Australia),
  • increasing the level of subordinated debt could reduce the value of that implied support,
  • however, senior debt itself does not seem to be any less risky (the senior debt rating does not improve), and
  • the subordinated debt should in theory be more risky if it reduces the value of the assumption of government support.

Fortunately, I also qualified my observations with the caveat that it was possible that I was missing something. Recent issuance of Tier 2 debt by some Australian banks offers some more empirical evidence that does seem to suggest that the cost of senior debt can decline in response to the issuance of more junior securities and that the cost of subordinated debt does not seem to be responding in the way that the theory suggests.

My original argument was I think partly correct. The prospect of the large Australian banks substantially increasing the relative share of Tier 2 debt in their liability structure has not resulted in any improvement in the AA- senior debt rating of the banks subject to this Total Loss Absorbing Capital requirement. So senior debt does not seem to be any less risky.

What I missed was the impact of the supply demand dynamic in a low interest rate environment where safe assets are in very short supply.

The senior debt in my thesis is no less risky but the debt market appears to be factoring in the fact that the pool of AA- senior debt is likely to shrink relative to what was previously expected. Investors who have been struggling for some time to find relatively safe assets with a decent yield weigh up the options. A decent yield on safe assets like they used to get in the old days would obviously be preferable but that is not on offer so they pay up to get a share of what is on offer.

The subordinated debt issued by these banks might be more risky in theory to the extent that bail-in is now more credible but if you do the analysis and conclude that the bank is well managed and low risk then you discount the risk of being bailed-in and take the yield. Again the ultra low yield on very safe assets and the shortage of better options means that you probably bid strongly to get a share of the yield on offer.

Summing up. The impacts on borrowing costs described here may look the same as what would be expected if the Modigliani-Miller effect was in play but the underlying driver appears to be something else.

It remains possible that I am still missing something but hopefully this post moves me a bit closer to a correct understanding of how capital structure impacts bank funding costs …


Bank funding costs and capital structure

Here is another paper for anyone interested in the optimal bank capital structure debate. It is a Bank of England Staff Working Paper titled “Bank funding costs and capital structure” by Andrew Gimber and Aniruddha Rajan.

The authors summarise their paper as follows:

“If bail-in is credible, risk premia on bank securities should decrease as funding sources junior to and alongside them in the creditor hierarchy increase. Other things equal, we find that when banks have more equity and less subordinated debt they have lower risk premia on both. When banks have more subordinated and less senior unsecured debt, senior unsecured risk premia are lower. For percentage point changes to an average balance sheet, these reductions would offset about two thirds of the higher cost of equity relative to subordinated debt and one third of the spread between subordinated and senior unsecured debt.”


The paper adds support to the argument that the cost of higher capital requirements will be mitigated by a reduction in leverage risk which translates into lower borrowing costs and a decline in the required return on equity. In the jargon of the corporate finance wonks, the paper supports a Modigliani Miller (MM) offset.

I need to dig a bit deeper into the results but I am struggling with the finding that increasing the level of subordinated debt at the expense of senior debt results in a reduction in the cost of senior debt. In the interests of full disclosure, I recognise that this may simply reflect the fact that my experience and knowledge base is mostly limited to the Australian and New Zealand banking systems but here goes. As always, it is also possible that I am simply missing something.

The problem for me in these results

We are not debating here the principle that risk (and hence required return) increases as you move through the loss hierarchy. This is a common challenge thrown out at anyone who questions the thesis that risk should decline as you reduce leverage. My concern is that MM did not anticipate a financing structure in which the risk of certain liabilities is mitigated by the existence of an assumption that the public sector will support any bank that is deemed Too Big To Fail (TBTF).

I am not seeking to defend the right of banks to benefit from this implied subsidy. I fully support the efforts being made to eliminate this market distortion. However, so far as I can determine, the reality is that increasing the level of subordinated debt and/or equity may reduce the value of the implied TBTF assumption but senior debt itself does not seem to be any less risky so far as senior debt investors are concerned. So why should they adjust their required return?

This seems to be what we are observing in the response of the debt ratings of the major Australian banks to proposals that they be required to maintain increased levels of subordinated debt to comply with Basel III’s Total Loss Absorbing Capital (TLAC) requirement.

My second concern is not specific to the Bank of England paper but worth mentioning since we are on the topic. One of the MM predictions tested in this study is that “the risk premium on a funding source should fall as that funding source expands at the expense of a more senior one” with the study finding evidence that this is true. This proposition (now supported by another study with empirical data) is often used to argue that it really does not matter how much equity a bank is required to hold because the cost of equity will decline to compensate (the “Big Equity” argument).

What is missing, I think, is any consideration of what is the lower boundary for the return that an equity investor requires to even consider taking the junior position in the financing structure in what is ultimately one of the most cyclically exposed areas of an economy. My last post looked at a study of the returns on both risky and safe assets over a period of 145 years which suggested that risky assets have on average generated a real return of circa 7% p.a.. When you factor in an allowance for inflation you are looking at something in the range of 9%-10% p.a. In addition, there are a range of factors that suggest a bank should be looking to target a Return on Equity of at least 2%-3% over the average “through the cycle” expected return. This includes the way that loan losses are accounted for in the benign part of the cycle and I don’t think that IFRS9 is going to change this.

This is a topic I plan to explore in greater detail in a future post. For the moment, the main point is that there has to be a lower boundary to how much the cost of equity can decline to in response to changes in capital structure but this seems to be largely absent from the Big Equity debate.

I have added a bit of background below for anyone who is not familiar with the detail of how a bank financing structure tends to be more complicated than that of a typical non-financial company.

Tell me what I am missing …


Appendix: A bit of background for those new to this debate

The extent of this MM offset is one of the more contentious issues in finance that has generated a long and heated debate stretching back over more than half a century. Both sides of the debate agree that there is a hierarchy of risk in a company financing structure. Common equity is unambiguously at the high end of this risk hierarchy and hence should expect to earn the highest return. Layers in the hierarchy, and hence the relative protection from solvency risk, are introduced by creating levels of seniority/subordination amongst the various funding sources.

An industrial company could just have debt and equity in which case the MM offset is much easier to analyse (though still contentious). Bank financing structures, in contrast, introduce a variety of issues that render the debate even more complicated and contentious:

  • Prudential capital requirements introduce at least three layers of subordination/seniority via the distinction between minimum capital requirements for Common Equity Tier 1, Additional Tier 1 and Tier 2 capital
  • The transition to a “bail-in” regime potentially introduces another level of subordination/seniority in the form of an additional requirement for certain (typically large and systemically important) banks to hold Non-Preferred Senior debt (or something functionally equivalent)
  • Next comes senior unsecured debt that is one of the workhorses of the bank financing structure (which in turn may be short or long term)
  • In certain cases a bank may also issue covered bonds which are secured against a pool of assets (to keep things simple, I will skip over securitisation financing)
  • Banks are also distinguished by their capacity to borrow money in the form of bank deposits which also serve as a means of payment in the economy (and hence as a form of money)
  • Bank deposits often have the benefit of deposit insurance and/or a preferred super senior claim on the assets of the bank

Apart from the formal protections afforded by the seniority of their claim, certain liabilities (typically the senior unsecured) can also benefit from an implied assumption that the government will likely bail a bank out because it is Too Big To Fail (TBTF). Eliminating this implied subsidy is a key objective of the changes to bank capital requirements being progressively implemented under Basel III.

Until this process is complete, and the implied balance sheet value of being considered TBTF is eliminated, the response of bank funding costs to changes in leverage will not always follow the simple script defined by the MM capital irrelevancy thesis.

Australian government support for banks

The impending transition to an increased level of Loss Absorbing Capital has prompted speculation on whether this means that the assumption of government support embedded in the senior debt rating of the large Australian banks remains appropriate. This speculation is fuelled in part by precedents established in the European Union and United States where the implementation of increased loss absorption requirements has resulted in the assessment of government supportiveness being downgraded.

Standard and Poor’s addressed this question in the Australian context and the short answer is that continued high government support is the probable outcome.

“In our view, this framework does not propose–nor have the authorities more broadly taken–any concrete actions that would suggest reduced government support despite the stated intent to reduce the implicit government guarantee and the perception that some banks are too big to fail”

“Australian Government Support For Banks: Will There Be More Twists In The Tale?, 8 April 2019 – S&P Global RatingsDirect

APRA’s proposed framework for increased loss absorption

Before digging into the detail of why S&P continue to believe the Australian Government will most likely remain “highly supportive” of systemically important banks, it will be useful to quickly revisit the discussion paper APRA published in November 2018 setting out its proposed response to the Financial System Inquiry recommendation that the Government “Implement a framework for minimum loss absorbing and recapitalization capacity in line with emerging international practice, sufficient to facilitate the orderly resolution of Australian authorised deposit-taking institutions (ADIs) and minimize taxpayer support”.

APRA proposed that selected Australian banks (mostly D-SIBs) be required to hold more loss absorbing capital via an increase in the minimum Prudential Capital Requirement (PCR) applied the Total Capital Ratio (TCR) they are required to maintain under Para 23 of APS 110.

“The minimum PCRs that an ADI must maintain at all times are:
(a) a Common Equity Tier 1 Capital ratio of 4.5 per cent;
(b) a Tier 1 Capital ratio of 6.0 per cent; and
(c) a Total Capital ratio of 8.0 per cent.
APRA may determine higher PCRs for an ADI and may change an ADI’s PCRs at any time.”

APS 110 Paragraph 23

This means that banks have discretion over what form of capital they use but it is assumed they will choose Tier 2 capital as the lowest cost way to meet the requirement.

A post I did on APRA’s discussion paper, identified 5 issues posed by APRA’s proposed response including the question “To what extent would the public sector continue to stand behind the banking system once the proposed level of self insurance is in place?”. My assessment at that time was that …

“… the solution that APRA has proposed seems to me to give the official family much greater options for dealing with future banking crises without having to call on the taxpayer to underwrite the risk of recapitalising failed or otherwise non-viable banks.

It does not, however, eliminate the need for liquidity support. ... The reality is that banking systems built on mostly illiquid assets will likely face future crises of confidence where the support of the central bank will be necessary to keep the financial wheels of the economy turning. ….

… the current system requires the central bank to be the lender of last resort. That support is extremely valuable and is another design feature that sets banks apart from other companies. It is not the same however, as bailing out a bank via a recapitalisation.

“Does more loss absorption and “orderly resolution” eliminate the TBTF subsidy”, posted on From The Outside (November 2018)

I noted that the proposed increase in loss absorbing capital would give APRA and the RBA much greater options for dealing with the solvency aspect of any future crisis but my main point in that initial response to the policy proposal was that the need for a liquidity support backstop remained. In my experience, solvency and liquidity are frequently conflated in the public discussion of bail-outs and my point was that recognising that they are not the same facilitates a more sensible discussion of the role of bail-in and government support. The steps APRA is proposing to take to reduce the implied level of government support do not change the fact that the central bank standing ready to act as the Lender of Last Resort (“LOLR”) will remain a design feature of the financial system we have, not a bug.

The distinction between solvency an liquidity is important but, with the benefit of hindsight, I should have paid equal attention to the extent to which the Australian government might still be expected to go beyond liquidity support if required and the way in which the Australian approach to bail-in differs from that being developed in the U.S. and the E.U.

Standard and Poors continues to rate the Australian government as “highly supportive”

Notwithstanding some ambiguity introduced by the government’s response to the FSI recommendation, S&P continue to believe that the Australian government will remain “highly supportive” towards the systemically important private sector banks. They clarify that support in this context means “… the propensity of a government to provide extraordinary support (typically a capital injection) …”.

The factors underpinning S&P’s (admittedly subjective) assessment are:

  • The Australian economy’s dependence on continued access to offshore funding via the Australian banks
  • The potential risk of contagion across the four major banks due to their interconnectedness
  • No evidence of in-principle political or social opposition to government support should it prove necessary
  • APRA’s proposed framework for increased loss absorption does not hinder government support (in contrast to the resolution frameworks adopted in the European Union and the United States where bail-in is a pre-requisite for a government funded bail-out)
  • Notwithstanding the broad range of powers that APRA has for dealing with a stressed financial institution, S&P do not see any clearly laid out framework that would allow senior creditors to be captured by a bail-in
  • A track record of prompt and decisive action to support banks where required.

The ambiguity referenced above stems from the Government’s response to the FSI in which it stated that it “… agrees that steps should be taken to reduce any implicit government guarantee and the perception that some banks are too big to fail”.

My prior post referred to APRA’s proposed solution giving “… the official family much greater options for dealing with future banking crises without having to call on the taxpayer…”. The fact that the government will have the option to use pre-positioned capital instruments to recapitalise failing banks in the future does not necessarily mean that they have forgone the option of using public funds, if that is deemed to be a better (or least worst) option. It is also worth noting that the Government’s response itself does not contemplate eliminating the implicit guarantee and the perception that some banks are too big to fail, simply to reducing them.

What would stop the Government using bail-in to recapitalise a bank?

The interesting question here is what would preclude the government from using the bail-in option, choosing instead to use public funds to recapitalise one or more non-viable banks. So long as investors in these instruments bought them with full knowledge of the downside, there is no obvious reason why they should be protected. The bigger issue seems to be whether the banking system can cope with this particular class of investor temporarily choosing to withdraw from funding Australian banks.

Here I think it is important to distinguish between a constraint on access to senior funding and a constraint on access to the kinds of contingent debt/capital instruments used to meet the Total Loss Absorption Requirement. The history of bond defaults suggests that investors eventually forgive or forget but it is also safer to assume that any banking system subject to bail-in might be temporarily excluded from access to the kinds of contingent convertible debt instruments that were used to recapitalise it.

That I suspect is a manageable scenario provided the recapitalisation of the banking system is sufficient to address any concerns that the senior bond holders may have regarding the solvency and/or viability of the banks impacted. Some degree of over-capitalisation of the banks may be necessary to achieve this and the cost of funding can be expected to increase also. This is part of the price of failure. There is however no in principle reason why bail-in of Additional Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 capital should impact the senior debt so long as it is clear that senior debt is not subject to the same risk of bail-in.

In the absence of access to Additional Tier 1, Tier 2 or Tier 3 capital, these banks will probably be required to temporarily rely on a greater share of common equity to meet their Total Capital Requirement but that can be regenerated through profit retention. I don’t see the capital rebuilding task being materially different to what would have applied if the bank was initially required to meet its TLAC requirement entirely via CET1 capital (as the RBNZ proposes). This is also where the official family can provide liquidity support with minimal risk of the taxpayer facing a loss. Once the bank has regained the trust of the investors, the option of increasing the share of non CET1 capital in the TLAC mix can be re-established.

The importance of the assumption of government support should not be underestimated

This is a complex topic and one where reasonable people can form different interpretations of the facts so let me know if I am missing something …

Table 1 from the S&P report illustrates that an improvement in the Stand Alone Credit Profile (SACP) of one of the Australian majors is not enough on its own to offset a downgrade in S&P’s assessment of government supportiveness. The SACP of the Australian majors is currently assessed at “a-” with government support translating to a 2 notch improvement in the Issuer Credit Rating (ICR) to “AA-“. If the government support assessment is downgraded, the ICR declines 1 notch to “A+” and is not improved even if the SACP is enhanced to “a”.

Tony (From the Outside)