ECB acknowledges the potential for IFRS 9 to amplify procyclicality

This ECB press release lists four initiatives to deal with impact of Covid 19

  • ECB gives banks further flexibility in prudential treatment of loans backed by public support measures 
  • ECB encourages banks to avoid excessive procyclical effects when applying the IFRS 9 international accounting standard 
  • ECB activates capital and operational relief measures announced on March 12, 2020
  • Capital relief amounts to €120 billion and could be used to absorb losses or potentially finance up to €1.8 trillion of lending

This guidance on flexibility is helpful (arguably necessary) but it would have been better if the relationship between loan loss provisioning and capital buffers was more clearly thought through and built into the design of the system before it was subject to its first real test.

Tony

IFRS 9 loan loss provisioning faces its first real test

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

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

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

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

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

Tony

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

The answer is more loan loss provisions, what was the question?

I had been intending to write a post on the potential time bomb for bank capital embedded in IFSR9 but Adrian Docherty has saved me the trouble. He recently released an update on IFRS9 and CECL titled Much Ado About Nothing or Après Moi. Le Deluge?

This post is fairly technical so feel free to stop here if you are not a bank capital nerd. However, if you happen to read someone saying that IFRS 9 solves one of the big problems encountered by banks during the GFC then be very sceptical. Adrian (and I) believe that is very far from the truth. For those not discouraged by the technical warning, please read on.

The short version of Adrian’s note is:

  • The one-off transition impact of the new standard is immaterial and the market has  largely ignored it
  • Market apathy will persist until stressed provisions are observed
  • The dangers of ECL provisioning (procyclical volatility, complexity and subjectivity) have been confirmed by the authorities …
  • … but criticism of IFRS 9 is politically incorrect since the “correct” narrative is that earlier loan loss provisioning fulfils the G20 mandate to address the problem encountered during the GFC
  • Regulatory adaption has been limited to transition rules, which are not a solution. We need a fundamentally revised Basel regime – “Basel V” – in which lifetime ECL provisions somehow offset regulatory capital requirements.

Adrian quotes at length from Bank of England (BoE) commentary on IFRS 9. He notes that their policy intention is that the loss absorbing capacity of the banking system is not impacted by the change in accounting standards but he takes issue with the way that they have chosen to implement this policy approach. He also calls out the problem with the BoE instruction that banks should assume “perfect foresight” in their stress test calculations.

Adrian also offers a very useful deconstruction of what the European Systemic Risk Board had to say in a report they published in July 2017 . He has created a table in which he sets out what the report says on one column and what they mean in another (see page 8 of Adrian’s note).

This extract from Adrian’s note calls into question whether the solution developed is actually what the G20 asked for …

“In official documents, the authorities still cling to the assertion that ECL provisioning is good for financial stability “if soundly implemented” or “if properly applied”. They claim that the new standard “means that provisions for potential credit losses will be made in a timely way”. But what they want is contrarian, anti-cyclical ECL provisioning. This is simply not possible, in part because of human psychology but, more importantly, because the standard requires justifiable projections based on objective, consensual evidence.

Surely the authorities know they are wrong? Their arguments don’t stack up.

They hide behind repeated statements that the G20 instructed them to deliver ECL provisioning, whereas a re-read of the actual instructions clearly shows that a procyclical, subjective and complex regime was not what was asked for.

It just doesn’t add up.”

There is of course no going back at this point, so Adrian (rightly I think) argues that the solution lies in a change to banking regulation to make Basel compatible with ECL provisioning. I will quote Adrian at length here

 “So the real target is to change banking regulation, to make Basel compatible with ECL provisioning. Doing this properly would constitute a genuine “Basel V”. Yes, the markets would still need to grapple with complex and misleading IFRS 9 numbers to assess performance. But if the solvency calculation could somehow adjust properly for ECL provisions, then solvency would be stronger and less volatile.

And, in an existential way, solvency is what really matters – it’s the sina qua non  of a bank. Regulatory solvency drives the ability of a bank to grow the business and distribute capital. Accounting profit matters less than the generation of genuinely surplus solvency capital resources.

Basel V should remove or resolve the double count between lifetime ECL provisions and one-year unexpected loss (UL) capital resources. There are many different ways of doing this, for example:

A. Treat “excess provisions” (the difference between one-year ECL and lifetime ECL for Stage 2 loans) as CET1

B. Incorporate expected future margin as a positive asset, offsetting the impact of expected future credit losses

C. Reduce capital requirements by the amount of “excess provisions” (again, the difference between one-year ECL and lifetime ECL for Stage 2 loans) maybe with a floor at zero

D. Reduce minimum regulatory solvency ratios for banks with ECL provisioning (say, replacing the Basel 8% minimum capital ratio requirement to 4%)

All of these seem unpalatable at first sight! To get the right answer, there is a need to conduct a fundamental rethink. Sadly, there is no evidence that this process has started. The last time that there was good thinking on the nature of capital from Basel was some 17 years ago. It’s worth re-reading old papers to remind oneself of the interaction between expected loss, unexpected loss and income.  The Basel capital construct needs to be rebuilt to take into account the drastically different meaning of the new, post-IFRS 9 accounting equity number.”

Hopefully this post will encourage you to read Adrian’s note and to recognise that IFRS 9 is not the cycle mitigating saviour of banking it is represented to be. The core problem is not so much with IFRS9 itself (though its complexity and subjectivity are issues) but more that bank capital requirements are not constructed in a way that compensates for the inherent cyclicality of the banking industry. The ideas that Adrian has listed above are potentially part of the solution as is revisiting the way that the Counter cyclical Capital Buffer is intended to operate.

From the Outside