Capital adequacy is not always intuitive

I did a short post yesterday scratching the surface of the issues associated with Westpac’s announcement that it is reviewing its options in New Zealand. In this post I will offer a little more background and comment focussed on the impact of Australian capital adequacy requirements.

The backstory thus far is that:

These combined changes obviously impact the economics of an Australian ADI owning a NZ regulated banks but to have any hope of understanding what is going on I believe we first need to define two pieces of Australian ADI capital jargon, Level 1 and Level 2

Level 1 is the ADI itself on a stand alone basis (note that is a simplification but close enough to the truth for the purposes of this post).

Level 2 is defined in APRA’s consultation paper as “The consolidation of the ADI and all its subsidiaries other than non-consolidated subsidiaries; or if the ADI is a subsidiary of a non-operating holding company (NOHC), the consolidation of the immediate parent NOHC and all the immediate parent NOHC’s subsidiaries (including any ADIs and their subsidiaries) other than non-consolidated subsidiaries.”

For completeness I should probably also define “ADI” which is an Authorised Deposit Taking Institution (more colloquially referred to as a bank).

You can be forgiven for not being familiar with the Level 1 – Level 2 distinction but the capital ratios typically quoted in any discussion of Australian ADI capital strength are the Level 2 measures. The Unquestionably Strong benchmark that dominates the discussion is a Level 2 measure. 

Part of the problem with the RBNZ initiative is that the increase in capital required to be held in the NZ part of the Group has no impact on the Level 2 capital ratio that is used to define the “Unquestionably Strong” benchmark the Australian ADI are expected to meet. The RBNZ is of course within its rights to set what ever capital requirement it deems appropriate but APRA then has to ensure that the increase in NZ based capital does not come at the expense of Australian stakeholders.

The Level 2 capital measure tells us nothing about this question. In theory this is where the Level 1 capital adequacy measure comes into play but I have always found the Level 1 measure a bit counter-intuitive.

  • My intuitive expectation is that the Level 1 measure for an Australian ADI should include the capital actually available in Australia and the risk exposures that capital has to underwrite.
  • What actually happens is that the dollar value of the Level 1 capital can be virtually the same as the Level 2 measure even though capital has been deployed in an offshore banking subsidiary (retained earnings in the subsidiary do not count but that can be addressed by paying a divided to the parent and then investing an equivalent amount of capital back in the subsidiary).
  • Level 1 risk weighted assets of the parent only incorporate an allowance for the risk weighted value of the equity invested in the banking subsidiary
  • This adjustment to the Level 1 risk weighted assets will of course be substantially less than the risk weighted assets the subsidiary is supporting with that equity that are excluded from the Level 1 parent capital ratio.
  • As a result, it is mathematically possible for the Level 1 CET1 ratio of the parent entity to be higher than the Level 2 Group ratio even though capital has been deployed outside the parent entity – that seems counter intuitive to me.

The changes that APRA has proposed to introduce will force the Australian banks to hold more capital to offset the impact of the CET1 deduction created when the investment in the banking subsidiary exceeds the (10%) threshold. As I understand it, this deduction only applies to the Level 1 measure so Level 2 capital will, all other things being equal, be higher as a result of responding to the combined impact of the RBNZ and APRA requirements. At face value that looks like stronger capital, which it is for the Group on average (i.e. Level 2), but the Australian parts of the banking Group do not benefit from the increase and it is important to understand that when evaluating the extent to which the Australian part of the banking group continues to be Unquestionably Strong.

APRA’s proposed change addresses the immediate issue created by the RBNZ requirement but I must confess that I still find the Level 1 capital adequacy measure a touch confusing. Level 1 capital ratios calculated on the basis I have set out above do not appear (to me at least) to offer an intuitively logical view of the relative capital strength of the various parts of the banking group.

As always, it is entirely possible that I am missing something here but understanding the technical issues outlined above is I think useful when making sense of the issues that Westpac (and other Australian ADIs) will be considering as they weigh their options in New Zealand. Relying on your intuition expectations of how the two requirements interact may be an unreliable guide if you are not familiar with the technical detail.

Tony – From the Outside