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 …

Tony

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.”

Abstract

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 …

Tony

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)

The Bankers’ New Clothes: Arguments for simpler capital and much reduced leverage

It always pays to make sure you expose yourself to the opposite view. This post looks at some of the arguments for simpler and higher bank capital requirements put forward by Professors Admati and Hellwig. They have published a number of papers and a book on the topic but this post refers chiefly to their book “The Bankers’ New Clothes” and to a paper ‘The Parade of the Banker’s New Clothes Continues: 31 Flawed Claims Debunked”. As I understand it, the key elements of their argument are that:

  • Banks are inherently risky businesses,
  • Excessive borrowing by banks increases their inherent riskiness, but
  • Banks are only able to maintain this excessive level of borrowing because
    • Flawed risk based capital models underestimate the true capital requirements of the business
    • Market discipline also allows excessive borrowing because it is assumed that the government will bail out banks if the situation turns out badly

They identify a variety of ways of dealing with the problem of excessive leverage (controls on bank lending, liquidity requirements and capital requirements) but argue that substantially more common equity is the best solution because:

  • It directly reduces the probability that a bank will fail (i.e. all other things being equal, more common equity reduces the risk of insolvency),
  • A higher level of solvency protection has the added benefit of also reducing the risk of illiquidity, and
  • Contrary to claims by the banking industry, there is no net cost to society in holding more common equity because the dilution in ROE will be offset by a decline in the required return on equity

They concede that there will be some cost associated with unwinding the Too Big To Fail (TBTF) benefit that large banks currently enjoy on both the amount banks can borrow and on the cost of that funding but argue there is still no net cost to society in unwinding this undeserved subsidy. The book, in particular, gets glowing reviews for offering a compelling case for requiring banks to operate with much lower levels of leverage and for pointing out the folly of risk based capital requirements.

There are a number of areas where I find myself in agreement with the points they argue but I can’t make the leap to accept their conclusion that much a higher capital requirement based on a simple leverage ratio calculation is the best solution. I have written this post to help me think through the challenges they offer my beliefs about how banks should be capitalised.

It is useful, I think, to first set out the areas where we (well me at least) might agree in principle with what they say; i.e.

  • Financial crises clearly do impose significant costs on society and excessive borrowing does tend to make a financial system fragile (the trick is to agree what is “excessive”)
  • Better regulation and supervision have a role to play in minimising the risk of bank failure (i.e. market discipline alone is probably not enough)
  • Public policy should consider all costs, not just those of the banking industry
  • All balance sheets embody a trade-off between enterprise risk, return and leverage (i.e. increasing leverage does increase risk)

It is less clear however that:

  • The economics of bank financing are subject to exactly the same rules as that which apply to non-financial companies (i.e. rather than asserting that banks should be compared with non-financial companies, it is important to understand how banks are different)
  • A policy of zero failure for banks is necessarily the right one, or indeed even achievable (i.e. would it be better to engineer ways in which banks can fail without dragging the economy down with them)
  • Fail safe mechanisms, such as the bail in of pre-positioned liabilities, have no prospect of working as intended
  • The assertion that “most” of the new regulation intended to make banks safer and easier to resolve has been “rejected, diluted or delayed” is a valid assessment of what has actually happened under Basel III
  • That liquidity events requiring lender of last resort support from the central bank are always a solvency problem

Drawing on some previous posts dealing with these issues (see here, here and here), I propose to focus on the following questions:

  • How does the cost of bank financing respond to changes in leverage?
  • Are the risk based capital requirements as fundamentally flawed as the authors claim?
  • Are risk management incentives for bankers always better when they are required to hold increasing levels of common equity?
  • Do the increased loss absorption features of Basel III compliant hybrids (in particular, the power to trigger conversion or bail in of the instruments) offer a way to impose losses on failed banks without disrupting the economy or requiring public support

How does leverage affect the cost of bank financing?

Increasing the proportion of equity funding, the authors argue, reduces the risk that shareholders are exposed to because each dollar of equity they have invested

“ will be affected less intensely by the uncertainty associated with the investments”

“when shareholders bear less risk per dollar invested, the rate of return they require is lower”

“Therefore, taking the costs of equity as fixed and independent of the mix of equity and debt involves a fundamental fallacy”.

Banker’sNew Clothes (p101)

The basic facts they set out are not really contentious; the mix of debt and equity does impact required returns. The authors focus on what happens to common equity but changing leverage impacts both debt and equity. This is very clear in the way that rating agencies consider all of the points nominated by the authors when assigning a debt rating. Reduced equity funding will likely lead to a decline in the senior and subordinated debt ratings and higher costs (plus reduced access to funding in absolute dollar terms) while higher equity will be a positive rating factor.

Banks are not immune to these fundamental laws but it is still useful to understand how the outcomes are shaped by the special features of a bank balance sheet. My views here incorporate two of the claims they “debunk” in their paper; specifically

Flawed Claim #4: The key insights from corporate finance about the economics of funding, including those of Modigliani and Miller, are not relevant for banks because banks are different from other companies

Flawed Claim #5: Banks are special because they create money

One of the features that defines a bank is the ability to take deposits. The cost of deposits however tends to be insulated from the effects of leverage. This is a design feature. Bank deposits are a major component of the money supply but need to be insensitive to adverse information about the issuing bank to function as money.

Wanting bank deposits to be information insensitive does not make them so. That is a function of their super senior position in the liability loss hierarchy, supplemented in many, if not most, banking systems by some form of limited deposit insurance (1). I credit a paper by Gary Gorton and George Pennacchi titled “Financial Intermediaries and Liquidity Creation” for crytalising this insight (an earlier post offers a short summary of that paper). Another paper titled “Why Bail-In? And How?” by Joseph Sommer proposes a different rationale for deposits having a super senior position insulated from the risk of insolvency but the implications for the impact of leverage on bank financing costs are much the same.

A large bank also relies on senior unsecured financing. This class of funding is more risky than deposits but still typically investment grade. This again is a design feature. Large banks target an investment grade rating in order to deliver, not only competitive financing costs, but equally (and perhaps more importantly) access to a larger pool of potential funding over a wider range of tenors. The investment grade rating depends of course on there being sufficient loss absorbing capital underwriting that outcome. There is no escaping this law of corporate finance. 

The debt rating of large banks is of course also tied up with the issue of banks being treated as Too Big To Fail (TBTF). That is a distortion in the market that needs to be addressed and the answer broadly is more capital though the rating agencies are reasonably agnostic on the form this capital should take in so far as the senior debt rating is concerned. Subject to having enough common equity anchoring the capital structure, more Tier 2 subordinated debt (or Tier 3 bail-in) will work just as well as more common equity for the purposes of reducing the value of implied government support currently embedded in the long term senior debt rating.

Admati and Hellwig are right – there is no free lunch in corporate finance

At this stage, all of this risk has to go somewhere. On that point I completely agree with Admati and Hellwig. There is no free lunch, the rating/risk of the senior tranches of financing depend on having enough of the right kinds of loss absorbing capital standing before them in the loss hierarchy. Where I part company is on the questions of how much capital is enough and what form it should take.

How much capital is (more than) enough?

Admati and Hellwig’s argument for more bank capital has two legs. Firstly, they note that banks are typically much more leveraged than industrial companies and question how can this be given the fundamental law of capital irrelevancy defined by Modigliani and Miller. Secondly, they argue that risk based capital requirements are fundamentally flawed and systematically under estimate how much capital is required.

Why are banks different?

Admati and Hellwig note that banks have less capital than industrial companies and conclude that this must be a result of the market relying on the assumption that banks will be bailed out. The existence of a government support uplift in the senior debt ratings of large banks is I think beyond debate. There is also broad support (even amongst many bankers) that this is not sound public policy and should ideally be unwound.

It is not obvious however that this wholly explains the difference in observed leverage. Rating agency models are relatively transparent in this regard (S&P in particular) and the additional capital required to achieve a rating uplift equivalent to the existing government support factor would still see banks more leveraged than the typical industrial company. Bank balance sheets do seem to be different from those of industrial companies.

Flawed risk models

The other leg to their argument is that risk based capital fundamentally under estimates capital requirements. I am broadly sympathetic to the sceptical view on how to use the outputs of risk models and have been for some time. An article I wrote in 2008, for example, challenged the convention of using a probability of default associated with the target debt rating to precisely calibrate the amount of capital a bank required.

The same basic concept of highly precise, high confidence level capital requirements is embedded in the Internal Ratings Based formula and was part of the reason the model results were misinterpreted and misused. Too many people assigned a degree of precision to the models that was not warranted. That does not mean however that risk models are totally useless.

Professors Admati and Hellwig use simple examples (e.g. how does the risk of loss increase if a personal borrower increases leverage on a home loan) to argue that banks need to hold more capital. While the basic principle is correct (all other things equal, leverage does increase risk), the authors’ discussion does not draw much (or possibly any?) attention to the way that requiring a borrower to have equity to support their borrowing reduces a bank’s exposure to movements in the value of the loan collateral.

In the examples presented, any decline in the value of the assets being financed flows through directly to the value of equity, with the inference that this would be true of a bank also. In practice, low risk weights assigned by banks to certain (low default – well secured) pools of lending reflect the existence of borrower’s equity that will absorb the first loss before the value of the loan itself is called into question.

A capital requirement for residential mortgages (typically one of the lowest risk weights and also most significant asset classes) that looks way too low when you note that house prices can easily decline by 10 or 20%, starts to make more sense when you recognise that that there is (or should be) a substantial pool of borrower equity taking the brunt of the initial decline in the value of collateral. The diversity of borrowers is also an important factor in reducing the credit risk of the exposures (though not necessarily the systemic risk of an overall meltdown in the economy). Where that is not the case (and hence the renewed focus on credit origination standards and macro prudential policy in general), then low risk weights are not justified.

I recognise that this argument (incorporating the value of the borrower’s equity) does not work for traded assets where the mark to market change in the value of the asset flows directly to the bank’s equity. It does however work for the kinds of assets on bank balance sheets that typically have very low risk weights (i.e. the primary concern of the leverage ratio advocates). It also does not preclude erring on the side of caution when calculating risk weights so long as the model respects the relative riskiness of the various assets impacting the value of equity.

How much also depends on the quality of risk management (and supervision)

The discussion of how much capital a bank requires should also recognise the distinction between how much a well managed bank needs and how much a poorly managed bank needs. In a sense, the authors are proposing that all banks, good and bad, should be made to hold the capital required by bad banks. Their focus on highlighting the risks of banking obscures the fact that prudent banking mitigates the downside and that well managed banks are not necessarily consigned to the extremes of risk the authors present as the norm of banking.

While not expressed in exactly that way, the distinction I am drawing is implicit in Basel III’s Total Loss Absorbing Capital (TLAC) requirements now being put in place. TLAC adds a substantial layer of additional loss absorption on top of already substantially strengthened common equity requirements. The base layer of capital can be thought of as what is required for a well managed, well supervised bank with a sound balance sheet and business model. APRA’s “Unquestionably Strong” benchmark for CET1 is a practical example of what this requirement looks like. The problem of course is that all banks argue they are good banks but the risk remains that they are in fact bad banks and we usually don’t find out the difference until it is too late. The higher TLAC requirement provides for this contingency.

What should count as capital?

I looked at this question in a recent post on the RBNZ’s proposal that virtually all of their TLAC requirement should be comprised of common equity. Admati and Hellwig side with the RBNZ but I believe that a mix of common equity and bail-in capital (along the lines proposed by APRA) is the better solution.

Read my earlier post for the long version, but the essence of my argument is that bail-in capital introduces a better discipline over bank management risk appetite than does holding more common equity. Calibrating common equity requirements to very high standards should always be the foundation of a bank capital structure. Capital buffers in particular should be calibrated to withstand very severe external shocks and to be resilient against some slippage in risk management.

The argument that shareholders’ need to have more “skin in the game” is very valid where the company is undercapitalised. Bail-in capital is not a substitute for getting the basics right. A bank that holds too little common equity, calibrated to an idealised view of both its own capabilities and of the capacity of the external environment to surprise the modellers, will likely find itself suppressing information that does not fit the model. Loss aversion then kicks in and management start taking more risk to win back that which was lost, just as Admati and Hellwig argue.

However, once you have achieved a position that is unquestionably strong, holding more common equity does not necessarily enhance risk management discipline. My experience in banking is that it may in fact be more likely to breed an undesirable sense of complacency or even to create pressure to improve returns. I know that the later is not a a winning strategy in the long run but in the short run the market frequently does not care.

What is the minimum return an equity investor requires?

One of the problems I find with a simplistic application of Modigliani & Miller’s (M&M) capital irrelevancy argument is that it does not seem to consider if there is a minimum threshold return for an equity investment below which the investment is no longer sufficiently attractive to investors who are being asked to take first loss positions in a company; i.e. where is the line between debt and equity where a return is simply not high enough to be attractive to equity investors?

Reframing the question in this way suggests that the debate between the authors and the bankers may be more about whether risk based capital adequacy models (including stress testing) can be trusted than it is about the limitations of M&M in the real world.

Summary

The author’s solution to prudential supervision of banks is a shock and awe approach to capital that seeks to make the risk of insolvency de minimus for good banks and bad. I have done my best to be open to their arguments and indeed do agree with a number of them. My primary concern with the path they advocate is that I do not believe the extra “skin in the game” generates the risk management benefits they claim.

I see more potential in pursuing a capital structure based on

  • a level of common equity that is robustly calibrated to the needs of a well managed (and well supervised) bank
  • incorporating a well designed counter cyclical capital buffer,
  • supplemented with another robust layer of bail-in capital that imposes real costs (and accountability) on the shareholders and management of banks for whom this level of common equity proves insufficent.

The authors argue that the authorities would never use these bail-in powers for fear of further destabilising funding markets. This is a valid area of debate but I believe they conflate the risks of imposing losses on bank depositors with the kinds of risks that professional bond investors have traditionally absorbed over many centuries of banking. The golden era in which the TBTF factor shielded bank bondholders from this risk is coming to the end but this broader investment class of bond holders has dealt with defaults by all kinds of borrowers. I am not sure why banks would be special in this regard if countries can default. The key issue is that the investors enter into the contract with the knowledge that they are at risk and are being paid a risk premium commensurate with the downside (which may not be that large if investors judge the banks to be well managed).

This is a complex topic so please let me know if I have missed something fundamental or have otherwise mis-represented Admati and Hellwig’s thesis. In the interim, I remain mostly unconvinced …

Tony

  1. It is worth noting that NZ has adopted a different path with respect to deposit protection, rejecting both deposit preference and deposit insurance. They also have a unique policy tool (Open Bank Resolution) that allows the RBNZ to impose losses on deposits as part of the resolution process. They are reviewing the case for deposit insurance and I believe should also reconsider deposit preference.

Are banks a special kind of company (or at least different)?

This is a big topic, and somewhat irredeemably technical, but I have come to believe that there are some unique features of banks that make them quite different from other companies. Notwithstanding the technical challenges, I think it is important to understand these distinguishing features if we are to have a sensible debate about the optimum financing structure for a bank and the kinds of returns that shareholders should expect on the capital they contribute to that structure.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Australian debate about optimum capital has been resolved by the “unquestionably strong” benchmark that APRA has set and which all of the major banks have committed to meet. However, agreeing what kind of return is acceptable on unquestionably strong capital remains contentious and we have only just begun to consider how the introduction of a Total Loss Absorbing Capital (TLAC) requirement will impact these considerations.

The three distinctive features of banks I want to explore are:

  • The way in which net new lending by banks can create new bank deposits which in turn are treated as a form of money in the financial system (i.e. one of the unique things banks do is create a form of money);
  • The reality that a large bank cannot be allowed to fail in the conventional way (i.e. bankruptcy followed by reorganisation or liquidation) that other companies and even countries can (and frequently do); and
  • The extent to which bank losses seem to follow a power law distribution and what this means for measuring the expected loss of a bank across the credit cycle.

It should be noted at the outset that Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig (who are frequently cited as authorities on the issues of bank capital discussed in this post) disagree with most if not all of the arguments I intend to lay out. So, if they are right, then I am wrong. Consequently, I intend to first lay out my understanding of why they disagree and hopefully address the objections they raise. They have published a number of papers and a book on the topic but I will refer to one titled “The Parade of the Bankers’ New Clothes Continues: 31 Flawed Claims Debunked” as the primary source of the counter arguments that I will be attempting to rebut. They are of course Professors whereas I bring a lowly masters degree and some practical experience to the debate. Each reader will need to decide for themselves which analysis and arguments they find more compelling.

Given the size of the topic and the technical nature of the issues, I also propose to approach this over a series of posts starting with the relationship between bank lending and deposit creation. Subsequent posts will build on this foundation and consider the other distinctive features I have identified before drawing all of the pieces together by exploring some practical implications.

Do banks create “money”? If so, how does that impact the economics of bank funding?

The Bank of England (BoE) released a good paper on the first part of this question titled “Money creation in the modern economy” .  The BoE paper does require some banking knowledge but I think demonstrates reasonably clearly that the majority of bank deposits are created by the act of a bank making a new loan, while the repayment of bank loans conversely reduces the pool of deposits. The related but more important question for the purposes of this discussion is whether you believe that bank deposits are a form of money.

Admati and Hellwig identify the argument that “banks are special because they create money” as Flawed Claim #5 on the grounds that treating deposits as money is an abuse of the word “money”. They are not disputing the fact that monetary economists combine cash with demand deposits in one of the definitions of money. As I understand it, the essence of their argument is that deposits are still a debt of the issuing bank while “real” money does not need to be repaid to anyone.

It is true that deposits are a bank debt and that some deposits are repayable on demand. However, I believe the bigger issues bearing on the economics of bank financing stem from the arguments Admati and Hellwig advance to debunk what they label as Flawed Claim #4 that “The key insights from corporate finance about the economics of funding, including those of Modigliani and Miller, are not relevant for banks because banks are different from other companies“.

Their argument appears to focus on using Modigliani and Miller (“M&M”) as an “analytical approach” in which the cost (contractual or expected) of the various forms of financing are connected by a universal law of risk and reward. Their argument is that this universal law (analogous to the fundamental laws of physics) demands that using more or less equity (relative to debt) must translate to a lower or higher risk of insolvency and that rational debt investors will respond by adjusting the risk premium they demand.

I have no issue with the analytical approach or the premise that funding costs should be related to risk. What happens however when one of the primary forms of debt funding is largely protected from the risk of insolvency? In the case of the major Australian banks, deposits account for over half of a bank’s total funding but are largely isolated from the risk of insolvency by a number of features. One is the Banking Act that confers a preferred claim in favour of Australian depositors over the Australian assets of the bank. The other is government guaranteed deposit insurance coverage capped at $250,000 per person per bank. The rationale for these acts of apparent government generosity is a contentious subject in itself but, for the purposes of this post, my working hypothesis is that the preferred claim and deposit insurance are a consequence of the fact that the community treats bank demand deposits as a form of money.

Consequently, the risk that an Australian depositor will face a loss of principal in the already remote event of insolvency is arguably de minimis and the way that demand deposits are priced and the way they are used as a substitute for cash reflects this risk analysis. There remains a related, though separate, risk that a bank may face a liquidity problem but depositors (to the extent they even think about this) will assume that central bank Lender of Last Resort liquidity support covers this.

Admati and Hellwig do not, to the best of my knowledge, consider the implications of these features of bank funding. In their defence, I don’t imagine that the Australian banking system was front of mind when they wrote their papers but depositor preference and deposit insurance are not unique Australian innovations. However, once you consider these factors, the conclusion I draw is that the cost of a substantial share of a bank’s debt financing is relatively (if not completely) insensitive to changes in the amount of equity the bank employs in its financing structure.

One consequence is that the higher levels of common equity that Australian banks employ now, compared to the position prior to the GFC, has not resulted in any decline in the cost of deposit funding in the way that M&M say that it should. In fact, the more conservative funding and liquidity requirements introduced under Basel III have required all banks to compete more aggressively for the forms of deposit funding that are deemed by the prudential requirements to be most stable thereby driving up the cost.

The point here is not whether these changes were desirable or not (for the record I have no fundamental issue with the Unquestionably Strong capital benchmark nor with more conservative funding and liquidity requirements). The point is that the cost of deposit funding, in Australian banking at least, has not declined in the way that Admati and Hellwig’s analytical approach and universal law demands that it should.

Summing up, it is possible that other forms of funding have declined in cost as Admati and Hellwig claim should happen, but there is both an analytical rationale and hard evidence that this does not appear to be the case, for Australian bank deposits at least.

The next post will consider the other main (non equity) components of a bank funding structure and explore how their risk/cost has evolved in response both to the lessons that investors and rating agencies took away from the GFC and to the changes in bank regulation introduced by Basel III. A subsequent post will review issues associated with measuring the Expected Loss and hence the true “Through the Cycle” profitability of a bank before I attempt to bring all of the pieces together.

There is a lot of ground to cover yet. At this stage, I have simply attempted to lay out a case for why the cost of bank deposits in Australia has not obeyed the universal analytical law posited by Admati and Hellwig as the logical consequence of a bank holding more equity in its financing structure but if you disagree tell me what I am missing …

Tony

Post script: The arguments I have laid out above could be paraphrased as “banks deposits differ from other kinds of debt because banks themselves create deposits by lending” which Admati and Hellwig specifically enumerate as Flawed Claim #6. I don’t think their rebuttal of this argument adds much to what is discussed above but for the sake of completeness I have copied below the relevant extract from their paper where they set out why they believe this specific claim is flawed. Read on if you want more detail or have a particular interest in this topic but I think the main elements of the debate are already covered above. If you think there is something here that is not covered above then let me know.

Flawed Claim 6: Bank deposits differ from other kinds of debt because banks create deposits by lending.

What is wrong with this claim? This claim is often made in opposition to a “loanable funds” view of banks as intermediaries that collect deposits in order to fund their loans. Moreover, this “money creation through lending” is said to be the way money from the central bank gets into the economy.19 The claim rests on a confusion between stocks and flows. Indeed, if a commercial bank makes a loan to a nonfinancial firm or to a private household it provides its borrowers with a claim on a deposit account. Whereas this fact provides a link between the flow of new lending and the flow of new deposits, it is hardly relevant for the bank’s funding policy, which concerns the stocks of different kinds of debt and equity that it has outstanding, which must cover the stocks of claims on borrowers and other assets that the bank holds.

A nonfinancial firm or household that receives a loan from a bank will typically use the associated claim on a deposit account for payments to third parties. The recipients of these payments may want to put some of the money they get into deposits, but they may instead prefer to move the money out of the banking system altogether, e.g., to a money market fund or a stock investment fund. 20

From the perspective of the individual bank, the fact that lending goes along with deposit creation does not change the fact that the bank owes its depositors the full amount they deposited. The key difference between deposits and other kinds of debt is not that deposits are “like money” or that deposits may be created by lending, but rather that the bank provides depositors with services such as payments through checks and credit cards or ATM machines that make funds available continuously. The demand for deposits depends on these services, as well as the interest that the bank may offer, and it may also depend on the risk of the bank becoming insolvent or defaulting.21

The suggestion that bank lending is the only source of deposit creation is plainly false.22 Deposits are created when people bring cash to the bank, and they are destroyed when people withdraw cash. In this case, the reduction in deposits – like any reduction in funding – goes along with a reduction in the bank’s assets, i.e., a shortening of its balance sheet, but this reduction affects the bank’s cash reserves rather than its lending. The impact of such withdrawals on banks and entire banking systems are well known from the Great Depression or from the recent experience of Greece. In Greece in the spring and summer of 2015, depositors also were worried about the prospect that in the event of the country’s exit from the euro, their denomination of their deposits would be changed, whereas a stack of bills under a matrass would not be affected.