(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Transparency and public trust are essential to effective bank regulation. These guiding principles were severely compromised in the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. Instead of simple, straightforward metrics of bank solvency, capital requirements became an exercise in gamesmanship. Regulators deferred to banks’ own opaque and incomprehensible models of risk to determine how much capital they needed, deeming them “well-capitalized” when the banks were anything but. Reforms adopted after the crisis wisely added simpler, objective capital standards, complemented by stress tests that publicize whether large banks have sufficient capacity to weather severe economic conditions.
Unfortunately, last month’s confusing and vague pronouncements by the Federal Reserve of this year’s stress test results undermined those principles. Instead of reassuring the public, they have created more uncertainty as to the strength of the banking system.
Much criticism has centered on the failure of the Fed to publish bank-specific results under its “enhanced sensitivity analysis,” which took into account worsening economic scenarios caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The stress scenarios the Fed had announced in February were not as severe as the path the economy is on now. But the Fed only published bank-specific results under February’s now essentially irrelevant assumptions.
Less noticed, but we feel equally important, was the failure of the Fed to publish an enhanced sensitivity analysis using a simpler, more reliable measure of financial strength called the leverage ratio. Instead, the Fed relied solely on banks’ “risk-based ratios,” which seek to measure capital adequacy in relation to judgments about the riskiness of banks’ assets. Risk-based ratios failed spectacularly in the lead up to the financial crisis as large banks took huge, highly leveraged stakes in securities and derivatives tied to mortgages because they and their regulators deemed those assets low risk.
After the crisis, global consensus emerged that regulators should backstop risk-based capital rules with leverage ratios, which proved to be more reliable indicators of solvency during the financial crisis. For the largest banks, these supplemental leverage ratios require a minimum of 5% equity funding for the banking organization, and 6% for subsidiaries insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
A review of the bank-specific results published by the Fed using February’s pre-pandemic assumptions shows that some large banks would be operating with thin capital margins even under those more benign scenarios. For instance, Goldman Sachs’s supplemental leverage ratio dipped as low as 3.5%; Morgan Stanley, 4.5%; JPMorgan Chase, 5.1%. Unfortunately, we don’t know how these and other large banks will fare under the more-distressed conditions caused by the pandemic. The Fed’s enhanced sensitivity assessment only disclosed aggregate risk-based ratios. These ranged from 9.5% for a “V-shaped” recovery to 7.7% for a more severe “W,” with the bottom 25th percentile of banks going as low as 4.8% in a “W” scenario. Leverage ratios are typically less than half of banks’ risk-based measures. Indeed, a major concern about risk-based ratios is that they imply capital levels greater than they actually are. Thus, it is likely there were a number of banks with stress leverage ratios below 3% in the Fed’s sensitivity analysis, far too thin to keep them lending and solvent without government support.
The failure to disclose leverage ratios in the pandemic sensitivity analysis is consistent with the Fed’s rulemaking in March to eliminate leverage requirements from their stress tests. Unfortunately, it is not the only step regulators have taken to marginalize leverage ratios. They have also allowed large banks to remove “safe assets” such as Treasury securities and reserve deposits from the supplemental leverage ratios calculation. But the relatively low requirements were calibrated based on the assumption that they would apply to all of a banks’ assets, including safe assets as well as risky exposures such as uncleared derivatives and leveraged loans. Removing safe assets without raising the required ratio will eventually lead to significant reductions in capital minimums, according to regulators’ estimates: $76 billion for banking organizations and more than $55 billion for their insured subsidiaries.
Regulators have said this step was necessary to “support credit to households and businesses.” But this is hard to reconcile with their refusal to request suspension of bank dividend payments. (They did finally impose a modest cap, which will still permit most banks to continue paying dividends at their first quarter levels.) Retaining that capital would give banks the ability to expand support for the real economy without weakening their capital position. FDIC-insured banks paid $30 billion in dividends to their holding companies in the first quarter. If that $30 billion had stayed on banks’ balance sheets, it could have supported nearly a half trillion dollars in additional capacity to take new deposits and make loans.
Moreover, we challenge whether this change will further its stated goal to increase Main Street lending. It will instead create incentives to reduce lending. A number of banks will most likely need to improve their capital ratios as a result of the Fed’s continued stress assessments. But to do so, they can simply cut back on loans, which have relatively high risk-based capital requirements, and shift into U.S. Treasuries, which now have no capital requirements. They will be able to boost their risk-based ratios without having to curb dividends or issue new equity.
Regulators have said removing Treasury securities and reserve deposits from the leverage ratio calculation is temporary, but bank lobbyists are expected to seek legislation making it permanent as part of the next stimulus package. Banking advocates are also pushing regulators to finalize pending changes to the supplemental leverage ratios which would reduce required capital at the eight largest FDIC-insured banks by $121 billion, or 20% on average. If the banking lobby is successful, we fear there won’t be much left of meaningful leverage restrictions.
Bank capital funding requirements are not unnecessary red tape as bank lobbyists try to portray them. They are essential to financial stability. Studies show that highly capitalized banks do a better job of lending than highly leveraged ones, especially during economic stress. The previous financial crisis demonstrated how unreliable risk-based ratios can be and the need to backstop them with overarching leverage constraints on large financial institutions. Greater reliance on simpler, transparent leverage ratios was central to regaining public trust in the solvency and resilience of the banking system. Their demise will force the public to rely on the Fed’s and big banks’ complex and nontransparent risk models. Bank capital levels will once again become an insiders’ game.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Sheila Bair was chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. from 2006 to 2011.
Thomas Hoenig was vice chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. from 2012 to 2018.
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