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Making sense of Basel

Big challenges face the global community in making its financial institutions more resilient to withstand the difficulties that arise from the macroeconomic environment and, at the same time, better aligning their private interests with those of wider society.

This is no easy task. It is not easy either to keep tabs on the international responses to try and deliver these aims.

This is no better illustrated by some of the recent changes to the capital requirements of financial institutions outlined by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervisions. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the above chart.) The so-called Basel III framework will, in effect, increase the capital that banks are required to hold and, in particular, specific types of capital. In the process this will reduce gearing, i.e. the amount of assets relative to capital. Recent announcements have detailed how large global banks will have to hold even more capital. This blog tries to make sense some of the changes afoot. Further reading is identified below.

The details of the Basel III framework are complex, there are an enormous amounts of financial acronyms to sift through and the definitions of capital change from time. But, at the heart of the proposals is the aim of increasing the resilience of our financial institutions. To do this the proposals focus predominantly on the liability side of a bank’s balance sheet. More specifically, they focus on long-term liabilities which help banks to resource their assets, i.e. to fund their provision of credit (their assets). This capital is ranked by its quality or by tiers; this terminology has recently changed.

Tier 1 capital is now split into two groups: Common Equity Capital (CET1) and Additional Tier 1 (AT1). The former – the ‘best’ capital – is made up of common equity (ordinary share capital) and retained profits. Holders of common equity can expect to receive dividend payments, but these are discretionary, largely dependent on the financial well-being of the firm. The remainder of CET1 are the retained profits of the firms and, hence, that parts of profits which are not distributed to its shareholders (owners). Additional Tier 1 capital – ‘second best’ capital – comprises preference shares and perpetual subordinated debt. Preference shares are more akin to bonds and provide regular coupons. However, their payment continue to place a burden on firms during more difficult financial times. Subordinated debt is debt where the creditors would not have any financial redress before depositors and other creditors have been attended to. Perpetual subordinated debt (bonds) is debt with no maturity date. Finally, Tier 2 capital is subordinated debt where the time to maturity is greater than five years.

The Basel III framework outlines a series of ratios known as Capital Adequacy Ratios (CARs) that financial institutions should meet. The ratios define a type of capital (numerator) relative to risk-weighted assets (denominator). The denominator involves weighting a bank’s category of assets by internationally agreed risk factors. These range from zero for government debt instruments to 1.5 for certain types of loans to companies. In other words, the more risky a given level of assets are the greater is the denominator and the lower is the financial institution’s capital adequacy.

From January 2013, the so-called ‘hard core minimum’ of Basel III, which is a combined level of Tier 1 and Tier 2 capital, will need to be the equivalent to 8 per cent of the bank’s risk-weighted assets. This is actually unchanged from Basel II. But, it is not quite as simple as this. First, the composition of capital matters. The overall 8 per cent ratio must be meet by a Common Equity Capital (CET1) ratio, including retained reserves, of no less than 4.5 per cent (previously 2 per cent). Second, there is the phasing-in between 2016 and 2019 of additional Common Equity Capital (CET1) equivalent to 2.5 per cent of risk-weighted assets. This is known as the Capital Conservation Buffer. Third, depending on the assessment of national regulators/supervisors, like the Bank of England here in the UK, financial institutions generally could be required to hold further Common Equity Capital of between 0 per cent and 2.5 per cent of risk weighted assets. This is known as a Counter-Cyclical Buffer. So, for instance, if the regulators/supervisors become unduly worried by rates of credit growth, they can impose additional capital requirements. This is an example of macroeconomic prudential regulation because it focuses on the financial system rather any one single financial institution.

In September 2011, Basel III added a fourth qualification to the ‘hard core’. This too will be phased-in from 2016. It is to be applied to those financial institutions, which through a series of indicators, such as size, are to be identified as global systemically important financial institutions (G-SIFIs). Depending on their global systemic importance the amount of CET1 relative to risk weighted assets could increase by between a further 1 to 2.5 per cent (and even by as much as 3.5 per cent, if necessary). These four qualifications could take the overall capital adequacy ratio from 8 per cent to as much as 15.5 per cent: 8 per cent plus 2.5 per cent capital conservation buffer plus 2.5 per cent for G-SIB surcharge plus 2.5 per cent for counter-cyclical buffer.

However, capital requirements may be even more stringent in the UK for retail banks. The UK’s Independent Commission on Banking has proposed that retail banks in the UK become legally, economically and operationally independent of the investment part of banks. In other words, that part of the bank which focuses on deposit-taking from households and firms be separated from the investment bank which largely provides services involving other financial institutions. The ICB proposed in its report last Autumn that the separate retail subsidiary faces an overall CAR of between 17 to 20 per cent with a CET1 ratio of at least 10 per cent. We will have to wait to see whether this comes to pass as the government’s legislation passes through Parliament, but it is not expected that the ICB’s proposals come into force before 2019.

Recommended Materials
Final Report: Recommendations Independent Commission on Banking , September 2011. (See Chapter 4 for a readable overview of Basel III and the general principles involved. See Chapter 3 for a discussion of the functional separation of retail and investment banking).
Basel Committee on Banking Supervision reforms – Basel III Bank for International Settlements

Articles
Basel III – the case for the defence Financial Times (23/1/12)
Finance: Banks face a perfect storm that is getting worse Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins (24/1/12)
Banks in EU, US and Japan to face capital reviews BBC News (9/1/12)

Questions

  1. What is meant by capital and by capital adequacy?
  2. Explain the construction of a Capital Adequacy Ratio. Distinguish between the CET1 ratio and the overall CAR ratio.
  3. What do you understand by macro-prudential regulation?
  4. How do liquidity and capital adequacy differ?
  5. If financial institutions provide deposits to individuals who can draw out their money readily but extend credit over long periods of time, why don’t financial institutions regularly face financial problems?
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