Every six months the Bank of England publishes its Financial Stability Report. “It aims to identify the major downside risks to the UK financial system and thereby help financial firms, authorities and the wider public in managing and preparing for these risks.”
In the latest report, published on 17 December 2010, the Bank expresses concern about the UK’s exposure to problems overseas. The two most important problems are the continuing weaknesses of a number of banks and the difficulties of certain EU countries in repaying government bonds as they fall due and borrowing more capital at acceptable interest rates. As the report says:
Sovereign and banking system concerns have re-emerged in parts of Europe. The IMF and European authorities proposed a substantial package of support for Ireland. But market concerns spilled over to several other European countries. At the time of writing, contagion to the largest European banking systems has been limited. In this environment, it is important that resilience among UK banks has improved over the past year, including progress on refinancing debt and on raising capital buffers. But the United Kingdom is only partially insulated given the interconnectedness of European financial systems and the importance of their stability to global capital markets.
The Bank identifies a number of specific risks to the UK and global financial systems and examines various policy options for tackling them. The following articles consider the report.
Bank warns of eurozone risks to UK as EU leaders meet Independent, Sean O’Grady (17/12/10)
Deep potholes on the road to recovery Guardian, Nils Pratley (17/12/10)
It’s reassuring that regulators are still worried about financial stability The Telegraph, Tracy Corrigan (17/12/10)
Europe is still searching for stability and the UK must find it too Independent, Hamish McRae (17/12/10)
Shafts of light between the storm clouds The Economist blogs: ‘Blighty’ (17/12/10)
Financial Stability Report, December 2010: Overview Bank of England
Financial Stability Report, December 2010: Links to rest of report Bank of England
- What are the most important financial risks facing (a) the UK; (b) eurozone countries?
- What is the significance of the rise in banks’ tier-1 capital ratios since 2007?
- Which is likely to be more serious over the coming months: banking weaknesses or sovereign debt? Explain.
- What is being done to reduce the risks of sovereign default?
- Why might the weaker EU countries struggle to achieve economic growth over the next two or three years?
- How do interest rates on government debt, as expressed by bond yields, compare with historical levels? What conclusions can you draw from this?
- What is likely to happen to bond yields in the USA, the UK and Germany over the coming months?
- What has been the effect of the extra £200 billion that the Bank of England injected into the banking system through its policy of quantitative easing?
Under the Basel II arrangements, banks were required to maintain particular capital adequacy ratios (CARs). These were to ensure that banks had sufficient capital to allow them to meet all demands from depositors and to cover losses if a borrower defaulted on payment. Basel II, it was (wrongly) thought would ensure that the banking system could not collapse.
There were three key ratios. The first was an overall minimum CAR of 8%, measured as Tier 1 capital plus Tier 2 capital as a percentage of total risk-weighted assets. As Economics 7th edition page 509 explains:
Tier 1 capital includes bank reserves (from retained profits) and ordinary share capital, where dividends to shareholders vary with the amount of profit the bank makes. Such capital thus places no burden on banks in times of losses as no dividend need be paid. What is more, unlike depositors, shareholders cannot ask for their money back. Tier 2 capital consists largely of preference shares. These pay a fixed rate of interest and thus do continue to place a burden on the bank even when losses are made (unless the bank goes out of business).
Risk-weighted assets are the value of assets, where each type of asset is multiplied by a risk factor. Under the internationally agreed Basel II accord, cash and government bonds have a risk factor of zero and are thus not included. Inter-bank lending between the major banks has a risk factor of 0.2 and is thus included at only 20 per cent of its value; residential mortgages have a risk factor of 0.35; personal loans, credit-card debt and overdrafts have a risk factor of 1; loans to companies carry a risk factor of 0.2, 0.5, 1 or 1.5, depending on the credit rating of the company. Thus the greater the average risk factor of a bank’s assets, the greater will be the value of its risk weighted assets, and the lower will be its CAR.
The second CAR was that Tier 1 capital should be at least 4% of risk weighted assets.
The third CAR was that equity capital (i.e. money raised from the issue of ordinary shares) should be at least 2% of risk weighted assets. This is known as the ‘core capital ratio’.
Before 2008, it was thought by most commentators that these capital adequacy ratios were sufficiently high. But then the banking crisis erupted. Banks were too exposed to sub-prime debt (i.e. debt that was excessively risky, such as mortgages on property at a time when property prices were rapidly declining). Much of this debt was disguised by being bundled up with other securities in what were known as collateralised debt obligations (CDOs). On 15 September 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy: the largest bankruptcy in history, with Lehmans owing $613 billion. Although its assets had a book value of $639, these were insufficiently liquid to enable Lehmans to meet the demands of its creditors.
The collapse of Lehmans sent shock waves around the world. Banks across the globe came under tremendous pressure. Many held too much sub-prime debt and had insufficient capital to meet creditors’ demands. As a result, they had to be bailed out by their governments. Clearly the Basel II regulations were too lax.
For several months there have been discussions about new tighter regulations and, on 12 September 2010, central bankers from the major countries met in Basel, Switzerland, and agreed the Basel III regulations. Although the overall CAR (Tier 1 and 2) was kept at 8%, the Tier 1 ratio was raised from 4% to 6% and the core Tier 1 ratio was raised from 2% to 4.5%, to be phased in by 2015. In addition there were two ‘buffers’ introduced.
As well as having to maintain a core Tier 1 ratio of 4.5%, banks would also have to hold a ‘conservation buffer’ of 2.5%. “The purpose of the conservation buffer is to ensure that banks maintain a buffer of capital that can be used to absorb losses during periods of financial and economic stress. While banks are allowed to draw on the buffer during such periods of stress, the closer their regulatory capital ratios approach the minimum requirement, the greater the constraints on earnings distributions.” In effect, then, the core Tier 1 ratio will rise from 2% to 7% (i.e. 4.5% minimum plus a buffer of 2.5%).
The other buffer is a ‘countercyclical buffer’. This will be “within a range of 0% – 2.5% of common equity or other fully loss absorbing capital and will be implemented according to national circumstances.” The idea of this buffer is to allow banks to withstand volatility in the global economy. It will be phased in between 2016 and 2019.
The Basel III agreement will still need to be ratified by the G20 countries meeting at Seoul on 10 and 11 November this year. That meeting will also consider other elements of bank regulation.
So will these extra capital requirements be sufficient to allow banks to withstand any future crisis? The following articles discuss this question.
Global bankers agree new capital reserve rules BBC News (12/9/10)
Q&A: Basel rules on bank capital – who cares? BBC News, Laurence Knight (13/9/10)
Basel III and Sound Banking New American, Charles Scaliger (17/9/10)
Wishy-washy rules might come back to haunt regulators Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins (18/9/10)
Basel III proposal released Newsweek, Joel Schectman (17/9/10)
New Bank Rules May Not Prevent More Meltdowns FXstreet, Henrik Arnt (16/9/10)
Basel III CBS Money Watch, Mark Thoma (14/9/10)
Basel III: To lend or not to lend Investment Week, Martin Morris (16/9/10)
Taming the banks The Economist (16/9/10)
Basel’s buttress The Economist (16/9/10)
Do new bank-capital requirements pose a risk to growth? The Economist, guest contributions
Myners: New rules ‘ignore bank liquidity’ BBC Today Programme, Robert Peston and Lord Myners (18/9/10)
Official press releases and documents
Group of Governors and Heads of Supervision announces higher global minimum capital standards Bank for International Settlements Press Release (12/9/10)
The Basel iii Accord Basel iii Compliance Professionals Association (BiiiCPA)
Details of the new capital requirements Bank for International Settlements
Details of the phase-in arrangements Bank for International Settlements
- What impact will a higher capital adequacy ratio have on banks’ behaviour?
- For what reasons may the Basel III regulations be considered too lax?
- When there is an increase in deposits into the banking sector, banks can increase loans by a multiple of this. This bank deposits multiplier is the inverse of the liquidity ratio. Is there a similar bank capital multiplier and, if so, what determines its size?
- Why will Basel III be phased in over a number of years? Is this too long?
In the aftermath of the credit crunch and the recession, many banks had to be bailed out by central banks and some, such as Northern Rock and RBS, were wholly or partially nationalised. Tougher regulations to ensure greater liquidity and higher proportions of capital to total liabilities have been put in place and further regulation is being planned in many countries.
So are banks now able to withstand future shocks?
In recent months, new threats to banks have emerged. The first is the prospect of a double-dip recession as many countries tighten fiscal policy in order to claw down debts and as consumer and business confidence falls. The second is the concern about banks’ exposure to sovereign debt: i.e. their holding of government bonds and other securities. If there is a risk that countries might default on their debts, then banks would suffer and confidence in the banking system could plummet, triggering a further banking crisis. With worries that countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland might have problems in servicing their debt, and with the downgrading of these countries by rating agencies, this second problem has become more acute for banks with large exposure to the debt of these and similar countries.
To help get a measure of the extent of the problem and, hopefully, to reassure markets, the Committee of European Banking Supervisors (CEBS) has been conducting ‘stress tests’ on European banks. On 24 July, it published its findings. The following articles look at these tests and the findings and assess whether the tests were rigorous enough.
Bank balance: EU stress tests explained Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins, Emily Cadman and Steve Bernard (13/7/10)
Seven EU banks fail stress test healthchecks BBC News, Robert Peston (23/7/10)
Interactive: EU stress test results by bank Financial Times, Emily Cadman, Steve Bernard, Johanna Kassel and Patrick Jenkin (23/7/10)
Q&A: What are the European bank stress tests for? BBC News (23/7/10)
Europe’s Stress-Free Stress Test Fails to Make the Grade Der Spiegel (26/7/10)
A test cynically calibrated to fix the result Financial Times, Wolfgang Münchau (25/7/10)
Europe confronts banking gremlins Financial Times (23/7/10)
Leading article: Stressful times continue Independent (26/7/10)
Europe’s banking check-up Aljazeera, Samah El-Shahat (26/7/10)
Finance: Stressed but blessed Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins (25/7/10)
Were stress test rigorous enough? BBC Today Programme, Ben Shore (24/7/10)
Banks’ stress test ‘very wooly’ BBC Today Programme, Peter Hahn and Graham Turner(24/7/10)
Stress test whitewash of European banks World Socialist Web Site, Stefan Steinberg (26/7/10)
Stress tests: Not many dead BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (23/7/10)
Not much stress, not much test Reuters, Laurence Copeland (23/7/10)
Stress-testing Europe’s banks won’t stave off a deflationary vortex Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (18/7/10)
European banking shares rise after stress tests BBC News (26/7/10)
Euro banks pass test, gold falls CommodityOnline, Geena Paul (26/7/10)
2010 EU-wide Stress Testing: portal page to documents CEBS
- Explain what is meant by a bank stress test?
- What particular scenarios were tested for in the European bank stress tests?
- Assess whether the tests were appropriate? Were they too easy to pass?
- What effect did the results of the stress tests have on gold prices? Explain why (see final article above).
- What stresses are banks likely to face in the coming months? If they run into difficulties as a result, what would be the likely reaction of central banks? Would there be a moral hazard here? Explain.
On July 8 the UK government published its long-awaited White Paper on reform of the system of banking regulation. Several commentators had called for the abolition of the ‘tripartite’ system of regulation, whereby responsibility for ensuring the stability and security of the banking system is shared between the Financial Services Authority (FSA), the Bank of England and the Treasury. Some have advocated a considerable strengthening of the role of the Bank of England and even abolishing the FSA. What is generally agreed is that there needs to be ‘macro-prudential’ regulation that looks at the whole banking system and at questions of systemic risk and not just at individual banks. Several of the articles below debate this issue.
The government’s White Paper proposes keeping the tripartite system but also strengthening various aspects of regulation. Amongst other things, it proposes giving the FSA powers to ‘penalise banks if their pay policies create unnecessary risks and are not focused on the long-term strength of their institutions’. It also proposes setting up a ‘new Council for Financial Stability – made up of the FSA, the Bank of England and the Treasury – to meet regularly and report on the systemic risks to financial stability’. Banks would also be required to increase their capital adequacy ratios. The first two articles below give an outline of the proposals. The detailed proposals are contained in the third link, to the Treasury site.
Chancellor moves to rein in ‘risky’ banks Independent (9/7/09)
Banks to face tougher regulation BBC News (8/7/09)
Reforming financial markets HM Treasury (8/7/09)
Treasury sees devil in the detail Financial Times (7/7/09)
How to police the banking system Independent (8/7/09)
City regulation: a quick guide Telegraph (8/7/09)
Treasury White Paper: what it means for the financial services industry Telegraph (8/7/09)
Key issues: Financial regulation BBC News (8/7/09)
Alistair Darling accuses banks of ‘kamikaze’ attitude to loans Telegraph (5/7/09)
HSBC boss on banking reform BBC News video (3/7/09)
Bankers ‘want to be proud of what they do’ BBC Today Programme, Radio 4 (7/7/09)
Divisions on display at Mansion House BBC Newsnight video (18/6/09)
Who should supervise the banks? BBC Newsnight video (18/6/09)
Governor wants more bank powers BBC News video (17/6/09)
King puts spotlight on banks too big to fail Times Online (21/6/09)
Mervyn King: Banks cannot be too big to fail Edmund Conway blog, Telegraph (17/6/09)
The City doesn’t need any more rules Telegraph (6/7/09)
Treasury admits ‘intellectual failure’ behind credit crisis Telegraph (8/7/09)
Bankers to face draconian pay veto Times Online (8/7/09)
- What do you understand by macro-prudential regulation? What would be the difficulties of applying regulation at this level?
- Why may liquidity ratios and capital adequacy ratios that are deemed appropriate by individual banks be inappropriate for the banking system as a whole?
- If banks are too big to fail, why does this create a moral hazard?
- Examine the case for splitting universal banks into retail banks and investment banks.
- Examine the arguments for and against regulating the level and nature of remuneration of senior bank executives.