Australian banks under selling pressure

The ASX 300 Banks index are a major drag on the broad market index. Having respected resistance at 8500, a test of primary support at 8000 is likely. Twiggs Trend Index peaks below zero warn of strong selling pressure.

ASX 300 Banks

Return on equity is falling.

Australian Banks Return on Equity

A combination of narrow interest margins.

Bank Net Interest Margins

Soaring household debt.

Bank Net Interest Margins

And rising capital requirements as APRA desperately tries to protect their glass jaw.

Bank Capital Ratios

Don’t let the ratios fool you. They are based on risk-weighted assets. Common Equity Tier 1 (CET1) leverage ratio for at least one of the majors is as low as 4.0 percent.

Time to clean up the Banks

Gabriele Steinhauser at WSJ writes:

A group of key crisis managers believes cleaning up weak banks is the only way to get Europe’s economy to grow again, after superlow interest rates and large-scale liquidity injections from the ECB have failed to produce the desired results. These officials see continued doubts over the health of many lenders as the main reason banks are reluctant to lend to companies, especially in the continent’s weaker countries.

“We’ve been stuck in this rubbish for five years, because we’ve been doing everything to prevent the banks from being recapitalized properly and the stress tests from being stringent enough,” said a senior EU official. “If we don’t do this, we will stay in this trap until 2020.”

The time has come to clear up the mess from the GFC and strengthen bank balance sheets — not only in Europe — so that a similar financial crisis is unlikely to ever happen again. Moves are also afoot in the US where Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and David Vitter (R-La.) are working on a bipartisan bill to end too-big-to-fail banks. The bill does not attempt to break up big banks but focuses on improving bank capital ratios. Risk-weighted capital ratios as suggested by Basel III disguise banks’ true leverage and encourage risk-taking. Australian banks are particularly exposed to low risk-weighting of residential mortgages. Eliminating risk-weighting would force banks to strengthen their underlying capital base and discourage risk concentration in low risk-weighted areas.

The biggest obstacle to change, however, is the banks who benefit from an implicit taxpayer-funded guarantee in the event of failure. Being able to rely on a bailout enables them them to take bigger bets than their balance sheets would otherwise allow. Columbia University’s Charles Calomiris points out that the banks are able to get away with this because they are supported by populist democratic governments who trade off banking instability in return for political (and financial) support.

Read more at New Drive for Tougher Testing of European Banks –

Lessons for Australian banks: Why Risk Managers Should Be Spymasters | ProPublica

Jesse Eisinger’s interview with risk specialist John Breit highlights an issue facing Australian banks. Residential mortgages are allocated a low risk weighting — 15% to 17% because of historic performance — compared to 50% for US banks. The big four banks piled into this area because of the perceived low risk, leveraging up to 50 times capital. Risk-weighted capital ratios (around 10%) still appear healthy, but they conceal a hidden danger from the resulting housing bubble.

[Breit] despises the concept of “risk-weighted assets,” where banks put up capital based on the perceived riskiness of the assets. Inevitably, he argues, banks will “pile into” the same types of supposedly safe investments, creating bubbles that make the risks far more severe than the initial perceptions. Paradoxically, risk-weighting can leave banks setting aside the least capital to cover the biggest dangers.

“I could not be more disappointed,” he said. “The cynic in me thinks this is all in the interests of senior management and regulators to avoid blame. They may not think they can prevent the next crisis, but they then can blame the statistics.”

Read more at Why Risk Managers Should Be Spymasters – ProPublica.

Back to Basics: A Better Alternative to Basel Capital Rules | Thomas M. Hoenig

FDIC Director Thomas Hoenig calls for a simple capital ratio of Tangible Equity/Tangible Assets instead of the complex measures proposed by Basel III. Using Tier 1 capital measured according to Basel III standards overstates tangible equity capital by about 40 percent and using risk-weighted assets makes capital adequacy ratios even more subjective.

Prior to the founding of the Federal Reserve System in 1913 and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in 1933, bank equity levels were primarily market driven. In this period the U.S. banking industry’s ratio of tangible equity to assets ranged between 13 and 16 percent, regardless of bank size……..

[Basel capital standards] led to a systematic decline in bank capital levels. Between 1999 and 2007, for example, the industry’s tangible equity to tangible asset ratio declined from 5.2 percent to 3.8 percent, and for the 10 largest banking firms it was only 2.8 percent in 2007. More incredible still is the fact that these 10 largest firms’ total risk-based capital ratio remained relatively high at around 11 percent, achieved by shrinking assets using ever more favorable risk weights to adjust the regulatory balance sheet.

via FDIC: Speeches & Testimony – 9/14/2012.

Hat tip to Barry Ritholz.

Financial ecosystems can be vulnerable too –

By Robert May

[Andy Haldane, Financial Stability Director of the Bank of England] argues that complexity may obscure more than it illuminates. He illustrates this by comparing predictions about the chances of failure for a sample of 100 global banks in 2006, based on simple leverage ratios (assets/equity) with the corresponding complex, Basel III-style risk-weighted one. The simple metric wins decisively.

via Financial ecosystems can be vulnerable too –

Are Australian banks adequately capitalized?

Basel III Capital Adequacy Ratios (CAR) will require banks to hold a minimum Total Capital of 8% against risk-weighted assets (RWA), the same as under Basel II, but with additional capital buffers of between 2.5% and 5.0% depending on credit market conditions. With an average ratio of 11.5% (September 2011), Australian banks are short of the maximum Basel III requirement of 13.0% for markets in a credit bubble.

The problem, however, lies not only with CAR but with the definition of risk-weighted assets. Under RWA, loans and investments are not taken at face value but adjusted for perceived risk. These adjustments vary widely between banks in different countries. US banks still apply Basel I risk-weightings:

  • zero for cash and government debt (OECD Sovereigns);
  • 20 percent for (OECD) banks;
  • 50 percent for mortgages;
  • 100 percent for corporates.

Their counterparts in Asia and Europe apply Basel II risk-weightings, with more lenient mortgage risk weights, averaging 15 percent and 14 percent respectively.

Australia’s 4 major banks similarly apply risk-weightings (supervised by APRA) for residential mortgages as low as 15%, with an average of 17%. That means the big four hold less than 2% capital against residential mortgages. Even after mortgage insurance, Deep T pointed out earlier this year, leverage is close to 50 times capital.

Basel III introduces a minimum 3% leverage ratio which ignores risk-weighting and compares Tier 1 capital to total exposure — total assets plus derivative exposure and off-balance sheet assets. But this is a catch-all and allows banks with high quality assets to continue leveraging at 33 times capital. Fed guidelines are more conservative, requiring a minimum leverage ratio of 4% (“adequately capitalized“) with a recommended 5% minimum for well-capitalized banks. The ratio, however, excludes off-balance-sheet assets. None of Australia’s four majors appear to meet the Fed’s requirement at September 2011 — ranging between 3.9% and 4.8% of Tier 1 capital to tangible assets.

With household debt at a historic high of 150% of disposable income, 3 times higher than in the early 1990s, Australia shows classic symptoms of a credit bubble and cannot afford to be complacent. There are three areas of the banking system that require attention. Capital adequacy ratios need to be lifted as well as risk-weightings for residential mortgages. Improving these two measures should enable Australia’s four major banks to achieve a minimum (Basel III) leverage ratio of 5%.


Click to access bcbs189.pdf

Click to access wp1290.pdf

Click to access wp1225.pdf

Casualties of the externality

Click to access EY%20Reg%20Alert%20Basel%20III%20June%202012.pdf

Simon Johnson: Why Are the Big Banks Suddenly Afraid? –

The threat of too-big-to-fail banks has not diminished. The combined assets of the 6 largest US banks is bigger now than in 2008. Simon Johnson, Professor of Entrepreneurship at M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, writes:

A growing number of serious-minded politicians are starting to support the point made by Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah and a Republican presidential candidate in the recent primaries: global megabanks have become government-sponsored enterprises; their scale does not result from any kind of market process, but is rather the result of a vast state subsidy scheme.

…..Serious people on the right and on the left are reassessing if we really need our largest banks to be so large and so highly leveraged (i.e., with so much debt relative to their equity). The arguments in favor of keeping the global megabanks and allowing them to grow are very weak or nonexistent.

The big banks will vigorously defend any attempt to break them up and they have deep pockets. It would be far more effective and politically achievable to raise reserve requirements, lifting capital ratios and reducing leverage to the point that large and small institutions alike are no longer a threat to the economy. Even if we adopt a two-tier approach, with higher ratios for institutions above a certain size.

We need to remember that a fractional-reserve banking system is not an essential requirement of the capitalist system. All that is needed is an efficient intermediary between investors and borrowers. Equity-funded banks proved effective in funding Germany’s industrialization prior to WW1. Islamic banks today follow similar principles. Over-dependence on deposits is the primary cause of our current instability.

via Simon Johnson: Why Are the Big Banks Suddenly Afraid? –

Europe’s Dying Bank Model – Gene Frieda – Project Syndicate

In general, the eurozone has outsized banks (assets equivalent to 325% of GDP) that are highly leveraged (the 15 largest banks’ leverage is 28.9 times their equity capital). They are also dependent on large quantities of wholesale debt – totaling €4.9 trillion (27% of total eurozone loans), with €660 billion maturing in the next two years – to fund low-yielding assets. According to Barclays Capital, the 15 largest banks increased their returns on equity by 58% between 1998 and 2007, with 90% of the gain coming from higher leverage. Returns have since collapsed.

This model’s viability depends on large amounts of cheap leverage, supported by implicit government backing.

via Europe’s Dying Bank Model – Gene Frieda – Project Syndicate.

The Bankers’ Capital War – Howard Davies – Project Syndicate

Basel 3, the Basel Committee’s new global regulatory standard on banks’ capital adequacy and liquidity, will more or less double the equity requirements, and will impose extra costs on banks deemed “too big to fail.” The Committee’s analysis of the economic consequences found that the impact on growth would be modest, perhaps reducing GDP by 0.33% after five years – easily within the margin of forecast error. The OECD took a different view, putting the growth impact at about twice that level, and rather higher in Europe, where companies rely far more on bank financing than they do in the US.

In sharp contrast, the Institute of International Finance, the leading trade association for the world’s top banks, believes that the impact of higher capital requirements could be far stronger. The IIF believes that GDP could be fully 5% lower after five years, with unemployment more than 7% higher.

The IIF’s forecast may seem alarmist, but the competing estimates are based on some intriguing analytical differences. Regulators take the view that the impact of higher capital requirements on the cost of credit to borrowers will be modest, as the overall cost of funds to banks will not rise much. They rest their case on the famous Modigliani-Miller theorem, which implies that a company cannot alter its capital cost by changing the balance between equity and debt on its balance sheet. If there is more equity, then logically debt should be cheaper, as the company (or bank) is better insulated from default.

Bankers accept that, in the long run, the theorem might hold, but argue that it will take time, especially given recent events, to persuade investors that banks are genuinely safer….

via The Bankers’ Capital War – Howard Davies – Project Syndicate.