Productivity Commission takes a swipe at banking regulators

From Clancy Yeates at The Age:

The Productivity Commission last month took aim at speed limits imposed on lending to property investors in 2014, and 2017 caps on interest-only lending, saying the policies were a “blunt intervention with detrimental effects on market competition”.

The commission’s draft report on competition in finance said regulators were putting too much emphasis on stability, and argued the watchdog’s loan caps had boosted big bank profits while making it harder for smaller banks to compete….

Bank regulators are “putting too much emphasis on stability” ??

I thought April 1st was next week.

Australia: APRA capitulates to Big Four banks

From Clancy Yeates at The Age:

Quelling investor fears over moves to strengthen the financial system, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority on Wednesday said major banks would have until 2020 to increase their levels of top-tier capital by about 1 percentage point, to 10.5 per cent.

The target was much more favourable to banks than some analyst predictions, with some bank watchers in recent months warning lenders may need to raise large amounts of equity or cut dividends to satisfy APRA’s long-running push for “unquestionably strong” banks.

Markets are now confident banks will hit APRA’s target, estimated to require about $8 billion in extra capital from the big four, through retained earnings or by selling new shares through their dividend reinvestment plans…..

“The scenario where banks had to raise significant capital appears to be off the table for now,” said managing partner at Arnhem Asset Management, Mark Nathan.

Mr Nathan said the banks’ highly prized dividends also looked “safer”, though were not likely to increase. National Australia Bank and Westpac in particular have high dividend payout ratios, which could put dividends at risk from other factors, such as a rise in bad debts……

APRA’s chair Wayne Byres said the changes could be achieved in an “orderly” way, and the new target would lower the need for any future taxpayer support for banks.

“APRA’s objective in establishing unquestionably strong capital requirements is to establish a banking system that can readily withstand periods of adversity without jeopardising its core function of financial intermediation for the Australian community,” he said.

APRA chairman Wayne Byres used the words “lower the need for any future taxpayer support.” Not “remove the need…..” That means banks are not “unquestionably strong” and taxpayers are still on the hook.

A capital ratio of 10.5% sounds reasonable but the devil is in the detail. Tier 1 Capital includes convertible (hybrid) debt and risk-weighted assets are a poor reflection of total credit exposure, including only that portion of assets that banks consider to be at risk.

Recent bailout experiences in Europe revealed regulators reluctant to convert hybrid capital, included in Tier 1, because of fears of panicking financial markets.

Take Commonwealth Bank (Capital Adequacy and Risks Disclosures as at 31 March 2017) as a local example.

The Tier 1 Capital Ratio is 11.6% while Common Equity Tier 1 Capital (CET1), ignoring hybrids, is more than 17% lower at 9.6%.

But CBA risk-weighted assets of $430 billion also significantly understate total credit exposure of $1,012 billion.

The real acid-test is the leverage ratio which compares CET1 to total credit exposure. For Commonwealth this works out at just over 4.0%. How can that be described as “unquestionably strong”?

Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari conducted a study last year in the US and concluded that banks need a leverage ratio of at least 15% to avoid future bailouts. Even higher if they are considered too-big-to-fail.

APRA fiddles while housing risks grow

From Westpac today (emphasis added):

….With the Reserve Bank sharing our caution around 2018, along with ample capacity in the labour market (unemployment rate is 5.9% compared to full employment rate of 5.0%) and stubbornly low wages growth, there is only scope to cut rates. But as we have argued consistently, a resurgent housing market disallows such a policy option. Indeed, the minutes refer to “a build- up of risks associated with the housing market”. A tighter macro prudential stance seems appropriate.

Indeed, as we go to press, APRA has announced new controls, restricting the “flow of new interest-only lending to 30 per cent of total new residential mortgage lending” with a particular focus on limiting interest only loans with a loan-to-value ratio [LVR] above 80%. Currently, “interest-only terms represent nearly 40 per cent of the stock of residential mortgage lending by ADIs”, so this policy will restrict the terms at which a marginal borrower can access credit (investors and owner-occupiers). APRA also noted that they want banks to manage growth in investor credit to “comfortably remain below the previously advised benchmark of 10 per cent growth”. This is not a hard change to the target as had been mooted recently in the press (some suggesting the 10% limit could be as much as halved), but it does suggest lending to investors will continue to grow at a pace meaningfully below 10%. Looking ahead, the next RBA Stability Review (April 13) may provide more clarity on the macro prudential policy outlook and potential triggers for further action. For the time being though, the 2015 experience offers an understanding of the potential impact of this further tightening.

To head off a potential bubble burst, the RBA and APRA need to drastically slow house price growth. I am sure the big four banks are urging caution but they would be the worst hit by a meltdown. What APRA is doing is fiddling around the margins. To make housing investors think twice about further borrowing, APRA needs to cut the maximum LVR to 70%. And half that for foreign borrowers.

APRA waves wet lettuce at bank offshore funding | MacroBusiness

From Leith van Onselen at Macrobusiness:

…..the banks’ reliance on offshore funding hit an unprecedented 54% of GDP in the December quarter:

As always, the key risk is that the banks’ ability to continue borrowing from offshore rests with foreigners’ willingness to continue extending them credit. This willingness will be tested in the event that Australia’s sovereign credit rating is downgraded (automatically downgrading the banks’ credit ratings), there is another global shock, or a sharp deterioration in the Australian economy (raising Australia’s risk premia).

The Federal Budget, too, is now hostage to the banks’ offshore borrowing binge as it cannot borrow to spend on infrastructure or other initiatives for fear that Australia will lose its AAA credit rating, potentially leading to an unraveling of the private debt bubble created by Australia’s banks.

That APRA could stand by and allow the banks’ to borrow externally like drunken sailors is a hallmark of regulatory failure.

One in four dollars of bank assets is funded by offshore borrowing. A precarious position even for a stable economy (like Ireland?), let alone one hitched to the boom and bust commodity cycle. Smacks of moral hazard by the banks.

Source: APRA waves wet lettuce at bank offshore funding – MacroBusiness

CBA, ANZ, NAB and Westpac: The incredible shrinking big four banks | afr.com

Great article by Chris Joye:

Welcome to the world of that beautiful $140 billion behemoth, the Commonwealth Bank, which has inverted the axiom that there is a trade-off between risk and return. Years ago I highlighted a perversion embedded at the heart of our financial system: the supposedly lowest (highest) risk banks were producing the highest (lowest) returns. Normally it works the other way around.

…..contrary to some optimistic reports, the capital-raising game has only just begun.

The terrific news for shareholders is that this belated deleveraging will transform the majors into some of the safest banks in the world, which will be able to comfortably withstand a 1991-style recession, exacerbated by a 20 per cent decline in house prices.

In the past I have been critical of APRA’s failure to properly police Australia’s vastly-undercapitalized banking system but must now give them credit for their leadership towards creating a world-class system that will be able to withstand serious endogenous or exogenous economic shocks.

Shareholders face lower returns from reduced leverage but will benefit from improved valuations due to lower risk premiums and stronger, more stable, long-term growth.

Read more at CBA, ANZ, NAB and Westpac: The incredible shrinking big four banks | afr.com.

APRA confirms further capital adequacy measures

From Robin Christie:

The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) has confirmed that the country’s largest banks will face increased capital adequacy requirements for residential mortgage exposures – and hasn’t ruled out further rises.

The regulator made it clear yesterday that the new rules would be an interim measure based on the Financial System Inquiry’s (FSI) recommendations – and that it was keenly awaiting guidance from the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision before making any further changes.

The new measures, which come into effect on 1 July 2016, mandate that authorised deposit-taking institutions (ADIs) that are accredited to use the internal ratings-based (IRB) approach to credit risk must increase their average risk weight on Australian residential mortgage exposures to at least 25 per cent. According to APRA, the current average risk weight figure sits at around 16 per cent….

This is a welcome first step. Increases in bank capital will improve economic stability. Even at 25 percent, however, a capital ratio of 10% would mean that banks are holding 2.5 percent capital against residential mortgages. Further increases over time will be necessary.

Read more at APRA hints at further capital adequacy measures.

APRA considers two per cent capital adequacy increase

by Robin Christie | 14 Jul 2015

The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) has stated that the major banks would need to increase their capital adequacy ratios by at least two per cent to meet Financial System Inquiry (FSI) recommendations.

APRA has been comparing the capital position of the Australian major banks against a group of international counterparts, and the results of this study, released today, have led to the two per cent figure being mooted.

The study was implemented as a direct response to the FSI final report’s first recommendation, that APRA should “set capital standards such that Australian authorised deposit-taking institution [ADI] capital ratios are unquestionably strong”. This would mean making sure that Australian ADIs sit in the top quartile of internationally-active banks in capital adequacy terms.

….the statement adds that APRA is committed to ensuring that any capital adequacy requirement improvements occur “in an orderly manner”. This process would take into account Australian ADIs’ ability to manage the impact of any changes “without undue disruption to their business plans”.

While APRA hasn’t made a decision on whether it will go as far as mandating a two per cent increase in capital adequacy ratios…. it has stated that Australian ADIs should be well placed to accommodate its directives over the next few years – “provided they take sensible opportunities to accumulate capital”.

Bear in mind that capital adequacy ratios are measured against risk-weighted assets, where asset values are adjusted for the perceived risk of default. Australian banks have historically used risk weightings as low as 15% for residential mortgages compared to 50% in the US. That means that a bank with a capital ratio of 10% would only hold 1.5% capital against residential mortgages. And a 2% increase, to a capital ratio of 12%, would only increase capital cover to 1.8%. Revision of risk weightings is more important than an increase in the capital ratio, especially given Australia’s precarious property market.

Read more at APRA considers two per cent capital adequacy increase.

Big banks may need $41b more capital, UBS says

From Chris Joye at AFR:

UBS’s more likely scenario of a 3 per cent TBTF capital buffer combined with an increase in the average mortgage risk weight to 25 per cent gives a total capital shortfall of $41.1 billion for the majors.

Risk-weightings, especially for residential mortgages are coming under increased scrutiny. The big four banks have a major advantage in this area, employing risk-weightings as low as 15% to 20% based on their historical record of low defaults. But that history includes a credit boom lasting more than 2 decades which fueled an unprecedented rise in housing prices and is unlikely to be repeated in the future.

APRA alluded to this problem in its second FSI submission:

..APRA also highlighted the problem with the major banks’ predicting their own probabilities of defaults on home loans in the absence of a recession in 23 years and the much lower levels of housing leverage in 1991.“The Basel Committee is currently reviewing the validity and reliability of risk weights generated under the IRB approach [used by the majors] in response to studies showing that the variability … is much greater than could be explained by differences in underlying risks,” APRA said.

Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked. ~ Warren Buffett

Read more at Big banks may need $41b more capital, UBS says.

Australia’s Major Banks Say The Murray Enquiry Used The Wrong Numbers… | Business Insider

From Greg McKenna:

The AFR reports ….the Australian Bankers Association CEO Steven Munchenberg said the banks are “concerned that if some of the statements in the interim report – that Australia’s capital is middle of the road, that housing is a ­systemic risk – are allowed to remain unchallenged and are then taken out of context that is going to cause us a lot of future grief”.

Munchenberg says the Inquiry hasn’t calculated the capital ratios correctly.

“The approach was simplified and didn’t take into account the complexities and nuances of how capital is determined in Australia, including deductions required by APRA and some of the areas where APRA has adopted a more conservative approach, and as a result underestimated the amount of capital in Australia relative to overseas”, he told the AFR.

Forget the nuances and comparisons to the plight of other banks. Australian banks need to almost double their capital and adopt a more conservative approach to home mortgage lending if they are to withstand future shocks. 3 to 5 percent capital against total exposure doesn’t get you very far. The history of low mortgage failures over the last 3 decades, in an expansionary phase of the credit market, is unlikely to be repeated during a contraction.

Read more at Australia's Major Banks Say The Murray Enquiry Used The Wrong Numbers To Calculate Capital | Business Insider.

World wakes to APRA paralysis | Macrobusiness

Posted by Houses & Holes:

Bloomberg has a penetrating piece today hammering RBA/APRA complacency on house prices, which will be read far and wide in global markets (as well as MB is!):

Central banks from Scandinavia to the U.K. to New Zealand are sounding the alarm about soaring mortgage debt and trying to curb risky lending. In Australia, where borrowing is surging, regulators are just watching.

Australia has the third-most overvalued housing market on a price-to-income basis, after Belgium and Canada, according to the International Monetary Fund. The average home price in the nation’s eight major cities rose 16 percent as of June 30 from a May 2012 trough, the RP Data-Rismark Home Value Index showed.

“There’s definitely room for caps on lending,” said Martin North, Sydney-based principal at researcherDigital Finance Analytics. “Global house price indices are all showing Australia is close to the top, and the RBA has been too myopic in adjusting to what’s been going on in the housing market.”

Australian regulators are hesitant to impose nation-wide rules as only some markets have seen strong price growth, said Kieran Davies, chief economist at Barclays Plc in Sydney.

…“The RBA’s probably got at the back of its mind that we’re only in the early stages of the adjustment in the mining sector,” Davies said. “Mining investment still has a long way to fall, and also the job losses to flow from that. So to some extent, the house price growth is a necessary evil.”

…The RBA, in response to an e-mailed request for comment, referred to speeches and papers by Head of Financial Stability Luci Ellis.

…The RBA and APRA have acknowledged potential benefits of loan limits “but at this stage they don’t believe that this type of policy action is necessary,” said David Ellis, a Sydney-based analyst at Morningstar Inc. “If the housing market was out of control and if loan growth, particularly investor credit, grew exponentially then it’d be introduced.”

What do you call this, David:

ScreenHunter_3294 Jul. 14 11.51

Reproduced with kind permission from Macrobusiness

APRA: Australian banking system ‘more sound’

Interesting choice of words:

[Australian Prudential Regulation Authority chairman John Laker] said the Australian banking system was more sound than it was five or six years ago.

“We know that because we managed to negotiate the financial crisis without the fallout for our financial systems,” he said.

“The banking sector is holding more capital, it’s holding higher quality capital, it is holding more liquid assets.”

What he did not say is that Australian banks are financially sound and holding enough capital — and we are unlikely to hear that before banks double their current “improved” capital and leverage ratios.

Read more at Housing bubble worries 'alarmist': RBA | Business Spectator.

Bloated business of banking | The Australian

Adam Creighton discusses the likelihood of taxpayers being asked to bail out too-big-to-fail banks.

In Australia that probability is now 100 per cent. Standard & Poor’s, a ratings agency, gives Australia’s biggest four banks a AA rating explicitly because taxpayers will provide “extraordinary support” to their creditors in any crisis, an implicit guarantee worth more than one-quarter of the four’s annual profits.

Since 1995, the big four Australian banks’ assets, reflecting a global trend, have ballooned from 94 per cent of Australia’s national income to $2.86 trillion, or 190 per cent.

Read more at Bloated business of banking | The Australian.

Australian banks: Who’s been swimming naked?

Margot Patrick at WSJ reports that the Bank of England is enforcing a new “leverage ratio” rule:

Top U.K. banks regulator Andrew Bailey told lawmakers that the requirement for banks to hold at least 3% equity against total assets “is a sensible minimum,” and that those who fall short must act quickly, but without cutting their lending to households and businesses.

The Bank of England’s Prudential Regulation Authority on June 20 said Barclays and mutual lender Nationwide Building Society don’t meet the standard and gave them 10 days to submit plans for achieving it.

I hope that their Australian counterpart APRA are following developments closely. Both UK and Australian banks are particularly vulnerable because of their over-priced housing markets. And while the big four Australian banks’ capital ratios appear comfortably above 10 percent, these rely on risk-weightings of 15% to 20% for residential mortgages.

Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked. ~ Warren Buffett

Read more at BOE: Barclays, Nationwide Must Boost Capital – WSJ.com.

Barclays’ threat on lending under fire | FT.com

Anne-Sylvaine Chassany at FT writes of the UK’s Prudential Regulation Authority:

The PRA irked banks when it included a 3 per cent leverage ratio target in its assessment of UK lenders’ capital health. It identified shortfalls at Barclays and Nationwide, the UK’s largest building society, which have projected leverage ratios of 2.5 per cent and 2 per cent respectively under PRA tests.

Outrageous isn’t it? That banks should be asked to maintain a minimum share capital of three percent against their lending exposure — to protect the British taxpayer from future bailouts. My view is that the bar should be set at 5 percent, although this would have to be phased-in over an extended period to prevent disruption.

I hope that APRA is following developments closely. The big four Australian banks are also likely to be caught a little short.

Read more at Barclays’ threat on lending under fire – FT.com.

Are Australian banks really sound?

Business Spectator reports:

In a statement APRA chairman John Laker said that, in implementing the Basel III liquidity reforms, the authority’s objectives were to improve its ability to assess and monitor ADIs’ liquidity risk and strengthen the resilience of the Australian banking system.

“APRA believes ADIs are well-placed to meet the new liquidity requirements on the original timetable and doing so will send a strong message about the soundness of the Australian banking system,” he said.

If you repeat misinformation often enough, people will believe it is true. Australian banks face two risks: liquidity risk and solvency risk. Addressing liquidity risk does not address solvency risk. Australian banks report risk-weighted capital ratios which are misleading if not downright dangerous. Risk-weighting encourages banks to concentrate exposure in areas historically perceived as low risk, such as residential mortgages. When all banks are over-weight the same asset, the risk profile changes — as Eurozone banks discovered with government bonds.

If we remove risk-weighting, as proposed in the US Brown-Vitter bill, the four majors in Australia would have capital ratios of 3 to 4 percent. Not much of a capital buffer in these uncertain times.

Australia: Did APRA assume a bailout in its stress test?

Houses and Holes at Macrobusiness.com.au makes an important point regarding the Australian mortgage insurance sector towards the end of this article:

Stress Test

John Laker, head of APRA, is out today with a speech in which he announced the results of a recent APRA stress test of Australian banks. Here is the scenario and the results:

The ‘what if’ scenario was built around a further deterioration of global economic conditions, with a disorderly resolution of the fiscal problems in Europe triggering a dislocation in global debt markets and a sharp downturn in the North Atlantic economies. China is assumed to be unable to fully offset the decline in its exports with domestic spending and, as a result, the rate of growth of the Chinese economy slows sharply. The implied reduction in Chinese demand for minerals lowers commodity prices significantly, with a consequent deterioration in the exchange rate for the Australian dollar. Domestically, households and businesses respond to the external shock by reducing consumption and investment expenditure. As a result, GDP falls and unemployment rises substantially, which feeds back into rising defaults and sharp falls in house prices and commercial property prices.

In this scenario, the key macroeconomic parameters for Australia used as the basis for the stress test were:

  • a sharp (5 per cent) contraction in real GDP in the first year;
  • a rapid rise in the unemployment rate to a peak of 12 per cent;
  • a peak-to-trough fall in house prices of 35 per cent; and
  • a fall in commercial property prices of 40 per cent.

This is a tougher stress test than the one APRA undertook in 2010. The projected economic contraction is deeper and more prolonged, with a weaker recovery and a longer period before return to growth. The rise in unemployment is higher and the impact on the housing market therefore more pronounced; there is a greater peak-to-trough fall in house prices. This time, the stress test also addressed liquidity consequences. The dislocation in global debt markets results in the largest banks being unable to access global funding markets for six months. The consequence is more intense competition for deposit funding and an increase in funding costs, weighing on lending margins and acting as a drag on revenues.

Remember, this is a hypothetical. It is in no way a forecast or a central expectation for the course of the Australian economy. Rather, the stress test was intended to test the boundaries of ‘severe but plausible’, especially given the current relatively strong position of the Australian economy. Benchmarked against recent industry-wide stress tests in other countries, the severity is confirmed by the fact that the GDP shock is more than four standard deviations based on the annual volatility of GDP in Australia since 1960; the shock was one-to-three standard deviations in other major tests. As a test of plausibility, the macroeconomic scenario would be comparable with the actual experience of the United Kingdom, United States and some European countries during the global financial crisis.

Although the macroeconomic scenario was tougher than in the 2010 exercise, the actual mechanics of the stress test were largely the same. The advanced banks were asked to apply the macroeconomic scenario in their own models and provide their assessment, in quite granular detail, of the impact on the ratings migration of assets, default behaviour, profitability and capital. After analysing this information, APRA then determined a common set of portfolio-specific risk measures that were applied to the banks’ loan portfolios.

Reflecting the severity of the scenario, the advanced banks all reported significant losses, driven by much higher bad debt expenses. Credit loss rates in aggregate were comparable with the experience in the early 1990s, although not quite as high as the peaks then reached. As expected, total losses were larger than in the 2010 exercise.

Despite the deterioration in labour market conditions and the projected stress on the housing market, residential mortgages, which account for nearly half of the advanced banks’ credit exposures, contributed only a fifth of total losses. The mortgage portfolio alone was not the principal driver of losses, a reflection of the structure of the domestic mortgage market as well as the general tightening in lending standards following the crisis. Losses were realised across a range of loan portfolios, particularly corporate, SME and commercial property portfolios. Losses on these business portfolios were more front loaded, materialising earlier in the scenario than losses on residential mortgage portfolios, which tended to lag the increase in unemployment.

The main results of the stress test for the five advanced banks, taken as a group, are as follows:

  • none of the banks would have failed under the downturn macroecnomic scenario;
  • none of the banks would have breached the four per cent minimum Tier 1 capital requirement of the Basel II Framework in any year of the stress test;
  • and the weighted average reduction in Tier 1 capital ratios over the three-year stress period was 3.8 percentage points.

This is a very positive result. It reflects the efforts of the advanced banks to strengthen their Tier 1 capital positions since the crisis began through ordinary equity issues and profit retention. It leaves these banks well positioned to transition to the new Basel III capital regime.

Well…bonza! But just one question. What did the stress test assume about the Lenders Mortgage Insurance sector (LMIs)? They are those hapless gents sitting on wafer thin capital buffers but carrying the risk of all the banks’ riskiest mortgages.

If the APRA stress test assumed a smooth and uninterrupted flow of payouts for losses from the LMIs to the banks then it also assumed their defacto nationalisation. In reality, under extreme stress, there is a very serious risk is that the LMIs will be wiped out and their relationships with the banks will descend into legal chaos as the two parties aim to survive at the cost of one another. You may recall that the biggest losers on Wall St in the GFC were insurers (think AIG), not banks.

In short, in the kind of scenario painted by APRA, it is quite possible that the government would have to step in and the post-nationalised LMIs would continue to pump a river of public cash into the banks via a backdoor bailout (ala AIG in the US).

So, if we are to take this excellent stress test result seriously, we really need to know what APRA assumed about the LMIs. Hmm?

Reproduced with thanks to Houses and Holes at Macrobusiness.com.au