Updates from Chicago Booth

Why the big banks aren’t safe yet
By Haresh Sapra – The next financial crisis will not come from the traditional banking sector. So goes conventional thinking among financial policy makers. The world’s biggest banks are now safer, according to the narrative, thanks to stricter capital requirements and frequent stress tests that have curbed the appetite for extreme risk and tightened up lax regulatory standards.

I wish I were completely reassured. But as an accountant, I know that the headline capital numbers result from a subjective calculation. Banking regulators typically spend too little time digging into how those figures are calculated. I also know that when the US financial system is healthy, as it is now, we should strive to do better at accounting for potential losses, because that might cushion the blow when the inevitable downturn arrives.

To be sure, the big banks have all passed the Federal Reserve’s stress tests with flying colors. And this reflects substantial increases in capital buffers: the 35 banks that underwent 2018’s stress test have added about $800 billion in the highest quality type of capital over the past decade, according to the Fed. The central bank has deemed that the banks would therefore be strong enough to continue lending if the economy were to plunge into another severe downturn.

But I am not the only observer who remains concerned. In a speech to Americans for Financial Reform in May, Georgetown’s Daniel Tarullo, who was a Fed governor from 2009 to 2017, questioned the robustness of the stress tests. Banks know what regulators are looking for, Tarullo observed, enabling them to “find clever ways to reshape their assets,” thereby reducing their capital levels without reducing their risk exposures. And he also cast doubt on a Fed proposal to create a “stress capital buffer” to stop banks from running down their capital cushions by using dividend payments. Such a buffer, Tarullo argued, could actually prompt banks to take on even more risk. more>

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