Bank Capital Redux: Solvency, Liquidity, and Crisis
By Òscar Jordà (Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and University of California Davis), Bjorn Richter (University of Bonn), Moritz Schularick (University of Bonn) and Alan M. Taylor (University of California Davis).
Abstract: Higher capital ratios are unlikely to prevent a financial crisis. This is empirically true both for the entire history of advanced economies between 1870 and 2013 and for the post-WW2 period, and holds both within and between countries. We reach this startling conclusion using newly collected data on the liability side of banks’ balance sheets in 17 countries. A solvency indicator, the capital ratio has no value as a crisis predictor; but we find that liquidity indicators such as the loan-to-deposit ratio and the share of non-deposit funding do signal financial fragility, although they add little predictive power relative to that of credit growth on the asset side of the balance sheet. However, higher capital buffers have social benefits in terms of macro-stability: recoveries from financial crisis recessions are much quicker with higher bank capital.
Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2017-05-07
Review by Tony Gandy (London Institute of Banking and Finance)
In 1990-1991 I started a new job, having nearly completed my PhD (which I fully admit I took longer than it should). I joined The Banker, part of the Financial Times group, and proceeded to cover bank statistics, research and bank technology (the latter being a bit of a hobby). Thanks to the fine work of my predecessor, Dr. James Alexander, we had been through a statistical revolution and had revamped our Top 1000 listings of the world’s biggest banks, moving to a ranking based on capital rather than assets. This was the zeitgeist of the moment; what counted was capital, an indicator of capacity to lend and absorb losses. We then also ranked banks by the ratio of loss absorbing capital to total assets to show which were the “strongest” banks. We were modeling this on the progress made by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision in refocusing banking resilience on to this important ratio, so called capital adequacy and the acknowledging the development and launch of the original Basel Accord.
All well and good, the role of capital was to absorb losses. It seemed on the face of it, that whichever bank had the most capital, and which ever could show the best capital adequacy ratio was clearly the most robust, prudent and advanced manager of risk and the one able to take on more business.
As the years progressed, Basel 1.5, II, 2.5, III and, arguably, IV have each added to or detracted from the value of capital as a guide to robustness. However, the principle still seemed to stand that, if you had a very large proportion of capital, you could absorb greater losses making the bank and the wider economic system more robust. Yes, OK there were weaknesses. Under the original Accord, only the only risk being worries about was credit risk and in only a very rudimentary way. This seemed odd given that one of the events which led to the Basel Accord was the failure and subsequent market meltdown caused by the failure of Bankhaus Herstatt  (Goodhart 2011), but it was hard to see how that was in isolation a credit event. Nevertheless, through all the subsequent crises and reforms to the Basel Accords, the principle that a higher proportion of quality capital to assets held by a bank was a good thing.
Jordà, Richter, Schularick and Taylor challenge the assumption that greater capital adequacy can deflect crisis, though they do find that higher initial capital ratios have a great benefit in the post crisis environment. In this working paper, Jordà et al. create a data set focusing on the liability side of bank balance sheets covering a tight definition of Common Equity Tier 1 capital (paid up capital, retained profit and disclosed reserves), deposits and non-core funding (wholesale funding). This is a powerful collection of numbers. They have collated this data for 14 advanced economies from 1870 through to 2013 and for three others for a slightly shorter period.
One note is that it would have been interesting to see a little more detail on the sources of the data used. Journal papers and academic contributions are acknowledged throughout, but other sources are covered by “journal papers, central bank publications, historical yearbooks from statistical offices, as well as archived annual reports from individual banks”. Bank statistics can be a complex area, some sources have sometimes got their definitions wrong (one annual listing of bank capital had an erratum which was nearly as long as the original listings, not mine I hasten to add and maybe my memory, as a rival to that publication, somewhat exaggerates!), so a little more detail would be useful. Also, further discussion of the nature of disclosed reserves would be interesting as one of the key concerns of bank watchers in the past has been the tendency of banks to not disclose reserves or their purposes.
Jordà et al.’s findings are stark. Firstly, and least surprisingly, bank leverage has greatly increased. The average bank capital ratio in the dataset shows that in early period it hovered at around 30% of unadjusted assets, falling to 10% in the post war years and more recently hovering around 5-10%.
Next, they consider the relevance of capital adequacy as a protection for banks and a predictor of a banking system’s robustness; does a high, prudent, level of capital reduce the chances of a financial crisis? The authors note the traditional arguments that higher levels of capital could indicate a robust banking system able to absorb unexpected losses and thus reducing the chance of a financial crisis, but also note that high capital levels could equally indicate a banking system taking greater risks and therefore needing greater amounts of capital to survive the risks. They find no statistical link between higher capital ratios and lower risk of systemic financial crisis, indeed, they find limited evidence that it could be the reverse. It’s worth noting a second time: Increasing capital ratios do not indicate a lower risk of a financial crisis
The authors do note, however, that high levels and rapidly increasing loan-to-deposit ratios are a significant indicator of future financial distress. Clearly, funding a bubble is a bad idea, though it can be hard to resist.
However, capital can have a positive role. The paper finds that systems which start with higher levels of leverage (and consequently lower capital ratios) will find recovery after a crisis harder as banks struggle to maintain solvency and liquidate assets at a greater rate. Thus, while a high capital adequacy ratio may not be a protection against a systemic crisis, it can provide some insight into the performance of an economy after a crunch as banks with higher capital ratios may not face the same pressure to sell and further deflate asset prices and economic activity. Therefore, capital can have a positive role!
I won’t pretend to understand fully the statistical analysis presented in this paper, however, while many, including those at the Basel Committee, have recognised the folly of tackling only prudential control through a purely credit risk-focus on capital adequacy and have introduced new liquidity, leverage and scenario planning structure to deflect other routes to crisis. Nevertheless, Jordà et al. provide a vital insight into what is still the very core of the prudential control regime: the value, or not, of capital in providing protection to banks and banking systems. Its role may not be what we expected, its value being in a post-crisis environment and not a pre-crisis environment where higher requirements could have been expected to head-off problems. Instead they find that it is credit booms and indicators of them, such as rapidly rising Loan to Deposit ratios which are better indicators of looming crisis, and capital is more relevant to making brief the impact of an unravelling bubble.
On a more practical note, this fascinating paper offer those who teach prudential regulation to bankers or students a wealth of data and challenges to consider, a welcome resource indeed.
 The other main response was the more appropriate formation of the first netting services and then the Continuously Linked Settlement Bank as a method of improving operations to remove the risk which became known as “Herstatt Risk”.
Goodhart, Charles (2011) The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision: a history of the early years, 1974–1997. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK