Friday, November 27, 2015

27/11/15: More Tiers, Lower Risks, But Higher Costs: FSB Latest Solutions to Systemic Crises

The Financial Stability Board (a mega quango set up under the G20 cover to make policy recommendations aimed at assuring that Too-Big-To-Fail banks are brought under some international oversight) has recently issued its position on the bank capital shortfalls under the assessment of their balance sheets designed to ‘prevent taxpayers bailouts of lenders’.

The FSB report based on stress tests stated that big international banks operating globally will have to raise anywhere between EUR42 billion and up to as much as EUR 1.1 trillion in funding by 2022 to cover the shortfall in bailable (special) tier debt that can be written down in the case of a bank running into trouble in the future. The tests explicitly covered what is known as banks’ Total Loss Absorbing Capacity (TLAC) - debt that can be converted into equity when a bank fails, in effect forcing debt holders to shoulder the cost of bank collapse and freeing taxpayers from the need to step in. The TLAC approach to bank funding also breaks the pari passu chain of rights distribution across the banks’ liabilities, separating (at last) depositors from bondholders. (1)

In releasing its estimates for TLAC shortfall, the FSB also provided final guidance as to the levels of TLAC it expects to be held by the globally important TBTF banks: 16% of total bank risk-weighted assets by 2019, rising to 18% by 2022. (2)

To be clear, the TLAC cushion is not an iron-clad guarantee that in a future crisis, depositors’ bail-ins and taxpayers’ supports won’t ever arise. Instead, it is just a cushion, albeit at 18 percent target - a significant one. And the cost of this insurance will also be material and likely to be shared across depositors and borrowers worldwide. Current estimates show the cost of 16% hurdle for TLAC to be around 2% of total income of the largest banks, spread over roughly 4 years, this would imply that up to 1/3 of average bank interest margin can be swallowed by the accumulation of cushion. Maintenance of this cushion will also require additional costs as TLAC instruments will likely carry higher cost of funding.

In a silver-lining for Western banking groups, the hardest hit banks amongst the 30 Globally Systemically Important Banks (GSIBs) (3) FSB are four Chinese banks: Agricultural Bank of China, Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, will no longer be exempt from TLAC. These banks currently hold no senior debt liabilities that can count as a part of TLAC cushion. In total, there are 60 GSIBs covered by TLAC, but in Europe, some 6,000 smaller banks are also covered by the Minimum Requirement for Eligible Liabilities (MREL) due in January 2016.

The core point for both, the MREL and TLAC is the issue of ‘loss-absorbing capital’. While the issue has been with regulators since the end of the Global Financial Crisis (2010), there is still no clarity on the mechanics of how this concept will work in the end. Currently there are three channels through which liabilities can be subordinated (bailed-in) in case of a crisis. All relate to bank-issued debt instruments:

  1. Contractual channel for subordination: banks can issue senior subordinated debt (tier-3 debt) which ranks ahead of tier-2 debt already outstanding in case of normal crises, but is bailable in the case of a structural crisis. 
  2. Statutory channel: bank-issued debt can be subordinated by statute.
  3. Structural channel: bailable debt is issued through a holding company to be subordinated to debt issued by the bank itself.

Euromoney recently covered these channels, concluding that whilst all three channels are complex, contractual channel is the hardest to structure. It appears that FSB view is that the contractual channel is the one to be pursued. In contrast, Italian authorities have pursued statutory channel, with legislative proposal to make un-guaranteed depositors super-senior liabilities, bailable only in the last instance. German legislation currently in draft stage will make all bonds suboridinatable in the case of bank insolvency. Another case of statutory instrument that defines contractual subordination channel is Spanish regulator introduction of a legislation that will simply subordinate all tier-2 debt by creating a tier-3 debt wedged between senior and tier-2 debt. In contrast, two Swiss GSIBs - Credit Suisse and UBS - have issued at holding company bonds in 2015, opting for the structural channel to subordination. Finally, in the U.S. the Federal Reserve already applied (as of October 30, 2015) the TLAC standards, covering eight of the biggest U.S. banks, with total shortfall of long-term debt arising under TLAC rules estimated at $120 billion. On November 9, U.S. giant Wells Fargo & Co announced that it will need to issue between $40 billion and $60 billion in new debt to cover TLAC requirements, with $40 billion representing the minimum required volume.

Per Fed, U.S. GSIBs will be required to hold:

  • A long-term debt balance of 6% of their respective GSIB surcharge of risk-weighted assets or 4.5% of total leverage exposure, whichever is greater; 
  • Maintain a TLAC amount of 18% of RWAs or 9.5% of total leverage exposure, whichever is greater. 
  • Maintain sufficient high-quality assets (proposed in 2014) as well as a cushion to raise capital levels by an additional $200 billion, over and above the industry requirements. (4)

The key problem with the most functional - contractual and statutory - channels is that TLAC approach requires creation of a new tier-3 debt that has to be ‘wedged’ between current senior and tier-2 levels. And this, as noted in Euromoney article (5) can violate the pari passu clauses already written into existent bank debt.

In simple terms, the regulatory innovations aiming to address the need to break the link between the state and the banks, including for the systemically important banks, seems to continue going down the route of creating added tiers of risk absorption that improve, but not entirely remove the problem of banks-sovereign contagion. At the same time, all these innovations continue to raise the cost of running basic banking operations - costs that are likely to translate into more expensive credit and lower credit-related activities, such as capex and household investment. On long enough time frame, if successful, the new tier of bank debt can, if taken to higher ratios, displace the problem of pari passu vis-a-vis the depositors. Question is - at what cost?

(1) Some basic details are available here:, and

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