By: Tom Hannagan
Much of the blame for the credit disaster of 2007 and 2008 has been laid at the risk management desks of the largest banks. A silver lining in the historic financial disaster of today may be the new level of interest in management of risk — particularly, of the relationship between capital and risk. Financial institutions of all sizes must measure and monitor their risk-based capital for three critical reasons.
First, equity capital represents the ownership interest in a bank. Although a relatively small portion of the balance sheet, equity capital is the part that actually belongs to a bank’s owners. Everything else on the liability side is owed to depositors or lenders. All of the bank’s activities and assets are levered against the funds contributed by the equity investors. This leverage is roughly 10-to-1 for most commercial banks in the United States. For the five major investment banks, this risk-based leverage reached 30-to-1. Their capital base, even with new infusions, could not cover their losses. It is necessary and just good business sense to regularly let the owners know what’s going on as it relates to their piece of the pie—their invested funds. Owners want to know the bank is doing things well with their at-risk funds. Banks have a duty to tell them.
Second, equity capital is by far the most expensive source of all funding. Transaction deposit funds are usually paid an effective rate of interest that is lower than short-to-intermediate-term market rates. Time depositors are competitively paid as little as possible based on the term and size of their commitment of funds. Most banks are able to borrow overnight funds at short-term market rates and longer-term funds at relatively economical AA or A ratings. Equity holders, however, have historically received (and typically expect) substantially more in the way of return on investment. Their total returns, including dividends, buybacks and enhanced market value, are usually double to triple the cost of other intermediate-to-long-term sources of funds. From a cost perspective, equity capital is the dearest funding the bank will ever obtain.
This brings us to the third reason for measuring and monitoring capital: the risk factor. A very large portion of banking regulation focuses on capital sufficiency because it directly affects a bank’s (and the banking industry’s) continued solvency. Equity capital is the last element of cushion that protects the bank from insolvency. Although it is relatively expensive, sufficient equity capital is absolutely required to start a bank and necessary to keep the bank in good stead with regulators, customers and others. Equity holders are usually conscious of the fact that they are last in line in the event of liquidation. There is no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) for them, no specific assets earmarked to back their funding and no seniority associated with their invested money. We all know what “last in line” means for most shareholders if a failure occurs — 100 percent loss.
There is a clear and direct relationship between equity risk and cost—and between equity risk and expected return. It is now more important for bank executives to monitor and measure their organization’s activities based on the relative risk of those activities and based on the equity capital required to support those risks. This means using return on equity (ROE) a lot more and return on assets (ROA) a lot less. Because of the critical need and high cost of risk-based equity and the various risks associated with the business of banking, decisions about the effective deployment of capital always have been the primary responsibility of bank leaders. Now, the rest of the world is focusing more on how well, or poorly, management of risk has been done.
I’ll comment on using ROE more in later posts.