Stress Tests Show How Fed Pushed on Balance Sheets
The resilience of the largest U.S. financial firms when tested against a recession more severe than the last one shows regulators have succeeded in pushing banks to build fortress-like balance sheets.
The Fed yesterday said 15 of 19 banks would be able to maintain capital levels above a regulatory minimum in an “extremely adverse” economic scenario, even while continuing to pay dividends and repurchasing stock. Those results were due to scrutiny by the Fed on capital payouts over the past three years, the central bank said.
Regulators, empowered by the Dodd-Frank Act and goaded by criticism for failing to spot the subprime mortgage debacle, have redesigned their approach to bank supervision. They now place greater emphasis on systemic risk as they seek to avoid a repeat of the crisis that resulted in a $245 billion taxpayer bailout of banks through the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
“Any bank that remains adequately capitalized under these acute stress scenarios is not just strong but also darn-near impregnable,” said Karen Shaw Petrou, a managing partner at Federal Financial Analytics, a Washington research firm, whose clients have included Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) “What’s a bank for is at the heart of this question: Is it to be Fort Knox?”
JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) and Wells Fargo joined banks raising dividends and authorizing share repurchases after passing the stress tests. Citigroup Inc. (C), the lender that took the most government aid during the financial crisis, said it will resubmit its capital plan to regulators after failing to meet some minimum standards in the tests. Citigroup has repaid $45 billion in TARP money.
SunTrust Banks Inc., Ally Financial Inc. and MetLife Inc. (MET) also fell short by at least one measure under the central bank’s worst-case scenario. Ally also intends to resubmit its plan, the company said in a statement.
U.S. stocks rose for a sixth day today, pushing the Standard & Poor’s 500 index up 0.14 percent to 1,397.82 at 10:05 a.m. in New York. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.23 percent from 2.13 percent late yesterday.
The KBW Bank Index (BKX), which tracks shares of 24 of the largest U.S. banks, rose 4.6 percent yesterday. The index is up 21 percent this year on expectations of stronger economic growth and improving profits. Concern that the nation’s banks may be damaged by Europe’s debt crisis helped drive down the index 25 percent in 2011, its worst annual performance since 2008.
The Fed tested the banks to ensure that they have adequate capital to continue lending in a downturn. The test assumed an unemployment rate of 13 percent -- compared with a peak of 10 percent as a result of the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009 -- a 50 percent drop in stock prices and a 21 percent decline in house prices. It showed that those circumstances would produce aggregate losses of $534 billion over nine quarters.
Even with such a blow, the 19 banks would see their Tier 1 common capital ratio -- a measure of bank strength against loss -- fall to 6.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, above the 5 percent minimum the Fed required. The ratio was 10.1 percent in the third quarter of last year.
The fact that most of the banks came through “this very onerous stress test” demonstrates “the strength of the U.S. banking system,” Gerard Cassidy, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, said in an interview.
European banks’ reluctance to lend to one another fell yesterday to the lowest in seven months. The Euribor-OIS spread, the difference between the euro interbank offered rate and overnight indexed swaps, declined to its lowest since Aug. 5.
Banks are “much better capitalized” than during the 2008 financial crisis and “understand their balance sheet and loan portfolio much better,” said Paul Miller, a former examiner for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and analyst for FBR Capital Markets in Arlington, Virginia.
Bankers criticized the criteria the Fed used in the stress tests.
Frank Keating, president and chief executive officer of the American Bankers Association, said he objects “to testing bank capital under theoretical conditions that are far more severe than even those seen during ‘the Great Recession.’”
Ally Financial said in a statement that the central bank’s “analysis dramatically overstates potential contingent mortgage risk, especially with respect to newer vintages of loans.”
The Fed started the test and review of banks’ forward- looking capital strategy in November, saying they should have “credible plans” to meet tougher standards required by new regulations.
Banks “have sufficient capital to weather a severe storm,” said Ernest Patrikis, a partner at White & Case LLP and former general counsel at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. “One question is whether they will have too much capital.”
Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan and other executives have complained that carrying too much capital could restrict lending.
Of the $534 billion in total projected losses, $341 billion comes from loan-portfolio losses, the Fed said. Loans and trading portfolio and counterparty losses account for 85 percent of the total, the Fed said.
Six bank-holding companies with large trading, private equity and derivatives activities were also subjected to tests of these positions from a “global market shock.” The six were Citigroup, Bank of America Corp. (BAC), Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley (MS), Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) and JPMorgan Chase.
“Some banks are better positioned than others, and you’re going to see them start to steal some market share and sort of separate themselves,” said William Fitzpatrick, a Milwaukee- based financial-services analyst at Manulife Asset Management, whose team oversees $800 million and invests in companies such as Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and MetLife. “We’re going to see some separation between the winners and the ones that didn’t pass.”
The stress tests are now a standard feature of the Fed’s big-bank supervision and oversight of financial risk. The concept was born in late 2008 when Chairman Ben S. Bernanke was trying to discern the maximum losses facing the banking system following the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.
Focus on 19
The Fed’s focus on the l9 largest institutions’ capital management also reflects a wary attitude toward boards that paid out more than $43 billion in dividends as housing markets started to deteriorate in 2007, according to comments last year by Patrick Parkinson, the former director of the Fed’s Division of Banking Supervision and Regulation.
Citigroup’s proposed capital actions would leave the third- biggest bank with Tier 1 common capital of 4.9 percent, below the 5 percent minimum require by the regulators, according to yesterday’s results. Citigroup would meet the requirement only if it doesn’t change the amount of capital it returns to shareholders, the test results showed.
A senior Fed official said in a conference call with reporters that the central bank’s models showed higher estimated losses than those submitted by the banks, while declining to specify in what categories.
The results were originally due to be announced on March 15. The official said they were released early because of a possible inadvertent release of information. The official said JPMorgan Chase’s release was the result of miscommunication between the Fed and the bank, and didn’t cause the Fed’s accelerated release of the results.
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