Banks need more capital

Started by sajiv, Dec 25, 2008, 01:35 AM

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GLOBAL financial intermediation is broken. That intricate and interdependent system directing the world's saving into productive capital investment was severely weakened in August 2007. The disclosure that highly leveraged financial institutions were holding toxic securitised American subprime mortgages shocked market participants. For a year, banks struggled to respond to investor demands for larger capital cushions. But the effort fell short and in the wake of the Lehman Brothers default on September 15th 2008, the system cracked. Banks, fearful of their own solvency, all but stopped lending. Issuance of corporate bonds, commercial paper and a wide variety of other financial products largely ceased. Credit-financed economic activity was brought to a virtual standstill. The world faced a major financial crisis.

For decades, holders of the liabilities of banks in the United States had felt secure with the protection of a modest equity-capital cushion, allowing banks to lend freely. As recently as the summer of 2006, with average book capital at 10%, a federal agency noted that "more than 99% of all insured institutions met or exceeded the requirements of the highest regulatory capital standards."

Today, fearful investors clearly require a far larger capital cushion to lend, unsecured, to any financial intermediary. When bank book capital finally adjusts to current market imperatives, it may well reach its highest levels in 75 years, at least temporarily . It is not a stretch to infer that these heightened levels will be the basis of a new regulatory system.

The three-month LIBOR/Overnight Index Swap (OIS) spread, a measure of market perceptions of potential bank insolvency and thus of extra capital needs, rose from a long-standing ten basis points in the summer of 2007 to 90 points by that autumn. Though elevated, the LIBOR/OIS spread appeared range-bound for about a year up to mid-September 2008. The Lehman default, however, drove LIBOR/OIS up markedly. It reached a riveting 364 basis points on October 10th.

The passage by Congress of the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Programme (TARP) on October 3rd eased, but did not erase, the post-Lehman surge in LIBOR/OIS. The spread apparently stalled in mid-November and remains worryingly high.

How much extra capital, both private and sovereign, will investors require of banks and other intermediaries to conclude that they are not at significant risk in holding financial institutions' deposits or debt, a precondition to solving the crisis?

The insertion, last month, of $250 billion of equity into American banks through TARP (a two-percentage-point addition to capital-asset ratios) halved the post-Lehman surge of the LIBOR/OIS spread. Assuming modest further write-offs, simple linear extrapolation would suggest that another $250 billion would bring the spread back to near its pre-crisis norm. This arithmetic would imply that investors now require 14% capital rather than the 10% of mid-2006. Such linear calculations, of course, can only be very rough approximations. But recent data do suggest that, while helpful, the Treasury's $250 billion goes only partway towards the levels required to support renewed lending.