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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

Big US banks look secure but fragility may lie beneath surface

If lenders disburse much more than they have been, they will start chipping away at the bedrock of the financial system

Jerome Powell, chairman of the US Federal Reserve. While big US banks have passed the Fed's stress tests, caution should be the order of the day. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Jerome Powell, chairman of the US Federal Reserve. While big US banks have passed the Fed's stress tests, caution should be the order of the day. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The largest US banks have just cleared the first hurdle of this year’s Federal Reserve stress tests, demonstrating that they have enough loss-absorbing capital to survive a hypothetical crisis.

Now, investors are waiting to hear how much of that capital the banks will be allowed to pay out in the form of dividends and stock buybacks.

They should be careful what they wish for. If banks disburse much more than they have been, they will start chipping away at the bedrock of the financial system.

For the second year in a row, US banks passed the tests with flying colours. The Fed presented them with a worst-case scenario that included 10 per cent unemployment and a 65 per cent stock-market decline, and they all made it through without breaching regulatory minimum capital levels.

In this week’s second round, the Fed will assess the banks’ capital plans and decide how much it will allow them to spend on dividends and stock buybacks. Amid the Trump administration’s regulatory rollback - which includes proposals to make the tests less stressful - analysts expect total payouts to increase 25 percent over last year, by about $30 billion.

Such largess would be unwise, for at least two reasons.

First, banks are more fragile than the stress tests suggest. On average, the largest US institutions have about $7 in equity for each $100 in mortgages, corporate loans and other assets (according to international accounting standards) - not enough to cover what they were projected to lose on loans and securities in the midst of the last crisis.

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It’s also less than half what economists at the Minneapolis Fed estimate they would need to lower bailout risk to an acceptable level. The tests miss this because they don’t take into account important aspects of real crises, such as the way trouble suffered by counterparties can amplify banks’ losses.

Second, banks are already returning almost all their earnings to shareholders. In the 12 months through March, the eight most systemically important US banks spent 95 per cent of their normalised income, or more than $100bn, on dividends and stock buybacks. Instead of paying out more at this point in the business cycle, it would be more prudent to build up equity capital to prepare for the inevitable downturn.

The Fed has been known to have trouble striking the right balance between keeping investors happy and protecting the financial system. In 2008, just before the government was forced to step in and rescue troubled banks, it allowed them to pay out tens of billions of dollars in dividends.

It must act more responsibly this time around.

Bloomberg