The Federal Reserve‘s second round of stress tests requires the 19 largest U.S. banks to examine their capital levels against a worst-possible-case scenario of another recession with the unemployment rate hovering above 8.9 percent. The banks were instructed to test how their loans, securities, earnings, and capital performed when compared with at least three possible economic outcomes as part of a broad capital-planning exercise. The banks, including some seeking to increase dividends cut during the financial crisis, submitted their plans in January. The Fed will complete its review in March.
“They’re essentially saying, ‘Before you start returning capital to shareholders, let’s make sure banks’ capital bases are strong enough to withstand a double-dip scenario,’” said Jonathan Hatcher, a credit strategist at New York-based Jefferies Group Inc. Regulators don’t want to see banks “come crawling back for help later,” he said.
The review “allows our supervisors to compare the progress made by each firm in developing a rigorous internal analysis of its capital needs, with its own idiosyncratic characteristics and risks, as well as to see how the firms would fare under a standardized adverse scenario developed by our economists,” Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo said. Although Fed policymakers aren’t predicting another slump any time soon, they want banks to be prepared for one. In January, the Federal Open Market Committee forecast a growth rate of 3.4 percent or more annually over the next three years, with the jobless rate falling to between 6.8 percent and 7.2 percent by the 4th quarter of 2013. Unemployment averaged 9.6 percent in the 4th quarter of 2010.
The new round of stress tests are being overseen by a financial-risk unit known as the Large Institution Supervision Coordinating Committee (LISCC). The unit relies on the Fed’s economists, quantitative researchers, regulatory experts and forecasters and examines risks across the financial system. Last year, the LISCC helped Ben Bernanke respond to an emerging liquidity crisis faced by European banks. “The current review of firms’ capital plans is another step forward in our approach to supervision of the largest banking organizations,” Tarullo said. “It has also served as an occasion for discussion in the LISCC of the overall state of the industry and key issues faced by banking organizations.”
At the same time, Bernanke expressed his support for the Dodd-Frank Act, which will add new layers of regulation to the financial services industry, as well as the Consumer Protection Act. “Dodd-Frank is a major step forward for financial regulation in the United States,” Bernanke said, noting that the Fed is moving swiftly to implement its provisions. Additionally, the Fed wants banks to think about how the Dodd-Frank Act might affect earnings, and how they will meet stricter international capital guidelines. Banks will have to determine how many faulty mortgages investors may ask them to take back into their portfolios. Standard & Poor’s estimates that mortgage buybacks could carry a $60 billion bill to be paid by the banking industry.
In the meantime, the big banks are feeling adequately cash rich to pay dividends to their stockholders. Bank of America’s CEO Brian T. Moynihan said that he expects to “modestly increase” dividends in the 2nd half of 2011. “We’d love to raise the dividend,” James Rohr, CEO of PNC, said. ”We’re hopeful of hearing back in March from the regulators.” JPMorgan CFO Douglas Braunstein told investors that the bank asked regulators for permission to increase the dividend to 30 percent of normalized earnings over time. Braunstein said that JPMorgan’s own stress scenario was more severe than the Fed’s, and assumed that the GDP fell more than four percent through the 3rd quarter of this year with unemployment peaking at 11.7 percent.
Clive Crook, a senior editor of The Atlantic, a columnist for National Journal, and a commentator for the Financial Times, believes that United States fiscal policy itself merits examination. Writing in The Atlantic, Crook says that “Fiscal policy needs a hypothetical stress test, just like bank capital. Let’s be optimistic and suppose that the deficit projections do hold, and that a debt ratio of 80 percent can be comfortably supported at full employment. What happens when we enter the next recession with debt at that level? Assume another really serious downturn, and another 30-odd percentage points of debt. Worried yet? That’s why the problem won’t wait another ten years, and why sort-of-stabilizing at 80 percent won’t do.”