The “safety race”: the systemic implications of the bank asset grab

Anyone monitoring the risks in the global financial system knows that those of us who lend to banks are increasingly asking for some kind of security in order to do so. Issuance volumes for covered bonds have increased and more countries have recently passed covered bond laws or are in the process of debating legislation. Andrew Haldane, Executive Director for Financial Stability at the Bank of England, raised greater asset encumbrance at banks as a serious concern in a recent speech.

The speech outlines three “arms races” that banks have been or are now engaged in. One of these is a “safety race” in which investors all want to be first in the queue in case of liquidation. It is true that this “race” to the front of the queue has intensified in the past several years, but many forms of bank lending or trading have only been done on a collateralised basis for some time in the form of repo or derivatives trading with collateral posting requirements. The race for safety has only intensified as many banks have been forced to substitute collateralised central bank funding for other sources of funding that have been more difficult or too expensive to access. In the speech, the topic of pledging assets to receive central bank funds – in many countries the biggest reason for higher and higher encumbrance – is referred to. Repo, derivatives and covered bonds are not mentioned by name, but are implicitly involved in the “safety race”.

Certainly the thesis that investors are less and less willing to provide unsecured financing to the banking system is not new or controversial. That said, if you ran a poll as to the reasons investors have on balance pulled back, we strongly suspect the average investor would cite bail-in proposals and resolution regimes as being at least as important as encumbrance, since under the pre-Lehman assumption of state support the question of asset encumbrance and recovery rates didn’t really come up: the expectation (made explicit in ratings pre-crisis) was that the liquidation of systemically important banks was almost purely hypothetical.

Haldane proposes in the speech that, along with sensible macroprudential measures to curb systemic leverage and risk-taking as well as the speed of trading, regulators look to limit the amount of asset encumbrance at banks. How that sits with a central bank’s liquidity provision against collateral makes for an interesting thought experiment, but the more serious implication is that the real limits on pledging collateral could (if they emerge as policy proposals) be found in the new attempts to bring the repo market out from the shadows, which will form the subject of discussions being carried out by the FSB, EU, IOSCO and other bodies over the course of 2Q and 3Q 2012. Another area limitations may emerge is in covered bond regulations, which are constantly evolving. (Note that the US and Canada, both with longstanding deposit insurance arrangements, already limit the amount of covered bonds that banks can issue, even though neither country has a legislative covered bond framework yet.)

It’s worth thinking about whether limits on asset encumbrance actually benefit senior unsecured bank bond investors. There is at least a case to make that more of the benefits would accrue to shareholders, since leverage without asset pledges should still, all else being equal, increase returns to them, whereas senior unsecured investors, even having potentially better recovery prospects, would have to resort to pushing harder for faster implementation of the Basel III leverage ratio in order to gain protection. Current covered bond issues, at the margin, may be relatively more attractive than they already are, if there were to be a possibility of regulatory limits on issuance.

Finally, what about creditor bail-ins? Discussion continues about how this will be implemented in the EU. If it turns out that new “senior” debt, that explicitly allows write-downs, has to be issued to meet a bail-in debt requirement, it’s hard to argue that any investor would buy it without significantly more information on asset encumbrance. Investors would have to stand a chance of attempting to work out a recovery rate on their debt if they were to commit to automatic write-down in the event of resolution. The paradox is that the more serious regulators have become about bail-in, the more counterparties and lenders have grabbed collateral. The only obvious pressure valve is pricing, which makes it logically very difficult to argue that unsecured bank debt will see a significant rally in the near future.

Asset encumbrance remains a topic to watch, certainly, and it presents more evidence that bank balance sheets remain in a state of flux, so talk of a recovery in the senior unsecured market remains premature.

The value of investments will fluctuate, which will cause prices to fall as well as rise and you may not get back the original amount you invested. Past performance is not a guide to future performance.

Jeff Spencer

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