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April 2, 2013

Regulators Let Big Banks Look Safer Than They Are

“The recent Senate report on the J.P. Morgan Chase “London Whale” trading debacle revealed emails, telephone conversations and other evidence of how Chase managers manipulated their internal risk models to boost the bank’s regulatory capital ratios. Risk models are common and certainly not illegal. Nevertheless, their use in bolstering a bank’s capital ratios can give the public a false sense of security about the stability of the nation’s largest financial institutions.

“Capital ratios (also called capital adequacy ratios) reflect the percentage of a bank’s assets that are funded with equity and are a key barometer of the institution’s financial strength—they measure the bank’s ability to absorb losses and still remain solvent. This should be a simple measure, but it isn’t. That’s because regulators allow banks to use a process called “risk weighting,” which allows them to raise their capital ratios by characterizing the assets they hold as “low risk.”

“For instance, as part of the Federal Reserve’s recent stress test, the Bank of America reported to the Federal Reserve that its capital ratio is 11.4%. But that was a measure of the bank’s common equity as a percentage of the assets it holds as weighted by their risk—which is much less than the value of these assets according to accounting rules. Take out the risk-weighting adjustment, and its capital ratio falls to 7.8%.

“On average, the three big universal banking companies (J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup) risk-weight their assets at only 55% of their total assets. For every trillion dollars in accounting assets, these megabanks calculate their capital ratio as if the assets represented only $550 billion of risk.”

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Read Sheila Bair’s full Wall Street Journal opinion piece here

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