New Proposed Guidance on Stress Testing for Banks

Yesterday, the Office for the Comptroller of the Currency (”OCC”), the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (”FDIC”) issued proposed guidance for banking institutions to create a robust stress testing framework to adequately assess potential risks. The largest financial institutions have been subject to direct stress testing during the financial crisis in association with the administration of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (”TARP”). This new guidance formally outlines requirements for a broader population of institutions, specifically those with $10 billion or more in assets. According to the guidance, all banks of this size should structure their framework in the following manner.

“….. a banking organization’s stress testing framework should include, but are not limited to, augmenting risk identification and measurement; estimating business line revenues and losses and informing business line strategies; identifying vulnerabilities and assessing their potential impact; assessing capital adequacy and enhancing capital planning; assessing liquidity adequacy and informing contingency funding plans; contributing to strategic planning; enabling senior management to better integrate strategy, risk management, and capital and liquidity planning decisions; and assisting with recovery planning.”

While this guidance does not explicitly meet the requirements of section 165(i) of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act for non-bank companies, the OCC, Federal Reserve and FDIC plan to issue rules consistent with this guidance for those companies. So, this serves as a preview of what is to come. Public commentary on this proposed guidance is requested by June 29, 2011.

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Too Much Risk

Yesterday, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission conducted a hearing to examine the failure of Bear Stearns in 2008.  The theme of the testimony by Bear Stearns was that there was too much risk in the broker-dealer’s capital structure. Here is what the Wall Street Journal reported.

Former Bear Stearns Chief Executive Officer James Cayne said Wednesday that his firm’s risk level was too high in the year before it collapsed. “That was the business,” Mr. Cayne told a hearing held by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a congressional panel scrutinizing the financial crisis. “That was really industry practice. In retrospect, in hindsight, I would say leverage was too high.” Commission Chairman Phil Angelides said Bear Stearns was leveraged at a ratio of 38 to 1, sometimes as high as 42 to 1, and held $46 billion in exposure to mortgages. “How is that model sustainable in the event of any market disruption of significance?” he asked.

The simple answer to Chairman Angelides’ question is that the model is not sustainable at that level of leverage. The problem is that in 2004 the SEC allowed firms like Bear Stearns to increase leverage from a prior limit of 12 to 1 to much higher levels.  So, the government can also look to itself when seeking to place blame for the market collapse.

Preparing for the Inevitable Rise in Rates

Last week, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (“FFIEC”) issued an advisory to all U.S. financial institutions to prepare for the inevitable rise in interest rates.  Specifically, they provided recommendations for the proper management of market risk or interest rate risk (“IRR”).  Here is a summary of their expectations.

Current financial market and economic conditions present significant risk management challenges to institutions of all sizes. For a number of institutions, increased loan losses and sharp declines in the values of some securities portfolios are placing downward pressure on capital and earnings. In this challenging environment, funding longer-term assets with shorter-term liabilities can generate earnings, but also poses risks to an institution’s capital and earnings.  This advisory re-emphasizes the importance of effective corporate governance, policies and procedures, risk measuring and monitoring systems, stress testing, and internal controls related to the IRR exposures of institutions. It also clarifies various elements of existing guidance and describes selected IRR management techniques used by effective risk managers.

The regulators are certainly concerned about financial institutions becoming complacent due to the historically low funding rates.  In addition, they surely do not want to be criticized again for working to prevent problems that will inevitably occur as part of any business cycle.  Financial institutions of all sizes will be wise to address these recommendations sooner rather than later.  Wheelhouse Advisors can help.  Visit www.WheelhouseAdvisors.com to learn more.