A Problem of Unstressful US Bank Stress Tests

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 5/04/2023 04:35:00 PM

 Each day brings news of a distressed US bank about to take leave for the Great Central Bank In the Sky. Aren't US banks supposed to be safer now with the advent of greater macroprudential regulation? A common way to gauge the soundness of banks is through the use of stress tests that simulate how these financial institutions would fare in the wake of financial, well, stress. While Americans bicker about whether the 2019 loophole exempting midsize banks holding between $100 to $250 billion in assets from stress testing led to their currently precarious situation, even that may not have saved them.

Comparatively speaking, stress tests conducted Stateside may not be sufficiently rigorous in simulating scenarios that are detrimental to financial sustainability. It is fairly obvious that the higher rates we have these days are causing mismatches between what banks earn and what they must pay out. Oddly, however, recent US stress tests have not involved rising but rather falling interest rates. See the illustration above and commentary from the Peterson Institute:

But it’s not only for 2023 that this feature appears. Indeed, every severely adverse scenario used by the Fed since 2015 has the 3-month Treasury bill rate ending up at 0.1 percent. Many historic episodes of severe economic downturn have indeed been accompanied by low interest rates, as the Fed used its policy tools to support aggregate demand. But it is a bit strange that not since 2015 has a stress test involved rising interest rates.

One of the advantages of stress testing the banks every year is that their robustness to a variety of contrasting stresses can be assessed. Just repeating a broadly similar scenario year after year misses the opportunity to provide supervisors with potentially important information on vulnerabilities. It can also result in policymakers assuming that the banks are robust to more types of shock than is really the case.

Yet pointlessly repeating a broadly similar scenario each year is exactly what the Fed has been doing, as we can show here.

Have other regulatory authorities been administering stress tests as lax and unrealistic as American ones? Thankfully for the rest of the world, the answer is no. The European Central Bank--and remember that Switzerland is not an ECB member for those thinking of a certain defunct bank--has done its homework by simulating interest rate rises just as we are experiencing now:

Overall, our [ECB]  analysis shows that the euro area banking sector would remain broadly resilient to a variety of interest rate shocks. That would hold also under a baseline scenario of an economic slowdown in 2023 with the risk of a shallow recession, such as the scenario included in the December 2022 Eurosystem staff macroeconomic projections. Profitability would increase overall, driven by [higher] net interest income. However, provisions would also increase, reflecting potential difficulties for borrowers. Results for the overall impact on solvency remain on average fairly muted with great heterogeneity across banks, within and across different business models

The same hold true for Australian banks. Down under, their stress tests have likewise gamed out the implications of higher interest rates:

Higher inflation and higher interest rates could lead to larger credit losses despite continued, albeit slower, economic growth. The stress testing model can provide insights into the magnitude of potential credit losses and how important they could be for the capital positions of large and mid-sized banks. The model applies two principal stresses to examine the resilience of the banking system to higher inflation and interest rates:

  1. Higher inflation and higher interest rates on mortgages squeeze households’ real incomes, making it more difficult to service debt, which could lead to more defaults and larger credit losses for banks. Similarly, higher input costs and higher interest rates passed onto business loans can make it more difficult for businesses to service their debts, potentially leading to higher default rates (see ‘Chapter 2: Household and Business Finances in Australia’).
  2. Higher interest rates typically reduce the prices of housing and commercial property that are held as collateral by banks against their loans, which increases LGDs as well as PDs on loans.  

Having conducted these sorts of tests well before 2023, Australian banks look to be on firming footing.

While we hope that contagion does not spread to the Eurozone and the land down under, it certainly bears questioning why US stress tests did not involve scenarios involving deteriorating financial conditions due to sustained central bank rate rises in the face of persistently elevated inflation. While the subject matter can come across as esoteric, such things do impact Joe Average since taxpayers will ultimately foot the bill for cleaning up the mess caused by unstressful stress tests giving false comfort to financial authorities about the soundness of banks they regulate.  

UPDATE 1: Also see Krishna Guha's commentary in the FT. He warns that while the ECB did conduct asset side stress tests (e.g., holding low-yielding securities), it did not test how vulnerable Eurozone banks were to depositor flight like what has happened Stateside. That said, European depositors tend not to move their money around.

UPDATE 2: Former Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation chief Sheila Bair says the same thing about the latest batch of stress tests that banks passed: They did not model rising interest rates.

The Trials and Tribulations of Friendshoring

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 5/03/2023 06:19:00 PM
US election sees China bashing by both parties - Global Times
At least Chinese state media's take on the topic is obvious.

Puns on the term "offshoring"--moving one's production facilities abroad, or having foreign-based concerns manufacture components for you--have proliferated. Some time thereafter came the term "reshoring" to denote moving back production to where something was once manufactured. (A US firm moving its plant back to America from China would be the most obvious example.) 

Now we have the slightly more convoluted term "friendshoring" care of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Like reshoring, friendshoring concerns moving production to locales more favorable to the company in question. For instance, if you had a plant in China, you may be moving it to Mexico to avoid Communist Party persecution of foreign firms through discriminatory regulation. Hence, both reshoring and friendshoring concern moving business activities to where authorities are more favorably disposed. However, the difference is that while reshoring is moving production back to where something was once made, friendshoring does not presume moving back, and the destination can be anyplace where authorities are amicable. That is, your risk of being put out of business by some Western-hating foreign autocrat is mitigated.

Or is it? There are a number of viewpoints out there regarding whether friendshoring is actually beneficial. The consulting firm Korn Ferry cautions that this practice may instead create enemies among countries you have chosen to leave. It boils down to the extent to which companies want to involve themselves in international politics:

“Friend-shoring can be extremely risky,” says Tom Wrobleski, co-leader of Korn Ferry's Supply Chain Talent Optimization practice. “You’re picking sides and can unintentionally forge bad blood with other countries.” In the long term, this could backfire if the country your company relies on—for lithium for batteries, say, or precious metals for computer chips—feels alienated...

The puzzle grows still more complicated when it’s infused with values and politics, says Wrobleski, who says these considerations play an important role in the decision-making process. “There must be balance between political alignment and the actual reason for doing business in a particular country,” says Wrobleski. 

Speaking of politics, the Wall Street Journal adds that the wider effect of firms choosing sides by classifying the world into friends and foes through their location decisions could result in the fragmentation of global supply chains. "Unfriendly" countries may feel antagonized and choose to keep to themselves more. In so doing, key commodities and burgeoning markets that were previously open for business may become increasingly unavailable.  This situation may partly explain the higher inflation being experienced worldwide nowadays. In economic jargon, diminished global economic integration increases trade frictions and therefore the ease and cost of doing business worldwide. 

Weighing matters, Raghuram Rajan urges us to "just say no" to friendshoring. Insofar as many poor countries are led by authoritarian figures who may come across as business unfriendly to Western firms, development may be hampered:

The benefits [of trade between rich and poor countries] are obvious. Final products are significantly less expensive, so even the poorest people in rich countries can buy them. At the same time, developing countries participate in the production process, using their most valuable resource: Low-cost labour. As their workers gain skills, their own manufacturers move to more sophisticated production processes, climbing the value chain. As workers’ incomes rise, they buy more rich-country products...

If any forthcoming friend-shoring mandates were to apply such a broad categorisation, they would have devastating effects on international trade. After all, friend-shoring will typically mean trading with countries that have similar values and institutions; and that, in practice, will mean transacting only with countries at similar levels of development...

The benefits of a global supply chain stem precisely from the fact that it involves countries with very different income levels, allowing each to bring its comparative advantage to the production process, PhD researchers from one, for example, and unskilled assembly-line workers from another. Friend-shoring would tend to eliminate this dynamic, thereby increasing production costs and consumer prices. While some labor unions would welcome the reduced competition, the rest of us would regret it.

On top of diminished trade benefits, Rajan reiterates that friendshoring may encourage protectionism among those being discriminated against. What is a global supply chain manager to do? I'll have more to say about this topic in the future, but for now, it's safe to say that each company will need to weight the benefits of more predictable supply chains with likely costlier production in friendlier locations and the potential loss of market access to aggrieved "unfriendly" countries. 

PS: If you have doubt the admittedly unwieldy term "friendshoring" is real, the IMF is already observing greater FDI among geopolitically aligned countries. The IMF further estimates potentially large efficiency losses due to this phenomenon.