Friday, September 24, 2010

Basel and Canadian Banks

Embedded contingent capital. This may sound like a term from another planet, but it is a model which may become the reality for our banks. The Basel Committee listened to Canadian advice and now considers implementing this new regulatory feature in a hope to help preserve the stability of the world’s banks. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said he was “pleased” Canada’s advice was being seriously considered.

The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision was created in 1974. This institution which unites the ten nations’ central bank governors. The committee gathers four times a year to discuss recommendations, guidelines and best practices that the members and other states should implement in their home legal system. The committee’s decisions do not directly influence the national markets, yet they are mostly obeyed since uniform law helps ensure that multinational banks are not required to use their own compliance management, which decreases the operating costs.

These new proposed rules redefine the accounting principles regarding banks’ debt, Financial Times reported. Under usual circumstances, debt (whether in the form of bonds or loans) is accounted for as a liability of the bank towards its creditors. Creditors have an advantage over shareholders: in case a company goes bankrupt, creditors are satisfied before any owners. In addition, the debtor-creditor relationship is traditionally more systematic and the creditor can expect to recoup back the face value of the debt at the end of the lending term. Regular debt is therefore safer than equity and thus cheaper too.

In the future, banks could make use of the option of transforming some of their debt to equity if another financial crisis strikes. Such a conversion will have to be ordered by the federal government and will allow banks to expand their capital levels instantly. More capital should allow the bank to withstand for a longer time – hopefully during the whole of the crisis. Therefore, the term “embedded contingent capital” is defined as capital embedded in the bank’s debt and contingent upon the financial situation of the bank or the entire economy. The government must initiate and approve the transformation.

In addition to improved banking sector stability, the newly proposed rules are meant to provoke greater scrutiny of investors and lenders over the performance of the bank and lending practices. As the effect of the greater risk they are facing, lenders will have an incentive to monitor their banks, the Basel Committee thinks.

But is it really that important of an argument? LSM Insurance argues that greater incentives are a positive notion. But will they be backed by appropriate legislation ensuring heightened transparency of the banking operations so that there are tools for investors to actually observe their banks effectively? Plus, even today, investors are interested in the well-being of their banks. The change may add additional pairs of eyes interested in the matter, but the added benefit is still debatable.

LSM Insurance believes that the major implication of this upcoming law for the banks themselves will be their ability to acquire financing in an extra way that is cheaper than equity but a bit more expensive than regular debt. That is if they can find a market to sell it to.

Debt in the form of loans and bonds normally obliges the debtors to pay back in regular agreed upon instalments – annuities – according to an agreed-upon payment schedule. The face value of the debt is always paid back to the lender when the debt matures. Equity, on the other hand, implies ownership, including voting and other rights. The disadvantage is that it is up to the company’s management to set the dividends, or whether there are any at all. What is more, shareowners cannot expect the face value of their investment to be returned at the end of the term and the only way they can recoup the money they invested is to re-sell their equity to another investor.

If Canadian banks find a way to take advantage this borrowing facility “of the third kind”, their cost of capital will increase. In return, they will have an interesting safety measure in place to resort to in case worse comes to worst. Of course, there must be a market and means of valuation for such an instrument, which is still a large question mark in a market as small as the Canadian one Nevertheless, the banks seem to expect that the hassle is going to be worth it eventually. The reassuring factor is that this feature can only be applied upon federal government approval and is not the decision of the banks themselves.

According to Reuters, the banks in Canada say they are ready to embrace the new rules. From their current position, they want to continue in their successful post-crisis growth. Banks and analysts are forecasting acquisitions and mergers in Canada and abroad. Our banks will want to expand their presence especially in the European and US markets.

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