Friday, March 26, 2010

Why Canada's banks did better (it's not a good model)

"It is true that during 2008 four of all Canada's major banks managed to earn a profit, all five were profitable in 2009, and none required an explicit taxpayer bailout.  In fact, there were no bank collapses in Canada even during the Great Depression, and in recent years there have only been two small bank failures in the entire country. 

Advocates for a Canadian-type banking system argue this success is the outcome of industry structure and strong regulation.  The CEOs of Canada's five banks work literally within a few hundred meters of each other in downtown Toronto.  This makes it easy to monitor banks.  They also have smart-sounding requirements imposed by the government:  if you take out a loan over 80% of a home's value, then you must take out mortgage insurance.  The banks were required to keep at least 7% tier one capital, and they had a leverage restriction so that total assets relative to equity (and capital) was limited.

But is it really true that such constraints necessarily make banks safer, even in Canada? 

Despite supposedly tougher regulation and similar leverage limits on paper, Canadian banks were actually significantly more leveraged – and therefore more risky – than well-run American commercial banks.  For example JP Morgan was 13 times leveraged at the end of 2008, and Wells Fargo was 11 times leveraged.  Canada's five largest banks averaged 19 times leveraged, with the largest bank, Royal Bank of Canada, 23 times leveraged.   It is a similar story for tier one capital (with a higher number being safer):  JP Morgan had 10.9% percent at end 2008 while Royal Bank of Canada had just 9% percent.  JP Morgan and other US banks also typically had more tangible common equity – another measure of the buffer against losses – than did Canadian Banks. 

If Canadian banks were more leveraged and less capitalized, did something else make their assets safer?  The answer is yes – guarantees provided by the government of Canada.  Today over half of Canadian mortgages are effectively guaranteed by the government, with banks paying a low price to insure the mortgages.  Virtually all mortgages where the loan to value ratio is greater than 80% are guaranteed indirectly or directly by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (i.e., the government takes the risk of the riskiest assets – nice deal if you can get it).  The system works well for banks; they originate mortgages, then pass on the risk to government agencies.  The US, of course, had Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but lending standards slipped and those agencies could not resist a plunge into assets more risky than prime mortgages.  Let's see how long Canada resists that temptation.

The other systemic strength of the Canadian system is camaraderie between the regulators, the Bank of Canada, and the individual banks.  This oligopoly means banks can make profits in rough times – they can charge higher prices to customers and can raise funds more cheaply, in part due to the knowledge that no politician would dare bankrupt them.  During the height of the crisis in February 2009, the CEO of Toronto Dominion Bank brazenly pitched investors: "Maybe not explicitly, but what are the chances that TD Bank is not going to be bailed out if it did something stupid?"  In other words:  don't bother looking at how dumb or smart we are, the Canadian government is there to make sure creditors never lose a cent. With such ready access to taxpayer bailouts, Canadian banks need little capital, they naturally make large profit margins, and they can raise money even if they act badly."

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