Friday, January 18, 2013

Relying on financial models to set loan-loss reserves could hurt small banks and their customers

Bank Reform Takes One Flawed Step Forward. By Eugene A Ludwig and Paul A Volcker
Relying on financial models to set loan-loss reserves could hurt small banks and their customers.The Wall Street Journal
January 18, 2013, on page A15

The Financial Accounting Standards Board finished 2012 on a high note, issuing a draft new rule to change the way banks build reserves against losses on loans. It is a major step forward from our current system. Still, FASB's proposed rule is flawed conceptually and in its application, and in itself it cannot achieve the international consistency that is desirable.

The good news: The board recognizes that its existing rules on the Allocation for Loan and Lease Losses may have worsened the 2008 financial crisis. These rules limited bank reserves to those that are already "incurred." This all but ensures that banks' rainy day funds will be too skinny, particularly in periods when credit markets are under stress. Worse yet, limiting loss estimates to events that have already occurred makes the allowance for loan and lease losses procyclical—reported earnings are too high in good times and losses hit hardest in bad times.

The FASB's draft proposal to reform these rules incorporates what is known as the "Current Expected Credit Loss Model." It is meant to expand reserves to reflect losses that are expected over the life of the loan, and it is a big improvement over the existing regime. But as it stands, the proposal could create risks for the financial system.

In an effort to ensure that everything is "auditable," the proposal ties the loan-loss reserve to what the accounting profession will decide is an acceptable "model." While the proposal is well-intentioned and makes clear that various models can be used, this model-driven approach is dangerous.

Modeling by its very nature is backward looking. It would push bankers to address only risks that are readily and historically quantifiable. It would discourage them from acting on forward-looking but less well-defined risks, like broader economic trends, that can be just as damaging.

A focus on modeling also unnecessarily favors large institutions. Banks with smaller loan books and more hands-on experience have some advantages when setting their reserves. But what community bank has a sufficient data set, a team of "modelers," or complex statistical analysis software on hand? The FASB proposal could hurt small banks and their customers.

That is not to say that some quantitative models have no place in establishing reserves. Some institutions may choose to use models, even slavishly. But this should not be a requirement, unless experience and judgment lead the bank's prudential regulator to think otherwise.

There are other ways to go about setting reserves. A bank can follow a rigorous, board-approved process, for example by drawing on well-documented reviews from its CEO, chief credit officer, and the credit committee of the board of directors. The assumptions used in these judgmental reviews can be audited by regulators and outside accountants, and implementation of the process itself can be audited. This approach can be honest and effective without relying entirely on mathematical models.

The FASB proposal may have at least one smaller-scale but serious flaw. Although the text is unclear, the proposal appears to base reserves on cash flows above all other credit factors, such as collateral. We understand that this is not what was intended, and that "cash flows" is meant to include monies derived from collateral liquidation too. If this is the case, the language should be clarified.

While we do believe it is critical to allow bankers to use their expertise in estimating losses for reserve purposes, we also believe it is critical that they disclose to regulators and the public both the methodology they employ to set reserves and the quarter-by-quarter decisions on reserves they actually make. That way investors can follow a bank's net revenue picture before and after loan reserves are set aside, and the methods they use to establish these reserves.

It would be highly desirable to have one international rule in this area, as with accounting standards in the financial services area generally. The International Accounting Standards Board is preparing a new standard for bank reserves. Both the FASB and the IASB approaches will be open to comment. The goal should be to achieve consistency along the broad lines opened by the FASB proposal.

In sum, the FASB's draft proposal is a positive step. But it will require revision so that small banks are not put at a disadvantage, and so that all banks can employ rational and effective methods to set aside their rainy day funds.

Mr. Ludwig, CEO of Promontory Financial Group, was comptroller of the currency from 1993 to 1998. Mr. Volcker was chairman of the Federal Reserve System from 1979-1987.