Global regulators force banks to hold more capital

Banks will have to more than triple the capital they hold in reserve, under new rules agreed to prevent another international credit crisis.

BASEL // Global regulators, aiming to prevent any repeat of the international credit crisis, have agreed to force banks to more than triple the amount of top-quality capital they must hold in reserve. The biggest change to global banking regulation in decades, known as "Basel III", will require banks to hold top-quality capital totalling 7 per cent of their risk-bearing assets, up from just 2 per cent under current rules.

The rules may oblige banks to raise hundreds of billions of dollars of fresh capital over the next decade. Germany's banking association, for example, has estimated its 10 biggest banks may need 105 billion euros (Dh493bn) of additional capital. But to ease the burden on banks and financial markets, regulators gave the banks transition periods to comply with the rules. These periods, extending in some cases to January 2019 or later, are longer than many bankers originally expected.

"The agreements reached today are a fundamental strengthening of global capital standards," European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet said. "Their contribution to long-term financial stability and growth will be substantial." Regulators hope the changes will push banks towards less risky business strategies and ensure they have enough reserves to withstand financial shocks without needing taxpayer bailouts.

But banks say the new requirements could reduce the amount of money they have available to lend out to companies, slowing economic growth in Europe and the United States as those regions recover from the credit crisis. Under Basel III, banks will to hold top-quality capital - known as "core Tier 1" capital, and consisting of equity or retained earnings - worth at least 4.5 percent of assets. They will also have to build a new, separate "capital conservation buffer" of common equity; this will be 2.5 per cent of assets, bringing the total top-quality capital requirement to 7 per cent. If they draw down the buffer, they will face curbs on the bonuses and dividends which they can pay out.

Another provision of Basel III, sharply criticised by some banks, will require them to build a separate "countercyclical buffer" of between zero and 2.5 per cent when the credit markets are booming. National regulators will decide when economies have entered such periods of "excess aggregate credit growth". They hope the buffer will slow lending when credit markets threaten to overheat, preventing dangerous bubbles from forming.

Although banks did not get their way on countercyclical buffers, they did appear to succeed in convincing regulators to provide generous transition periods. The Tier 1 capital rule will take full effect from January 2015, with the capital conservation buffer phased in between January 2016 and January 2019. Some analysts said this showed regulators were caving in to the banks. "The phasing-in period for the new capital requirements is surprisingly long, which will add to the scepticism about the robustness of the bank capital enhancement efforts," Mohamed El-Erian, co-chief investment officer of bond investment giant PIMCO, told Reuters.

The Basel III agreement was reached in Switzerland by central bank governors and top supervisors from 27 countries, after a year of horse-trading and lobbying that involved banks and governments seeking to protect their national interests. * Reuters