3. Leverage in the financial sector

Current debt levels point to financial-sector resilience

The banking sector is well capitalized, in part due to the regulatory reforms enacted after the financial crisis. However, several large banks have announced plans to distribute capital to their shareholders in excess of expected earnings, implying that capital at those banks will decrease. In addition, the outlook for profitability of a range of financial institutions has weakened. (See the box "The Recent Decline in Interest Rates and Implications for Financial Stability.") Leverage at hedge funds stands near the top of its range since 2014. Leverage at life insurance companies has also risen but remains close to its average level over the past two decades. Broker-dealers as well as property and casualty insurance companies continue to operate with historically low levels of leverage.

To gauge the sizes of the types of financial institutions discussed in this section, table 3 shows the levels of their total assets over the past year and past two decades.

Table 3. Size of Selected Sectors of the Financial System, by Types of Institutions and Vehicles
Item Total assets (billions of dollars) Growth,2018:Q2–2019:Q2 (percent) Average annual growth, 1997–2019:Q2 (percent)
Banks and credit unions 19,506 3.1 5.7
Mutual funds 16,670 3.7 10.2
Insurance companies 10,730 6.3 6.1
Life 8,149 5.9 6.2
Property and casualty 2,581 7.3 5.8
Hedge funds* 7,593 4.8 7.2
Broker-dealers 3,487 11.1 5.1
  Outstanding (billions of dollars)    
Securitization 10,402 3.0 5.4
Agency 9,243 3.4 5.9
Non-agency** 1,159 − .3 3.0

Note: The data extend through 2019:Q2. Growth rates are measured from Q2 of the year immediately preceding the period through Q2 of the final year of the period. Life insurance companies' assets include both general and separate account assets.

* Hedge fund data start in 2013:Q4 and are updated through 2018:Q4.

** Non-agency securitization excludes securitized credit held on balance sheets of banks and finance companies.

Source: Federal Reserve Board, Statistical Release Z.1, "Financial Accounts of the United States"; Federal Reserve Board staff calculations based on Securities and Exchange Commission, Form PF, Reporting Form for Investment Advisers to Private Funds and Certain Commodity Pool Operators and Commodity Trading Advisors.

The Recent Decline in Interest Rates and Implications for Financial Stability

In line with sovereign yields globally, yields on U.S. Treasury securities have declined substantially over the past year, in part reflecting decisions by the Federal Open Market Committee designed to keep the U.S. economy strong. However, yields at longer maturities have fallen more than those at some shorter maturities. Market equity-to-book ratios for some financial intermediaries have fallen over recent quarters. If interest rates were to remain low for a prolonged period, the profitability of banks, insurers, and other financial intermediaries could come under stress and spur reach-for-yield behavior, thereby increasing the vulnerability of the financial sector to subsequent shocks.

To be sure, the profitability of banks is currently strong. However, the fall in long-term interest rates has the potential to compress net interest margins and thus weaken the profitability of banks. The interest rates that banks earn on loans are typically set at a spread over an interest rate benchmark and are therefore likely to come down as benchmark rates decline. By contrast, the interest rates that banks pay to depositors are already quite low and unlikely to decline much further. Taken together, falling loan rates and largely unchanged deposit rates could compress the net interest income of banks. Moreover, the pressures on profitability among banks could encourage reach-for-yield behavior, including an erosion of lending standards and an increased willingness to extend credit to firms with weaker balance sheets and households with lower credit ratings.

A decrease in interest rates can also weaken the profitability outlook for life insurance companies by affecting both their assets and their liabilities. Life insurance companies hold asset portfolios of long-term fixed-income securities to back the stream of payments on even longer-term insurance liabilities. Falling interest rates tend to induce policyholders to surrender their contracts less frequently because new policies will likely offer lower rates than existing policies. In addition, low rates can reduce the yield insurers earn on their assets, as higher-yielding assets gradually mature and are replaced with lower-yielding ones.

Low interest rates may also increase risk-taking among some financial institutions. In addition to the pressures on banks and insurance companies, low interest rates could affect pension funds and other institutional investors who offer pre-specified returns for policyholders that are significantly higher than the general level of interest rates. In order to meet the specified yield, these asset managers may hold riskier investment portfolios, which are expected to generate higher returns. Furthermore, this decision could artificially increase the price of risky assets.

While vulnerabilities related to low interest rates have the potential to grow, thus calling for caution and continued monitoring, so far, the financial system appears resilient.

Banks are well capitalized

Tangible capital at large banks—a measure of bank equity that excludes goodwill—changed little in 2019, and regulatory capital ratios stayed well above their required minimum levels (figure 3-1 and figure 3-2). Solvency risk at the largest banks appears to have remained low, and the results of the most recent stress test, released in June 2019, indicated that these banks are well positioned to continue lending to households and businesses even in the event of a severe global recession.10 Nonetheless, recent declines in interest rates have dimmed the outlook for bank profitability. In addition, in recent discussions with investors, several large banks announced regulatory capital targets 1 to 2 percentage points below their current levels.

3-1. Ratio of Tangible Bank Equity to Assets
Figure 3-1. Ratio of Tangible Bank Equity to Assets
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Bank equity is total equity capital net of preferred equity and intangible assets, and assets are total assets. The data are seasonally adjusted by Board staff. G-SIBs are global systemically important U.S. banks. Large non–G-SIBs are bank holding companies (BHCs) and intermediate holding companies (IHCs) with greater than $100 billion in total assets that are not G-SIBs. The shaded bars indicate periods of business recession as defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research: July 1990–March 1991, March 2001–November 2001 and December 2007–June 2009.

Source: Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council, Call Report Form FFIEC 031, Consolidated Reports of Condition and Income for a Bank with Domestic and Foreign Offices.

3-2. Common Equity Tier 1 Ratio of Banks
Figure 3-2. Common Equity Tier 1 Ratio of Banks
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The data are seasonally adjusted by Board staff. Before 2014:Q1, the numerator of the common equity Tier 1 ratio is Tier 1 common capital for advanced-approaches bank holding companies (BHCs) and intermediate holding companies (IHCs) (before 2015:Q1, for non-advanced-approaches BHCs). Afterward, the numerator is common equity Tier 1 capital. G-SIBs are global systemically important U.S. banks. Large non–G-SIBs are BHCs, and IHCs wwith greater than $100 billion in total assets that are not G-SIBs. The denominator is risk-weighted assets. The shaded bars indicate periods of business recession as defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research: March 2001–November 2001 and December 2007–June 2009.

Source: Federal Reserve Board, Form FR Y-9C, Consolidated Financial Statements for Holding Companies.

Overall, credit quality of bank loans remains strong, although there is some evidence of increased risk-taking by banks. Data from the July and October 2019 SLOOS indicate that large banks eased standards and terms on commercial and industrial (C&I) loans to large and middle-market firms in the second quarter and left standards unchanged in the third quarter of 2019 (figure 3-3). Lending standards for these loans have remained on the easier end of their range since 2005 according to data from the July 2019 SLOOS. Meanwhile, leverage increased at firms that obtain C&I loans from the largest banks, reflecting the overall upward trend in business leverage in recent years (figure 3-4).

3-3. Change in Bank Lending Standards for C&I Loans
Figure 3-3. Change in Bank Lending Standards for C&I Loans
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Banks' responses are weighted by their commercial and industrial (C&I) loan market shares. Survey respondents to the Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey on Bank Lending Practices are asked about the changes over the quarter. Results are shown for loans to large and medium-sized firms. The shaded bars indicate periods of business recession as defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research: March 2001–November 2001 and December 2007–June 2009.

Source: Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council, Consolidated Reports of Condition and Income (Call Report).

3-4. Borrower Leverage for Bank C&I Loans
Figure 3-4. Borrower Leverage for Bank C&I Loans
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Weighted median leverage of nonfinancial firms that borrow using commercial and industrial (C&I) loans from the 26 banks that have filed in every quarter since 2013:Q1. Leverage is measured as the ratio of the book value of total debt to the book value of total assets of the borrower, as reported by the lender, and the median is weighted by committed amounts.

Source: Federal Reserve Board, Form FR Y-14Q (Schedule H.1), Capital Assessments and Stress Testing.

Leverage stayed low at broker-dealers and remained moderate at life insurance companies...

Leverage at broker-dealers changed little in the first half of 2019 and remained at historically low levels (figure 3-5). Leverage at life insurance companies rose and stands near the median of its historical range, while leverage at property and casualty insurers stayed at lower levels than in previous years (figure 3-6).11 Insurance companies are important investors in the corporate bond and collateralized loan obligation (CLO) markets, exposing them to risks stemming from elevated leverage in the corporate sector. However, the modest level of leverage at insurance companies should help limit the amplification of possible shocks emanating from the business sector.

3-5. Leverage at Broker-Dealers
Figure 3-5. Leverage at Broker-Dealers
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Leverage is calculated by dividing financial assets by equity.

Source: Federal Reserve Board, Statistical Release Z.1, "Financial Accounts of the United States."

3-6. Leverage at Insurance Companies
Figure 3-6. Leverage at Insurance Companies
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Ratio is calculated as (total assets − separate account assets)/(total capital − accumulated other comprehensive income).

Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence.

. . . while hedge fund leverage remains elevated relative to the past five years

Gross leverage of hedge funds appears to have leveled off in 2018 after having risen steadily over the previous few years (figure 3-7). In the September Senior Credit Officer Opinion Survey on Dealer Financing Terms (SCOOS), dealers reported that the use of leverage by hedge fund clients decreased in the third quarter of 2019 after increasing in the second quarter of the year (figure 3-8). Dealers also reported in the September SCOOS that the current level of hedge fund leverage is roughly halfway between the pre-crisis peak, around June 2007, and the post-crisis trough, around March 2009.

3-7. Gross Leverage at Hedge Funds
Figure 3-7. Gross Leverage at Hedge Funds
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Leverage is computed as the ratio of hedge funds' gross notional exposure (including derivative notional exposures and the nominal value of all long and short positions) to net asset value. Data are reported on a three-quarter lag.

Source: Federal Reserve Board staff calculations based on Securities and Exchange Commission, Form PF, Reporting Form for Investment Advisers to Private Funds and Certain Commodity Pool Operators and Commodity Trading Advisors.

3-8. Change in the Use of Financial Leverage
Figure 3-8. Change in the Use of Financial Leverage
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Net percentage equals the percentage of institutions that reported increased use of financial leverage over the past three months minus the percentage of institutions that reported decreased use of financial leverage over the past three months. REIT is real estate investment trust.

Source: Federal Reserve Board, Senior Credit Officer Opinion Survey on Dealer Financing Terms.

Securitization volumes were largely unchanged...

Securitization allows financial institutions to bundle loans or other financial assets and sell claims on the cash flows generated by these assets as securities that can be traded, much like bonds. This process often involves the creation of claims with different levels of seniority and thus represents a form of credit risk transformation, whereby highly rated securities can be created from a pool of lower-rated underlying assets. Examples of the resulting securities include CLOs, asset-backed securities, and commercial and residential mortgage-backed securities. Issuance volumes of non-agency securities (that is, those not guaranteed by a government-sponsored enterprise or by the federal government) remain well below the levels seen in the run-up to the financial crisis (figure 3-9).

3-9. Issuance of Non-agency Securitized Products, by Asset Class
Figure 3-9. Issuance of Non-agency Securitized Products, by Asset
Class
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The data from the first three quarters of 2019 are annualized to create the 2019 bar. CMBS is commercial mortgage-backed securities; CDO is collateralized debt obligation; RMBS is residential mortgage-backed securities; CLO is collateralized loan obligation. The "Other" category consists of other asset-backed securities (ABS) backed by credit card debt, student loans, equipment, floor plans, and miscellaneous receivables; resecuritized real estate mortgage investment conduit (Re-REMIC) RMBS; and Re-REMIC CMBS. The data are converted to constant 2019 dollars using the consumer price index. Key identifies bars in order from top to bottom.

Source: Harrison Scott Publications, Asset-Backed Alert (ABAlert.com) and Commercial Mortgage Alert (CMAlert.com); Bureau of Labor Statistics, consumer price index, via Haver Analytics.

CLO issuance has increased rapidly since 2012 and continues to be robust in 2019 after reaching a record level in 2018. These securities fund more than 50 percent of outstanding institutional leveraged loans. Unlike open-end mutual funds, CLOs do not generally permit early redemptions and do not rely on funding that must be rolled over before the underlying assets mature. As a result, CLOs avoid run risk associated with a rapid reversal in investor sentiment.

. . . while bank lending to nonbank financial institutions continued to grow notably

Data on bank lending to financial institutions operating outside the banking sector—such as finance companies, asset managers, securitization vehicles, and mortgage real estate investment trusts—can be informative about the use of leverage by nonbanks and shed light on the credit exposures of banks to these institutions. Committed amounts of credit from large banks to nonbanks have nearly doubled since 2013 and reached about $1.4 trillion by mid-2019 (figure 3-10). To date, about one-half of these committed amounts have been borrowed by nonbanks in the form of term loans or credit-line drawdowns. The outstanding loans to nonbanks represent about 11 percent of total loans of large banks, and the share of loans to nonbanks that are investment-grade loans remains stable at roughly 70 percent.

3-10. Large Bank Lending to Nonbank Financial Firms: Committed Amounts
Figure 3-10. Large Bank Lending to Nonbank Financial Firms: Committed
Amounts
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Committed amounts on credit lines and term loans extended to nonbank financial firms by a balanced panel of 26 bank holding companies that have filed Form FR Y-14Q in every quarter since 2013:Q1. Nonbank financial firms are identified based on reported North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes. In addition to NAICS codes, a name-matching algorithm is applied to identify specific entities such as real estate investment trusts (REITs), special purpose entities, collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), and asset-backed securities (ABS). REITs incorporate both mortgage (trading) REITs and equity REITs. Broker-dealers also include commodity contracts dealers and brokerages and other securities and commodity exchanges. Other financial vehicles include closed-end investment and mutual funds and financial planning and pension funds. BDCs are business development companies.

Source: Federal Reserve Board, Form FR Y-14Q (Schedule H.1), Capital Assessments and Stress Testing.

 

References

 10. See Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (2019), Dodd-Frank Act Stress Test 2019: Supervisory Stress Test Results(Washington: Board of Governors, June), https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/files/2019-dfast-results-20190621.pdfReturn to text

 11. Leverage for insurance companies is measured using generally accepted accounting principles and thus includes publicly traded insurers. Insurer leverage as measured using statutory accounting rules increased for life insurers in 2018, largely because of the effects of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Return to text

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Last Update: November 21, 2019