Economic capital (EC) refers to the amount of risk capital that a bank estimates it will need in order to remain solvent at a given confidence level and time horizon. Regulatory capital (RC), on the other hand, reflects the amount of capital that a bank needs, given regulatory guidance and rules. This article, in addition to comparing economic capital and regulatory capital, will highlight how EC is measured and examine its relevance for banks.
Banks and financial institutions must account for the long-term future uncertainties that they face. It is in this context that Basel Accords were created, aiming to enhance the risk management functions of important financial institutions. The accords are recommendations for the banking industry and are comprised of three sets of regulations: Basel I, Basel II, and Basel III.
Basel II provides international directives on the regulatory minimum amount of capital that banks should hold against their risks, such as credit risk, market risk, operational risk, counterparty risk, pension risk, and others. Basel II also sets out regulatory guidance and rules for modeling regulatory capital and encourages firms to use economic capital models. EC, as a concept and a risk gauge, is not a recent phenomenon but it has rapidly become an important measure among banks and financial institutions.
- Banks and other financial institutions must account for longer-term uncertainties.
- Economic capital is the amount of risk capital that a bank needs for a given confidence level and time period.
- EC is essential to support business decisions, while regulatory capital attempts to set minimum capital requirements to deal with all risks.
- A bank can use EC estimates to allocate capital across business segments.
- Economic capital could one day supersede regulatory capital requirements, as EC frameworks continue to grow.
When banks calculate their regulatory capital requirement and eligible capital, they must consider regulatory definitions, rules, and guidance. From a regulatory perspective, the minimum amount of capital is a part of a bank's eligible capital. Total eligible capital according to regulatory guidance under Basel II is provided by three tiers of capital:
- Tier 1 (core) capital broadly includes elements such as common stock, qualifying preferred stock, and surplus and retained earnings.
- Tier 2 (supplementary) capital includes elements such as general loan loss reserves, certain forms of preferred stock, term subordinated debt, perpetual debt, and other hybrid debt and equity instruments.
- Tier 3 capital includes short-term subordinated debt and net trading book profits that have not been externally verified.
Note that these tiers may be constituted in various ways according to legal and accounting regimes in Bank for International Settlement (BIS) member countries. Additionally, the capital tiers differ in their ability to absorb losses; Tier 1 capital has the best abilities to absorb losses. It is necessary for a bank to calculate the bank's minimum capital requirement for credit, operational, market risk, and other risks to establish how much Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 capital is available to support all risks.
Economic capital is a measure of risk expressed in terms of capital. A bank may, for instance, wonder what level of capital is needed in order to remain solvent at a certain level of confidence and time horizon. In other words, EC may be considered as the amount of risk capital from the banks' perspective; therefore, it differs from RC requirement measures. Economic capital primarily aims to support business decisions, while RC aims to set minimum capital requirements against all risks in a bank under a range of regulatory rules and guidance.
So far, since economic capital is rather a bank-specific or internal measure of available capital, there is no common domestic or global definition of EC. Moreover, there are some elements that many banks have in common when defining economic capital. EC estimates can be covered by elements of Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3, or definitions used by rating agencies and other types of capital, such as planned earning, unrealized profit, or an implicit government guarantee.
Relevance of Economic Capital
EC is highly relevant because it can provide key answers to specific business decisions or for evaluating the different business units of a bank. It also provides an instrument for comparing RC.
A bank's management can use EC estimates to allocate capital across business streams, promoting those units that provide desirable profit per unit of risk. Examples of a performance measures that involve EC are return on risk-adjusted capital (RORAC), risk-adjusted return on capital (RAROC), and economic value added (EVA). Figure 1 shows an example of a RORAC calculation and how it can be compared between the business units of a bank or financial institution.
|Business||Return and/or Profit||EC Estimates||RORAC|
|Unit 1||$50 millions||$100 millions||50% ($50/$100)|
|Unit 2||$30 millions||$120 millions||25% ($30/$120)|
Figure 1: RORAC of two business units during one year
Figure 1 shows that business unit 1 generates a higher return in EC terms (i.e., RORAC) compared to business Unit 2. Management would favor business Unit 1, which consumes less EC, but at the same time generates a higher return.
This kind of assessment is more practical in a bottom-up approach, which implies that EC assessments are made for each business unit and then aggregated to an overall EC figure. By contrast, the top-down approach is more arbitrary because EC is calibrated at a group level and then delivered to each business stream, where criteria for capital allocation can be vague.
Comparing to RC
Another use of EC is to compare it with RC requirement. Figure 2 provides an example of some risks that can be assessed by an EC framework and how it could be compared to RC requirement.
Figure 2: RC requirement and EC estimate
While a bank's EC figure is partly driven by its risk tolerance, RC requirement is driven by supervisory metrics set out in the regulatory guidance and rule books. Moreover, by contrast with regulatory capital models under Basel II, such as the advanced internal rating-based (AIRB) model for credit risk, banks can make their own choices on how to model EC. For example, banks can choose the functional form and the parameter settings of their model. Therefore, EC modeling may adjust or ignore assumptions of AIRB for credit risk.
AIRB assumes that a loan portfolio is large and homogeneous, that longer-term assets are more risky, as reflected in the so-called maturity adjustment capped at five years, and that higher-quality ratings have a higher correlation to reflect systemic risk. It also evaluates risk by rating classes and assumes a perfect correlation between rating classes and diversification within a rating class.
Value-at-risk (VaR) models are typical EC frameworks for market, credit risk, and other risks. However, for credit risk, it is usually referred to as credit value-at-risk (CVaR). As an example, consider the loss distribution of a loan portfolio for relatively secure loans. The expected loss represents a loss that arises from the daily business, while the unexpected loss is the number of standard deviations away from the expected loss (the tail of the distribution).
In the current example, suppose the unexpected loss is calibrated at the 99.95% confidence level, which corresponds to an AA credit rating. Therefore, banks may calibrate their economic capital models according to management's risk appetite, which is usually in line with the bank's target rating.
Some banks may use internally developed models to calculate their ECs. However, banks may also use commercial software to assist them in their EC calculations. Examples of such software for credit risk are the Portfolio Manager by Moody's KMV, Strategic Analytics, Credit Risk+ by Credit Suisse, and CreditMetrics by JPMorgan.
The Bottom Line
EC is a measure of a bank's risk capital. It is not a recent concept, but it has rapidly become an important measure among banks and financial institutions. EC provides a useful supplementary instrument to RC for business-based decisions. Banks are increasingly using EC frameworks, and it will most likely continue to grow in the future. The relevant question might be whether economic capital could one day supersede regulatory capital requirements.
Bank for International Settlements. "History of the Basel Committee." Accessed June 19, 2021.
Bank for International Settlements. "International Convergence of Capital Measurement and Capital Standards: A Revised Framework, Comprehensive Version," Pages 14-17, 245. Accessed June 19, 2021.
Bank for International Settlements. "Definition of Capital in Basel III—Executive Summary." Accessed June 19, 2021.