Risk-Weighted Assets: Definition and Place in Basel III

What Are Risk-Weighted Assets?

Risk-weighted assets are used to determine the minimum amount of capital a bank must hold in relation to the risk profile of its lending activities and other assets. This is done in order to reduce the risk of insolvency and protect depositors. The more risk a bank has, the more capital it needs on hand. The capital requirement is based on a risk assessment for each type of bank asset.

For example, a loan that is secured by a letter of credit is considered to be riskier than a mortgage loan that is secured with collateral and thus requires more capital.

Key Takeaways

  • Basel III, a set of international banking regulations, sets the guidelines around risk-weighted assets.
  • Risk coefficients are determined based on the credit ratings of certain types of bank assets.
  • Loans backed with collateral are considered to be less risky than others because the collateral is considered in addition to the source of repayment when calculating an asset's risk.

Risk-Weighted Assets

Understanding Risk-Weighted Assets

The financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 was driven by financial institutions investing in subprime home mortgage loans that had a far higher risk of default than bank managers and regulators believed to be possible. When consumers started to default on their mortgages, many financial institutions lost large amounts of capital, and some became insolvent.

Basel III, a set of international banking regulations, set forth certain guidelines to avoid this problem moving forward. Regulators now insist that each bank must group its assets together by risk category so that the amount of required capital is matched with the risk level of each asset type. Basel III uses credit ratings of certain assets to establish their risk coefficients. The goal is to prevent banks from losing large amounts of capital when a particular asset class declines sharply in value.

There are many ways risk-weighted assets are used to calculate the solvency ratio of banks.

Bankers have to balance the potential rate of return on an asset category with the amount of capital they must maintain for the asset class.

How to Assess Asset Risk

Regulators consider several tools to assess the risk of a particular asset category. Since a large percentage of bank assets are loans, regulators consider both the source of loan repayment and the underlying value of the collateral.

A loan for a commercial building, for example, generates interest and principal payments based on lease income from tenants. If the building is not fully leased, the property may not generate sufficient income to repay the loan. Since the building serves as collateral for the loan, bank regulators also consider the market value of the building itself.

A U.S. Treasury bond, on the other hand, is secured by the ability of the federal government to generate taxes. These securities carry a higher credit rating, and holding these assets requires the bank to carry far less capital than a commercial loan. Under Basel III, U.S. government debt and securities are given a risk weight of 0%, while residential mortgages not guaranteed by the U.S. government are weighted anywhere from 35% to 200% depending on a risk assessment sliding scale.

Special Considerations

Bank managers are also responsible for using assets to generate a reasonable rate of return. In some cases, assets that carry more risk can also generate a higher return for the bank, because those assets generate a higher level of interest income to the lender. If the management creates a diverse portfolio of assets, the institution can generate a reasonable return on the assets and also meet the regulator’s capital requirements.