It’s a pretty dense document, but it holds some important implications: Two economists have released findings showing a connection between better stock price performance during the financial crisis and higher capital requirements for banks. But the question remains: What measure of capital should reign supreme: Tier 1 or tangible common equity? The study’s method and results produce a quandary.
Andrea Beltratti and René Stulz, of Bocconi University and The Ohio State University, respectively, compared banks in 20 different countries for their stock price performance both before and during the financial crisis. Using a variety of measurements, they concluded that banks that faced tougher capital standards during the housing boom saw their share prices rise far more modestly than less tightly governed banks. Once the crisis hit, however, banks with higher capital requirements did not see their stock values plunge like other less restrained banks. In short: banks with higher capital requirements and more independent boards were able to ride out the crisis better, the economists concluded.
But stricter regulation—which is not the same thing as higher capital requirements and was used as a separate variable by the authors —did not always lead to better stock performance. Beltratti and Stulz posited that stronger regulators may have intervened more during the crisis “at the expense of shareholders.”
Pandering to shareholders, however, turned out not to be such a great idea. “Banks with more shareholder friendly boards, which are banks that conventional wisdom would have considered to be better governed, fared worse during the crisis,” the authors wrote.
There was a point in the course of the financial crisis at which regulators, investors and even the public realized that a bank’s share price was more important to its survival than ever before. Suddenly, “tangible common equity” replaced “Tier 1 capital” as the latest catch phrase. By the time the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve performed stress tests on the 19 largest U.S. banks, TCE had completely overshadowed Tier 1 as the preferred measure of health. That dynamic adds value to Beltratti and Stulz’ findings. Before the crisis hit, it may have been less conceivable that stock price could be as important as a performance indicator.
But paradoxically the capital requirements that saved banks relied on Tier 1 standards, not on TCE. Going forward, then, it’s unclear whether this study would support a return to Tier 1 as a standard or a further embrace of TCE.
In some senses, it doesn’t matter: Capital is capital, and the study’s bottom line is actually about losses, not gains: Banks that catered to their shareholders lost big. If anything, the study supports arguments for an overhaul of corporate governance and perhaps even executive compensation.