How Do Large Banking Organizations Manage Their Capital Ratios?
Large banking organizations in the U.S. hold significantly more equity capital than the minimum required by bank regulators. This capital cushion has built up during a period of unusual profitability for the banking system, leading some observers to argue that the capital merely reflects recent profits. Others contend that the banks deliberately choose target capital levels based on their risk exposures and their counterparties’ sensitivities to default risk. In either case, the existence of “excess” capital makes it difficult to observe how banks manage their capital levels, particularly in response to regulatory changes (such as Basel II). We propose several hypotheses to explain this “excess” capital, and test these hypotheses using annual panel data for large, publicly traded U.S. bank holding companies (BHCs) from 1992 through 2006, and an innovative partial adjustment approach that allows both the target capital ratios and the speed of adjustment toward those targets to vary with firm-specific characteristics. We find evidence to suggest that large BHCs actively managed their capital ratios during our sample period. Our tests suggest that large BHCs choose target capital levels substantially above well-capitalized regulatory minima; that these targets increase with BHC risk but decrease with BHC size; that BHCs adjust toward these targets relatively quickly; and that adjustment speeds are faster for poorly capitalized BHCs, but slower (ceteris paribus) for BHCs under severe regulatory pressure.
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