Biggest U.S. Banks Aren’t as Strong as They Appear, Group Says

The largest U.S. banks are less healthy than they appear, boosted by temporary accounting and capital-relief measures as well as massive market support from the Federal Reserve, an advocacy group said.

Although the six biggest banks’ leverage ratios reported at the end of June averaged almost 2 percentage points above the regulatory minimums, the actual average would have been only 0.84 percentage points above without the relief measures, Americans for Financial Reform said in a report Monday.

Biggest U.S. Banks Aren’t as Strong as They Appear, Group Says

Regulators have allowed banks to delay the hit to their capital ratios from billions of dollars in loan-loss provisions they’ve put aside this year. Massive increases in their holdings of cash and Treasuries are also temporarily excluded from the calculation of the leverage ratio, which has become the binding constraint for the largest banks during the pandemic.

Even if firms wouldn’t be on the precipice of insolvency without the support measures, the allowances have let most banks continue paying dividends, according to the advocacy group.

“We’re not in a 2008 situation where major banks are facing collapse, but we’re going into an uncertain future due to the pandemic, and the big banks aren’t in as good a shape as they appear,” Marcus Stanley, policy director at Americans for Financial Reform, said in an interview.

In addition to the accounting and capital-relief measures, the banks have also benefited from the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented intervention in capital markets, the organization said. That boosted their trading income by at least $19.6 billion in the first half of 2020, which has also helped them appear healthier than they actually are, according to the report.

Americans for Financial Reform is a coalition of more than 200 civil rights, consumer, labor, business, investor, faith-based and community groups, including the AFL-CIO, Consumers Union, the National Housing Trust, the NAACP and the Greenlining Institute.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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