Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Failure of Bank Stress Testing

The EU sovereign debt crisis has put the lie to bank stress testing. Stress tests--analyses that supposedly test a bank's ability to survive one or more hypothetical financial crises--have been used by American and European regulators in an effort to evaluate the strength of banks. The American tests weren't followed by the immediate bailout of tested banks (although TARP, bounteous Federal Reserve subsidies and credit lines, and politically driven changes in accounting rules were much more important to their survival than stress testing).

Europe's tests were embarrassingly less accurate. Weeks after passing the first round of stress tests last year, major Irish banks needed government bailouts. Dexia, a Belgian-French bank that just got a bailout, passed the stress tests twice. This summer, stress test results announced in July indicated that only eight European banks failed, having a combined capital shortfall of 2.5 billion Euros ($3.5 billion). Now, as EU leaders squabble over the terms of the next humungous bailout, current estimates of the capital shortfalls of EU banks range as high as 80 billion Euros. To go from needing 2.5 billion Euros this past July to perhaps 80 billion a period of three months is suggestive (to say the least) of flaws in the testing process.

Comically, Europe's banking regulators are about to conduct a third round of stress tests. Major European banks are reportedly trying to shrink their balance sheets and beef up their capital in anticipation. But what's the worry? Based on our experience with the past two rounds of stress tests, we already know what results will be announced. All that's need is for the EU's regulators to figure out what assumptions are necessary for them to sound Panglossian.

You can make stress tests come out any way you want, by using the right assumptions about how bad the financial markets will get and how to value assets. Europe's stress tests might provide good fodder for the opening monologue on the Tonight Show. But don't bet your badly battered retirement savings on them.

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