Bernanke says stronger US banks still must improve liquidity

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke

May 10 (Bloomberg) -- Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said the U.S. banking system is stronger and more resilient while still facing challenges on credit quality and liquidity.

“Banks still have more to do to restore their health and adapt to the post-crisis regulatory and economic environment,” Bernanke said today in remarks prepared for a speech at the Chicago Fed’s annual conference on banks. As the economic expansion proceeds, “a financially stronger banking system will be well positioned to expand its lending.”

Some large firms still face “challenges on the liquidity front” as they rely heavily on wholesale short-term funding, he said, and as government guarantees on some of their liabilities expire. Loan delinquency rates on credit-backed by commercial and residential real estate “remain elevated.”

Bernanke has tightened bank oversight and stepped up Fed research on financial risk in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 credit crisis, which plunged the U.S. into the worst recession since the Great Depression and cost 8.8 million Americans their jobs.

The Fed is also enacting rules aimed at boosting the capital of the largest financial institutions as required under the Dodd-Frank Act, the most sweeping overhaul of financial regulation since the 1930s. The Dodd-Frank law is aimed in part at ending taxpayer-funded bailouts. Bernanke didn’t speak about the central bank’s capital policies in today’s remarks, and he didn’t discuss monetary policy or the economic outlook.

The largest 19 banking institutions have increased their Tier 1 common equity to nearly $760 billion, an increase of more than $300 billion since 2009. Tier 1 common equity is “the best buffer against future losses,” Bernanke said.

Stress Tests

Bernanke referred to the central bank’s 2012 stress tests showing that 15 out of the 19 banks would be able to maintain capital levels above a regulatory minimum in an “extremely adverse” economic scenario, even while continuing to pay dividends and repurchasing stock.

The Fed chief said the U.S. economy is beginning to benefit from the improved health of the financial system.

“Credit conditions in the United States have improved significantly in a number of areas,” Bernanke said. “Many -- though certainly not all -- businesses and households are finding it easier to borrow than they did a few years ago.”

Mortgage lending is an exception, he said, a situation that will be “difficult to turn around quickly.” Among the reasons: the slow recovery of the economy and housing, uncertainty surrounding the future of the government-sponsored enterprises, the lack of a healthy private-label securitization market, and “cautious attitudes by lenders.”

Capital Standards

Higher capital standards imposed by regulators will probably undermine bank profitability unless financial institutions alter their business models or charge consumers and businesses higher fees, said R. Scott Siefers, a managing director at Sandler O’Neill Partners, a New York brokerage firm specializing in financial stocks.

“There is no question that profitability will be lower,” Siefers said before Bernanke spoke. “The magnitude is the question mark.”

The KBW Bank Index, which tracks 24 large U.S. banks, increased 18 percent this year until yesterday compared with a 7.7 percent advance for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

Investor confidence has gained as regulators demand that banks improve underwriting, get a better grip on risk and maintain enough capital to weather another deep recession, said Eugene Ludwig, chief executive officer of Promontory Financial Group, a Washington consulting firm.

Definable Number

The Fed places so much emphasis on bank capital because “it is a definable, easily understandable number and something that helps restore confidence in institutions,” said Ludwig, who served as Comptroller of the Currency under President Bill Clinton.

“The U.S. banking system is dramatically better and capital standards are markedly up from where they were even before the crisis,” said Ludwig, who is also due to speak at the Chicago Fed conference.

Bloomberg News

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