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Spain’s largest listed commercial banks reported their year-end results this week, giving some respite from the worries about a new round of restructuring at the country’s teetering savings banks (cajas).

Spain’s listed lenders are generally better capitalised and more profitable than the cajas, thanks in large part to their foreign franchises. Last year, Santander generated 25% of its net profit in booming Brazil, versus only 15% in sickly Spain. BBVA, meanwhile, derived 45% of its earnings from Spain and Portugal, with its Mexican business, home to 37% of group profits, not far behind.

Spain’s third-largest listed bank, Banco Popular, is a largely domestic lender, which is reflected in a higher non-performing loan ratio than Santander or BBVA. Still, Popular remains conservatively capitalised, with a core capital ratio of 9.4%, close to BBVA’s 9.6% and higher than Santander’s 8.8%.

The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision has published a welter of rules, studies, reports and announcements over the past two days. Yesterday, it released the detailed text of the so-called Basel III standards on new capital adequacy and liquidity rules. It also published a study on the impact of the stricter capital requirements, with the headline result that the world’s largest banks will need to raise more than €600bn to meet the new minimums. (They will have until 2019 to do so, and the study didn’t take into account future profits or measures to reduce risk-weighted assets.)

Today, the committee released updated estimates on the economic impact of the shift to new capital ratios (the original report was discussed here). Based on an eight-year implementation period, the committee expects annual GDP growth to be 0.03% lower than the baseline forecast as a result of the new rules.

Somewhat lost in the paper shuffle is a bit of technical detail on the “countercyclical capital buffer”, a new feature for banking rules in many countries that will apply Basel III. When credit is growing rapidly, banks will need to set aside extra capital—up to 2.5% of assets—to guard against a potential bust. The Basel committee considers the credit-to-GDP ratio the most appropriate gauge for the buffer; a ratio of more than 2% above the long-term trend activates the extra capital, with the maximum buffer triggered by a gap of 10% or more. The report includes a fascinating series of charts that back-test the buffer, giving readers a chance to compare recent credit cycles in several countries and judge when lending growth turned frothy.

New research offers a robust defence of stricter capital requirements in the face of banking industry lobbying.

The reports, from the Financial Stability Board, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision and the International Monetary Fund, assess the long-term economic impact of tougher capital and liquidity requirements for banks. If phased in over a four-year period, each percentage point increase in banks’ core capital ratio trims 0.04% from the annual growth rate of GDP over the phase-in period, leaving GDP 0.2% lower at the end of four-and-a-half-years than it otherwise would have been. A 25% hike in liquid asset holdings affects growth even less. “The benefits substantially exceed the potential output costs,” the groups conclude.

A similar exercise this summer by the Institute of International Finance, a banking industry association, came to a much gloomier conclusion. Under “reasonable assumptions,” it concluded that GDP in the US, Europe and Japan would be 3% lower at the end of a five-year transition period, with nearly 10m fewer jobs created as a result. A subsequent softening of the original proposals for global capital and liquidity reforms may temper the lobby’s distress, but it’s safe to say that regulators will continue to laud the benefit of stricter rules while banks will keep fretting about the costs.

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Despite their size and strength in many financial metrics, Chinese banks are not leaders when it comes to core capital. After a state-directed lending binge earlier this year, worries have surfaced that China’s largest banks might launch massive cash calls to meet rising capital requirements.

Although based on thinly-sourced, sometimes contradictory news flow, fears of a major hike in capital requirements seem overdone. Although two of the country’s largest lenders, China Construction Bank and Bank of China, may need to raise fresh funds to bolster capital ratios, the scale of the fundraising should be minor compared to recent blockbuster rights issues at banks in Europe, the US and Japan.

The quality of loans taken on in the past year may put balance sheets under pressure, but Chinese banks’ earnings capacity appears strong enough to absorb potential losses without requiring drastic capital-raising measures.

Read more at Financial Services Briefing: “Great wall of worry” (December 10th)

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