Window Dressing

The Wall Street Journal reported today that banks are again very actively doing significant amounts of end out the quarter clean-up that is otherwise known as “window dressing“.

This is a practice that works well, allowing banks to hold capital (figured on their quarter end balance sheets) that is much lower than the risk levels that they are using to create their profits.  This makes them look safer to investors in addition to boosting their ROE.

And while it probably is within the rules of Basel II, it violates the underlying idea behind Pillar 1 and Pillar 3.

The idea behind Pillar 1 is that the banks should hold capital for their risks.  This window dressing practice clearly illustrates one of the major logical flaws in the application of Pillar 1.

To understand the flaw, you need to think for a minute about what the capital is for.  It is not actually for the risks that the bank held during the quarter, nor is it mostly for the risks that happen to be on the balance sheet as of the end of the quarter.  It is primarily to protect the bank in the event of losses form the risks that the banks will be exposed to during the next quarter.  The beginning of quarter balance sheet is being used as a proxy for the risks over the coming quarter.

For a firm that has a highly disciplined risk management process, it would actually make more sense for the firm to hold capital for the RISK LIMITS that it has extended for the coming quarter.  That would be a firm where you could rely upon them to keep their risks within their risk limits for the most part. This makes more sense than holding capital for some arbitrary point in time.  The window dressing proves that point better than any possible theoretical argument.  Besides being the wrong idea, it is subject to easy manipulation.

For firms that are not disciplined in keeping their risks within their risk limits, something higher than the level of capital on their risk limits would be the logical level.  For these firms it would make sense to keep track of the degree to which they exceed their limits (at maximum) and charge them for capital at a level above that.  Say for example 200%.  So if a firm exceeds its risk limits by 10% at maximum in a quarter, their capital for the next quarter would be 120% of the capital needed to support their risk limits for the following quarter.

This check on risk discipline would have several benefits.  It moves the easy possibility of manipulation away from the capital level.  The “legal” window dressing would have to be replaced by fraudulent manipulation of risk reports to fix the capital level.  In addition, disclosure of the degree to which a bank exceeds its risk limit could be disclosed under Pillar 3 and then investors and counterpraties could give their reaction to a bank that cannot control its risks exposures.

In addition, this same logic could be applied to insurers under Solvency II.  There is no reason why insurance regulators need to follow the flawed logic of the banking regulators.

Addendum:  Above I say that the window dressing works well.  That is only partly true.  Sometimes, it does not work at all.  And banks can become stuck with risks and losses from those risks that are far larger than what they had been disclosing.  That happens when markets freeze up.

You see, if many banks are doing the same sorts of window dressing, they all run the risk that there will be too many sellers and not enough buyers for those couple of days at the end of the quarter.  Or maybe just for that one night.  And the freeze is likeliest when the losses are about tho strike.

So in reality, window dressing is not a good plan if you believe that things can ever go poorly.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Compliance, Disclosure, Regulatory Risk, Risk Limits, Solvency II

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One Comment on “Window Dressing”


  1. […] Window Dressing (May 2010)  Suggests an alternative basis for determining regulatory capital. […]


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