Real Solvency and Fantasy Solvency February 16, 2009 at 2:27 pm

There is a `the banks are insolvent’ meme going around at the moment. It’s rubbish, but something close to it may be true.

The reason it is rubbish is that solvency means assets > liabilities under the firm’s accounting standards. This is clearly true for all the large banks.

What the commentators mean by `the banks are insolvent’ really, then, is `under my idea of what accounting standards should be, the banks would be insolvent’. Clearly this is a little different, however rational the particular accounting counterfactual concerned is.

Let’s look at some of the choices in the space of accounting methods.

  • Pure accrual accounting would value every asset and liability under accrual accounting, with whatever loan loss reserves the firm can get past its auditors being taken. Under this measure pretty much every bank is solvent.

  • Pure rigourous fair value would use fair value for everything, with prudent valuation adjustments being taken wherever there is uncertainty. Under this measure, many banks would be insolvent.

Most banks definitions of solvency are closer to the first than the second of these at the moment, of course. I suspect that most commentators who say that the banking system is insolvent are implicitly thinking of something like pure rigourous fair value. In any event, there are many, many accounting standards between these two extremes, of which any given bank’s choice is one.

Two more things to note.

First, insolvency implies that the bank is not capitally adequate, but capital adequacy is a stronger constraint. It implies solvency* plus capital > capital requirements**. Losses challenge both solvency and capital adequacy as they erode capital, but the capital adequacy test is hit before the solvency one.

Second, solvency or insolvency have nothing to do with liquidity. A bank can be insolvent and perfectly able to fund itself (if that fact is well enough hidden) and highly solvent but unable to fund.

For further reading, see a good if long post by John Hempton here.

*Actually this is not quite true as the regulatory notion of solvency is not quite the same as the accounting one. Regulators apply a few (typically minor, in the big scheme of things) valuation adjustments to GAAP.

**The definition of Capital is much more country specific than that of Capital requirements. The `Basel 2 capital requirement’ is close to being the same everywhere (although there are some differences in national implementations). But the definition of capital varies significantly, especially in the treatment of things like deferred tax assets, goodwill, and unrealised gains on held to maturity positions.

2 Responses to “Real Solvency and Fantasy Solvency”

  1. thanks for the short summary

  2. No worries John. I liked your piece but I wanted to write something a little more compact that focussed on what solvency means. Good luck with educating the Geithner-ettes.