Any bank that stress tested its loan portfolios prior to the Covid-19 pandemic probably used a worst-case scenario that wasn’t nearly as bad as the economic reality of the last five months.
Stress tests are an analysis of a bank’s loans or revenue stream against a variety of adverse computer-generated scenarios. The results help management teams and their boards of directors gauge whether the bank has adequate reserves and capital to withstand loan losses of various magnitudes. One challenge for banks today that incorporate stress tests into their risk management approach is the lack of relevant historical data. There is little modern precedent for what has befallen the U.S. economy since March, when most of the country went into lockdown to try to flatten the pandemic’s infection rate. The shutdowns tipped the U.S. economy into its steepest decline since the Great Depression.
Does stress testing still have value as a risk management tool, given that we’re navigating in uncharted economic waters?
“I would argue absolutely,” says Jay Gallagher, deputy comptroller for systemic risk identification support and specialty supervision at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. “It is not meant to be an exercise in perfection. It’s meant to say within the realm of possibility, these are the scenarios or variables we want to test against. Could we live with what the outcome is?”
The Dodd-Frank Act required banks with assets of $10 billion or greater to run annual stress tests, known as DFAST tests, and report the results to their primary federal regulator. The requirement threshold was raised to $100 billion in 2018, although Gallagher believes that most nationally chartered banks supervised by the OCC still do some form of stress testing.
“They see value in the exercise and not having the regulatory framework around it makes it even more nimble for them to focus on what’s really important to them as opposed to checking all the boxes from a regulatory exercise,” says Gallagher. “We still see a lot of banks that used to have to do DFAST still use a lot of the key tenets in their risk management programs.”
Amalgamated Bank, a $5.8 billion state chartered bank headquartered in New York, has been stress testing its loan portfolios on an individual and macro level for several years even though it sits well below the regulatory threshold. For the first time ever, the bank decided to bring in an outside firm to do its own analysis, including peer comparisons.
President and CEO Keith Mestrich says it is as much a business planning tool as much as it is a risk mitigation tool. It gives executives insight into its loan mix and plays an important role in decisions that Amalgamated makes about credit and capital.
“It tells you, are you going to have enough capital to withstand a storm if the worst case scenario comes true and we see these loss rates,” he says. “And if not, do you need to go out and raise additional capital or take some other measures to get some risk off the balance sheet, even if you take a pretty significant haircut on it?”
Banks that stress test have been forced to recalibrate and update their economic assumptions in the face of the economy’s sharp decline, as well as the government’s response. The unemployment rate spiked to 14.7% in April before dropping to 11.1% in June when the economy began to reopen, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the number of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. has surged past 3 million and several Western and Southern states are experiencing big increases in their infection rates, raising the possibility that unemployment might spike again if businesses are forced to close for a second time.
“I feel like the unemployment numbers are probably the most important ones, but they’re always set off by how the Covid cases go,” says Rick Childs, a partner at the consulting firm Crowe. “To the extent that we don’t get [the virus] back under control, and it takes longer to develop a vaccine and/or effective treatment options for it, I think they’ll always be in competition with each other.”
Another significant difference between the Great Recession and the current situation is the unparalleled level of fiscal support the U.S. Congress has provided to businesses, local governments and individuals through the $2 trillion CARES Act. It is unclear another round of fiscal support will be forthcoming later this year, which could also drive up the unemployment rate and lead to more business failures. These and other variables complicate the process of trying to construct a stress test model, since there aren’t clear precedents to rely on in modern economic history.
Stress testing clearly still has value despite these challenges, but Childs says it’s also important that banks stay close to their borrowers. “Knowing what’s happening with your customer base is probably going to be more important in terms of helping you make decisions,” he says.