Will COVID Finally Give Big Banks Their Direction?

By: Shreya Jain

If the recently finished 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we’d do well to re-evaluate the way things usually work. And in a world that’s still struggling to its feet after a tumultuous year, one can look around and notice that some pieces of reality have played musical chairs: social activities once regarded as keystones of public life are now greeted with deep suspicion, even fear; previously stable industries are on life support; and minimum wage employees suddenly bear the mantle of “essential workers” despite few immediate benefits of this increased responsibility.

Life, in other words, is not behaving as usual. And neither are the banks.

According to FDIC data, a record $2 trillion[1] has been deposited in U.S. banks since the coronavirus first struck the U.S. in January. More than 5.2 million[2] loans were issued by banks participating in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to keep several businesses afloat during the COVID-19 induced pandemic. This is the primary role of banks – to accept deposits and to grant loans.

In a direct juxtaposition to this primary role, if we look at the sources of revenue for banks to determine its role, especially during crisis, it however tells a story of banking institutions deviating from their primary role.

Consider the revenue distribution for a few top banks (Fig. 1):

Fig. 1 – Composition of total revenue in 2019 H1 and 2020 H1

For all three of these banks, an increasing percentage of total revenues has been coming from the Investment Banking division, primarily driven by the Fixed Income Market.

In fact, in the most recent Dodd-Frank Stress Tests (DFAST), Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are ordered to hold the most capital of all the 34 firms tested- 13.6% and 13.2% respectively. [3] Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have particularly high stress buffers because of the nature of the Fed’s exams, which put extra pressure on banks that rely heavily on capital markets; Goldman Sachs also has their decision to maintain dividends.

There is an intriguing question in all this – one we can more readily consider in light of recent developments.


Fig. 2 – Historical Lessons, Learnings, and Unlearnings for Banks 

There are a number of sources to draw from for a possible answer. First, we have a number of lessons from the past. The Glass-Steagall Act is a 1933 law that separated investment banking from retail banking. By separating the two, retail banks were prohibited from using depositors’ funds for risky investments. Only 10% of their income could come from selling securities. They could underwrite government bonds. [4]

However, the banking industry soon objected that the act was too restrictive. They believed they could not compete with foreign financial firms offering higher returns as the U.S. banks could only invest in low-risk securities. They wanted to increase returns while lowering overall risk for their customers by diversifying their business.

The most audacious move was when Citicorp and Travelers Group — a commercial bank and financial services company, respectively – merged to create Citigroup Inc. It was an unforeseen event that took the financial world aback for a number of reasons – not least of which was that such a move was technically illegal. But Glass-Steagall had a number of exploitable loopholes. This was just one possible outcome.

On November 12, 1999, President Clinton signed the Financial Services Modernization Act that repealed Glass-Steagall. This consolidated investment and retail banks through financial holding companies,[5] creating new entities supervised by the Federal Reserve. For that reason, only a few banks took advantage of the Glass-Steagall repeal. Most Wall Street banks did not want the additional supervision and capital requirements.

Those that did take advantage became “too big to fail.”


The focus today on “Growth” above and beyond what would otherwise be allowed under Glass Stegall Act has been worrisome. The thirty-four participants in the severely adverse scenario of this year’s Dodd-Frank Stress Tests (DFAST) estimated their risk-based Common Equity Tier 1 (CET1) capital ratio would trough to 9.9%, from an end-2019 amount of 12%. In the worst-case scenario –assuming a W-shaped recession where the US is hammered by a second wave of the illness– banks’ aggregate CET1 ratios are projected to plummet to 7.7% after taking $680 billion of loan losses.

While it’s true that banks with trading focus have fared better recently due to an unusual rally in the stock market, there is still some cause for concern. Should that rally turn into a correction or a crash, the FED- and ultimately the American taxpayers – could have to actually bailout these too-big-to fail banks .

A New York Fed paper, using data for more than 200 banks in 45 countries, found that banks classified by rating agencies as “more likely to receive government support” engage in more risk-taking. Moreover, the label of “too big to fail” and passing stress tests may create a false sense of security for large banks, thus encouraging them to continue taking risks with depositors’ money. Said differently, banks engaging in riskier behavior are also more likely to take advantage of potential government support. Figure 2 shows that Banks with a higher probability of government support (as indicated by support rating floors – NF to AA-AA indicating increasing likelihood of government support) also have more trading assets on average.[6]

Fig. 3 – Summary Statistics of Bank’s Balance Sheet by Support Rating Floors

The support itself is not seen as bearing great future results either. A New York Fed paper, using data for more than 200 banks in 45 countries, found that banks classified by rating agencies as “more likely to receive government support” engage in more risk-taking. shows that following an increase in government support, we see a larger volume of bank lending becoming impaired and increase in net charge-offs. Additionally, we find that the effect of government support on impaired loans is stronger for riskier banks than safer ones, as measured by their issuer default ratings.

So, should a Bank be focusing on its growth? Should Banks be limited in what they do? Is the present Stress Test sufficient? Or does passing the stress test only contribute to an inflated confidence and outsized risk tolerance given the potential consequences?

Fig. 4 – A number of open questions the banking industry still has to answer 

Let us turn once again to lessons from the past, 2008 The Financial Crisis.

The financial crisis of 2008 had its foundation in bad mortgages, but this wasn’t what ultimately brought the banks to the brink of collapse.  Volcker noted when he proposed his idea (Volcker rule, a federal regulation that prohibits banks from conducting certain investment activities with their own accounts and limits their dealings with hedge funds and private equity funds, also called covered funds.) that the culprit wasn’t bad loans but the exotic trades banks had made around them. [7]

At the time, there was discussion of reinstating The Glass-Steagall Act  but the banks argued that doing so would make them too small to compete on a global scale. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act was passed instead. This Act requires the Fed to conduct an annual stress test of bank holding companies with $50 billion in assets – otherwise known as “too big to fail.”[8]

Section 619 of the Act was The Volcker Rule aimed, once again, at separating the commercial and investment banking divisions of banks, but not with the same stringent restrictions as Glass-Steagall Act. It aimed to prohibit banks from using customer deposits for their own profit. Moreover restricted banks from owning, investing in, or sponsoring hedge funds, private equity funds, or other trading operations for their own use. These steps were meant to protect depositors from the types of speculative investments that led to the 2008 financial crisis.

The idea became law in the Dodd-Frank reforms of 2010, but the rule-writing took another three years due to squabbles over how to separate prop trading from market-making and hedging. Instead of blanket bans, regulators sought to define each situation and carve out a string of exemptions, which is how the rule grew. The final rule also clarifies that certain activities are not prohibited, including acting as agent, broker, or custodian. As a result, the Volcker Rule has been in force since July 21, 2015

When the final version called on traders to certify the intent of each transaction, Jamie Dimon, the chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase, complained that traders would need a psychologist and a lawyer by their side to make sure they were in compliance.[9] Fed researchers found that the rule resulted in less-liquid markets for some bonds in times of stress. But by and large, banks adapted to it, though that didn’t stop them from lobbying for years to win procedural changes. Under the Trump administration, regulators showed a strong interest in simplifying the rule. The revamp, known as Volcker 2.0, is a steady effort to soften Volcker regulations during Trump’s administration.

Volcker2.0 – “Volcker 2.0” went into effect on October 1, 2020.

The Proposed Rule adds four new exclusions to the definition of “covered fund” — credit funds, venture capital funds, family wealth management vehicles and customer facilitation vehicles — thereby exempting them from the scope of the Volcker Rule.[10]

Changes in proprietary trading include eliminating a requirement that banks reserve an initial margin over 15% of Tier 1 capital, and may allow banks to invest in up to $40B more in credit-default swaps.[11]

More capital will be available to venture capitalists, therefore making additional capital available to start-up companies. However, many believe this may be a short-lived change following the 2020 presidential election

Volcker 2.0 is representative of a pendulum swing in financial regulatory compliance away from the strong reaction to the financial crisis of 2008.

Banks evaluated their capital market businesses to identify opportunities to leverage newly permitted activities and the reduced operational burden of Volcker 2.0. Different banks have commenced new strategies by increasing trading volumes and holdings. As an example, the table below (Figure 5) illustrates a trend in the commercial bank sector, and how the trading assets volume increased in 2019 in anticipation of the Volcker amendments.

Fig. 5 –  Total Trading Assets for Commercial Banks in the US (Source: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/USTTAST)

Is COVID-19 the new lesson? Is FED, via Stress Test trying to tighten regulatory burdens for Banks majorly associated with proprietary trading driven revenues such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley? As per FED Stress Test in 2020, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were the two banks that faced the highest jump in the required minimum CET1 ratio – 4.1% and 3.2% respectively. (Fig 6)[12]

Fig. 6 –  Institutional differences in required minimum CET1 ratio 

On one hand, financial regulators eased the financial crisis-era Volcker Rule. Conversely, the same regulators brought about tighter requirements via Stress Test for banks that are focused on Trading revenues.

The change in minimum CET1 ratio is inversely related to the PEG ratio (Q3 2020) right after when the minimum CET1 were to be met. Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs had PEG ratios of 0.97 and 1.44, the lowest amongst their peers, while they had the largest change in minimum CET1 ratio – 4.1% and 3.4% respectively.

Fig. 7 –  Percent change in min CET1 from 2019-2020

With another administrative change (new government) will the Volcker Rule be changed again to go closer to what it was intended for. Will banks be forced to choose between proprietary trading and having a PEG ratio comparable to its peers?


Oz Shy, a professor at MIT proposes that if we were to ensure policymakers let banks fail – we need to prepare in advance for the next wave of bank failures by protecting depositors’ money, instead of just focusing on stress tests or size reductions.

Depositors should be simply allowed to have access to accounts that maintain 100 percent reserves. That is, every cent of their savings would be backed by hard currency. His research has shown that moving in this direction improves social welfare relative to the current system of purely fractional banking, in which banks only hold a fraction of their deposits. A 100 percent reserves policy would break our current system’s bundling of risk-taking with the job of keeping accounts safe and offering payment services. Only then, by ensuring depositors (and voters) aren’t at risk when there’s a crisis, would governments have the will to let banks fail – without any regard to their size – and at no cost to taxpayers.[13]

And if a few banks want to be in growth business, they should be treated very differently than the other banks with a pure focus on transmission and custodian roles. More than what current stress test does. Maybe that’s the “new normal” banks need.

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