Regulators offer a sneak peak of big banks’ resolution plans


Martin Gruenberg, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC). On Thursday, the Federal Reserve and FDIC released portions of the so-called “living wills” of the country’s 11 largest banks, including Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
October 3, 2013

In the event of a catastrophic market meltdown or a plain-old company collapse, Wall Street titans say they are prepared and won’t need to turn to taxpayers for help.

On Thursday, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. released portions of the so-called “living wills” of the country’s 11 largest banks, including Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase.

Each bank offered a blueprint to wind down its operations in times of crisis without unraveling the rest of the economy. The plans are an updated version of the wills the banks submitted in 2012 after regulators requested more details on strategies for dissolving trading businesses and managing liquidity.

In its living will, Bank of America said it could “quickly obtain cash” for its securities in stressed market conditions through “repurchase agreements or outright sales.” The bank maintains excess liquidity through its securities and cash, which totaled $342 billion at the end of June, according to its plan.

Citigroup, meanwhile, said it has about $389 billion in high-quality liquid assets that could offset potential declines in liquidity that may occur under stress. The firm said it would sell or liquidate its broker-dealer business in one worst-case scenario.

A critical component to these plans is the amount of capital — cash, investor equity and other assets — banks have on hand to absorb losses on their loans and other investments.

JPMorgan said it had $147 billion of regulatory capital as of the second quarter to fend off an economic crisis. The nation’s largest bank also has about $278 billion in securities that can be quickly converted into cash and other sources of liquidity that should enable it to “endure severe stress events and absorb substantial losses without failing,” according to its will.

If JPMorgan could not restructure the debt and equity of its subsidiaries, it would “resolve its business lines, material legal entities and other assets through divestiture” or enter into an orderly liquidation.

The plans were released on the fifth anniversary of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), the government’s $700 billion effort to stabilize the financial sector. Living wills are an outgrowth of that bailout — an assurance that taxpayers will not have to foot the bill if banks suffer serious financial distress or failure.

“We’re talking about putting ambulances by the roadside rather than reducing the speed limit,” said Anat Admati, a Stanford University professor who calls for tougher capital regulation in “The Bankers’ New Clothes.” “We have to do more prevention, less liabilities on the balance, more shareholder equity.”

The plans don’t guarantee that the government won’t step in to rescue a large bank facing impending doom. But those institutions have a plan just in case.

“It’s forcing management and the boards to actually think a little more clearly about the organizational structure,” said Mark Calabria, head of financial institution studies at the Cato Institute. “Having a plan will help the companies and the regulators better understand what they’re looking at.”

The first line of defense if any of these banks failed would be the FDIC, which was granted broad power by the Dodd-Frank financial reform law to take over and unwind the operations of big institutions. The bank blueprints are meant, in part, to serve as a guide for the regulator.

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