Troubled Asset Relief Program:

Bank Stress Test Offers Lessons as Regulators Take Further Actions to Strengthen Supervisory Oversight

GAO-10-861: Published: Sep 29, 2010. Publicly Released: Sep 29, 2010.

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The Supervisory Capital Assessment Program (SCAP) was established under the Capital Assistance Program (CAP)--a component of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP)--to assess whether the 19 largest U.S. bank holding companies (BHC) had enough capital to withstand a severe economic downturn. Led by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (Federal Reserve), federal bank regulators conducted a stress test to determine if these banks needed to raise additional capital, either privately or through CAP. This report (1) describes the SCAP process and participants' views of the process, (2) assesses SCAP's goals and results and BHCs' performance, and (3) identifies how regulators and the BHCs are applying lessons learned from SCAP. To do this work, GAO reviewed SCAP documents, analyzed financial data, and interviewed regulatory, industry, and BHC officials.

The SCAP process appeared to have been mostly successful in promoting coordination, transparency, and capital adequacy. The process utilized an organizational structure that facilitated coordination and communication among regulatory staff from multiple disciplines and organizations and with the BHCs. Because SCAP was designed to help restore confidence in the banking industry, regulators took unusual steps to increase transparency by releasing details of their methodology and sensitive BHC-specific results. However, several participants criticized aspects of the SCAP process. For example, some supervisory and bank industry officials stated that the Federal Reserve was not transparent about the linkages between some of the test's assumptions and results. But most of the participants in SCAP agreed that despite these views, coordination and communication were effective and could serve as a model for future supervisory efforts. According to regulators, the process resulted in a methodology that yielded credible results. By design, the process helped to ensure that BHCs would be capitalized for a potentially more severe downturn in economic conditions from 2009 through 2010. SCAP largely met its goals of increasing the level and quality of capital held by the 19 largest U.S. BHCs and, more broadly, strengthening market confidence in the banking system. The stress test identified 9 BHCs that met the capital requirements under the more adverse scenario and 10 that needed to raise additional capital. Nine of the 10 BHCs were able to raise capital in the private market, with the exception of GMAC LLC, which received additional capital from the U.S. Department of the Treasury (Treasury). The resulting capital adequacy of the 19 BHCs has generally exceeded SCAP's requirements, and two-thirds of the BHCs have either fully repaid or begun to repay their TARP investments. Officials from the BHCs, credit rating agencies, and federal banking agencies indicated that the Federal Reserve's public release of the stress test methodology and results in the spring of 2009 helped strengthen market confidence. During the first year of SCAP (2009), overall actual losses for these 19 BHCs have generally been below GAO's 1-year pro rata loss estimates under the more adverse economic scenario. Collectively, the BHCs experienced gains in their securities and trading and counterparty portfolios. However, some BHCs exceeded the GAO 1-year pro rata estimated 2009 losses in certain areas, such as consumer and commercial lending. Most notably, in 2009, GMAC LLC exceeded the loss estimates in multiple categories for the full 2-year SCAP period. More losses in the residential and commercial real estate markets and further deterioration in economic conditions could challenge the BHCs, even though they have been deemed to have adequate capital levels under SCAP. This report recommends that the Federal Reserve complete a final 2-year SCAP analysis, and apply lessons learned from SCAP to improve transparency of bank supervision, examiner guidance, risk identification and assessment, and regulatory coordination. The Federal Reserve agreed with our five recommendations and noted current actions that it has underway to address them. Treasury agreed with the report's findings.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To leverage the lessons learned from SCAP to the benefit of other regulated bank and thrift institutions, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve in consultation with the heads of the FDIC and OCC should fully develop its plan for maintaining and improving the use of data, risk identification and assessment infrastructure, and requisite systems in implementing its supervisory functions and new responsibilities under the Dodd-Frank Act. This plan should also ensure the dissemination of these enhancements throughout the Federal Reserve System and other financial regulators, as well as new organizations established in the Dodd-Frank Act.

    Agency Affected: Federal Reserve System

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To leverage the lessons learned from SCAP to the benefit of other regulated bank and thrift institutions, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve in consultation with the heads of the FDIC and OCC should develop more specific criteria to include in its guidance to examiners for assessing the quality of stress tests and how these tests inform BHCs' capital adequacy planning. These guidelines should clarify the stress testing procedures already incorporated into banking regulations and incorporate lessons learned from SCAP.

    Agency Affected: Federal Reserve System

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To leverage the lessons learned from SCAP to the benefit of other regulated bank and thrift institutions, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve in consultation with the heads of the FDIC and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) should follow through on the Federal Reserve's commitment to improve the transparency of bank supervision by developing a plan that reconciles the divergent views on transparency and allows for increased transparency in the regular supervisory process. Such a plan should, at a minimum, outline steps for releasing supervisory methodologies and analytical results for stress testing.

    Agency Affected: Federal Reserve System

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To gain a better understanding of SCAP and inform the use of similar stress tests in the future, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve should direct the Division of Banking Supervision and Regulation to compare the performance of the 19 largest BHCs against the more adverse scenario projections following the completion of the 2-year period covered in the SCAP stress test ending December 31, 2010, and disclose the results of the analysis to the public.

    Agency Affected: Federal Reserve System

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To leverage the lessons learned from SCAP to the benefit of other regulated bank and thrift institutions, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve in consultation with the heads of the FDIC and OCC should take further steps to more effectively coordinate and communicate among themselves. For example, ensuring that all applicable regulatory agencies are included in discussions and decisions regarding the development, implementation, and results of multiagency activities, such as horizontal examinations of financial institutions.

    Agency Affected: Federal Reserve System

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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