How Capital and Reserve Requirements Work in Banking

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By Phin Upham


Banks are some of the most regulated institutions in America, and much of that is done to help mitigate risk on the part of both the borrower and lender. As we saw in the 2007 financial crisis, banks who were deemed “too big to fail” presented some of the riskiest propositions. Often, as was the case after 2007, banks are required to up their capital reserves in order to help reduce that risk.

The aim of this kind of regulation is to ensure a firm is managed responsibly. When capital reserves are raised, it’s typically done to protect the bank and its customers. However, it also serves the important function of alleviating some of the burden placed by the cost of deposit insurance. Since the government is liable for that, it’s a good way to help put some distance between risk and the taxpayer who would pay for it.

Financial firms typically express these numbers as economic capital, which helps to represent the amount of risk a bank can take on to ensure that it will function under a failing system.

The most comprehensive accords used in the regulation of reserve requirements are the Basel Accords, named after the city in Switzerland where the accords were drafted. We are currently on Bazel III, which is scheduled to be phased out between now and 2019.

It’s important to note that regulation of this type has to be carefully balanced to ensure the opposite doesn’t happen. Capital regulations are meant to keep banks whole. Today, we are seeing some of those regulations contributing to the dissolution of larger companies to pave way for several smaller entities.

Phin Upham is an investor from NYC and SF. You may contact Phin on his Phin Upham website or Facebook page.