Guide to Supervision in the COVID-19 World
Wednesday, Oct 14, 2020

Guide to Supervision in the COVID-19 World

Foreword

Toronto Centre is pleased to publish this Guide to Supervision in the COVID-19 World.

This Guide focuses not only on the current challenges – adjusting to supervisory staff working from home, addressing the heightened risks facing supervised firms, and the impacts of COVID-19 on financial inclusion – but also on how supervisors, in all sectors of financial services, will need to respond in the longer-term to the emerging new normal. The lessons learned from this pandemic could also be instructive to address future crises such as climate change.

Since March 2020, Toronto Centre has been on the front lines, virtually, of supporting supervisors by addressing their business continuity planning, capacity building, and other transition needs. We were glad to help, and we also gained invaluable insights that contributed to this Guide.

Toronto Centre would like to thank the many supervisory and regulatory agencies as well as international standard setters and other bodies that participated as our dialogue partners to inform this Guide by sharing their experiences of how supervision has changed as a result of COVID-19. We are honoured to be able to provide support to financial sector supervisors through these difficult circumstances by equipping with them with the tools and information presented in the following Guide. I would like to especially thank the co-editors, Clive Briault, Chair, Banking Advisory Board, Toronto Centre, and Phang Hong Lim, Senior Director of Supervisory Guidance, Toronto Centre, for making this quality publication possible.

Since our establishment in 1998, Toronto Centre has focused on one mission only: to provide high-quality capacity building programs for financial sector supervisors. Since inception, we have trained more than 13,000 supervisors from 190 jurisdictions. The objectives underpinning our mission promote sound and inclusive financial systems that will foster sustainable economic growth, gender equality, address climate risk, and reduce poverty.

We are grateful for the support of our funders, Global Affairs Canada, Swedish International Development and Cooperation Agency, the International Monetary Fund, as well as Jersey Overseas Aid, Comic Relief, and USAID, without whom we could not fulfil our mission.

I hope you will benefit from this publication.

Sincerely,

Babak Abbaszadeh, CEO, Toronto Centre

Executive Summary

This Toronto Centre Guide to supervision in the aftermath of COVID-19 is intended to help the leadership of financial supervisory authorities to determine the implications of COVID-19 for how they undertake their supervision of financial institutions and financial markets. It complements and builds upon Toronto Centre Notes[1] and webinars relating to the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Guide provides a framework within which supervisory authorities can review the actions they have already taken and consider what more they need to do. These actions cover both the immediate and the longer-term consequences of COVID-19, and they span the financial sectors.

Chapter 1 describes the various impacts of COVID-19, including on economic conditions, the risks facing the financial sector, the operating capacity of supervisory authorities, and financial inclusion. It also explores the emergence of the new normal – the longer-term external environment to which supervised firms and supervisory authorities will need to adjust and adapt.

Chapters 2–8 set out a series of practical steps that supervisory authorities can and should take in response to:

  • the capacity constraints on supervisory authorities and the heightened risks in the financial sector (Chapter 2);
  • COVID-19 related credit, insurance, pension fund, securities markets, and corporate governance risks in supervised firms (Chapters 3-6);
  • the impact of COVID-19 on microfinance providers and financial inclusion (Chapter 7); and
  • the emergence of the new normal (Chapter 8).

Key messages

  • Supervisory authorities and supervised firms need to adapt to the operational constraints and heightened risks resulting from COVID-19.
  • Heightened credit risks and the potential for a longer-term deterioration of credit quality should be constantly re-assessed by supervisory authorities and supervised firms, given the broad-based and continuing impact of COVID-19 on most economic activities.
  • Insurance and pension fund supervisors should assess the impact from this health crisis, amid a potentially long-term low interest rate environment, on the continuing viability of their supervised firms.
  • Securities supervisors need to focus on maintaining orderly and functional markets, together with proper conduct oversight for all participants, particularly the retail segment, amidst increased market volatility and reduced market liquidity.
  • Strong corporate governance in supervised firms is critical to provide assurance to supervisors on the ability of supervised firms to navigate the numerous challenges raised by COVID-19, which may be long-lasting and not easily reversed.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the urgency for supervisors to meet the challenges of underdeveloped digital financial services and infrastructure, not least given the disproportionate impact on the poor, particularly women, who are financially excluded.
  • Supervisory authorities should adapt their supervision to the immediate constraints imposed by COVID-19, while planning for the longer-term impacts on supervised firms.
  • Supervising the new normal requires supervisory authorities to plan for, and react to, the constantly changing environment, and to identify the varied impacts on individual supervised firms, while adapting their own supervisory practices with the help of technology.
  • Supervisory authorities need to focus on capacity building so that their supervisors have the knowledge, skills, and experience to make good critical judgements.

Chapter 1

Context: What has changed as a result of COVID-19?

Introduction

COVID-19 has had a marked impact on supervisory authorities across the world.

The tragic human cost and the impact of lockdowns and travel restrictions have reduced the operational capacity of both supervisory authorities and supervised firms.

The economic slowdown has increased the main risks facing all types of financial institution, including credit, insurance, market, and liquidity risks, and has reduced financial inclusion.

Longer-term, the emergence of a new normal will have a fundamental impact on financial institutions and on how they are supervised.

Impact of COVID-19 on supervisory authorities

Economic conditions and macropolicy responses

The COVID-19 outbreak has had a sharp negative impact on economies worldwide. In April 2020, the International Monetary Fund (IMF, 2020a) was projecting a fall in global real GDP of 3 percent in 2020, down sharply from the 3.3 percent increase in global real GDP it had projected in January 2020. By June 2020, the IMF (2020c) had revised its projection down to a fall in global GDP of 4.9 percent in 2020, while the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2020) was projecting a fall of 6 percent. Initial hopes for a rapid V-shaped recovery and a return to normality later in 2020 have faded rapidly, to be replaced by a more prolonged and more uncertain economic impact.

Part of the reason for these sharp declines in real GDP is that the COVID-19 outbreak has had a negative impact on both demand (lower household and corporate incomes, and a sharp drop in economic confidence) and supply (the closure of factories, shops, offices, and tourist facilities, and disrupted supply chains). The economic downturn is also reflected in increased unemployment and poverty – COVID-19 has hit the poor, and poor women, hardest – corporate failures and downgrades, sharp falls in asset and commodity prices, and declines in world trade and international capital flows. In some countries, this worsened an already weak underlying position in terms of economic growth and fiscal deficits.

The economic downturn may leave behind deep scars: higher levels of unemployment, missing education of children, reduced investment (in particular foreign direct investment in emerging economies), trade disruption, and greater financial exclusion as a result of both increased poverty and an unwillingness or inability of some financial institutions to provide financial services and products (in particular lending to SMEs and some insurance products).

To some extent, the economic consequences of COVID-19 have been mitigated by the actions of the authorities – governments, central banks, macroprudential authorities, and supervisory authorities. But in some countries, this fire power may be exhausted before economies have fully recovered, leaving them exposed to economic weaknesses. Moreover, the virus has not yet departed, and there may be second (or multiple) waves – second spikes have already been seen in some countries.

Governments have responded to the economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak by increasing – in some cases dramatically – the overall level of government spending, and by offering various types of loan guarantees, payment deferrals (either mandated through legislation, or voluntary), and tax and other relief to individuals and corporates. Some governments have injected capital into, or even nationalized, some failing corporates.[1]

Central banks have intervened in various ways to preserve liquidity in money and asset markets to allow the financial system to continue to function effectively, and to stimulate the economy. They have cut policy rates, reactivated quantitative easing asset purchases (and in some cases extended the range of assets they are prepared to purchase), provided additional liquidity to the financial system through refinancing and other facilities, and expanded the provision of US dollar liquidity through swap line arrangements.[2]

Many macroprudential authorities have removed or reduced some of the capital buffers that banks are required to meet to lessen the extent to which capital requirements constrain the ability of banks to roll forward existing lending and to provide new lending to support the economy. This is consistent with the basic principle of macroprudential instruments being applied during the upswing of the financial cycle in response to threats to financial stability from excessive credit growth or asset price bubbles, but being removed or reduced during the downswing to prevent the supply of credit being constrained by prudential capital requirements.[1]

Similarly, some supervisory authorities have lowered their required capital and liquidity ratios, and applied forbearance to avoid breaches of minimum capital, solvency, or liquidity requirements from triggering the usual supervisory interventions, to prevent a reduction in the supply of financial services, the fire sale of assets, and potential contagion effects. In some countries this has been combined with restrictions on dividends and bonus payments by some financial institutions. Supervisory authorities have also been flexible in making allowances for the various operational constraints affecting supervised firms.

Heightened risks

Financial sector risks have increased as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, although the full extent and duration of these shifts remains uncertain. Other, so far unsuspected, risks may arise before the crisis is over. These impacts may continue to worsen and may affect more sectors of the economy the longer the delay is to some form of normality. Financial institutions starting with weak financial and operational resilience will be particularly vulnerable.

Supervisory authorities and supervised firms need to adapt to the operational constraints and heightened risks resulting from COVID-19.

Credit – lower incomes (even if only temporary) mean that many borrowers cannot meet scheduled interest and principal payments. Some corporates have already failed and been placed into administration or liquidation. More will fail. Some heavily-indebted corporates and households may never be able to repay their debts in full. Meanwhile, the value and liquidity of many types of collateral (for example, property, equity, and commodities) have fallen sharply. Lenders with concentrations to specific sectors that have been hardest hit by COVID-19, such as households, hospitality, tourism, airlines, commercial property, and shipping, will be particularly vulnerable.

Other types of credit risk have also increased – some borrowers have drawn down committed facilities and the counterparty credit risks inherent in securities and derivatives transactions may have both increased in value and worsened in quality.

Payment holidays and borrowers running into payment difficulties more generally will also have an adverse impact on banks’ and microfinance providers’ cash inflows and therefore on their liquidity positions. The impact of this may be eased to some extent by central bank actions to inject liquidity into the system and to make more generous liquidity facilities available to individual banks, but some banks and microfinance providers may still face liquidity shortfalls.

Insurance – COVID-19 has had an adverse impact on both sides of insurers’ balance sheets. On the asset side, reductions in asset values, the downgrading of securities, and increased market volatility have eroded asset value, forced some redistribution of assets, and increased uncertainty.

On the liabilities side, general (non-life) insurers are facing higher claims on some lines of business, including workers’ health, travel, event cancellation, and business disruption (where insurers have agreed to meet some claims, or face legal challenges to whether business disruption insurance covers the impact of pandemics and government lockdowns). Life insurers are facing higher mortality claims, although this may be offset to some extent by the impact of lower life expectancy on annuity payments.

In addition, lower incomes and unemployment are resulting in policy cancellations and lower volumes of both new and renewal business. Together with some extended grace periods for paying premiums, this has strained the liquidity positions of some insurers. Increased demands for policy loans and surrenders of wealth management products could exacerbate this problem. The continuing low interest rate environment creates asset-liability matching challenges for insurers.

Pensions – the decline in asset values, market volatility, hardship withdrawals, and sponsors finding it difficult to pay or match contributions pose challenges for defined benefit and defined contribution pension schemes. Defined benefit plans may also be faced with asset-liability matching problems in the low interest rate environment.

Market – asset and commodity prices have fallen and become more volatile. Many financial assets have become less liquid, as have assets such as commercial property. Market liquidity is likely to remain under strain for some time, notwithstanding the support of central banks.

Operational – home working in financial institutions may have an adverse impact on a range of operational risks, including IT and data security (for example, insurers routinely handle highly confidential medical and other personal information), internal and external fraud, cyber-attacks, and internal network capacity, as well as on a range of control mechanisms, including anti-money laundering and know-your-customer protections, decision-making procedures, and internal inspections. COVID-19 may also have weakened the financial or operational resilience of third-party providers of services to financial institutions.

Conduct – financial institutions tightening their risk tolerance may exclude some customers from some business lines, increase prices unjustifiably, and be quicker to take action against customers facing financial difficulties. Employees working from home for financial institutions may act improperly in providing financial advice, opening new accounts, writing insurance policies, settling claims, and handling complaints. Consumers switching to digital financial products and services could become the victims of financial crime or misconduct as unscrupulous players identify opportunities for fraud, scams, or other wrongdoing.

In wholesale markets, changes to working arrangements have made it more difficult to monitor trading activities for market abuse and manipulation. This comes at a time when supervised firms’ controls are under strain, along with supervisors’ ability to monitor these controls.

Governance and controls – in addition to facing heightened risks, some financial institutions are having to reconfigure their businesses in the light of the crisis. Governance, risk management, and internal controls need to adapt to these heightened risks and new business models at a time when boards, senior management, and control functions are having to interact virtually and to rely on revised decision-making processes and management information.

Earnings and capital – lower revenue streams and higher losses will squeeze profitability and could reduce capital and solvency ratios.

Supervisory capacity

The increase in financial sector risks has coincided with pressures on supervisory capacity arising from lockdowns, travel restrictions and the need to maintain social distancing. The most immediate and significant change has been the sudden and large-scale move to working from home, which has not always gone smoothly. Pressure points have included:

  • Space – the home physical environment for each member of staff, and health and safety issues such as longer-term ergonomic considerations.
  • Hardware – the availability of laptops, home PCs, and cameras and microphones for calls and conferencing.
  • Connectivity – software for access to head office IT systems, internet, phone lines, and electricity.
  • Data – access to regulatory reports, files, and other data and information (paper and electronic).
  • Security – of IT systems, confidential data and information, and email, telephone, and video contact with colleagues and with supervised firms, other authorities, and other stakeholders.
  • Decision-making – processes and procedures for decision-making, documentation, and record-keeping.
  • Management – maintaining effective group and one-to-one staff meetings, and monitoring and addressing the build-up of stress and mental health-related issues.
  • Culture and cohesion – over time, and with the entry of new staff, it becomes more difficult to communicate and maintain the culture of the supervisory authority.

Supervisors have also found themselves unable to visit the premises of supervised firms to conduct on-site visits, or to travel to meetings with other authorities and stakeholders, domestically and internationally. Alternatives and work-arounds have been put into place, including through telephone and video conferencing; the increased use of technology for the transfer of data, information, and files; the physical delivery of files from a supervised firm to the supervisory authority; the reporting by supervisory firms of more granular data; and the use by supervisory authorities of alternative sources of information on supervised firms (for example from social media).

However, it is more difficult to read body language, facial expressions, and social interactions in virtual meetings with the boards, senior management, and other staff of supervised firms, and therefore it is more difficult to make some supervisory judgements. It is also more difficult to substitute for on-site file examinations and checks on the reliability and quality of data and other information reported to the supervisor – paper records can be scanned into electronic form, or even delivered physically to a supervisory authority, but home working may make it more difficult for the supervisor to review these records efficiently and effectively.

Financial inclusion

Many supervisory authorities in emerging economies have mandates and objectives to promote financial inclusion. The COVID-19 outbreak has had an immediate adverse impact on financial inclusion, by increasing the number of people in poverty and reducing the willingness or ability of some financial institutions (including microfinance and microinsurance entities) to provide financial products and services to some parts of the population. Any reliance on face-to-face contact in financial inclusion activities has been hard hit by the need to socially distance in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, by the closure of branches, and by reduced networks of agents. Supervisory (and other) authorities have suspended face-to-face financial literacy and education initiatives.

Meanwhile, however, the COVID-19 outbreak has accelerated digitalization. The use of technology has enabled a significant number of people to cope with the impact and spread of COVID-19 through digital financial transactions using mobile phones and the internet, the opening of digitally-enabled bank accounts, electronic retail payment systems, digital identification, and wide-scale home working. Government payouts have been made through digital channels, fees for digital retail payment systems have been reduced or waived, transaction limits for digital payments have been increased, and know-your-customer procedures have been relaxed or at least made more risk-based. This has maintained, or even enabled, financial inclusion for many people. However, it has not benefited those without access to digital services (or who are too illiterate to use digital channels) or those reliant on the use of cash, and it has opened up risks from cyberattacks, fraud, and scams.

Climate change

Although the COVID-19 outbreak has reduced, at least temporarily, carbon emissions and other damaging impacts on the environment, it has also halted or reduced progress on climate action. This is mirrored in part in delays to supervisory authorities developing and implementing a greater focus on how financial institutions are identifying, managing, and disclosing their climate change-related risks. There are opportunities for governments and others to borrow and invest in infrastructure to tackle threats such as climate change, but it remains uncertain how far this will be embedded in post COVID-19 economic restructuring.

Looking further ahead: the new normal

It is becoming increasingly clear that the world is not going simply to return to the old normal, nor indeed to reach any settled position in the near future. COVID-19 will have a prolonged and fundamental impact on financial institutions and on how they are supervised.

Financial institutions will face shifting patterns of risk and will need to accelerate their responses to developments in the use of technology. Many will need to revisit and adjust their strategies and business models.

Supervisory authorities will need to understand and adjust to these shifting risks and to the ways in which consumers interact with financial institutions. They will also need to accelerate their own use of technology.

While not presenting this as a forecast or prediction, or suggesting that all of these changes will be permanent, supervisors should consider the potential impacts on supervised firms, on financial stability more generally, and on supervisory authorities themselves, from scenarios that include:

Macroeconomic conditions – the sharp – and potentially prolonged – decline in global real GDP and in asset and commodity prices, shifts in the level and term structure of interest rates, shifts in credit spreads, shifts in the value of industry sectors, and a deterioration in the creditworthiness of some sovereign borrowers will all have an impact on the value of the assets held by financial institutions. The economic recovery may be slower and shallower than expected. The need to unwind government and central bank support at some point will create uncertainty in identifying the firms (financial and non-financial) which will – or will not – exit such support in good shape, which in turn may delay the speed of recovery.

Financial flows – capital flows (including foreign direct investment) and remittances have fallen sharply, and their volume and pattern are likely to have changed permanently. Financial markets will become more fragmented.

Physical flows – some restrictions on the cross-border movement of people and goods may remain. In addition, many companies are already beginning to rethink their supply chains and to take a different view of the balance between resilience and risk. Financial institutions may reflect this in how they manage their reliance on outsourcing. The global economy will become more fragmented.

Technology – the current crisis has accelerated the shift towards technology-enabled, contactless, and customer-centric production and consumption of goods and services, working practices, and financial systems. The business model of financial institutions will become more digital-based as they accelerate the adoption of technology. There will be a further shift away from the use of cash to digital retail payment systems. Supervisory authorities will rely increasingly on data and data analytics.

Concentration – there is likely to be a further increase in the concentration and power of large corporates as a result of consolidation in some industries, reinforced by the economies of scale inherent in technology and the use of big data. This may include the financial sector, where supervisors will need to be alert to the systemic risks this could generate.

Moral hazard – government support for ailing companies, and prospectively for weak financial institutions, may create expectations that such support will be forthcoming in future crises, and thereby lead to an increase in risk-taking behaviours. There is a risk that the increased role of governments and central banks in the economy – through higher fiscal deficits, money-printing (central bank purchases of government bonds and other assets), bail-outs, and wide-ranging purchases in capital markets – and its attendant risks of vulnerability to capture by lobbyists and short-term political imperatives will distort markets, hold back economic growth, and generate greater uncertainty.

Wider concerns – there could be renewed outbreaks of COVID-19 or different viruses and diseases, causing further inequality, social divisions, and geopolitical tensions.

Chapter 2

Supervision processes, procedures, and leadership

What is different?

The COVID-19 crisis is creating unprecedented pressures on both supervisory authorities and supervised firms. Most supervisory authorities have activated their business continuity plans (where they had them in place ahead of the crisis) or taken broadly equivalent actions, the main immediate focus of which was on staff working from home (see Chapter 1). This proved to be reasonably successful once initial issues with IT provision, connectivity, internet access, and remote access to supervisory data and information had been resolved.

Meanwhile, as discussed in Chapter 1, many types of risk have increased in supervised firms and will remain elevated for some time.

Key issues

At the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, the first key issue for supervisory authorities was to activate their business continuity plans (BCPs). A supervisory authority will not be able to meet its statutory objectives if it is not able to function in a crisis. Now that BCPs (or equivalent arrangements) have been activated, it is important for supervisory authorities to keep their operation under close review as the crisis unfolds and to ensure that lessons are learned for the future updating and development of their BCPs.[1]

Business continuity planning is fundamentally about identifying the most important and time-critical activities undertaken by the supervisory authority and ensuring that these can be carried out. The second key issue for supervisory authorities is therefore to reprioritize their activities in response to the shifting external risk environment and internal capacity pressures. Supervisors need to take the necessary prioritized measures to mitigate the short-, medium-, and long-term effects of a protracted period of stress.

A third key issue, to which we return in Chapter 8, is that amidst the contingency plans, social distancing rules, and travel restrictions, supervisors should review their modes of supervision and leverage technology where possible. In place of on-site inspections, supervisors can conduct off-site reviews of documents and video calls when clarifications are needed. These can be supplemented with more granular data collection and enhanced analyses to monitor key risk areas. Such a data-driven approach could facilitate more focused risk-based supervision, particularly of smaller financial institutions.[2]

Supervisory authorities should adapt their supervision to the immediate constraints imposed by COVID-19, while planning for the longer-term impacts on supervised firms.

Supervisory responses

The board and senior management of a supervisory authority need to demonstrate leadership and a clear sense of direction during a crisis. This should include the following ten elements.

Supervisory responses to COVID-19

1. Set strategic objectives

The strategic objectives of a supervisory authority will be determined by its statutory responsibilities, which are likely to include some combination of the safety and soundness of supervised firms, financial stability, consumer protection, market conduct and integrity, anti-money laundering, and financial inclusion. In addition, in a crisis a supervisory authority may also have an objective to work with other authorities to manage the crisis and to minimize the impact of the crisis on users of financial products and services.

2. Form a coherent view of how risks and risk tolerances have changed, and act accordingly

Supervisors should base their planning and actions on a clear view of how risks to their supervisory objectives have changed, and on how the risk tolerance of the supervisory authority may have shifted.

Some risks to supervisory objectives have increased in the current crisis. As discussed in Chapter 1, there are already significantly heightened levels of credit, insurance, market, liquidity, and operational risk. There is greater risk of systemic disturbance and certain types of financial crime. Supervisors cannot, and should not aim to, remove all risk; there will always be risks to the achievement of their objectives.[1] These risks need to be managed using the limited resources available to the supervisory authority, recognizing that while the crystallization of any risk is unwelcome, tolerances for them will differ.

Facing a combination of heightened risk and depleted resource, a supervisory authority should be more willing to tolerate low or moderate risks, at least temporarily. While the reassessment of risk tolerances sounds like a theoretical exercise and a distraction, it is something that all supervisors under pressure will find themselves doing in practice. This reassessment should also include the identification of new and emerging risks, and of new drivers of risk. Using a coherent framework allows a more thorough and rigorous process and provides staff with a clear rationale for what they are being asked to do. Tolerances for risk are also likely to vary over time.

3. Prioritize supervisory activities

Supervisory authorities need to prioritize their supervisory activities in response to heightened risks and reduced supervisory capacity. Significant changes in priorities should be determined by senior management and agreed on by the board of the supervisory authority.

Prioritization should already be a central feature of supervision. Supervised firms and issues should be classified according to the level of risk they pose to the achievement of the supervisor’s statutory objectives.[1] The level and distribution of risk should then be the key drivers of the allocation of supervisory resources.

Prioritization is key in a crisis. In extreme circumstances like the COVID-19 outbreak, risks will increase across the financial system. The gap between the perceived importance of high-impact or systemic firms and issues, and other firms and issues may widen. If the first priority is to prevent a high-impact or systemic event, it makes sense to maintain or increase the focus on systemic or high-impact financial institutions, even at the expense of reducing the scrutiny of lower-impact ones, at least in the short term.

The most critical supervisory activities that need to be carried out continuously are likely to include activities to maintain the prudential soundness of potentially systemic financial institutions in the financial system; and to maintain compliance with retail and wholesale conduct rules, anti-money laundering, and crisis preparedness (in case the heightened risks crystallize). These may require enhanced off-site supervision, based on additional regulatory reporting and intensified analysis of data and information – so data quality issues become critical.

Less critical activities should be capable of being delayed (for example, new authorizations, the implementation of some already announced policies and the formulation of some new policy initiatives, allowing extensions to supervised firms for the submission of ICAAPs, ORSAs, etc., and the analysis of returns for lower-impact firms); undertaken less frequently (for example, risk assessments for medium-low and medium-impact firms, some regulatory reporting, routine stress tests, and thematic reviews); or repurposed (for example, using stress testing and thematic reviews to assess the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak).

It may also be necessary to place greater reliance on supervised firms, where they have demonstrated good governance, risk management, and internal audit, and on accurate data and information reporting by supervised firms, for example in relying more heavily than usual on firms’ own management or ‘pre-packaged’ information as well as the results of firms’ own internal reviews and risk assessments. This could be combined with reminders to firms that a high level of reliance is being placed on them and that there will be serious consequences if this proves to be misplaced. This may be supplemented with an open-ended invitation to smaller firms or groups representing them to draw supervisors’ attention to generic or industry-wide issues that may be giving rise to new, unexpected, or heightened risks.

For supervised firms with a cross-border presence, prioritization and deprioritization should also be discussed in (virtual) supervisory colleges, with scope for shifting the extent of reliance on home and host supervisors.

However, the reduced level of attention to less critical supervised firms and activities should be kept under close review as the crisis unfolds. Collectively, lower-impact/risk firms and issues remain a source of potential detriment to consumers and the wider financial system, and as such warrant some supervisory attention.[2] A backlog of smaller issues (and the attendant risks) may build up if the crisis is protracted and could prove overwhelming when the crisis is over.

4. Ensure that there are channels of communication, however unconventional, with the highest-impact financial institutions and those involved in market-wide issues

Having identified the highest-priority supervised firms and supervisory activities, it is essential to maintain information channels that enable supervisors to understand the risks being faced and how these are evolving and being managed. While the usual forms of on-site work may not be possible, supervisors should look for alternatives and work-arounds, including more extensive contact by video, phone, e-mail, or other virtual channels; direct access (where possible) to supervised firms’ own systems; firms scanning and sending files to the supervisor; and if possible some on-site visits for the most high-risk issues.

This may create heightened risks for supervisors that traditionally place heavy reliance on on-site activities such as physical file checking. As with all remote working, issues of data and information security may arise that need to be considered – but they may be unavoidable and, on a balance of risks, judged to be acceptable.

There should be an initial contact with each high-impact supervised firm to discuss its operational resilience, review its recovery plans, and to agree on communication and reporting arrangements during the crisis. It is likely that there will be a need for (at least) daily contact and close interaction thereafter, as well as various forms of enhanced monitoring – for example of liquidity, bank capital, insurers’ solvency, and securities firms’ position taking and valuations.

Supervisors should also monitor and review the implementation of contingency plans by major financial institutions. This would enable supervisors to assess whether key institutions would be able to maintain operational continuity under different pandemic scenarios and require enhancement to their business continuity plans where appropriate. Of particular interest would be any interdependencies across institutions and whether supervisors could help facilitate coordination amongst industry players.

5. Ensure that there is proper management, governance, and recording of important supervisory decisions

Most supervisory authorities derive their powers from legislation. These are delegated by the governing board of the supervisory authority, which retains overall responsibility for the authority’s actions and for the achievement of its statutory objectives. The board should be fully apprised of the authority’s response to any crisis, including any changes in delegated authority or the use of powers.

The board of the supervisory authority should be aware of, and ideally sign off on, changes in policies and priorities as well as significant management issues. It should constructively challenge the executive to explain key decisions that have been made and the analysis done to support them, while taking care not to add to the burden on the executive at what is certain to be a busy time. Some form of ‘light touch’ monitoring mechanism, potentially involving board committees, may need to be put in place in between scheduled board meetings.

It is also important that significant decisions and changes in procedures are properly documented. It is easy to lose sight of this in the heat of a crisis, but some measures will have long-lasting effects and supervisory authorities may be held to account for their decisions and actions once the crisis is past. They will need to provide documentary evidence of their decisions and the rationale for them.

6. Put in place a rational approach to supervisory forbearance

A crisis affecting a significant part of the financial sector will inevitably create strains resulting in requests for supervisory forbearance. Financial institutions may ask to be allowed temporarily to breach capital, solvency, liquidity, provisioning, or reporting requirements.

The responses to some of these requests will be more straightforward than others. It is possible, for example, to weigh the benefit to a financial institution of postponing reporting on some required metric for, say, one month against the risk of a serious problem not being identified. In some cases, it will be expedient and appropriate to provide blanket exemptions in the case of ‘lower-order’ forbearance decisions with potentially low impact.

For other decisions however, the issues are much more complex. Deteriorations in credit quality may cause banks to breach minimum capital requirements (even after the removal of some macroprudential capital buffers). Insurers and position-taking securities firms may breach solvency requirements as a result of mark-to-market losses on tradable assets. Supervisors should try to avoid blanket forbearance measures here, because the potential costs are high. Instead, supervisors should consider the market-wide impact of forced liquidations of financial institutions on the economy and markets, and make case-by-case assessments of institutions’ recovery options (raising additional capital or increasing retained earnings by withholding dividend and bonus payments).

One supervisory tool here would be stress testing, to assess the impact of alternative medium-term scenarios on supervised firms’ capital and solvency. Stress test scenarios should reflect the new post COVID-19 financial landscape and interdependencies between financial institutions for a more realistic picture of the applicable risks. Forbearance would be more justified for those financial institutions where stress tests and credible recovery options showed clear paths by which these institutions could restore adequate capital or solvency.

7. Maintain effective channels of communication with other key stakeholders involved in managing the crisis

Where there exists a well-developed framework for financial stability oversight and policy, there should already be extensive coordination among supervisory authorities, central banks, macroprudential authorities, resolution authorities, and finance ministries. The need for such coordination is particularly acute during a crisis, especially one with market-wide implications such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, some countries do not have well-developed coordination frameworks and where this is the case, it is important for supervisory authorities to establish collaboration with a wide range of potential stakeholders, including the central bank (as the provider of liquidity, facilitator of market operations, and often the macroprudential authority), the Ministry of Finance (as the provider of economic support and guarantees in response to COVID-19, and the potential provider of support for failing financial institutions), deposit and policyholder protection schemes, the resolution authority, other supervisory authorities (domestically and internationally), and the media and the general public.

8. Scenario test the possibility that the crisis will deepen or be more protracted than expected, with further impacts on risks and the availability of resources

The crisis may intensify in severity or duration. Market conditions – asset prices, liquidity, and potential credit delinquencies – may deteriorate further. Operational strains may mean that supervised firms are less able to function and/or the supervisory authority itself may come under further operational strain. Unscrupulous market participants who have previously been regarded as being low risk may see opportunities to take advantage of disruption to create detriment to consumers.

While it is clearly not possible to anticipate all possibilities, supervisors should conduct a high-level scenario-based exercise to consider how risks or operational constraints might intensify or emerge as the crisis evolves; how to respond if one or multiple major financial institutions ran into serious solvency or liquidity issues; and how to respond if a group of the supervised firms or supervisory activities to which less resources are currently being devoted emerged as a major source of risk during the crisis.

9. Enhance crisis preparedness

Supervisors should plan for adverse outcomes, in particular where the economic recovery is less immediate and/or less strong and could threaten the viability of some financial institutions or even generate financial instability.

Supervisors need to plan in advance for the possibility that some supervised firms will become non-viable as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. This will require supervisors to implement their exit policy for dealing with failed (or failing) financial institutions, be this through putting these institutions into liquidation, using the Financial Stability Board range of resolution tools,[1] or possibly requesting some form of government support. Supervisors should also ensure that they are ready for the possibility of a system-wide crisis and for the need to cooperate and share information with other authorities accordingly.

10. Keep sight of wider issues such as climate change, financial inclusion, and gender equality

In dealing with a crisis, supervisors will rightly be focused on very immediate issues concerning the ability of supervised firms to continue to operate and the ability of consumers to reliably access financial services. There is a risk that other core issues – such as climate change-related risks, financial inclusion, or gender equality – may be ignored, or that the crisis itself, or decisions made in a crisis, may have adverse implications for these other issues. This is likely to become more of a problem as any crisis becomes more protracted.

Supervisory authorities should take the opportunity of their regular reviews of how their prioritization decisions and crisis management are functioning to maintain a strategic perspective on wider and longer-term issues. Important initiatives should not be abandoned because of a crisis, even if they are deliberately deprioritized for a period.

Chapter 3

Credit risk

What is different?

As discussed in Chapter 1, the sharp downturn in economic conditions has had a significant adverse impact on credit quality. The impact of this is beginning to be revealed – many banks reported sharply higher non-performing exposures and loan loss provisions in the second quarter of 2020. The inability of some borrowers to meet interest and principal payments has also had an adverse impact on banks’ liquidity. Policy responses by governments, central banks, and macroprudential authorities have provided only partial mitigation. Lenders that entered 2020 with weak financial position may be particularly exposed to the impacts of COVID-19 on credit quality and liquidity.

Governments, supervisors, banks, and microfinance providers have mandated, encouraged, or granted payment holidays to some borrowers, under which repayments of interest and principal are delayed (but not written off).[1] This is intended to allow loans to be rearranged or restructured in ways that may benefit both lenders and borrowers, to avoid putting borrowers with immediate repayment difficulties into default, and to avoid a sharp contraction in lending and a fire sale of assets held as collateral. It is not intended to lead to a permanent evergreening of loans.

Banks in some countries have also agreed not to trigger covenants in loan agreements relating to minimum levels of collateral and maximum loan-to-value ratios; to apply lower than usual interest rates on some types of enforced borrowing (for example the drawing down of overdraft facilities); to ensure that using any of these temporary payment freeze measures will not lower consumers’ credit scores; and to offer new loans to enable borrowers with reasonable longer-term prospects to survive the current downturn.

Other types of financial institution also face credit risk, from lending, investments, guarantees, counterparties, and other types of exposure, not least insurers and securities firms. Parts of this chapter are therefore also relevant to them.

Key issues

The economic policy responses to the COVID-19 outbreak leave considerable uncertainty about the future, both at the macro level (the nature and shape of the economic recovery) and at the micro level (which individuals and corporates will be able to repay their debts in the future, and which will not). The creditworthiness of some borrowers will deteriorate over the longer term, while some other borrowers will need support in the short-term, but may not suffer a longer-term deterioration in their creditworthiness. Much will depend on the nature and pace of economic recovery.

This makes it difficult for banks to account for the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak in terms of loan classification, expected credit losses, provisioning, credit risk weightings, and the impact on their capital ratios. In many countries, the relevant accounting standard is International Financial Reporting Standard 9 Financial Instruments (IFRS 9), or its US equivalent under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).

IFRS 9 sets out a framework for determining the amount of expected credit losses (ECL) that should be recognized and requires that lifetime ECLs should be recognized when there is a significant increase in credit risk (SICR) on a financial instrument. As the International Accounting Standards Board (2020) and international and national supervisory authorities[2] have emphasized, IFRS 9 is principles-based, and these principles could be used by banks to reflect their judgements on the positions of individual borrowers and on economic conditions more generally. There are three steps in this approach:

The accounting standards already contain some flexibility over how a bank should assess SICRs and determine ECLs based on the best available information about past events, current conditions, and forecasts of economic conditions over the total expected life of each credit exposure.

The authorities have issued guidance and revised rules to indicate how this flexibility could be applied in the current context.[3] Banks should apply judgement and adjust their approach to determining ECLs according to the current circumstances, rather than applying their existing ECL methodology in a mechanical manner.

The guidance and rule changes also refer to some specific accounting treatments in current circumstances. Payment holidays need not lead automatically to treating a loan as non-performing or in default.

Supervisory authorities have also provided guidance on the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the calculation of regulatory capital ratios.[4] This enables banks to reduce the extent to which non-payments of interest and principal feed through to higher provisioning and higher capital weightings, and to their measured regulatory capital ratios.

The full implementation of Basel III has been delayed by a year to January 2023.[5] Supervisory authorities have also relaxed and extended the transitional measures applying to the alignment of accounting and prudential measures of capital adequacy, allowing banks to avoid the full capital impact of expected credit losses in the initial years of moving to the new accounting standard.[6]

The prolonged nature of the COVID-19 outbreak intensifies the tensions between supporting lending through these relief measures and preserving the safety and soundness of lenders and financial stability more generally.

Supervisory responses

Many of the policy responses to COVID-19 involve the authorities accepting a higher level of risk (less prudent capital standards) in pursuit of the wider goal of keeping borrowers afloat during a difficult time and promoting economic recovery. But there are limits to how far this can go without leaving banks in an unsound position. It is in no one’s interests to end up with under-capitalized (or even failed) banks with large amounts of lending to ‘zombie’ borrowers, and with inadequate provisions against non-performing loans.

Supervisory authorities need to recognize and address this dilemma in the face of the highly imperfect information about the nature and duration of the current economic downturn – credit conditions have certainly changed markedly for the worse, but the extent and duration of the deterioration are not known and will not be known for some time.

 

Supervisory responses: credit risk

Supervisors should focus in particular on the following six areas:  

1. Recognize that there may be tensions, or even conflicts, across the objectives of different authorities

Macroprudential authorities have reduced or removed some capital buffers (see Chapter 1). Some conduct supervisors have encouraged banks to offer payment holidays, to charge low rates of interest on overdrafts, and to avoid, as much as possible, situations in which residential mortgage borrowers might be at risk of losing their homes.[1]

There is a potential tension here between the different objectives of macro- and microprudential authorities, and between conduct and prudential supervisors. Therefore, there are some difficult balances to be drawn between increasing the lending capacity of banks, protecting consumers, and maintaining the safety and soundness of banks. For example, micro-prudential supervisors might take a more cautious view of allowing banks to reduce their regulatory capital ratios at a time when risks to the safety and soundness of banks have increased, and non-performing loans and loan losses are increasing and could increase further.

There is therefore a need for close cooperation and coordination between macro- and microprudential authorities and conduct supervisors, and a means for resolving any conflicts.[2]

2. Promote a consistent and prudent approach to how banks assess and report expected credit losses and significant increases in credit risk

Supervisors should issue guidance[1] to banks on how they should assess SICRs, measure ECLs, take account of deteriorations in the value of collateral, make provisions, and calculate regulatory capital ratios in the COVID-19 outbreak economic environment. Guidance that payment holidays need not result in loans being classified as impaired is intended to allow banks the flexibility to take a case-by-case approach to assessing the likelihood of repayment. It is not intended to allow banks to avoid having to classify any such loans as being impaired on a blanket basis. The main objective here is to ensure a sound identification of credit impaired assets on bank balance sheets.

Supervisors may also need to issue guidance on how banks should report – to supervisors, investors, and other stakeholders – their approach to assessing credit quality and the impact of this on their balance sheets. Transparency, consistency and comparability in risk metrics is a pre-condition for banks, supervisors, investors, and the general public to monitor the effects of the current crisis on banks in a coherent way.

3. Ensure that banks have robust, coherent, and defensible processes for assessing credit risks

Supervisors should review whether banks have robust and defensible approaches to the management of their credit risk, and should intervene where necessary if these approaches are judged to be inadequate. This review should cover how banks are:

  • taking a borrower-by-borrower approach to assessing creditworthiness and loan classification, distinguishing between borrowers on a consistent and justifiable basis;
  • making responsible, measured, and accountable use of the flexibility allowed in accounting and capital standards;
  • operating effective internal processes, and senior management and board oversight of the decisions they take;
  • making adequate provisions and write-downs once non-performing exposures are identified;
  • taking account of deteriorating sovereign risk on existing sovereign exposures and on loans (or borrowers) that have received government guarantees or other support during the COVID-19 outbreak; and
  • making regular reassessments of credit conditions. Banks should not be allowed to manage their credit risk on the basis of over-optimistic expectations of a strong and rapid economic recovery, or of continuing government support.

This review should be based on an analysis of how each bank has approached the assessment of the creditworthiness of borrowers and loan classifications in response to the COVID-19 outbreak (for all borrowers, not just those granted payment holidays). The review should include the assumptions and modelling used by banks for these assessments; supervisors’ own reviews of bank credit files and models (these could be sent by banks to their supervisors as a substitute for more traditional on-site examinations); and supervisors’ own assessments of the creditworthiness of major borrowers, industry sectors, and consumer lending.

Banks and their supervisors may both place greater reliance on external auditors to review banks’ approaches to the shifting nature of credit risk in current circumstances.

4. Review data on the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on credit quality

Supervisors should review current reporting requirements – and amend them as necessary – to ensure that they are receiving on a regular basis the relevant data points, ratios, and other information to enable them to identify potential issues arising from the COVID-19 outbreak.[1] This should include:

 

  • data to assist in the early identification of potential problem loans or higher risk borrowers – both corporate and household – through monitoring of delinquency in repayments;
  • standard metrics for non-performing loans (NPLs) – levels of NPLs, flows into and out of NPLs, provisioning, write-offs, and losses taken;[2]
  • data on how the COVID-19 outbreak has affected loan classifications and loan loss provisioning, both overall and by sector (some lenders may have concentrations of credit risk to some of the worst affected sectors, for example households, hospitality, tourism, airlines, commercial property, and shipping);
  • data on the type and amount of loans where the borrower has been granted a payment holiday, and data on how each lender has divided these loans into (a) loans where the bank has made use of the flexibility in accounting standards to treat the loans as continuing to perform, and (b) loans classified as non-performing;
  • more granular data on credit exposures to enable supervisors to undertake their own assessments of credit risk for each financial institution; and
  • financial institutions’ own internal management information on credit risk, and their policies and procedures for managing payment delinquency and past due exposures.

Supervisors should then use these data to develop new supervisory indicators of the impact of COVID-19 on lenders’ loan portfolios.

Supervisors could also undertake various types of horizontal review of how lenders are assessing the creditworthiness of their borrowers, and to look more closely at outlier lenders. For example, a supervisor could compare across lenders:

  • the proportions of their loans affected by the COVID-19 outbreak (overall, by sector, by retail segments, and by individual large corporates);
  • for loans where the borrower has been granted a payment holiday, the extent to which banks have used the flexibility in accounting standards to avoid classifying these loans as non-performing (again, overall and by sector); and
  • in countries where major corporates borrow from multiple banks, supervisors could also review the extent to which individual banks have taken different approaches to assessing the post COVID-19 creditworthiness of these corporates.

It is also important that lenders keep their assessments under close review so that loan reclassifications can be made on an informed and timely basis as the situation develops and more information on underlying credit conditions becomes available.

Heightened credit risks and the potential for a longer-term deterioration of credit quality should be constantly re-assessed by supervisory authorities and supervised firms, given the broad-based and continuing impact of COVID-19 on most economic activities.

This is also a good time for supervisors to be focusing on lenders’ NPL management capabilities, in particular their ability to reduce NPLs through workout options and other tools. They should also be focusing on wider legal issues regarding the ways in which insolvency regimes and debt recovery processes could be improved.[1]

5. Review the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on banks’ liquidity positions

Supervisors should keep banks’ liquidity positions under close review as the crisis unfolds, including by:

  • monitoring the standard liquidity metrics, in particular the Liquidity Coverage Ratio and a cash flow maturity mismatch profile that is adjusted to take account of the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak;[1]
  • requiring banks to provide additional data, for example daily reporting on some liquidity metrics, in particular shortfalls against expected cash inflows resulting from deferred payments of interest and principal; and requiring banks to explain how they are monitoring their liquidity positions, the roles of the risk management function, senior management, and the board, and the content and use of management information.

6. Stress testing

Banks should be stress testing their credit exposures and liquidity positions against a range of severe but plausible scenarios, including U-, W-, and L-shaped economic recoveries, by using stress tests that reflect the specific risks faced by each individual bank. Slower economic recoveries (overall, or in specific sectors of the economy) will result in higher levels of non-performing exposures, with consequences for banks’ loan losses, credit risk weightings, and capital and liquidity ratios. Banks should report the results of these stress tests to their supervisors, together with the actions they would take if these more adverse scenarios began to emerge.

As in normal times, there are also benefits in supervisors undertaking their own stress tests to assess the possible impact of a standardized scenario on both the capital and liquidity positions of individual banks and on the resilience of the banking system as a whole. This supervisory stress test could be based on specifying alternative paths for economic recovery, or it could focus more directly on the impact of alternative levels of non-performing loans by specifying default and loss given default rates.

Stress tests should also consider possible feedback and second round effects. For example, a decline in banks’ actual or perceived capital ratios could lead to a higher cost and reduced availability of funding (as happened in 2008). And the strains on government funding arising from the COVID-19 outbreak could have an adverse impact on the credit standing of some countries.[1]

Stress tests can provide valuable information on:

  • the plausibility of each bank’s scenarios and its credit and liquidity risk management capabilities more generally – some banks may not be using sufficiently severe scenarios, or may be making over-optimistic assumptions about the adverse impact of each scenario on their credit quality and liquidity. Some banks will need to raise new capital, not just to suspend dividend and bonus payments;
  • which individual banks might be the worst affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, both immediately and over the longer term;
  • the points at which individual banks would face a serious depletion of their capital resources or liquidity, requiring them to activate their recovery planning, and at which the banking system could become unstable;
  • the extent to which supervisors can prudently allow banks to run down some capital and liquidity buffers, the options for continued supervisory forbearance, and the formulation of a medium-term exit strategy under which supervisors can reimpose the full range of capital and liquidity requirements; and
  • the need to enhance crisis preparedness (see Chapter 2).

Chapter 4

Insurers and pension funds

What is different?

As discussed in Chapter 1, insurers and pension funds have faced a range of challenges arising from COVID-19. These vary across countries and even for different insurers and pension funds within countries, not least because of the breadth of mechanisms through which COVID-19 has had an impact on these types of financial institution.

One set of impacts arises from various types of insurance risk – shifting mortality rates across different age groups; health cover and workers’ compensation claims (particularly from health workers); travel, business interruption, and event cancellation claims; and lower motor-related claims reflecting reduced road transport volumes.

Meanwhile, the economic environment is having an adverse impact on asset values and market volatility; is extending the prospective time frame for a continuing low interest rate environment; is leading to policy cancellations and a lower rate of new and renewed policies; and is making it more difficult for pension scheme sponsors to maintain their rates of contribution to the scheme.

It is not clear whether, overall, insurers’ financial resilience will be more affected by the stress from financial market volatility or by insurance risk. But both types of impact will have an adverse effect on insurers’ solvency ratios and liquidity.

There are also increased operational challenges and risks to address. Working from home was not unanticipated by many employers, but the scale and magnitude of the challenge exceeded what was expected. Many insurers responded by developing electronic platforms or facilities to process claims online. Insurers in general are also making increasing use of technology to underwrite new policies. This is a health crisis and it is important that insurers’ critical systems continue to operate as their policyholders may increasingly need to utilize the health benefits of their policies.

Key issues

Insurers, pension funds, and their supervisors face two key issues from COVID-19. The first is to assess the current impacts on asset values, claims, premiums, and contributions, as discussed in Chapter 1.

The second is to consider and assess the potential impact of uncertain future developments, such as the interest rate environment, the depth and length of economic weaknesses, and the longer-term health impacts of COVID-19.

Interest rates were low – and in some cases declining – even before the COVID-19 crisis and this was exacerbated during the crisis as several countries lowered rates even more. Some monetary authorities and central banks have issued forward-looking guidance that interest rates will stay low for a while. A low interest rate environment creates asset-liability matching challenges for insurers and defined benefit pension plans. The low interest rate or even negative interest rate environment could affect those products with guarantees as these policies could come closer to being in the money. Actuaries should take this increased risk into account in their modelling scenarios. There has also been a widening of corporate spreads as economic uncertainty increases. These trends tend to expose insurers to reinvestment risks and have an impact on reserving assumptions, particularly in life companies with longer-term products. This in turn could have a negative impact on solvency.

The impact of COVID-19 on the real economy could result in lower volumes of both new and renewal business. This is particularly problematic during a pandemic in emerging economies where insurance is sold face-to-face, more so than in developed economies. This trend will have implications for liquidity and market share.

Market volatility and the economic downturn have an impact on both defined benefit (DB) and defined contribution (DC) pension plans. Plans may experience declining solvency and funding ratios from asset depreciation values, liquidity challenges, and sponsors experiencing difficulties with making contribution payments.

Supervisory responses

Supervisory authorities need to recognize and assess the various immediate and longer-term pressures on insurers and pension funds as a result of COVID-19.

The nature and duration of the current economic downturn remains uncertain, as do the longer-term health and behavioral consequences of COVID-19.

Supervisory responses: insurers and pension funds