Why Banks' Balance Sheets Are in Better Shape

The COVID-19 pandemic looked set to batter the world’s banks—and yet banks’ balance sheets are now the strongest they’ve been since the global financial crisis (GFC). That surprising outcome is particularly good news for investors in subordinated bank debt.

Post GFC, regulators globally forced a reboot of bank balance sheets through stricter solvency requirements. Now, almost 15 years later, bank fundamentals have risen to peak levels (Display).

Analysis provided for illustrative purposes only and is subject to revision.
As of December 31, 2021
Source: AllianceBernstein (AB)

Common Equity Tier 1 capital buffers are close to all-time highs. Asset quality (measured by the percentage of nonperforming loans) is very robust. And balance sheet liquidity is exceptionally strong, boosted by a combination of unprecedented access to central bank funds (particularly in Europe), huge customer deposit inflows and muted loan growth.

Bank credit ratings have returned to pre–COVID-19 levels and there is potential for further upward rerating as agencies recalibrate their rating methodologies. Looking forward, we expect the banks will return some capital to shareholders, reducing balance sheet strength. Even so, we still think bank capital will remain buoyant—and highly supportive for bondholders.

Government Intervention Has Helped Enormously

The banks mostly entered the crisis in a financially strong position. The intervention of governments and their central banks has also been crucial. Massive support programs and stimulus packages have in many cases averted the worst-case outcomes from the impact of COVID-19 for businesses and individuals. That in turn has reduced the pressure on banks across the developed world.

On that basis, the large loan-loss provisions for COVID-19–related damage that the banks made in 2020 now look overly prudent, and some have already been written back. The banks appear to have fully provided for a potential increase in loan losses in 2022 and 2023. And if anything, they should have scope to reverse more of their provisions in the second half of this year as previous economic assumptions continue to be revised upward.