Economic Capital

Business, Legal & Accounting Glossary

Definition: Economic Capital

Full Definition of Economic Capital

While the term economic capital is a more recent development, the concept it represents dates to the 1980s. Regulators have always been interested in the capital ratios of the financial institutions they oversee, but it was during the 1970s and 1980s that they started to implement explicit capital adequacy regulations. To do so, they had to specify formulas for a firm’s capital and a system of capital charges. Intended for regulatory purposes, these were not always suitable for corporate internal purposes—so regulatory capital and economic capital diverged.

The purpose of regulatory capital is to enforce minimum capital requirements. Economic capital is primarily used by financial institutions to support decisions about what business lines or transactions to pursue. Assessing the firm’s overall economic viability is a secondary purpose.

A firm defines its economic capital as comprising, among other things, owners equity, retained earnings, and subordinated debt. Formulas are specified for assigning economic capital charges to specific business lines or transactions based on the risks they entail. The focus is on identifying those business lines or transactions that offer, in some sense, the best use of the firm’s limited resources.

Traditionally, return on assets (ROA) was used as a bank-wide performance metric.

Widespread use of OTC derivatives and other off-balance-sheet items have largely rendered the accounting notion of assets a meaningless indicator of a bank’s risk or the financial resources it has deployed. For assessing bank-wide performance, return on equity (ROE) has largely replaced ROA.

While widely used by equity analysts and investors, ROE has two shortcomings that limit its use for internal purposes:

The accounting notion of book-value equity, like assets, is a poor indicator of a bank’s risk.

While ROE is defined bank-wide, it is not defined for individual business lines or transactions.

By replacing equity with capital in formula [2], we obtain return on capital (ROC):

This is meaningful at the firm-wide, business-line or transaction level. In the latter two cases, “capital” represents the capital charges for the business line or transaction. Also, income from the capital set aside for those charges may be added to revenue:


income from capital = (capital charges)(risk-free rate)

In formula [4], the “income from capital” term is included because allocating capital to a business line or transaction is different from investing the capital in the business line or transaction. Capital is held in addition to any assets invested in the business line or transaction. The capital is presumably invested somewhere, and ROC should reflect the extra income from that investment. Since the capital is supporting a risky business line or transaction, it (hypothetically) should be invested in something risk free. Accordingly, it is ascribed income at the risk-free rate.

Because capital charges are based (at least in theory) on the riskiness of a business line or transaction. ROC, as implemented at the business line or transaction level by [4], is a risk-adjusted performance metric (RAPM).

ROC can be used prospectively or retrospectively. At the business-line or transaction level, an assessment of prospective ROC can be used to determine which business lines or transactions a firm should pursue. Such analyses are based on projections of revenues and expenses for the business line or transaction. Retrospectively, ROC can be used for performance assessment. Here, revenues and expenses are those that were actually realized.

When ROA, ROE or ROC are used to assess a firm’s (actual or projected) performance, they are generally applied to one year’s (actual or projected) results. This may not be appropriate when ROC is applied to assess a business line’s or transaction’s performance. If the purpose is to select desirable business lines or transactions to invest in, one-year’s projected ROC may be misleading. A business line or transaction might be expected to lose money in its first year only to turn profitable in subsequent years. Accordingly, when ROC is used for internal decision making, the ROC of a business line or transaction is typically calculated as an average ROC over several years or the life of the transaction.

The first firm-wide implementation of ROC at all levels of a firm was a system Bankers Trust implemented during the 1980s. They employed a variant of the ROC formula [4], which they called risk-adjusted return on capital (RAROC).

Bankers Trust was a commercial bank that had adopted a business model much like that of an investment bank. It had divested its retail deposit and lending businesses. It actively dealt in exempt securities and had an emerging derivatives business. Such wholesale activities are easier to model than the retail businesses Bankers Trust had divested, and this facilitated the development of the system. RAROC was well-publicized, and during the 1990s, a number of other banks developed their own firm-wide systems. Those firms and their consultants came up with various names for the versions of ROC they implemented, including return on risk-adjusted capital (RORAC) and risk-adjuster return on risk-adjusted capital (RARORAC). The names were more buzzwords than anything else. Today, most any RAPM based on ROC is simply called RAROC. Perhaps the most common definition of RAROC is ROC with an explicit adjustment for expected loss:


where expected loss is the mean of the loss distribution associated with some activity—most typically it represents expected loss from defaulting loans or from operational risk.

Today, economic capital systems implemented by financial institutions and other trading organizations all trace their origins to Bankers Trust’s RAROC system. RAROC was more than a RAPM. It was an entire framework for supporting economic capital allocation and performance assessments at all levels of the firm. The original Bankers Trust RAROC system provided results on an after-tax basis. Today, systems typically perform calculations before tax. The 1988 Basel Accord was apparently motivated by Bankers Trust’s RAROC system. Economic capital and regulatory capital systems have continued to influence each other since.

Economic capital is far from perfect. While the overall formulas [4] and [6] for ROC or RAROC are simple, the calculations for their respective inputs can be complicated, entailing many assumptions.

Capital charges are especially problematic. If a bank has a lending business and a trading business, it will face credit risk with one and market risk with the other. Credit risk and market risk are fundamentally different—like comparing apples and oranges. How can the firm equitably assign capital charges to the two business lines? Are 1.5 apples equivalent to one orange, or should that be 1.8 apples? The question—whether applied to apples and orange or credit risk and market risk—is essentially meaningless, but it cannot be avoided. If the bank’s RAROC system later concludes that the lending business outperforms the trading business on a risk-adjusted basis, will the conclusion be economically meaningful, or will it merely indicate that the bank’s RAROC system gives the lending business an unfair advantage in how it assigns capital charges?

Inevitably, whenever a firm implements an economic capital system, the process is political. Department heads take a keen interest in how capital charges are to be assessed. The methodology that gets implemented typically reflects more a political compromise on capital charges than it does the actual nature of the risks the various departments are taking.

Because of problems like this, not all financial institutions or trading organizations implement an economic capital system.

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Modern Language Association (MLA):
Economic Capital. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd. September 27, 2021
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Economic Capital. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd. (accessed: September 27, 2021).
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Definition Sources

Definitions for Economic Capital are sourced/syndicated and enhanced from:

  • A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford Quick Reference)
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Accounting
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Business & Management

This glossary post was last updated: 16th April, 2020 | 6 Views.