Ask a Fool: What Are the Bank Stress Tests and Why Should Investors Care?

Q: I've seen some headlines about the bank stress tests in the past few weeks. I own a few bank stocks. What does this mean to me?

Remember how during the 2008 financial crisis many banks were being referred to as "too big to fail"? Well, the stress tests are designed to ensure that any bank that is too big to fail doesn't fail -- under any circumstances.

The stress tests apply to all banks over a certain size. In 2017 and prior years, the threshold has been $50 billion in assets. Recent rollbacks of banking regulations have increased the threshold to $100 billion for 2018, and this will gradually rise to $250 billion over the coming years.

The tests are designed to discover what would happen to the nation's largest banks in the event of a severe global recession, which is defined as negative 7.5% GDP growth over seven quarters, 10% unemployment, a 65% drop in stock prices, and a few other pretty terrible conditions.

For investors, aside from learning how well-capitalized each bank is, the most important thing the stress tests do is determine whether or not each bank's capital plan is approved by the Federal Reserve. In other words, these large banks (formally referred to as systemically important financial institutions, or SIFIs) need the Fed's approval before paying dividends or buying back shares with their capital.

Finally, it's important to mention that while there are minimum capital levels that need to be maintained under adverse conditions, there's no pass/fail threshold when it comes to the capital plans. In other words, it's entirely possible for a bank to pass the stress test and still have its capital plan rejected.

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