What Are Capital Requirements?

What Are Capital Requirements?

5 Min.

Banks are required to meet certain capital requirements set by regulators. This ensures that they have enough easily sellable assets to cover their overall holdings. The capital requirements of banks are determined by the weighted risk of their various assets, which can be expressed as a ratio. In the United States, banks that are sufficiently capitalized maintain a tier 1 capital-to-risk-weighted assets ratio of no less than 4%. Capital requirements typically become stricter after an economic downturn, a stock market collapse, or any other form of financial crisis.


In times of economic instability, when the public is outraged and investor confidence wavers, new laws are often created to address financial crises, market crashes, or recessions. These reforms primarily target capital requirements, which are standardized regulations governing the capital holdings of banks and depository institutions.

Regulatory agencies like the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and the Federal Reserve Board (the Fed) establish these guidelines. Capital requirements dictate the minimum amount of easily convertible assets, such as securities, that these institutions must maintain relative to their overall assets. By enforcing stringent capital requirements, regulators aim to enhance financial stability and mitigate risks associated with irresponsible financial practices.

Enhancing Financial Stability Through Capital Requirements

Promoting financial stability and mitigating default risks are the fundamental objectives of capital requirements. These requirements ensure that banks and depository institutions maintain a balanced portfolio, safeguarding against excessive exposure to risky investments. Moreover, they guarantee that these institutions possess adequate capital reserves to endure operational losses while honoring customer withdrawals.

In the United States, banks' capital requirements are determined by multiple factors, with a primary focus on the weighted risk attributed to each asset held. These risk-based guidelines form the basis for establishing capital ratios, which serve as a measure of an institution's strength and safety. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Act, an adequately capitalized institution must maintain a minimum tier 1 capital-to-risk-weighted assets ratio of 4%. Tier 1 capital typically comprises common stock, disclosed reserves, retained earnings, and specific types of preferred stock. Institutions falling below the 4% threshold are considered undercapitalized, while those below 3% are classified as significantly undercapitalized.

Pros and Cons of Capital Requirements

Capital requirements serve as a crucial safeguard to maintain the solvency of banks and, in turn, ensure the stability of the entire financial system. Recognizing the interconnectedness of banks in both national and international finance, advocates of regulatory measures argue that shocks impacting one institution can have far-reaching consequences. Consequently, stringent and consistent standards are essential for assessing and comparing the soundness of different institutions.

However, capital requirements are not without their critics. Detractors argue that higher capital requirements have the potential to stifle bank risk-taking and competition in the financial sector. They contend that smaller institutions bear a disproportionate burden of regulatory costs compared to their larger counterparts. Furthermore, by mandating a certain percentage of assets to be kept in liquid form, these requirements can impede banks' ability to generate profits and extend credit to customers. The maintenance of prescribed capital levels can elevate bank costs, subsequently affecting borrowing expenses and other consumer services.


  • Maintains solvency and prevents default for banks
  • Ensures depositors have uninterrupted access to funds
  • Establishes industry-wide standards
  • Facilitates comparison and evaluation of institutions


  • Raises costs for banks, eventually impacting consumers
  • Constrains banks' investment capabilities
  • Potentially limits the availability of credit and loans

Examples of Capital Requirements 

Capital requirements have experienced fluctuations on a global scale, often increasing in the aftermath of financial crises and economic recessions.

Before the 1980s, banks operated without overarching capital adequacy requirements. Instead, capital was just one of several factors considered when evaluating banks, with minimums tailored to individual institutions.

The tide began to turn in 1982 when Mexico's inability to meet interest payments on its national debt triggered a global initiative. This led to the enactment of the International Lending Supervision Act in 1983. Supported by major U.S., European, and Japanese banks, the Basel Committee on Banking Regulation and Supervisory Practices announced an increase in adequate capital requirements for internationally active commercial banks from 5.5% to 8% of total assets in 1988. Basel II followed in 2004, incorporating credit risk into the calculation of ratios.

However, as the 21st century progressed, the introduction of a risk-weighted system allowed banks to hold less capital against their total assets. Traditional commercial loans carried a weight of 1, meaning that eight cents of capital were required for every $1 of such loans held. In contrast, standard residential mortgages had a weight of 0.5, mortgage-backed securities (MBS) issued by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac had a weight of 0.2, and short-term government securities had a weight of 0. By strategically managing their asset composition, major banks could maintain lower capital ratios than before.

The global financial crisis of 2008 served as a catalyst for change, leading to the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010. This act aimed to ensure that the largest U.S. banks maintained sufficient capital to withstand systemic shocks. The Collins Amendment within Dodd-Frank established the previous tier 1 risk-based capital ratio of 4%. Internationally, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision introduced Basel III, further tightening capital requirements for financial institutions worldwide.


Capital requirements are crucial for financial stability and risk mitigation in the banking sector. They ensure banks have sufficient capital to cover holdings and sustain losses, protecting depositors and the financial system. While beneficial in setting industry standards and evaluating institutions, capital requirements face criticism for raising costs and limiting bank investments. However, ongoing reforms like Basel and Dodd-Frank aim to balance risk mitigation and efficient banking. Adapting to economic conditions, capital requirements promote resilience and stability.

Capital Requirements