Special Feature

AT1 bonds

Testing the boundaries of an equity-debt hybrid


A bond between viability and debt characteristics


The government on March 13 notified the Yes Bank Limited Reconstruction Scheme, 2020, prepared by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).


Together with implementation of the scheme, Yes Bank has indicated that it will be writing down permanently and in full certain instruments qualifying as Additional Tier 1 (AT1) capital issued by it under the Basel III framework. However, common equity remains on the bank’s books without any write-down.


While the decision is in line with the regulatory framework governing Basel III AT1 bonds, it seems contrary to conventional wisdom that bonds are generally senior to common equity. This has caused quite a stir in the credit market, with questions raised on the inherent risks in these instruments.


Before we come to all that, let us take a look at the quantum of Basel III AT1 instruments outstanding and their key features. As on December 31, 2019, around Rs 90,000 crore of such bonds were outstanding, of which close to 60% belonged to public sector banks and the rest to their private peers (details in annexure 1).


These bonds are hybrids with features of both equity and debt (see box, Salient features of Basel III AT1 instruments).


For weak banks, or those less viable ones such as Yes Bank, these instruments start behaving more like equity and less like debt. Hence, according to CRISIL’s rating criteria, the notch-down for weak banks from the issuer rating could be substantial at three notches or more.


However, for a strong bank with high viability, Basel III AT1 instruments have more debt-like features and limited equity characteristics. In strong banks, there are likely to be limited risks to the servicing of coupons as well as exercise of call option to redeem these instruments. Thus, for banks rated at the higher end of the spectrum (AAA/AA+), it is more likely that the Basel III AT1 bonds will be rated one notch lower than the issuer credit rating (refer to annexure 4 for details on the change in notch-down when rating levels change).


The actual extent of notch-down depends on, besides the issuer rating, the expected adequacy of eligible reserves after capital conservation, and the cushion over regulatory required capital (refer to annexures 2 and 3 for details on Basel III AT1 debt instruments rated by CRISIL).