One of the most contentious aspects of post-financial crisis bank examinations under the administration of President Barack Obama just got resolved.
A new set of rules implemented this year confirm a rather simple and straightforward idea: Supervisory guidance and bank regulations are different. It attempts to address concerns from banking trade groups that the regulators sometimes used supervisory guidance in place of a formal rule in examination feedback — in short, that supervisory guidance effectively substituted as a rule — and has implications for how supervisory guidance should be used going forward.
“I think there was a growing concern that [regulators] were using the soft guidance as a means of enforcing hard requirements,” says Charles Horn, a regulatory and transaction attorney at Morgan Lewis. He cites the supervisory guidance around leveraged lending as one example of guidance that created concern and confusion for the banking industry.
The rules, which build on a 2018 interagency statement, were passed by the individual bank regulatory agencies — the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Reserve — at different times but feature similar language. They specify that supervisory guidance does not establish rules that have the force and effect of law, in contrast to rules that undergo the rulemaking process that includes notice and comment periods, according to notice from the law firm Covington. A regulator’s examination staff cannot use supervisory guidance as the basis for issuing the dreaded report known as a “Matter Requiring Attention” or for any other enforcement action or report of noncompliance.
Both the Fed’s and OCC’s rules state that its examiners will not base supervisory criticisms or enforcement actions on a “violation” of or “non-compliance with” supervisory guidance, and will limit the use of thresholds or other “bright-lines” included in supervisory guidance expectations.
“Unlike a law or regulation, supervisory guidance does not have the force and effect of law,” stated the OCC in January 2021 and the Federal Reserve in March of the same year. “Rather, guidance outlines expectations and priorities, or articulates views regarding appropriate practices for a specific subject.”
There are several reasons why regulators issue supervisory guidance. Guidance can educate and inform the agency’s examiners, and could be shared with banks so that both groups are on the same page. Regulators may also issue guidance on issues that are too timely or trivial to merit rulemaking. Sometimes, banks ask regulators to provide guidance or insights on an issue. It can come in many shapes and forms: bank bulletins, frequently asked questions and circulars, among others. Most pieces of supervisory guidance are not issued with a notice and comment period.
“It’s remarkable how much guidance the agencies have issued over the years,” says Greg Baer, president and CEO of the Bank Policy Institute, a research organization whose membership includes some of the biggest banks in the country. The BPI was one of the groups that formally petitioned the agencies to turn the 2018 interagency statement into a rule.
Unlike rules, supervisory guidance wasn’t supposed to be binding. But if a bank examiner treated it as binding, it could pressure bank executives to adopt the same approach. Bank trade groups became concerned that examiners could cite situations where the bank was not following supervisory guidance as the reason for issuing an MRA. MRAs fall below the seriousness of enforcement actions like consent orders, but examiners still expect banks to respond to and address them. Failure to address an MRA can generate subsequent MRAs or contribute to more formal administrative actions.
Of course, a rule on the paper could be different than a rule that is applied and enforced during an exam. It may be too soon to know if the rule has made an impact on exams. The impetus for the new rules began under the administration of President Donald Trump, although many of the rules were finalized at the start of President Joe Biden’s administration. The change in administrations and continued regulatory adjustments made in response to the coronavirus pandemic means that the agencies could still be in an adjustment period. It may take some time for the edict to trickle down from the agency heads to the front-line examiners. Bank executives and boards may also need time to learn about the rule and how it might apply to feedback they’ve received from examiners.
Bank examinations are famously secret. And while bankers and directors may have more leeway to ask for clarification on examination feedbacks or even appeal the findings of the report, especially if feedback cites supervisory guidance, they may not feel comfortable doing so to maintain good relationships with their regulators and examiners. Horn, for his part, expects banks to be cautious about challenging examination actions even with this new rule.
“Banks do value good relationships with the regulators, and there are a number of banks that don’t want to take the risk of pushing back against regulatory criticism unless they think it’s important,” he says. “Personally I think [the rule] can be helpful, but we don’t know how helpful it will be until we can see how this plays out over the coming months and, frankly, the coming years.”