FinCEN Files Underline BSA/AML System Mess

On its face, BuzzFeed’s reporting package on the details of 2,100 leaked suspicious activity reports (SARs) it obtained seems bad for many of the big banks mentioned. The articles take institutions to task for processing “trillions of dollars of suspicious transactions despite their own staff’s warnings that they might be related to crime.”

But the biggest scandal from the leaks may not be what it says about big banks — the biggest scandal is what it reveals about the anti-money laundering system at large. The leaks aptly demonstrate the system’s immense flaws.

These would hardly be news to bankers, who have known and complained about the system for years. They are on the cusp of winning reforms that, while not fixing the system as a whole, could lessen the burden on banks to report customers’ beneficial owners.

But the deeper issue is that the system encourages the proliferation of anti-money laundering filings, often without regard to whether they are truly related to any criminal activity.

The “FinCEN Files” are in part built on the premise that when a bank files a suspicious activity report, it truly believes that the transaction is related to financial crime or terrorism. BuzzFeed says the system “contains a crucial loophole” — although banks are required to alert the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network via a SAR, they are not obligated “to halt the suspicious activity or stop serving shadowy clients.”

But as the story later acknowledges and any banker can tell you, filing a SAR doesn’t necessarily mean the bank thinks there’s criminal activity going on. Banks are actively encouraged to file SARs for anything that seems even potentially fishy. The consequences of not filing a SAR can be severe, including extra scrutiny from regulators, an enforcement order or steep fines. Bank officers have been fired for failing to file SARs on activity that later turned out to be criminal.

The result? Banks have filed defensively for well over a decade. It’s so bad that at one point, a former FinCEN director used to tell a story about how a bank had filed a SAR because an employee’s bacon was stolen from the office fridge.

Predictably, this means banks and credit unions file a tremendous amount of SARs. There were some 839,000 filed by depository institutions in 2014. That rose to 1.1 million by 2019, a 32% jump. Does anyone think that all those SARs represent real criminal activity? Requiring banks to stop processing all those transactions wouldn’t close a loophole, it would violate due process. In many cases, banks are even told by law enforcement agencies to continue to process suspicious transactions. Such “keep open” letters are a way for law enforcement to continue to track potential criminals.

The “FinCEN Files” do make a great point when it says “the majority of these reports … are never even read, much less investigated.” We’ve built an entire money laundering system around the annual filing of millions of SARs and currency transaction reports (CTRs), the vast majority of which will never be seen by a human being.

If you listen to the way law enforcement agencies tell it, this is a feature, not a bug, of the system. Those agencies want banks to file SARs and CTRs because it creates a virtual warehouse of financial information they can use to track down leads. The more data they have, the better.

This approach assumes there is no cost for banks to do all of this, when the cost is in excess of $25 billion annually, according to some estimates. If banks weren’t spending a huge chunk of resources and time chasing down every potential dodgy transaction, they probably could be using it on other activities, like lending in their communities.

This approach would be acceptable if the current system actually worked, but it’s not clear it does. The amount of money laundered each year is roughly 2% to 5% of global GDP, or between $800 billion to $2 trillion, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Some estimates say law enforcement catches less than 1% of that.

Privately, many banking officials will tell you the vast majority of financial crimes are still going undetected. While the current system is great at catching unsophisticated criminals, the ones who know what they’re doing can find elaborate ways around the system.

Don’t get me wrong. If a bank is knowingly facilitating criminal activity — as has happened in the past and some of these 2,100 SARs show — they should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. But the biggest takeaway of this story is that our system is inefficient, costly and — worst of all — does not seem to work very well.

Adapting Bank Supervision to the Covid-19 Reality

Can a bank socially distance itself from its primary federal regulator?

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the answer is apparently yes.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees nationally chartered banks and thrifts, has been impacted by the virus’ shutdown in much the same way as the institutions it oversees.

In an interview with Bank Director, Acting Comptroller of the Currency Brian Brooks — who replaced former Comptroller Joseph Otting after his resignation on May 29 — says the pandemic has forced the agency to adapt its preferred method of operation to the restrictions of social distancing.

“One thing that I worry about from a supervision perspective is, historically, bank examiners go on-site,” Brooks says. “Not because it’s convenient, but because being able to be in a room with bankers and sit face to face with people … is a critical tool in identifying fraud and identifying trends that might not make it onto a management report, or might not be raised in a formal presentation. And the longer banks are in a work-from-home environment, the harder it is for us to do that human aspect of bank supervision.”

Brooks says while there are legitimate health reasons why much of the banking industry has operated with a distributed workforce for the last several months, he’s anxious to reintroduce the element of personal contact into bank supervision. “I know that may not happen next month or even this quarter, but we need to start charting that course back, because this method of supervision can’t go on forever,” he says.

The OCC is reopening its facilities on June 21 and is encouraging people who do not have underlying health conditions and would feel comfortable doing so to return to their offices. “That’s our way of showing leadership to the industry of how one can start charting this course back to normalcy,” Brooks explains. “But having said that, we’ve moved to significantly enhanced cleaning schedules. We’re obviously providing face masks and gloves to people who are in mail-handling or public facing positions. We’re changing seating arrangements to maximize the availability of social distancing. And of course, we’re continuing to allow anyone who wants to, to work remotely while making the office … more normalized for everybody else.”

Brooks believes that recent data on the virus suggests that the health risk for most people is manageable. “What the data seem to be showing is that hospitalization rates and fatality rates for people of working age, who don’t have particular risk conditions, seem to be within historic norms,” he says. “Which is not to say that this is not a dangerous disease, but it does appear to be that … people who are under a certain age and who don’t have certain conditions are not at special risk relative to other types of viruses that we’ve seen before.”

And when OCC examiners do return to on-site visits to their banks, they will follow whatever safety protocols the bank has in place.

The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a crushing blow to the U.S. economy — which entered a recession in February — and the OCC wants national banks to take a hard look at their asset quality. It’s not an easy assessment to make. Banks have granted repayment deferrals of 90 days or greater to many of their borrowers at the same time as the federal government suspended troubled debt restructuring guidance and pumped money into the economy through the Paycheck Protection Program. A clear asset risk profile has yet to emerge for many institutions.

“Some of the traditional metrics that we’ve used to determine asset quality … could be masked by a lot of the relief efforts,” says Maryann Kennedy, senior deputy comptroller for large-bank supervision at the OCC. “Many of our institutions are going back and retooling many of their stress testing models in response to the breadth, depth and velocity of the number of programs that they’re instituting there.” 

Just because OCC examiners don’t have personal contact with their banks doesn’t mean they haven’t been talking to them through the pandemic. Some of those conversations are an effort to triage which banks may need the greatest attention from regulators.

“There is a real time risk-based assessment of what’s happening with our national banks and federal savings associations, so we can try to understand how we move forward and where we focus our attention. [It’s] is very challenging, similar to the challenge [banks have] trying to understand their asset quality and the situation with their loan portfolios,” says Kennedy.

The OCC is essentially trying to assess the pandemic’s economic impact on national banks and thrifts while those institutions make their own credit risk assessments.

“A real-time conversation that’s going on right now, particularly in that in our larger banks, is ‘What is your stress forecasting looking like for provision expense in the second quarter, as well as what could be those potential impacts to earnings, particularly as it relates to any earnings expectations that might be out there?’” Kennedy says. “Those are challenging conversations going on right now … as our bank managements sort of work through the struggle [with] some of those specifics. It’s not a real predictive economy right now.”

Loan Modification Rules Suspended in Race to Minimize Pandemic Losses

The suspension of accounting rules on modified loans is another dramatic measure that regulators and lawmakers have taken in the struggle to limit pandemic-related loan defaults.

The question of how — and increasingly, whether — to account for, report and reserve for modified loans has taken on increasing urgency for banks working to address borrowers’ unexpected hardship following the COVID-19 outbreak.

Regulators homed in on the treatment for troubled debt restructurings, or TDRs, in late March, as cities and states issued stay-at-home orders and the closure of nonessential businesses sparked mass layoffs. The intense focus on the accounting for these credits comes as a tsunami of once-performing loans made to borrowers and businesses across the country are suddenly at risk of souring.

“The statements from regulators and the CARES Act are trying to reduce the conversations that we have about TDRs by helping institutions minimize the amount of TDR challenges that they’re dealing with,” says Mandi Simpson, a partner in Crowe’s audit group.

TDRs materialize when a bank offers a concession on a credit that it wouldn’t have otherwise made to a borrower experiencing financial difficulties or hardship. Both of those prongs must exist for a loan to be classified as a TDR. Banks apply an individual discounted cash flow analysis to modified credits, which makes the accounting complicated and tedious, Simpson says.

“You can imagine, that could be pretty voluminous and cumbersome” as borrowers en mass apply for modifications or forbearance, she says.

Late last month, federal bank regulators provided guidance on TDRs to encourage banks to work with borrowers facing coronavirus-related hardship. Still, Congress intervened, broadening both the relief and the scope of eligible loans.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, which went into effect on March 27, suspended the requirements under U.S. generally accepted accounting principles for coronavirus loan modifications that would have otherwise been categorized as TDRs. It also suspended the determination that a loan that has been modified because of the coronavirus would count as a TDR, “including impairment for accounting purposes.” This applies to any loan that receives a modification that was not more than 30 days past due as of Dec. 31, 2019.

The law encourages banks to record the volume of modified loans. It also specified that bank regulators can collect data about these loans for supervisory purposes.

Bank regulators issued their revised interagency statement on April 7 to align with Congress’ rule. Bankers should maintain appropriate allowances and reserves for all loan modifications. It adds that examiners will exercise judgment when reviewing modifications and “will not automatically adversely risk rate credits that are affected by COVID-19.”

Importantly, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s chief accountant issued an opinion accepting the CARES Act treatment of TDRs as GAAP on April 3. The statement reconciled U.S. accounting policy and federal law, and spared auditors from issuing modified opinions for institutions that adopt the TDR relief.

But the accounting relief could create longer-term issues for banks, says Graham Steele, staff director of the Corporations and Society Initiative at Stanford Graduate School of Business. He previously served as minority chief counsel for the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs and was a member of the staff of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

He understands the imperative to provide forbearance and flexibility, but he says the modifications and concessions could lead to diminished cash flows that could erode a bank’s future lending capacity. He points out that it’s also unclear what would happen to balance sheets once the national emergency ends, and how fast those modifications would be reclassified.

“This seems like an ‘extend and pretend’ policy to me,” he says. “Congress and regulators have offered forbearance, but they’re changing mathematical and numerical conventions that you can’t just assume away.”

Simpson says that as part of the tracking of modified loans, institutions may want to consider those credits’ risk ratings and how their probability of default compares to performing loans. She is encouraging her clients to consider making appropriate and reasonable disclosures to share with investors, such as the amount and types of modifications. The disclosures could also give bank executives a chance to highlight how they’re working with borrowers and have a handle on their borrower’s problems and financial stress.

“I think proactively helping borrowers early on is a good move. I know banks are challenged to keep up with the information, just I am, and the timing is challenging,” Simpson says. “They’re needing to make very impactful decisions on their business, and you’d like to be able to do that with a little bit more proactivity than reactivity. Unfortunately, that’s just not the place that we find ourselves in these days.”

CECL Delay Opens Window for Risk Improvements

The delay in the current expected credit loss accounting model has created a window of opportunity for small banks.

The delay from the Financial Accounting Standards Board created two buckets of institutions. Most of the former “wave 1” institutions constitute the new bucket 1 group with a 2020 start. The second bucket, which now includes all former “wave 2 and 3” companies are pushed back to 2023 — giving these institutions the time required to optimize their approach to the regulation.

Industry concerns about CECL have focused on two of its six major steps: the requirement of a reasonable and supportable economic forecast and the expected credit loss calculation itself. It’s important to note that most core elements of the process are consistent with current industry best practices. However, they may take more time for banks to do it right than previously thought.

Auditors and examiners have long focused on the core of CECL’s six steps — data management and process governance, credit risk assessment, accounting, and disclosure and analytics. Financial institutions that choose to keep their pre-CECL process for these steps do so at their own peril, and risk falling behind competitors or heightened costs in a late rush to compliance. Strategically minded institutions, however, are forging ahead with these core aspects of CECL so they can fully vet all approaches, shore up any deficiencies and maintain business as usual before their effective date.

Discussions over the impact of the CECL standard continue, including the potential for changes as the impacts from CECL bucket 1 filings are analyzed. Unknown changes, coupled with a three-year deadline, could easily lead to procrastination. Acting now to build a framework designed to handle the inevitable accounting and regulatory changes will give your bank the opportunity to begin CECL compliance with confidence and create a competitive advantage over your lagging peers.

Centering CECL practices as the core of a larger management information system gives institutions a way to improve their risk assessment and mitigation strategies and grow business while balancing risk and return. More widely, institutions can align the execution across the organization, engaging both management and shareholders.

Institutions can use their CECL preparations to establish an end-to-end credit risk management framework within the organization and enjoy strategic, incremental improvements across a range of functions — improving decision making and setting the stage for future standards. This can yield benefits in several areas.

Data management and quality: Firms starting to build their data histories with credit risk factors now can improve their current Allowance for Loan and Lease Losses process to ensure the successful implementation of CECL. Financial institutions frequently underestimate the time and effort required to put the required data and data management structures in place, particularly with respect to granularity and quality. For higher quality data, start sourcing data now.

Integration of risk and financial analysis: This can strengthen the risk modeling and provisioning process, leading to an improved understanding and management of credit quality. It also results in more appropriate provisions under the standard and can give an early warning of the potential impact. Improved communication between the risk and finance functions can lead to shared terminologies, methods and approaches, thereby building governance and bridges between the functions.

Analytics and transparency: Firms can run what-if scenario analysis from a risk and finance perspective, and then slice and dice, filter or otherwise decompose the results to understand the drivers of changes in performance. This transparency can then be used to drive firms’ business scenario management processes.

Audit and governance: Firms can leverage their CECL preparations to adopt an end-to-end credit risk management architecture (enterprise class and cloud-enabled) capable not only of handling quantitative compliance to address qualitative concerns and empower institutions to better answer questions from auditors, management and regulators. This approach addresses weaknesses in current processes that have been discovered by audit and regulators.

Business scenario management: Financial institutions can leverage these steps to quantify the impact of CECL on their business before regulatory deadlines, giving them a competitive advantage as others catch up. Mapping risks to potential rewards allows firms to improve returns for the firm.

Firms can benefit from CECL best practices now, since they are equally applicable to the current incurred loss process. Implementing them allows firms to continue building on their integration of risk and finance, improving their ALLL processes as they do. At the same time, they can build a more granular and higher quality historical credit risk database for the transition to the new CECL standards, whatever the timeframe. This ensures a smoother transition to CECL and minimizes the risk of nasty surprises along the way.

How to Respond to LendingClub’s Bank Buy

For me, the news that LendingClub Corp. agreed to purchase Radius Bancorp for $185 million was an “Uh oh” moment in the evolution of banking and fintechs.

The announcement was the second time I could recall where a fintech bought the bank, rather than the other way around (the first being Green Dot Corp. buying Bonneville Bank in 2011 for $15.7 million). For the most part, fintechs have been food for banks. Banks like BBVA USA Bancshares, JPMorgan Chase & Co and The Goldman Sachs Group have purchased emerging technology as a way to juice their innovation engines and incorporate them into their strategic roadmaps.

Some fintechs have tried graduating from banking-as-a-service providers like The Bancorp and Cross River Bank by applying for their own bank charters. Robinhood Markets, On Deck Capital, and Square have all struggled to apply for a charter. Varo is one of the rare examples where a fintech successfully acquired a charter, and it took them two attempts.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a publicly traded fintech like LendingClub just decided to buy the bank outright. But why does this acquisition matter to banks?

First off, if this deal receives regulatory approval within the company’s 12 to 15 month target, it could forge a new path for fintechs seeking more control over their banking future. It could also give community banks a new path for an exit.

Second, banks like Radius typically leverage technology that abstract the core away from key digital services. And deeper pockets from LendingClub could allow them to spend even more, which would create a community bank with a dynamic, robust way of delivering innovative features. Existing smaller banks may just fall further behind in their delivery of new digital services.

Third, large fintechs like LendingClub don’t have century-old divisions that don’t, or won’t, communicate with each other. Banks frequently have groups that don’t communicate or integrate at all; retail and wealth come to mind. As a result, companies like LendingClub can develop and deploy complementary banking services, whereas many banks’ offerings are limited by legacy systems and departments that don’t collaborate with each other.

The potential outcome of this deal and other bifurcations in the industry is a new breed of bank that is supercharged with core-abstracted technology and a host of innovative, complementary technology features. Challenger banks loaded with venture capital funds and superior economics via bank ownership could be potentially more aggressive, innovative and dangerous competitors to traditional banks.

How should banks respond?

Start by making sure that your bank has a digital channel provider that enables the relatively easy and cost-effective insertion of new third-party features. If your digital channel partner can’t do this, it’s time to draft a request for proposal.

Next, start identifying and speaking to the myriad of enterprise fintechs that effectively recreate the best features of the direct-to-consumer fintechs in a white-label form for banks. Focus on solutions that offer a demonstrable path to revenue retention, growth and clear cost savings — not just “cool” features.

After coming up with a plan, find a partner to help you market the new services either through  the third-party vendors you select or another marketing partner. Banks are notorious for not doing the best job of marketing new products and features to their clients. You can’t just build it and hope that new and existing customers will come.

Finally, leverage the assets you already have: physical branches, a mobile banking app that should be one of the top five on a user’s phone, and pricing advantage over fintechs. Most fintechs won’t be given long runways by their venture capital investors to lose money in order to acquire clients; at some point, they will have to start making money via pricing. Banks still have multiple ways to make money and should use that flexibility to squeeze their fintech competitors.

Change is the only constant in life — and that includes banking. And it has never been more relevant for banks that want to stay relevant in the face of rapidly developing technology and industry-shifting deals.

The Uncertain Impact of COVID-19 on the Bank M&A Playbook

As banks across the country grapple with market and economic dynamics heavily influenced by COVID-19, or the new coronavirus, separating data from speculation will become difficult.

The duration and ultimate impact of this market is unknowable at this point. The uncertain fallout of the pandemic is impacting previously announced deals and represents one of the biggest threats to future bank M&A activity. It will force dealmakers to rethink risk management in acquisitions and alter the way deals are structured and negotiated.

As we have seen in other times of financial crisis, buyers will become more disciplined and focused on shifting risk to sellers. Both buyers and sellers should preemptively address the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on their business and customers early in the socialization phase of a deal.

We’ve compiled a non-exhaustive list of potential issues that banks should consider when doing deals in this unprecedented time:

  • Due Diligence. Due diligence will be more challenging as buyers seek to understand, evaluate and quantify the ways in which the coronavirus will impact the business, earnings and financial condition of the target. Expect the due diligence process to become more robust and protracted than we have seen in recent years.
  • Acquisition Funding. Market disruption caused by the virus could compromise the availability and pricing of acquisition financing, including both equity and debt financing alternatives, complicating a buyers’ ability to obtain funding.
  • Price Protections. For deals involving publicly traded buyer stock, the seller will likely be more focused on price floors and could place more negotiating emphasis around caps, floors and collars for equity-based consideration. However, we expect those to be difficult to negotiate amid current volatility. Similarly, termination provisions based upon changes in value should also be carefully negotiated.

In a typical transaction, a “double trigger” termination provision may be used, which provides that both a material decline in buyer stock price on an absolute basis (typically between 15% and 20%) and a material decline relative to an appropriate index will give the seller a termination right. Sellers should consider if that protection is adequate, and buyers should push for the ability to increase the purchase price (or number of shares issued in a stock deal) in order to keep the deal together and avoid triggering termination provisions.

  • Representations and Warranties. As we have seen in other economic downturns, expect buyers to “tighten up” representations and warranties to ensure all material issues have been disclosed. Likewise, buyers will want to consider including additional representations related to the target business’ continuity processes and other areas that may be impacted by the current pandemic situation. Pre-closing due diligence by buyers will also be more extensive.
  • Escrows, Holdbacks and Indemnities. Buyers may require escrows or holdbacks of the merger consideration to indemnify them for unquantifiable/inchoate risk and for breaches of representations and warranties discovered after closing.  
  • Interim operating covenants. Interim operating covenants that require the seller to operate in the ordinary course of business to protect the value of their franchises are standard provisions in bank M&A agreements. In this environment we see many banks deferring interest and principal payments to borrowers and significantly cutting rates on deposits. Sellers will need some flexibility to make needed changes in order to adapt to rapidly changing market conditions; buyers will want to ensure such changes do not fundamentally change the balance sheet and earnings outlook for the seller. Parties to the agreement will need focus on the current realities and develop reasonable compromises on interim operating covenants.
  • Investment Portfolios and AOCI. The impact of the rate cuts has created significant unrealized gains in most bank’s investment portfolio. The impact of large gains and fluctuations in value in investment securities portfolios will also come into focus in deal structure consideration. Many deals have minimum equity delivery requirements; market volatility in the investment portfolio could result in significant swings in shareholders’ equity calculations and impact pricing.
  • MAC Clauses. Material Adverse Change (MAC) definitions should be carefully negotiated to capture or exclude impacts of the coronavirus as appropriate. Buyers may insist that MAC clauses capture COVID-19 and other pandemic risks in order to provide them an opportunity to terminate and walk away if the target’s business is disproportionally affected by this pandemic.
  • Fiduciary Duty Outs. Fiduciary duty out provisions should also be carefully negotiated. While there are many variations of fiduciary duty outs, expect to see more focus on these provisions, particularly around the ability of the target’s board to change its recommendation and terminate because of an “intervening event” rather than exclusively because of a superior proposal. Likewise, buyers will likely become more focused on break-up fees and expense reimbursements when these provisions are triggered.
  • Regulatory approvals. The regulatory approval process could also become more challenging and take longer than normal as banking regulators become more concerned about credit quality deterioration and pro forma capitalization of the merged banks in an unprecedented and deteriorating economic environment. Buyer should also consider including a robust termination right for regulatory approvals with “burdensome conditions” that would adversely affect the combined organization.

While bank M&A may be challenging in the current environment, we believe that ample strategic opportunities will ultimately arise, particularly for cash buyers that can demonstrate patience. Credit marks will be complex if the current uncertainty continues, but valuable franchises may be available at attractive prices in the near future.

Fed’s New Control Rule Brings Transparency, Consistency

The Federal Reserve Board has announced its much-anticipated final rule that addresses the often-confusing question of when a company controls a bank and when a bank controls another company.

The rule revises existing regulations that address the concept of “controlling influence” for purposes of the Bank Holding Company Act or the Home Owner’s Loan Act. It goes into effect on April 1.

The control rule is important: any entity in control of, or controlled by, a bank is subject to the same regulatory supervision and limitations as the bank. These limitations have created hurdles for bank investments by private equity firms and other entities, and have made partnerships between banks and fintech firms difficult to negotiate and structure.

Under the current Bank Holding Company Act, an investor is deemed to control another company if (1) the investor directly or indirectly owns, controls, or has power to vote 25% or more of any class of a target’s voting securities, (2) the investor controls in any manner the election of a majority of a target’s directors or trustees, or (3) the Federal Reserve determines, after notice and opportunity for a hearing, that the investor directly or indirectly exercises a “controlling influence” over the management or policies of the target.

Under the Bank Holding Company Act, there is a presumption that directly or indirectly owning, controlling, or having the power to vote less than 5% of any class of a target’s voting securities is not considered control. Where a transaction created ownership that exceeded the 5% threshold, it was necessary to address the question of whether there was a controlling influence. Since that term wasn’t defined, parties relied on the Fed’s interpretations in similar situations or sought informal guidance of Fed staff on a case-by-case basis, which led to uncertainty.

Previously, control reviews have been situation-specific and often followed precedents that were not available to firms or to the public,” the Fed notes in its press release announcing the new rule.

This made business planning difficult, if not impossible. Seeking feedback in the proposal stage often resulted in excessive delays and left the parties with uncertainty as to acceptable structure and permissible relationships going forward.

The new rule seeks to provide more bright-line guidance with a tiered approach to determining  control based on the ownership of voting shares. The indicia of control used for ownership are similar to those applied by the Federal Reserve under the old rule when providing guidance on individual transactions, and vary based on the following levels:

  • less than 5%;
  • 5% to 9.99%;
  • 10% to 14.9%; and
  • 15% to 24.9%.

There are more relationship restrictions as the ownership percentage increases. Those restrictions relate to director representation; officer and employee overlaps; business relationships (including size and terms of relationships); and contractual powers or limitations on operation of the organization. The Federal Reserve outlined the interplay between percentage ownership and restrictions in a chart that was included in the press release

Equity investors will have more power to influence a bank’s business, which may spur the influx of capital from new sources. Banks, however, may encounter that influence and the increased rights of investors through proxy solicitations challenging the board. 

From the perspective of banks investing in other companies, the industry had hoped for more relief from the limitations on business and contractual relationships. Large banks have shown interest in investing in fintech startups and limiting their competitor’s ability to participate.

There are other areas the new rule does not address. It does not impact existing investments that have been approved because the parties have agreed with the Fed not to take certain actions (referred to as passivity commitments). The regulator stated it will no longer require or seek those commitments but will consider relieving firms from any existing commitments. 

The new rule also does not impact the concept of control for purposes of other regulations, including the Change in Bank Control Act, Regulation O and Regulation W. So a person or entity will still be required to obtain approval to acquire control of a bank or a bank holding company with the presumption that the acquisition of 10% or more of voting securities being considered a change in control.

There are other aspects of the rule that will need to be considered, including calculating equity ownership, accounting rules and the impact of convertible securities. While the new rule does not provide the level of relief that some in the industry had hoped for, it does provide much-needed guidance that will allow parties to create business relationships with more certainty and efficiency.

3 Ways a Democratic Presidency Could Impact Executive Compensation

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., recently wrote, “Almost ten years ago, Congress directed federal regulators to impose new rules to address the flawed executive compensation incentives at big financial firms. But regulators still haven’t finalized (let alone implemented) a number of those key rules, including one that would claw back bonuses from bankers if their bets went bad in the long run. As President, I will appoint regulators who will actually do their job and finish these rules.”

Warren is referring to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which was introduced in 2010 as a response to the 2008 financial crisis. The act contained over 2,300 pages of provisions, including a number that impact executive compensation, to be implemented over several years. A few provisions — like management say-on-pay, say-on-golden-parachutes, CEO pay ratio — have been implemented, while others like incentive-based compensation arrangements (§ 956), clawbacks (§ 954) and pay-versus-performance (§ 953(a)) remain in limbo.

In any Democratic presidency, incentive-based compensation (§ 956) may be the easiest provision to finalize. The 2016 proposal creates a general restriction for banks with more than $1 billion in assets on incentive compensation arrangements that encourage inappropriate risks caused by a covered person receiving excessive compensation that could lead to a material financial loss. As proposed, it is very prescriptive for banks with assets of $50 billion or more, requiring mandatory deferrals, a minimum clawback periods, ability for downward adjustments and forfeiture.

The final rules for § 956 were re-proposed in 2016, but regulators’ interest in the topic has been muted during President Donald Trump’s administration. There are other ways that executive compensation programs could be impacted by a Democratic president, of which Warren is one contender for the nomination. While not exhaustive, we see three potential changes — beyond § 956 — that could impact  executive compensation programs.

1. Increased Regulatory Oversight
In almost all scenarios, a Democratic presidency will be accompanied by an increase in regulation. The 2016 sales practices scandal at Wells Fargo & Co. brought incentives into the spotlight. The Federal Reserve Board has stressed the importance of firms having appropriate governance of incentive plan design and administration, and have audited the process and structure in place at banks. One key thing that firms can and should be doing, even if the party in power does not change, is implement a documented and thorough incentive compensation risk review process as part of a robust internal control structure. Having a process in place will be key in the event of regulatory scrutiny of your compensation programs.

2. Mandatory Deferrals
Warren re-introduced and expanded the concept of mandatory deferrals through her Accountable Capitalism Act of 2018. This proposed legislation restricts the sales of company shares by the directors and officers of U.S. corporations within five years of receiving them or within three years of a company stock buyback. Deferred compensation gives the bank the ability to adjust or eliminate compensation over time in the event of material financial restatements or fraudulent activity, and is sure to be a topic that will come up with a Democratic presidency.

While the concept is different from deferred compensation, many firms have introduced holding periods in their long-term incentive programs for executives. This strengthens the retentive qualities of the executive incentive program and provides some accounting benefits for the organization, making it something to consider adding to stock-based incentive plans.

3. Focus On More Than The Shareholder
The environmental, social and governance (ESG) framework has been a very hot topic in investment communities, with heavy-hitting institutional investors introducing policies relating to ESG topics. For example, BlackRock is removing companies generating more than 25% of revenues from thermal coal production from its discretionary active investment portfolios, and State Street Corp. announced that it will vote against board members for “consistently underperforming” in the firm’s ESG performance scoring system. Warren believes that companies should focus on “the long-term interests of all of their stakeholders — including workers — rather than on the short-term financial interests of Wall Street investors.” It remains to be seen exactly what future compensation plans for banking executives will look like, though the myopic focus on total shareholder return may become a thing of the past.

Many potential incentive compensation changes that are likely to occur under a Democratic presidency already exist in the marketplace, including holding periods for long-term incentive plans; incentive compensation risk review, including the internal control structure; mandatory deferrals and clawbacks; and aligning incentive plans with the long-term strategy of the organization. Directors should evaluate their bank’s current plans and processes and identify ways to tweak the programs to ensure their practices are sound, no matter who takes office in 2021.

The Year Ahead in Banking Regulation

Although it is difficult to predict whether Congress or the federal banking agencies would be willing to address in a meaningful way any banking issues in an election year, the following are some of the areas to watch for in 2020.

Community Reinvestment Act. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. issued a proposed rule in December 2019 to revise and modernize the Community Reinvestment Act. The rule would change what qualifies for CRA credit, what areas count for CRA purposes, how to measure CRA activity and how to report CRA data. While the analysis of the practical impact on stakeholders is ongoing and could require consideration of facts and circumstances of individual institutions, the proposed rule may warrant particular attention from two groups of stakeholders as it becomes finalized: small banks and de novo applicants.

First, for national and state nonmember banks under $500 million, the proposed rule offers the option of staying with the current CRA regime or opting into the new one. The Federal Reserve Board did not join the OCC and the FDIC in the proposed rule, so CRA changes would not affect state member banks as proposed. As small banks weigh the costs and benefits of opting in, the calculus may be further complicated by political factors beyond the four corners of the rule itself.

Second, a number of changes in the proposed rule could impact deposit insurance applicants seeking de novo bank or ILC charters, including those related to assessment areas and strategic plans.

Brokered Deposits. The FDIC issued a proposed rule in December 2019 to revise brokered deposits regulations. While the proposed rule does not represent a wholesale revamp of the regulatory framework for brokered deposits — which would likely require statutory changes — some of the changes could expand the primary purpose exception in the definition of deposit broker and establish an administrative process for obtaining FDIC determination that the primary purpose exception applies in a particular case. Also, the new administrative process could offer clarity to banks that are unsure about whether to classify certain deposits as brokered.

LIBOR Transition. The London Interbank Offered Rate, a reference rate used throughout the financial system that proved vulnerable to manipulation, may no longer be available after 2021. The U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority announced in 2017 its intention to no longer compel panel banks to contribute to the determination of LIBOR beyond 2021. In the U.S., the Financial Stability Oversight Council has flagged LIBOR as an issue in its annual Congressional report every year since 2012. Its members stepped up their rhetoric in 2019 to pressure the financial services industry to prepare for transition away from LIBOR to a new reference rate, one of which is the Secured Overnight Financing Rate, or SOFR, that was selected by the Alternative Reference Rates Committee.

For banks in 2020, it is likely that federal bank examiners, whose agency heads are all members of the FSOC, will increasingly incorporate LIBOR preparedness into exams if they have not done so already. In addition, regulators in New York are requiring submission of LIBOR transition plans by March 23, 2020.

The scope of work to effectuate a smooth transition could be significant, depending on the size and complexity of an institution. It ranges from an accurate inventory of all contracts that reference LIBOR to devising a plan and adopting fallback language for different types of obligations (such as bilateral loans, syndicated loans, floating rate notes, derivatives and retail products), not to mention developing strategies to mitigate litigation risk. Despite some concerns about the suitability of SOFR as a LIBOR replacement, including a possible need for a credit spread adjustment as well as developing a term SOFR, which is in progress, LIBOR transition will be an area of regulatory focus in 2020.

LIBOR Changes On the Horizon for Syndicated Loans on Bank Books

LIBOR-9-2-19.pngAlthough the shift from LIBOR to a new reference rate is several years away, banks should start preparing today.

Syndicated loans make up only 1.7% of the nearly $200 trillion debt market that is tied to the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), a figure that includes derivatives, loan, securities and mortgages. But many banks hold syndicated loans on their balance sheets, and will be directly affected by efforts to replace LIBOR with a new reference rate.

In 2014, federal bank regulators convened the Alternative Rates Reference Committee (ARRC) in response to the manipulation of LIBOR by banks during the financial crisis. In 2017, the ARRC identified the Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) as the rate that represents best practice to replace LIBOR in USD derivative and other financial contracts.

Shifting from LIBOR to SOFR requires various moving pieces to converge as well as addressing legacy issues for existing contracts tied to LIBOR. The ARRC was reconstituted in 2018 with an expanded membership that includes regulators, trade associations, exchanges and other intermediaries, and buy side and sell side market participants. The group now oversees the implementation of the Paced Transition Plan and coordinates with cash and derivatives markets as they address the risk that LIBOR may not exist beyond 2021. This includes minimizing the potential disruption associated with LIBOR’s potential phase-out and supporting a voluntary transition away from LIBOR.

In April 2019, the ARRC released proposed fallback language that firms could incorporate into syndicated loan credit agreements during initial origination, or by way of amendment before the cessation of LIBOR occurs.

Contracts need recommended fallback language to provide consistency across products and institutions. The definition of LIBOR, the trigger events that would require use of the fallbacks and the fallbacks themselves vary significantly — even within the same product sets. Additionally, existing contractual fallback language was originally intended to address a temporary unavailability of LIBOR, like a glitch affecting the designated screen page or a temporary market disruption, not its permanent discontinuation. Until recently, fallback language rarely addressed the possibility of the permanent discontinuance of LIBOR. As a result, legacy fallback language could result in unintended economic consequences or potential litigation.

The ARRC recommends contracts have two sets of fallback language for new originations of U.S. dollar-denominated syndicated loans that reference LIBOR. Syndicated loan fallback provisions try to balance several goals of the ARRC: flexibility and clarity.

  1. Hardwired Approach:” This approach uses clear and observable triggers and successor rates with spread adjustments that are subject to some flexibility to fall back to an amendment if the designated successor rates and adjustments are not available at the time a trigger event becomes effective.
  2. Amendment Approach:” This approach is meant to offer standard language, which provides specificity with respect to the fallback trigger events and explicitly includes an adjustment to be applied to the successor rate, if necessary, to make the successor rate more comparable to LIBOR. It also includes an objection right for “Required Lenders.” In the Amendment Approach language, all decisions about the successor rate and adjustment will be made in the future.

As the market continues to prepare for LIBOR’s eventual exit, there are several steps that BancAlliance recommends that banks take to prepare for this transition:

  1. Quantify, document and monitor exposure to loans in your portfolio with LIBOR-based pricing.
  2. Ensure that executives are familiar with the current LIBOR fallback language in the individual credit agreements within the portfolio.
  3. Be mindful should any amendments occur to your existing portfolio, as SOFR’s acceptance grows in the marketplace.
  4. Continue observing new originations to see how fallback language is being drafted, and any other structural changes with regards to LIBOR.
  5. Review ARRC pronouncements and market-related current events to ensure your institution is up to speed on the latest news and changes with respect to LIBOR.