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.

The Long Drought in Small Business Lending


business-lending-8-4.png

Most Americans have moved on from the financial shocks that struck our economy almost a decade ago. Millions of new jobs have been created, wages are rising and companies have repaired their balance sheets. Yet one unfortunate legacy of the 2008 to 2010 meltdown remains: the tens of thousands of small businesses that still struggle to obtain a bank loan at reasonable cost, if at all.

A new studyby three Harvard Business School economists provides fresh insights into the pullback in small business lending, and its consequences. The researchers found that the nation’s four largest banks— Bank of America Corp., Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Wells Fargo & Co.—not only cut back more sharply than other lenders during the recession, but also showed far less interest in regaining lost ground as the economy picked up again.

According to the Harvard study, the four banks’ advances to small businesses hovered at only half of pre-crisis levels until 2014, even as rivals pushed up their lending to almost 80 percent of pre-crisis levels. All in all, lending by the big four was 30 percent lower than other banks included in a Community Reinvestment Act database.

The lending drought has its origins in the big banks’ decision to focus on other, less risky sectors during the financial crisis. Among other drawbacks, small business loans carried higher capital requirements, and were hampered by inefficient automation of underwriting processes. Once the recession was over, the big four banks were constrained by stifling new regulations imposed by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act and by the Federal Reserve, notably a large uptick in risk weightings for small business loans.

The pros and cons of the banks’ actions will be debated for years to come. What is beyond dispute is their painful consequences. A county-by-county examination by the Harvard researchers shows that in areas where the big four pulled back, business expansion slowed and job growth suffered, especially in communities where small businesses played an outsized role. Wages also grew more slowly. All these impacts were felt most strongly in sectors most dependent on outside funding, such as manufacturing.

The Harvard study acknowledges that other lenders, including an array of shadow bank start-ups, including online lenders, have largely filled the gaps left by the Big Four. Nonetheless, the cost of credit remains unusually high in the worst-affected areas and, while jobs have returned, wages continue to lag. “Our findings suggest that a large credit supply shock from a subset of lenders can have surprisingly long-lived effects on real activity,” the study concludes. It adds that “the cumulative effect of these factors could explain some of the reason why this recovery has been so weak compared to others in the post-war period.”

These findings are confirmed by the recent performance of the Thomson Reuters-PayNet small business lending index, which measures the volume of new commercial loans and leases to small businesses. Apart from a brief uptick after last November’s election, lending has been stuck in the doldrums for several years. The index has fallen, year-over-year, for 12 of the past 13 months. With a shortage of credit compounded by economic and political uncertainties, many small business owners remain reluctant to invest in new plant and equipment.

We at PayNet estimate that the small business credit gap costs the U.S. economy $108 billion in lost output and over 400,000 jobs a year. Some firms are forced to put operations on hold for two or three months while they wait for a bank to process their credit application.

According to our count, a typical commercial and industrial loan requires 28 separate tasks by the lending bank. It involves three departments— relationship manager, credit analyst, and credit committee—and takes between two and eight weeks to complete. The cost of processing each credit application runs at $4,000 to $6,000. The result? Few banks are able to turn a profit on this business unless the loan size exceeds $500,000, which is far more than most small businesses borrow. The time, paperwork and cost involved are pushing more and more small businesses away from traditional financing sources. We cannot allow such a key sector of our economy to fight with one hand behind its back. Lenders need to be more accepting of new kinds of financial data and fresh approaches to credit standards. Regulators must open the door to more innovative underwriting techniques and assessment processes.

A good place to start would be to examine what has gone wrong over the past decade. As the Harvard study puts it: “Going forward, it will be useful to better disentangle the causes of this shock. If regulation played an important role…then understanding the specific rules that contributed the most would be helpful from a policy perspective.”

What Recent Deals Say about the Federal Reserve’s Focus on Fair Lending


lending-5-31-17.pngFair lending compliance and community benefit plans are increasingly important factors in the merger and acquisition (M&A) approval process. In 2016 and the first quarter of 2017, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (Federal Reserve) approved 20 bank or bank holding company M&A applications. Fair lending compliance history was an essential element of the regulatory analysis in these cases. While the Federal Reserve focused on compliance issues beyond fair lending —such as the Bank Secrecy Act, overdraft policies, residential servicing, commercial real estate concentration, and enterprise risk management—fair lending was one of the hottest compliance issues that arose from the merger approval process. Regulators also are reviewing applicants’ combined compliance programs and controls to ensure that the resulting institution will be properly suited to protect against the new risks created through the transaction, particularly where the transaction will result in an acquirer crossing a key regulatory growth threshold. For example, the Bank of the Ozarks received regulatory approval for two M&A transactions in early 2016 and crossed the $10 billion asset threshold while both acquisition applications were pending. As evidenced by the Bank of the Ozarks approval order for the larger acquisition, fair lending compliance was a significant factor in the Federal Reserve’s evaluation of the transaction.

Moreover, many of the institutions that obtained Federal Reserve approval for an acquisition during this period demonstrated a commitment to fair lending compliance beyond receipt of a satisfactory or outstanding Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) rating. Nearly all approved applicants had a designated CRA officer and/or CRA committee, and several applicants described detailed plans for improving community lending in particular assessment areas.

Community Benefit Plans Emerge as Important Factor for Regulatory Approval
The 2016 and 2017 M&A approvals also revealed the role of formal community benefit plans, as most clearly demonstrated in KeyCorp’s acquisition of First Niagara Financial Group, and Huntington Bancshares’ acquisition of FirstMerit Corporation. These two transactions received a considerable number of public comments focused on CRA and fair lending, and these large financial institutions used community benefit plans as an effective tool to demonstrate their commitment to fair lending compliance.

KeyCorp worked closely with various community organizations to develop a community benefit plan that was announced in March 2016, prior to KeyCorp’s receipt of regulatory approval for its merger. Under the KeyCorp plan, KeyCorp committed to lending $16.5 billion to low- and moderate-income communities over a five-year period, with up to 35 percent of the total commitment targeted at the areas where KeyCorp and First Niagara overlapped in New York, and to maintaining a vital branch and administrative footprint in western New York. Similarly, after submitting its merger application, Huntington adopted a community benefit plan committing to invest $16.1 billion in its communities, including low- and moderate-income communities, over a five-year period.

Notwithstanding the Federal Reserve’s reliance on the KeyCorp and Huntington community benefit plans in concluding that the relevant institutions are meeting the credit needs of the communities they serve, the Federal Reserve noted in the Huntington approval order that “neither the CRA nor the federal banking agencies’ CRA regulations require banks to make pledges or enter into commitments or agreements with any organization.” Accordingly, the Federal Reserve likely will not require a bank to make any community investment pledge to any organization in the absence of significant negative comments or, more importantly, adverse examination findings or a pending enforcement action. Nevertheless, given their apparent benefits, both for Federal Reserve applications and for general community and regulator relations, community benefit plans likely will remain a factor in the approval process for bank mergers that attract community groups’ attention—and likely will help expedite the approval process in the face of adverse community group comments.

Outlook
The 2016 and early 2017 merger approvals make clear that a comprehensive fair lending strategy, which may or may not include a community benefit plan, is likely to be well received by the regulators and considered in applicable approval analyses. We expect the regulatory staff of each of the federal banking regulators to continue to focus on fair lending compliance and that community groups will continue to comment actively on the fair lending compliance issues of bank M&A acquirers and attempt to influence their activities.

SBICs: A Unique Way to Comply With CRA



Small business investment companies have been growing in popularity since the financial crisis, as these can help banks comply with the Community Reinvestment Act and manage interest rate risk, as Dory Wiley, CEO at Commerce Street Capital, explains in this video.

  • How SBICs Benefit Banks
  • Addressing Due Diligence Concerns
  • Making the SBIC a Success for the Bank

Minimizing the Risk of Protests During M&A


merger-2-24-17.pngBankers are in the business of managing risk, which is critical, not only in an institution’s day-to-day oversight, but also in its evaluation of strategic acquisitions. While obvious acquisition-related risks, such as credit or operational risks, may be appropriately addressed through careful due diligence, banks often overlook the more indeterminate risk that its acquisition application will draw adverse public comments.

The application review process for each of the federal bank regulatory agencies involves a notice and comment procedure through which the agencies may receive adverse comments or “protests” to an application from individuals or interested community groups. These comments are typically based upon the applicant’s Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) or fair lending records, and regardless of their merit, are increasingly employed with an apparent intent to gain leverage over the applicant.

Although the percentage of protested applications is small, the cost of a single public comment can be significant. For example, during the first half of 2016, the average Federal Reserve processing time for an application that received adverse public comments was 213 days, versus 54 days for an application not receiving comments. Even though nearly all protested applications are ultimately approved, the extended review process creates a significant amount of deal uncertainty; enhances the risk of employee and customer loss, which may diminish the value of the target; and generally results in higher professional fees. A history of protested applications may also affect the attractiveness of an acquirer’s offer to a potential target.

Fortunately, the risk of adverse application comments is not completely unmanageable. Although a bank cannot eliminate the risk of a protest, it may employ certain best practices to reduce that likelihood and minimize any related processing delays. As part of its regular CRA program, an acquisitive institution should proactively work to establish and preserve productive, two-way relationships with activist community groups, with a particular focus on groups with a history or growing reputation for application protests. Community participants who feel that an institution is listening and responsive to their needs are less likely to damage that growing goodwill through a formal application protest. These relationships should have the added benefit of enhancing the long-term effectiveness of the institution’s CRA program.

An acquisitive institution should also project a consistent, positive image in its community and be mindful about how all of the information that it provides to the public may be used. For example, a bank touting that it is “ranked first in deposit market share” should ensure that it also maintains a similar rank for meeting credit needs in its assessment area with products such as mortgages and small business loans. An acquisitive bank should also emphasize its CRA and other community service initiatives as a part of its marketing strategy.

In summary, bankers cannot avoid the risk or effects of adverse public comments in the context of regulatory applications. However, proactive and engaging institutions with strong, well documented CRA and compliance management systems are much less likely to attract public protests and will be better positioned to address those received.

M&A Alert for Banks: Preparing to Be a Buyer


strategy-1-27-17.pngBefore a board and management of a bank pursue an acquisition, they should realistically assess their bank, the characteristics of the board and the shareholders, and the alternatives available.

The board and senior management should develop a strategic plan for the bank. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has cited an increasing number of banks for lack of strategic planning in matters requiring board attention. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency also has focused on strategic planning in the last few years. 

All board members must share a commitment to the strategic plan. Divisiveness in the boardroom often jeopardizes a bank’s ability to achieve its objectives.

The board has a fiduciary duty to make fully informed business decisions as to what is in the best interests of the hypothetical shareholder who is not seeking current liquidity. Management must assume the responsibility of educating the board (or bringing in consultants to do so) regarding the bank’s strengths and weaknesses, its inherent value, and the market(s) for targets. The board and senior management should meet regularly to discuss the bank’s strategic direction.

Debate in the planning process is healthy, but once the board agrees on a course of action, the board and management should speak with a united voice.

The board and management should communicate the bank’s strategic direction to shareholders. If key shareholders disagree with the direction, the board and management should arrange for such shareholders to be bought out or be comfortable that the bank need not do so. It is difficult to achieve strategic objectives if the board and key shareholders are working at cross purposes.

Evaluate Alternatives
The prospective buyer has a number of alternatives for enhancing shareholder value or multiple paths to be pursued at the same time. The board should evaluate such alternatives to identify the most attractive transaction.

Evaluate Your Prospects for Success
In embarking on bank M&A in the current environment, sellers will demand assurances that buyers can close. Here are some of the factors purchasers should consider:

  • Community Reinvestment Act and compliance ratings: Purchasers need to understand the “hot button” issues driving regulatory reviews and stay up to date. Yesterday’s focus on asset quality, anti-money laundering and Bank Secrecy Act compliance and third-party relationships have been joined by redlining, incentive compensation, concentration risk and cybersecurity, among others.
  • Capital levels: Determine whether the bank’s capital is sufficient to support an acquisition. If not, where will your bank obtain the needed funding?
  • Management: Does the purchasing bank have sufficient senior management capacity to staff the acquired bank or will target management be needed to implement the acquisition?
  • Systems and facilities: The purchasing bank’s board should evaluate whether the bank has compliance management systems and an enterprise risk management program that can scale for the acquisition.

Coming up with a good strategic plan while considering the bank’s alternatives is important for the board to discuss before embarking on an acquisition.

Negotiating the Transaction
There still may be a problem: What if there are very few targets that the bank has identified as “fits,” and none of them are in the market to sell?

Increasingly would-be buyers are willing to consider offering stock as part or all of the merger consideration. There are several drivers of this newfound willingness. First, buyers must meet increasingly challenging capital requirements. The exchange ratio in the merger may offer more attractive pricing to the buyer than issuing common equity to the market. Second, sellers have become more willing to accept private or illiquid stock as merger consideration. This may be a function of sellers’ understanding that economies of scale offer potential for greater returns on investment while enabling sellers to refrain from taking their “chips off the table” as would be the case in a cash sale. The recent run up in the stock market indexes has not yet translated into a general increase in M&A pricing. Third, a transaction that provides for a significant stock component allows for more one-on-one negotiations. Lastly, a strategic combination allows for mutuality of negotiation.

Just offering the selling shareholders stock may not be enough to convince a reluctant seller to consider a transaction. Would-be community bank buyers must recognize that there are social issues in any transaction (even when the merger consideration is cash). Accordingly, the buyer must evaluate in advance the roles of senior management of the seller, retention arrangements to proffer, severance to provide as well as bigger picture social issues such as board representation, combined institution name and headquarters.

A focus on the social issues and a willingness to put stock on the table may allow community bank buyers to continue to compete for acquisitions despite the rebounding stock market. Other competitors may be able to offer nominally more attractive pricing, but such an offer may not have better intrinsic value.

What to Know About the New Fintech Charter


fintech-12-13-16.pngDon’t expect an onslaught of fintech companies rushing to become banks. The recent announcement that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency would begin accepting applications for special purpose national bank charters from fintech companies was met with gloom from some in the banking industry, and optimistic rejoicing from others.

For now, the impact on banking and innovation seems unclear, but the hurdles to obtaining a national banking charter will be significant, and include compliance with many of the same regulations that apply to other national banks, possibly dissuading many startup fintech companies from even wanting one. On the other hand, larger or more established players may find it worth the added regulatory costs to boost their marketing and attractiveness to investors, says Cliff Stanford, an attorney at Alston & Bird. Plus, fintech firms can avoid the mélange of state-by-state banking rules and regulations by opting for a national banking charter instead. So don’t be surprised if a Wal-Mart, Apple or Google decides to get a banking license, along with some other, less well known names. The online marketplace lender OnDeck has already said it was open to the possibility of a national bank charter.

The OCC is offering fintech companies the same charter many credit card companies and trust companies have. Basically, the institution has to become a member of the Federal Reserve, and is regulated as a national bank with the same capital standards and liquidity requirements as others. The company has to provide a detailed plan of what products and services it intends to offer, a potential hurdle for a nimble start-up culture more accustomed to experimentation than regulation. “They will have a high bar to meet and they might not be able to meet those requirements,” Stanford says.

However, if the special purpose bank doesn’t accept deposits, it won’t need to comply with the same regulations as banks insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which means it is exempt from the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). Although nondepository institutions would not have to comply with the CRA, the OCC described requirements to make sure the fintech companies follow a plan of inclusion, basically making sure they don’t discriminate, and promote their products to the underserved or small businesses. This has caused some consternation among community banks.

“Why should a tiny bank have to comply with CRA and a big national bank across America does not have to comply?’’ says C.R. “Rusty” Cloutier, the CEO of MidSouth Bancorp, a $1.9 billion asset bank holding company in Lafayette, Louisiana. “If they want a bank charter, that’s fine. Let’s just make sure they play by the same rules.”

The Independent Community Bankers of America, a trade group, put out a press release saying it had “grave” concerns about what it called a “limited” bank charter. “We don’t want a charter that disadvantages one set of financial institutions,’’ says Paul Merski, an executive vice president at the ICBA. “We aren’t against innovation. But we want to make sure some institutions aren’t put at a disadvantage.”

Richard Fischer, an attorney in Washington, D.C., who represents banks, says he doesn’t think a fintech charter is a threat to banks. The Wal-Marts and Apples of the world will do what they want to do, whether or not they have a bank charter. Wal-Mart, which abandoned attempts to get a special purpose banking charter in 2007, already has a sizeable set of financial services, although it partners with banks that do have a charter, such as Green Dot Corp. in Pasadena, California.

Could a new fintech charter lead to fewer bank partnerships with fintech companies, as the fintech companies can cut out the need for a bank? Possibly. But it could also lead to more bank partnerships, as some banks, especially small or midsized banks, become more comfortable with the risk involved in doing business with a fintech company that has a national banking charter.

Jimmy Lenz, the director of technology risk at Wells Fargo Wealth and Investment Management, a division of Wells Fargo & Co., says he’s optimistic that a charter could create more products and services.

“I don’t see this cutting the pie into smaller slices,’’ he says. “I think they will be cutting a bigger pie. I don’t see the banks coming out on the short end of this.” Others said that the competition to banks coming from fintech companies already exists, and won’t go away if you don’t offer a federal charter for fintech companies. “The competition is already there,’’ Stanford says.

What To Know About the New Fintech Charter


fintech-fxt.png

Don’t expect an onslaught of fintech companies rushing to become banks. The recent announcement that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency would begin accepting applications for special purpose national bank charters from fintech companies was met with gloom from some in the banking industry, and optimistic rejoicing from others.

For now, the impact on banking and innovation seems unclear, but the hurdles to obtaining a national banking charter will be significant, and include compliance with many of the same regulations that apply to other national banks, possibly dissuading many startup fintech companies from even wanting one. On the other hand, larger or more established players may find it worth the added regulatory costs to boost their marketing and attractiveness to investors, says Cliff Stanford, an attorney at Alston & Bird. Plus, fintech firms can avoid the m?©lange of state-by-state banking rules and regulations by opting for a national banking charter instead. So don’t be surprised if a Wal-Mart, Apple or Google decides to get a banking license, along with some other, less well known names. The online marketplace lender OnDeck has already said it was open to the possibility of a national bank charter.

The OCC is offering fintech companies the same charter many credit card companies and trust companies have. Basically, the institution has to become a member of the Federal Reserve, and is regulated as a national bank with the same capital standards and liquidity requirements as others. The company has to provide a detailed plan of what products and services it intends to offer, a potential hurdle for a nimble start-up culture more accustomed to experimentation than regulation. “They will have a high bar to meet and they might not be able to meet those requirements,” Stanford says.

However, if the special purpose bank doesn’t accept deposits, it won’t need to comply with the same regulations as banks insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which means it is exempt from the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). Although nondepository institutions would not have to comply with the CRA, the OCC described requirements to make sure the fintech companies follow a plan of inclusion, basically making sure they don’t discriminate, and promote their products to the underserved or small businesses. This has caused some consternation among community banks.

“Why should a tiny bank have to comply with CRA and a big national bank across America does not have to comply?’’ says C.R. “Rusty” Cloutier, the CEO of MidSouth Bancorp, a $1.9 billion asset bank holding company in Lafayette, Louisiana. “If they want a bank charter, that’s fine. Let’s just make sure they play by the same rules.”

The Independent Community Bankers of America, a trade group, put out a press release saying it had “grave” concerns about what it called a “limited” bank charter. “We don’t want a charter that disadvantages one set of financial institutions,’’ says Paul Merski, an executive vice president at the ICBA. “We aren’t against innovation. But we want to make sure some institutions aren’t put at a disadvantage.”

Richard Fischer, an attorney in Washington, D.C., who represents banks, says he doesn’t think a fintech charter is a threat to banks. The Wal-Marts and Apples of the world will do what they want to do, whether or not they have a bank charter. Wal-Mart, which abandoned attempts to get a special purpose banking charter in 2007, already has a sizeable set of financial services, although it partners with banks that do have a charter, such as Green Dot Corp. in Pasadena, California.

Could a new fintech charter lead to fewer bank partnerships with fintech companies, as the fintech companies can cut out the need for a bank? Possibly. But it could also lead to more bank partnerships, as some banks, especially small or midsized banks, become more comfortable with the risk involved in doing business with a fintech company that has a national banking charter.

Jimmy Lenz, the director of technology risk at Wells Fargo Wealth and Investment Management, a division of Wells Fargo & Co., says he’s optimistic that a charter could create more products and services.

“I don’t see this cutting the pie into smaller slices,’’ he says. “I think they will be cutting a bigger pie. I don’t see the banks coming out on the short end of this.” Others said that the competition to banks coming from fintech companies already exists, and won’t go away if you don’t offer a federal charter for fintech companies. “The competition is already there,’’ Stanford says.

Doing an Acquisition? Don’t Forget the CRA Rating


bank-ratings-9-2-15.pngAs we move further away from the recent economic crisis, an increasing number of financial institutions are considering becoming buyers or sellers. It is therefore important that potential acquirers position themselves to be attractive suitors, and sellers demonstrate that they are healthy candidates. Although much of this focus is directed toward an institution’s overall safety and soundness and numerous other factors, one issue that should not be overlooked is its record of meeting the credit needs of its local communities when measured against the requirements of the Community Reinvestment Act.

CRA Primary Factors
There are two relevant factors related to CRA. First, an acquiring institution’s CRA rating can dictate whether a potential deal will receive regulatory approval. Depending on the severity, a potential acquirer with a less than “satisfactory” rating, or even one with more narrow weaknesses in its CRA program, will find it difficult if not impossible to obtain regulatory approval for any transaction until it improves its rating and its internal CRA program. Also, the CRA condition of the seller is significant, and the buyer should determine how that will impact the bank after consummation.

Even an institution with an “outstanding” CRA rating can still face difficulties executing a transaction. The CRA allows individuals and community groups to take an active part in the regulatory application and approval process of a transaction by providing a mechanism for the submission of public comments regarding any perceived CRA compliance weakness or criticism of a party to the transaction. Because the CRA rating is publicly reported, unlike the institution’s other confidential examination ratings, this becomes an easy target. By taking advantage of the publicly available data concerning financial institutions, including CRA ratings, groups located far outside the acquirer’s market area can file comment letters that pass the very low threshold set by regulators to entertain these protests. In some cases, these activist groups have been able to extract significant commitments from acquirers just to get deals done.

Regulatory Approval Process
Most often, these public comments do not, in and of themselves, prevent an otherwise viable transaction from occurring. They can, however, significantly slow down a pending transaction. Under current procedures, written public comments are included as part of the record that the federal agencies review in the evaluation of an application for a transaction. In connection with these public comments, the regulators may make several requests for additional information before ultimately determining whether those public comments will impact their approval of the proposal. This process can take several months, and can even drag on for significantly longer. From deal uncertainty, to the potential that key talent will leave in the wake of a long transition, to the potential for major shifts in the market or rapid economic change, delaying the closing of a transaction while this process unfolds can be quite costly and damaging for the parties involved.

The importance of the CRA comment process to banking M&A has existed for decades, although historically, it generally has been confined to transactions involving very large financial institutions, such as the recent CIT Group-OneWest Bank acquisition. With the current paucity of larger bank transactions, smaller deals are attracting more public scrutiny and suffering significant delays of, in some cases, many months. Discussions and negotiations with the regulators on this issue may be difficult and frustrating. If CRA comments are submitted to regulators for a particular transaction, it is important to quickly develop with legal counsel a clear strategy to address and resolve any issues that have been raised.

Practical Takeaways
To mitigate the CRA risk in M&A transactions, the following are some strategies that an organization should consider, either as a buyer or a seller:

  • Continue to develop a strong CRA program and strategy.
  • Proactively develop or deepen relationships with local community groups.
  • Be extremely careful and consult with legal counsel when deciding whether and how to respond to broad “informational” questionnaires from community groups.
  • Engage with banking regulators early in the transaction process regarding each party’s CRA status, strengths and potential challenges.
  • In the transaction agreement, consider specifically providing for community-based outreach or support programs following the transaction.
  • Provide clear evidence of community support by both parties, pre- and post-transaction, in the deal announcement.
  • Take all protests seriously, and be cognizant that all communication and information may become public.

Could a Republican President Mean More M&A Activity?


Banking-Industry-8-12-15.pngWith the first prime time Republican primary debate of the 2016 election cycle in the rear view mirror, we have all gotten an inkling of what the candidates think about the banking industry. I did take particular note of Senator Marco Rubio when he stressed the importance of repealing the Dodd-Frank Act. As Commerce Street Holdings’ CEO shared in an article on BankDirector.com, “many bankers feel that given the legislative and regulatory environment coupled with low rates, low margins, low loan demand and high competition, growth is very difficult.”  So repealing Dodd-Frank is a dream for many officers and directors, and Rubio is echoing their concerns.

Senator Rubio’s comments build on those of former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who recently laid out a sweeping financial reform agenda earlier. He believes the biggest banks need to hold even more capital—or Congress should possibly reinstitute elements of the Glass-Steagall Act. While his campaign appears to be winding down, I do agree with his call for government to work harder to “level the playing field” between Wall Street banks and community institutions.

With so much political scrutiny already placed on banks, it is interesting to think of the pressures being placed on institutions to grow today. On one side, you have politicians weighing in on how banking should operate. On the other, regulatory and investor expectations are higher now than in recent years. Buckle up, because I believe the coming election will only further encourage politicians with opinions, but little in the way of detailed plans, about “revitalizing” the economy.

Against this political backdrop, today’s business environment offers promising opportunity for bold, innovative and disciplined executives to transform their franchises. But I believe regulatory hurdles are making it tougher to do deals. Indeed, the recently approved merger of CIT Group and OneWest Bank creates a SIFI [Systemically Important Financial Institution] which will have to submit to increased regulation and scrutiny. However, when the deal was first announced, CIT’s CEO, John Thain, suggested that his purchase of OneWest could spur other big banks to become buyers. A year later and such activity has yet to be seen.

I see the absence of bigger deals reflecting a reality where any transaction comes with increased compliance and regulatory hurdles. For CIT, going over the $50 billion hurdle meant annual stress tests will now be dictated by the government, as opposed to run by the bank. The institution will have to maintain higher capital levels. Thain seems to think that those added costs and burdens are worth it. By the lack of action, other banks haven’t yet agreed.

Without a doubt, regulatory focus has impacted strategic options within our industry. For instance, we learn about CRA [Community Reinvestment Act] impacting deals and also find fair lending concerns and/or the Bank Secrecy Act delaying or ending potential mergers. Consequently, deals are more difficult to complete. As much as a bank like CIT can add cost savings with scalability to become more efficient, you can understand why banks in certain parts of the country need to debate whether it is better to sell today or to grow the bank’s earnings and sell in three to five years.

The evidence is clear that big banks are not doing deals. Maybe a GOP victory in the next election will thaw certain icebergs, creating a regulatory environment more friendly to banks. While regulators have to comply with existing laws, the leadership of regulatory institutions is appointed by the president and the tone at the top is critical in interpreting those laws. Until we see real action replace cheap talk, I’m looking at CIT as an outlier and simply hoping that political rhetoric doesn’t give false hope to those looking to grow through M&A.