Bankers value certainty and consistency when it comes to regulation, but the Community Reinvestment Act currently offers neither.
In May 2020, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency issued a controversial revision of the decades-old law. The rewrite stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy not just because of the changes themselves — some of which were long overdue and well received — but because the agency acted on its own after it was unable to reach an agreement with the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The OCC’s decision was also significant because national banks account for approximately 70% of all CRA activity, according to the agency.
“I think not having all the regulators on the same page creates a lot of confusion in the industry,” says Michael Marshall, director of regulatory and legal affairs at the Independent Community Bankers of America.
The CRA, which was enacted in 1977 and applies to all federally insured banks and thrifts, was intended to require financial institutions to help meet the credit needs of the communities where they also raised their deposits. However, under the banking industry’s trifurcated federal regulatory system, compliance is monitored by three different agencies – the OCC for national banks, the Fed for state-chartered banks that are members of the Federal Reserve System, and the FDIC for state-chartered, nonmember banks.
Normally, the feds want one rule that applies to all banks regardless of their regulator. The FDIC initially joined the OCC in the CRA overhaul, but FDIC Chair Jelena McWilliams announced in May 2020 that the agency was not ready to finalize the revisions, intimating that she felt banks were too busy dealing with the impact of the pandemic on their borrowers to implement the new rule. The Fed, for its part, had already bowed out of a joint rulemaking process over a disagreement with the approach taken by the other two agencies. In September 2020, the Fed announced its own Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) to modernize the CRA and invited public comment on how to accomplish that.
The OCC’s decision to go it alone means there are now two CRA laws in effect — the agency’s revision rule for banks with a national charter and the previous rule for everyone else. Unfortunately, the confusion surrounding the CRA doesn’t end there.
The OCC’s revision was promulgated under former Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump. Otting unexpectedly resigned as comptroller shortly after the agency’s CRA rule changes went into effect in May of last year, even though he was only halfway through his five-year term. The agency is now being run by Acting Comptroller Michael Hsu, a former Fed official who was appointed by the Biden Administration.
In July, the OCC announced that it would rescind the CRA revision developed under Otting — even though some parts of the new framework are already in effect, and national banks had already begun to comply with them. In the OCC’s announcement, Hsu said the “disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on low and moderate income communities,” along with comments that had already been provided to the Federal Reserve under its ANPR process and the OCC’s own experience implementing the 2020 revision, convinced him of the need to start over.
“While the OCC deserves credit for taking action to modernize the CRA through adoption of the 2020 rule, upon review I believe it was a false start,” Hsu said in a statement. “This is why we will propose rescinding it and facilitating an orderly transition to a new rule.” Hsu also indicated the OCC would work closely with the Fed and FDIC in a joint rulemaking process, which would in effect piggyback off the Fed’s separate rulemaking process that began last September.
One of the biggest complaints about the CRA is that it was written in an era when deposit-gathering activities were almost exclusively branch-based. The industry’s digital transformation in recent years enables institutions — including large banks with national or multi-regional footprints as well as newer, digital-only banks — to raise deposits from anywhere in the country.
“When we thought of banks [in 1977], we thought of big buildings and pillars,” says John Geiringer, a partner and the regulatory section leader in the financial institutions group at Barack Ferrazzano Kirschbaum & Nagelberg. “Now, between our phones and smart watches, each of us is effectively a walking bank branch.”
Geiringer says the regulators are well aware that digital transformation puts traditional, branch-based banks at a disadvantage when it comes to CRA compliance. “I think there is the recognition in the regulatory community that to the extent that fintechs are encroaching upon the business of banking, they should be held to comparable standards,” he says. “There should be one level playing field.”
There was also a degree of ambiguity in the original law about what kinds of activities qualified for CRA consideration, and there could be variations between different examiners and agencies. One welcomed aspect of the OCC’s revised rule is a non-exhaustive, illustrative list of example activities that would qualify for credit. “Before, you had to call somebody,” says Geiringer, who referred to this as “the secret law of CRA.” With its revision, the OCC under Otting tried to provide more clarity around the issue of qualifying activities.
The OCC rule also imposed new data collection requirements that the ICBA’s Marshall says are of concern to smaller banks. But overall, the OCC’s CRA rewrite seemed to be an honest attempt to modernize a law that badly needed it.
So, what happens now?
“I think the interagency process is going to continue moving forward, but in a slightly different direction in light of the fact that we now have the Biden Administration in power,” Geiringer says. “We have seen issuances from both the Biden Administration and others calling for more of an inclination toward the unbanked and the underbanked, and similarly … low- and moderate-income areas.”
A permanent comptroller, once one has been installed at the OCC, could pursue a progressive agenda that goes beyond just modernization. Another scenario that could potential impact any CRA reform initiative is the fate of Fed Chair Jerome Powell, whose term ends in February 2022. Powell is a middle-of-the-road Republican who might be expected to have a moderating influence on CRA reform. Should Powell be replaced by a Democrat who leans more to the left on economic policy matters, that could steer CRA reform in a more progressive direction.
Equally unclear is how long a joint rulemaking process — if indeed the three federal agencies commit to that — will take. A unified revision probably won’t be issued until 2022 at the earliest. In the meantime, the industry is left with no clear sense of what that new rule might look like.