Election Results Could Mean Less Regulation for Banks


Regulation-11-10-16.pngIt’s an understatement to say Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s surprise victory shook up the world Tuesday. Trump got elected promising change in Washington and made statements that portrayed a confusing mix of anti-bank and anti-regulation rhetoric. But with the House and Senate now controlled by Republicans, many industry observers are optimistic that the election will mean the appointment of more bank-friendly regulators, while the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) could also be weakened.

Although many economists feel Trump’s policies would be bad for the national economy, bankers by and large felt Trump would actually be good for the economy, according to a Bank Director poll in September.

“We think the main result of Donald Trump’s election will be that Trump will be able to appoint regulators who are more industry friendly than regulators appointed by President Obama,’’ wrote Brian Gardner, an analyst with investment banking company Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, in a note to investors Wednesday. “The regulatory implications are more important than what might come out of Congress but are broadly positive for financials in our view.”

CFPB
As far as banking regulations, the biggest thing in jeopardy may be the CFPB. President Trump will be able to appoint someone to head the agency, and a Republican-led Congress may make a move to gut or end it. That’s not to say such a move would be easy to do, but if Congressional elections in 2018 remove even more Democrats from office, it’s a possibility. The existence and approach of the CFPB has been a thorn in the side of many.

The Dodd-Frank Act
It’s unlikely the Dodd-Frank Act will be gutted entirely even with a Republican-controlled Congress. Democrats still will have at least 47 seats in the Senate and be able to block legislation that they don’t support, as 60 votes are needed to pass legislation in the Senate, Gardner wrote.

Even some industry lobbyists will be advocating against that, as it would create even more uncertainty. “Our industry has spent billions implementing Dodd Frank and complying with the CFPB,’’ said Richard Hunt, the president and CEO of the Consumer Bankers Association, in an interview Wednesday. “The last thing the banking industry needs is a whipsaw effect of uncertainty.”

Instead, some lobbyists are advocating for measures that would ease regulation on community banks, especially. The Independent Community Bankers of America “believes the unified Republican control of the executive and legislative branches presents a unique opportunity for enacting significant community bank regulatory relief and fully intends to leverage this opportunity for the benefit of community banks, their customers, and the communities they serve,” the group wrote in a memo to members and published on its website.

Wall Street Reform
The Republican Party platform this year, which former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort said was in fact Trump’s platform, supported the return of the Glass-Steagall Act, which forbid banks from having both commercial and investment banking businesses. It was a surprising move, as the other person supporting the return of Glass-Steagall was Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren. But few expect Trump to actually push hard for this, let alone be successful.

Aite Group senior analyst Javier Paz, who covers assets managers, wrote in a note that there was talk of President Trump leaning hard on Wall Street, but “we believe this was a tactical shift to keep Hillary Clinton from outflanking him on the topic of Wall Street reform. Time will tell, but we highly doubt new pieces of legislation building on what Dodd-Frank started will be forthcoming under President Trump.”

Hunt says he counted about 35 seconds of anti-bank rhetoric during four presidential and vice presidential debates. “There is campaigning and then there’s governing,’’ he says. “This is where Speaker Ryan, McConnell and the president will get together and come up with a shared vision for what they want the first 100 days and first year to look like to show the American people that Washington can work.”

Federal Reserve
There is a lot of uncertainty about what impact a Trump presidency will have on the Federal Reserve. Trump has been critical of Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen and the central bank’s policies. He has said the Fed has been artificially keeping rates too low but his views on the Fed have not been consistent. He will be able to appoint two members to the Federal Reserve after he takes office, and Yellen’s term ends in January 2018, according to Gardner. Although the Fed was widely expected to raise rates in December, some predict that won’t happen now, as uncertainty about the markets could lead the Fed to delay a rate hike.

What Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump Have in Common


GlassSteagall-7-28-16.pngIf ever there was an affirmation of the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows, this is it: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have both called for the separation of commercial and investment banking, which would effectively reinstate a modern version of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933.

Trump, of course, is a billionaire businessman who is not known to have ever voiced an opinion on Glass-Steagall until just recently. And Warren is a Democrat from Massachusetts who has been a fierce critic of big banks and has pushed for a return of Depression-era restrictions that would force several megabanks to divest their investment banking operations. To say that Trump and Warren dislike each other would be the understatement of the century. Trump, as is his tendency, has derided Warren in various tweets, calling her “Pocahontas” in reference to her claim that she is of Cherokee ancestry, and also referring to her as “Goofy Elizabeth Warren.” Warren has returned fire with several Twitter bombs of her own, including the suggestion that Trump delete his account.

While Warren’s position on Glass-Steagall was well known, Trump’s apparent support for the re-separation of commercial and investment banking took many people by surprise, including some Republicans in Congress who generally advocate for less rather than more regulation. The GOP platform, which was approved at last week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, contained this sentence: “We support reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 which prohibits commercial banks from engaging in high risk investment.” Party platforms don’t necessarily reflect fully the views of that party’s presidential candidate, except that it was Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who brought the Glass-Steagall issue to the media’s attention during a news conference at the beginning of the convention, which is available through C-SPAN. Manafort said specifically that the platform “reflects Donald Trump’s impact” and was, in effect his platform.

Whether reinstating Glass-Steagall-era prohibitions would really make the country’s financial system safer is open to debate. The financial crisis was caused by a variety of factors, including nonbank mortgage originators, which were largely unregulated; governmental and regulatory tolerance of a burgeoning market for subprime mortgages and a variety of abusive practices that later ensued; and an accommodative monetary policy by the Federal Reserve that kept rates low for several years and eventually helped create a housing bubble. None of these factors had anything to do with the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1991.

Given her populist tendencies, it’s no surprise that Warren is opposed to any policy or practice that adds complexity and risk to large financial institutions like JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup, all of which acquired investment banking firms after the repeal of Glass-Steagall. But why would Trump jump on to the same bandwagon as Warren, whom he clearly detests? The candidate himself has not addressed the issue, but one possible explanation is simple politics—this is, after all, a presidential election year.

During the news conference, Manafort took pains to point out that the Democratic candidate for president, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has received lots of financial support from Wall Street interests. “We believe the Obama-Clinton years have passed legislation that has been favorable to the big banks, which is one of the reasons why you see all of the Wall Street money going to her,” Manafort said. “They know she’s their champion and they support her fully. We support the small banks and Main Street.” Clinton has called for tougher regulation for the banking industry but has stopped short of advocating for a re-separation of commercial and investment banking.

There could be a couple of things going on here. First, this could be a play by Trump for the supporters of Clinton’s principal rival during the Democratic primaries, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has also been a strong and vocal proponent for the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall. Another possible explanation is money. To date, Trump has lagged Clinton in fundraising for his campaign, and if Clinton has most of the Wall Street money locked down then perhaps he hopes to raise money from small banks instead.

Whatever his motivation might be, this is probably the only time in recorded history when Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren agree on anything.

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.