FDIC Vice Chair Urges Partitioning of Nonbanking Activities

FDIC Vice Chair Thomas Hoenig discussed his recent proposal to require that banks partition certain nonbanking activities (see previous coverage for more detail).

At a Conference on Systemic Risk and Organization of the Financial System held at Chapman University, California, Mr. Hoenig described a shift in the banking industry towards consolidation among the largest banks. He noted some of the key factors that have led to this trend: (i) technological developments and financial engineering, (ii) 1990s legislation easing the strain of banking regulations, (iii) significant mergers of commercial and investment banks, and (iv) fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, including the introduction of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010.

Mr. Hoenig noted that, while the Dodd-Frank Act included some structural changes (such as the Volcker Rule), Congress, in large part, chose “regulatory control over structural change.” Mr. Hoenig warned that such over-reliance on regulation potentially could slow down economic growth. He instead advocated for structural change, suggesting that:

“. . . universal banks would partition their nontraditional activities into separately managed and capitalized affiliates. The safety net would be confined to the commercial bank, protecting bank depositors and the payment system so essential to commerce. Simultaneously, these protected commercial banks would be required to increase tangible equity to levels more in line with historic norms, and which the market has long viewed as the best assurance of a bank’s resilience.”

Mr. Hoenig recommended implementing a variety of other safeguards to supplement the partition, such as setting limits on the amount of debt the ultimate parent companies could downstream to subsidiaries. He also mentioned the possibility that, by allowing for resolution through bankruptcy, his proposal could reduce regulatory burdens, including the elimination of risk-based capital and liquidity, the Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review, Dodd-Frank Act Stress Testing, the Orderly Liquidation Authority, Living Wills, and parts of the Volcker Rule.

Lofchie Comment: One problem with the proposal is the distinction it makes between traditional and nontraditional activities. This distinction is based upon the time in which a particular type of financial activity was created and the substance of the activity. For example, entering into swap transactions (particularly as to rates and currencies) and clear swaps and futures should be viewed as core banking activities: they are activities that are completely about credit intermediation. To assert that they are not “traditional” banking activities because they were not done in the 1950s or the 1850s would be not so different from stating that email is not a traditional form of bank communication. It may not be traditional, but it is the modern version of the telephone, and it is core to what banks do.

NY Fed Bank President Says It’s Time to Evaluate Post-Crisis Regulatory Regime, Questions Effectiveness of Volcker Rule

Federal Reserve Bank of New York (“NY Fed”) President and CEO William C. Dudley articulated several principles to consider when evaluating the post-financial crisis regulatory regime and raised questions about the effectiveness of the Volcker Rule.

Mr. Dudley stated that the financial crisis exposed flaws in the regulatory framework – in particular, capital and liquidity inadequacies at large financial institutions. He cited “a number of important structural weaknesses that made it vulnerable to stress” including: (i) systemically important firms operating without sufficient capital and liquidity buffers, (ii) risk monitoring, measuring and controlling failures, (iii) significant problems in funding and derivatives markets, and (iv) fundamental defects in the securitization markets. These weaknesses, he noted, were “magnified by the lack of a good resolution process for large, complex financial firms that got into trouble.”

Mr. Dudley argued that while the industry “must resolve to never allow a return to [pre-crisis] conditions,” now is an appropriate time to begin evaluating the changes that were made to the regulatory regime. He articulated three principles to keep in mind for an effective regulatory regime:

  1. “Ensure that all financial institutions that are systemically important have enough capital and liquidity so that their risk of failure is very low, regardless of the economic environment.”
  2. “Have an effective resolution regime that allows such firms to fail without threatening to take down the rest of the nation’s financial system, and without requiring taxpayer support.”
  3. Ensure that the financial system remains resilient to shocks by preserving “the centralized clearing of over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives, better supervision and oversight of key financial market utilities, and the reforms of the money market mutual fund industry and the tri-party repurchase funding (“repo”) system.”

Mr. Dudley suggested that regulatory and compliance burdens could be made “considerably lighter” on smaller and medium-sized banking institutions because “the failure of such a firm will not impose large costs or stress on the broader financial system.”

Mr. Dudley also questioned whether the implementation of the Volcker Rule was achieving its policy objectives. Regulating entities under the Volcker Rule is difficult, he argued, because most market-making activity has “an element of proprietary trading” and the division between market-making and proprietary trading is “not always clear-cut.” Mr. Dudley said that while the evidence may be inconclusive, the Volcker Rule could be responsible for a decline in market liquidity of corporate bonds. Mr. Dudley strongly recommended Volcker exemptions for community banks.

Lofchie Comment: Mr. Dudley notes that the profitability of banks has dropped in light of their reduced leverage, but he asserts that they remain “profitable enough to cover their cost of capital.” What makes this remark particularly notable is the contrasting recent assertion of FDIC Vice-Chair Thomas Hoenig who claimed that (i) banks’ return on equity was low because they were too highly leveraged (a completely counterintuitive assertion that Mr. Hoenig did not fully explain) and (ii) that banks were less profitable than essentially every other industry (which would seem to suggest that banks were not profitable enough to cover their costs of capital, or at least that investors’ capital was better deployed elsewhere). Whatever is causing the decline in bank profitability (leverage too high or leverage too low), bank regulators should worry that the firms that they regulate are not making enough money to sustain themselves for the long term.

FRB Governor Jerome Powell Applauds “Aggressive Response” to Financial Crisis, Calls for Some Adjustments

Federal Reserve System (“FRB”) Governor Jerome Powell reviewed the regulatory response to the global financial crisis and offered his perspective on the state of current financial market infrastructure and possible regulatory adjustments going forward.

In a speech before the Global Finance Forum, Mr. Powell praised those who aggressively responded to the financial crisis as having prevented another depression. At the time, he noted, the two primary tasks were to “get the economy growing again” and address the “many structural weaknesses” in the financial system. Mr. Powell noted that while job growth has been strong and the U.S. has not had another recession, there has been a labor productivity slowdown associated with “weak investment and a decline in output gains from technological innovation.” To address this, Mr. Powell called for a “national focus on increasing the sustainable growth rate of our economy.”

Mr. Powell stated that the financial system has improved and stabilized primarily because of (i) higher levels of quality capital held, (ii) higher levels of liquidity held, (iii) capital stress testing, (iv) resolution planning (i.e., living wills), and (v) the “greater transparency and more consistent risk management” that comes with the central clearing of interest rate and credit default swaps. He argued that these core reforms should be protected, but called for certain regulatory adjustment in instances where new regulations have been inappropriately difficult for smaller firms or otherwise inefficient, adding:

“Some aspects of the new regulatory program are proving unnecessarily burdensome and should be better tailored to meet our objectives. Some provisions may not be needed at all given the broad scope of what we have put in place. I support adjustments designed to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of regulation without sacrificing safety and soundness . . .”

Lofchie Comment: Mr. Powell joins a steadily increasing number of regulators who are conceding that Dodd-Frank has had some material negative effects. These concessions lay the groundwork for a rational discussion of how financial regulation may be improved – a welcome change from eight years in which “improvement in regulation” and “more regulation” were purported to be synonymous concepts.

House Republicans Release Revised CHOICE Act

House Republicans released the Financial CHOICE Act of 2017. The bill is an update of the CHOICE Act of 2016. The new version represents a major overhaul of the current financial services regulatory regime including a partial repeal of Dodd-Frank.

In September 2016, the House Financial Services Committee approved the initial version of the CHOICE Act by a vote of 30 to 26. At a hearing scheduled for April 26, 2017, the Committee will discuss the updated version of the bill. Proposed changes to the current financial regulatory regime include, among other things:

  1. an opt-out of many regulatory requirements for banks and other financial institutions if they maintain a 10% leverage ratio (among other conditions);
  2. subjecting the federal banking agencies to greater congressional oversight and tighter budgetary control;
  3. materially reducing the authority of the Financial Stability Oversight Council and the establishment of a new process of identifying financial institutions as “systemically important”;
  4. a repeal of the Orderly Liquidation Authority and the creation of a new bankruptcy process for banks;
  5. reforms in bank stress tests;
  6. a restructuring of the CFPB, FHFA, OCC, and FDIC into bipartisan commissions appointed by the President;
  7. the elimination of the CFPB supervisory and examination authority;
  8. a repeal of the Volcker Rule; and
  9. facilitated capital raising by small companies, including through crowd-funding.

The Committee released a summary of changes.

Regarding derivatives, the new legislation exempts certain inter-affiliate swaps from nearly all Title VII requirements (except reporting), and otherwise removes a number of changes to Title VII that were previously included (it is suggested that this is because such provisions would be addressed in CFTC reauthorization legislation).

Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) called the bill a solution that “grows our economy from Main Street up.” He asserted that the CHOICE Act is premised on the principles that all banks need to be well-capitalized and that community banks and credit unions deserve relief from the “crushing burden of over-regulation.”

Lofchie Comment: Changes that the bill would make in the regulatory process are genuinely significant. These are largely in Title III of the proposal (see page 104).

Under the terms of the bill, the various financial regulators (including the banking regulators, the CFTC and the SEC) would be prohibited from issuing a “regulation” (which term would be broadly defined) unless the regulator first issued a statement (i) stating the need for the regulation, (ii) explaining why the private market could not address the problem, (iii) analyzing the adverse impacts of the regulation, and (iv) attempting to quantify the costs and benefits of the regulation, including its effects on economic activity, the basis for its determinations, and, most significantly, “an explanation of predicted changes” that will be brought about by the regulation.  A final rulemaking would be required to include “regulatory impact metrics selected by the [regulator’s] chief economist.”

Adherence to this process would make the tasks of the regulator materially more difficult, or at least it would make it more difficult for the regulators to pass rules. Of course, there is a significant amount of good in that. Regulators should be subject to a reasonably high burden of consideration in adopting rules that may cost market participants, in the aggregate, millions of dollars in compliance costs or that have negative effects on the economy generally.

One of the most interesting provisions of the bill is the requirement that regulators should provide an explanation of predicted changes that will result from the rule. Doubtless, in many cases, the predictions will turn out to be wrong. But that is ok. It is unreasonable to expect that regulators will be always, or even that consistently, correct in their predictions. The new standard may be hard to assess, but the attempt is still worthwhile.

SEC Acting Chair Piwowar Emphasizes Disclosure in Regulation of Capital Markets

Before an audience of foreign regulators at the SEC’s 27th Annual International Institute for Securities Market Growth and Development, SEC Acting Chair Michael Piwowar addressed best practices for the regulation of capital formation. He emphasized the importance of disclosure for lowering the cost of capital and for protecting investors, and asserted that a guiding principle for regulators must be to determine whether the government is facilitating or interfering with the progress of capital markets.

Acting Chair Piwowar focused on the value of the disclosure regime. He said that prudential regulation in capital markets is a “misplaced idea,” and added that “while banks are in the business of minimizing risk, the capital markets are in the business of allocating risk.” He argued that disclosure is the most effective tool for allocating capital to the most efficient industries, and suggested that a disclosure regime for banks (which he called “market-based prudential regulation”) could also benefit investors.

In addition, he stressed that a regulatory agency should not “substitute its judgment for that of the market.”

Acting Chair Piwowar also touched on the subjects of enforcement, international cooperation, and emerging issues in FinTech.

Lofchie Comment: During his interim tenure, Acting Chair Piwowar is making significant efforts to return the SEC to its historical mission of enabling investors to make investment decisions on the basis of good corporate disclosure regarding facts of economic significance. These are necessary corrections to the course of an agency that had been used since the adoption of Dodd-Frank as an instrumentality of political partisanship without regard to the economic costs or the benefits of its rulemakings.

 

Bank of England conference in honor of William A. Barnett – Call for papers extended

We are delighted to announce a conference in honor of CFS Director William A. Barnett at the Bank of England on May 23 – 24, 2017.

The call for papers has been extended to March 15, 2017.

Liquidity plays a pivotal role in financial markets, the banking sector, and the economy as a whole. Since the 2008-09 financial crisis, it has become increasingly necessary to understand the creation, dissemination, measurement and management of liquidity.

This conference seeks and invites proposals to understand and assess the macroeconomic implications of liquidity, the liquidity creation process, and the impacts of liquidity on financial markets and economic activity. Theoretical, empirical, quantitative, qualitative, institutional, and historical perspectives that address current theory and policy questions are welcome.

For details to attend the conference or submit papers:
www.centerforfinancialstability.org/events/BoE_Barnett_conference_021417.pdf

Similarly, excellent peer reviewed papers will be considered for a special issue of the Journal of Financial Stability.

Treasury Secretary Nominee Clarifies Positions on Volcker Rule, Carried Interest

In written responses to the Senate Finance Committee, Treasury Secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin provided his views on a number of topics, including the carried interest on hedge funds and the Volcker Rule. Mr. Mnuchin stated that the administration’s tax plan would “recommend repealing carried interest on hedge funds.”

As to the Volcker Rule, Mr. Mnuchin suggested that the “proprietary trading” restrictions could be narrowed and the Volcker Rule applied only to FDIC-insured banks, not necessarily their affiliates. If confirmed as Chair of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, Mr. Mnuchin said he would “address the issue of the definition of the Volcker Rule to make sure that banks can provide the necessary liquidity for customer markets and address the issues” contained in a recent Fed working paper. Mr. Mnuchin stated that:

“I am supportive of the Volcker Rule to mitigate the impact that proprietary risk taking may have on a bank that benefits from federal deposit insurance. However, …we need to provide a proper definition of proprietary trading, such that we do not limit liquidity in needed markets….”

FINRA Prioritizes Compliance, Supervision and Risk Management in 2017

In a 2017 Regulatory and Examination Priorities Letter (“Priorities Letter”), FINRA identified compliance, supervision and risk management as primary areas for review.

FINRA stated that it will be focusing on the following issues, among others:

  • High-Risk and Recidivist Brokers. FINRA will enhance its approach to high-risk and recidivist brokers by reviewing firms’ (i) supervisory procedures for hiring or retaining statutorily disqualified and recidivist brokers, (ii) supervisory plans to prevent future misconduct, and (iii) branch office inspection programs and supervisory systems for branch and non-branch office locations.
  • Sales Practices. FINRA will evaluate firms’ (i) compliance and supervisory controls that are intended to protect senior investors, especially against microcap fraud schemes, (ii) reviews of product suitability and concentration in customer accounts, (iii) capacity to monitor the short-term trading of long-term products, (iv) procedures regarding registered and associated persons, and (v) compliance with social media supervisory and record-retention obligations.
  • Financial Risks. FINRA will examine firms’ (i) funding and liquidity plans, (ii) financial risk management practices, and (iii) implementation of the first phase of the new FINRA Rule 4210 margin requirements for covered agency transactions, which became effective on December 15, 2016.
  • Operational Risks. FINRA will assess firms’ (i) cybersecurity programs, (ii) internal supervisory controls testing, (iii) controls and supervision intended to protect customers’ assets, (iv) compliance with SEC Regulation SHO, (v) anti-money laundering programs, and (vi) application of exemptions and exclusions to municipal advisor registration requirements.
  • Market Integrity. FINRA will (i) monitor firms’ compliance with amended Order Audit Trail System rules, (ii) expand surveillance for cross-product manipulation to include trading in exchange-traded products, and (iii) supplement firms’ supervisory systems and procedures with “Cross-Market Equity Supervision Report Cards.” In addition, FINRA will (i) expand its Audit Trail Reporting Early Remediation Initiative to include Regulation NMS trade-throughs and locked and crossed markets, (ii) review firms’ compliance with Tick Size Pilot data collection obligations, and (iii) ensure that firms improve their Market Access Rule compliance by incorporating recommended best practices. FINRA also intends to review alternative trading systems’ customer disclosures and develop a pilot trading examination program in order to help “determine the value of conducting targeted examinations of some smaller firms that have historically not been subject to trading examinations due to their relatively low trading volume.” Lastly, FINRA will continue to expand its “fixed income surveillance program to include additional manipulation-based surveillance patterns, such as wash sales and interpositioning.”

Lofchie Comment: The new Priorities Letter offers a lot to talk about, since FINRA has managed to cover virtually every aspect of a firm’s business. It is incumbent on each firm to go through the letter carefully and scrutinize every relevant priority. The following areas might be of particular interest: (i) custody, (ii) seniors, (iii) improving the automation of “suitability” reviews (e.g., the ability to search for concentrated positions, or positions with excessive turnover), and (iv) cybersecurity training. Anti-money laundering enforcement actions have proved to be a treasure trove for financial regulators, so firms should continue to devote their attention to this area. Liquidity seems to be the odd item on FINRA’s list, since there are no real rules governing it, but rulemaking advances in that area should be expected in the near future, so regulators will be exploring ways to refine their understanding of best practices.

CFTC Commissioner Giancarlo Calls for “Clear-Eyed Attention” to Market Challenges

CFTC Commissioner Christopher Giancarlo addressed three “mega-trends” that are transforming global financial markets: technological disruptions, changing market liquidity and global fragmentation. In a speech before the ISDA Trade Execution Legal Forum, Commissioner Giancarlo called on the CFTC to “revisit its flawed swaps trading rules to better align them to market dynamics.”

In focusing on these mega-trends, Commissioner Giancarlo made clear that regulators must: (i) foster best practices for and harness the power of new trading technologies for the benefit of market participants and regulators; (ii) address the diminishing liquidity in trading markets; and (iii) review and reduce poorly designed rules and regulations that are causing “service-provider concentration and market fragmentation.”

Commissioner Giancarlo argued that “market regulators cannot continue to ignore the growing systemic risk caused by [global] market fragmentation,” and noted the importance of allowing U.S. swap intermediaries to “fairly compete” in world markets to reverse this fragmentation. Commissioner Giancarlo stated:

“Only with clear-eyed attention to the true challenges facing contemporary markets can we ever restore the market vitality that will be necessary for broad-based economic prosperity. Flourishing capital markets are the answer to U.S. and global economic woes, not diminished trading and risk transfer.”

In his criticism of post-crisis regulation, Commissioner Giancarlo observed that overseas market participants continue to avoid firms “bearing the scarlet letters of ‘U.S. person'” in certain swap markets to “steer clear” of the CFTC’s “problematic” regulatory regime.

On market liquidity, Mr. Giancarlo blamed prudential restrictions on bank capital along with the CFTC’s “flawed and restrictive swaps trading rules,” the evolution of some trading markets from dealer to agency models, and the impact of U.S. and European monetary policy for sudden volatility shocks that occur in today’s markets. He decried the practice by U.S. and foreign regulators to plow ahead with “capital constraining regulations” rather than to acknowledge and study the causes of changing market liquidity.

On disruptive technology, Mr. Giancarlo reiterated his opposition to proposed a Reg. AT provision allowing the CFTC to obtain trading system source code without a subpoena. He urged financial regulators to foster a regulatory environment “that spurs innovation” and allows market participants to develop and test innovation solutions “without fear of enforcement action and regulatory fines.”

He noted that the upcoming March 1, 2017 deadline for uncleared swap variation margin requirements “will pose a massive challenge for market participants.” Mr. Giancarlo concluded that “safe, sound and vibrant” global markets are needed for investment and risk management to escape the “new mediocre” of prolonged stagnation.

Lofchie Comment: During his term as Commissioner, Mr. Giancarlo pulled off a trifecta. He: (i) prevented the CFTC’s rules from getting any worse (i.e., neither the position limits rule nor Regulation AT was adopted in part because of Mr. Giancarlo’s work in calling attention to their deficiencies); (ii) kept the focus on issues affecting the market currently and likely to affect the market in the future; and (iii) remained civil yet steadfast with those with whom he had deep policy disagreements. In the new administration, his presence at the CFTC will be integral to the reexamination of the agency’s rules in order to determine what has been working and what has not.

CFTC Proposes Capital, Liquidity and Related Requirements for Swap Dealers

The CFTC approved proposed rules establishing minimum capital, liquidity, financial reporting and related requirements for CFTC-registered swap dealers (“SDs”) and major swap participants (“MSPs”). The proposed rules are a reproposal of rules previously proposed in 2011.

The proposed rules cover the follow areas related to SDs and MSPs:

  • capital requirements;
  • liquidity requirements;
  • financial recordkeeping and financial reporting;
  • obligation to notify regulators if a firm’s capital drops below certain levels; and
  • limitations on the withdrawal of capital and liquid assets.

The CFTC identified three approaches to allow firms to meet capital requirements:

  • an approach based on bank capital requirements that would be available to SDs that are subsidiaries of a bank holding company and thus subject to BHC capital requirements;
  • an approach modeled after the SEC’s capital requirements; and
  • a “tangible” net capital approach intended for a commercial enterprise, but that is also required to register as a swap dealer with the CFTC.

The proposal would establish certain liquidity, reporting and notification requirements, and would obligate entities covered by the proposal to keep current books and records in accordance with U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. Firms would be able to use models, although the models would have to be approved by the regulators. In addition, the rules provide for a “comparability” determination that will allow non-U.S. swap dealers that are not subject to regulation by the Federal Reserve Board to be subject to their home country capital rules.

There are currently 104 provisionally-registered swaps dealers (no registered major swap participants). Of those, 51 are not subject to the CFTC’s capital requirements because they are subject to U.S. bank requirements (including 36 which are non-U.S. banks having branches in the United States). Eight of the remaining swap dealers are already capital-regulated by the CFTC because they are FCMs, some of which are also SEC-registered broker-dealers. Of the remaining firms, some are subsidiaries of U.S. or non-U.S. bank holding companies or other entities subject to Basel-capital requirements that have sufficient capital to sustain their activities. Currently, there are no registered major swap participant and there is only one primarily commercial firm (Cargill) provisionally registered as a swap dealer with the CFTC.

In statements issued in connection with the reproposal, Chair Timothy Massad emphasized that the proposed requirements should avoid requiring all such firms to follow one approach. “Requiring all firms to follow one approach could favor one business model over another, and cause even greater concentration in the industry,” he said.

Commissioner J. Christopher Giancarlo expressed concerns regarding (i) the rule’s effect on smaller swap dealers and how much additional capital they may have to raise; (ii) the especially broad scope of the proposal; and (iii) the proposed capital model review and approval process.

Lofchie Comment: In terms of the substance of the rule requirements, the CFTC largely punted responsibility (and appropriately so) either to the banking regulators or to the SEC, both of which have significantly more expertise and staff to deal with these matters. It would have been messy for the CFTC and the SEC to take different approaches to capital requirements. Firms subject to regulation by both regulators would have been forced to comply with the more conservative set of rules in any case. In terms of process, the CFTC will wait and see what capital rules are eventually adopted by the SEC and then piggyback on them. For the CFTC, this is an entirely sensible way to go.  For firms that have an interest in the CFTC Rules, and will be subject to the “SEC version of the SEC rules, this means that they should concentrate on commenting on the actual SEC Rules, as the CFTC will likely follow along with whatever the SEC does.

In the Appendix, the CFTC reports the number of registered swap dealers and major swap participants. The numbers are revealing.

  • The CFTC stated that it had expected 300 swap dealers to register. Only 104 firms have done so. The costs associated with registration have likely caused numerous firms either to abandon dealing in swaps or to reduce their level of business below the de minimis level so as to not become subject to registration. Put differently, the regulations have led to a significant increase in the concentration of the swaps-dealing business. If the CFTC determines to reduce the level of business at which swap dealers are required to register, virtually all of the small unregistered swap dealers will further reduce their level of business or drop out of swaps dealing entirely. In short, Dodd-Frank has led to a significant accelerated concentration of swaps exposure.
  • There are no firms registered as a major swap participant. Not one. The registration requirements, applicable to large users of swaps that are not dealers, are absurd; it would be impossible for any non-dealer to comply with them. These provisions should be dropped from Dodd-Frank and the regulators should no longer waste time coming up with rules for registration categories that will apply to no one.
  • Congress gave no instruction as to how capital requirements could possibly be applied to a commercial entity that is a swap dealer. It simply does not work to have regulatory capital requirements (which largely require that a firm hold liquid financial assets) for commercial enterprises that own oil wells, related buildings and refineries. After years of struggling with how to make this round peg fit into a square hole, the CFTC essentially gave up (which was the rational thing to do). It set a low tangible capital requirement, which serves as an irrelevant fig leaf: a rule that the CFTC proposed merely because Congress required it to do so.

Currently, the CFTC does not have the expertise to supervise a models-based capital regime. Greater consideration should be given as to how this will work in practice.