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Fed and Illinois regulator take action against bank on capital and management
On May 4, the Federal Reserve Board announced an enforcement action against an Illinois state-chartered community bank and its holding company related to alleged deficiencies identified in recent examinations. While the written agreement (entered into by the parties at the end of April) does not outline the specific deficiencies, it notes that the bank and the holding company have started taken corrective action to address the issues identified by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis (FRB) and the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR). Among other things, the holding company’s board of directors must take appropriate steps to fully use its financial and managerial resources to ensure the bank complies with the written agreement and any other supervisory action taken by the bank’s federal or state regulator. The board is also required to submit a written plan to the FRB and the IDFPR describing actions and measures it intends to take to strengthen board oversight of the management and operations of the bank. The bank is required to submit a written plan outlining its current and future capital requirements and must notify the FRB and the IDFPR within 30 days after the end of any calendar quarter in which its capital ratios fall below the minimum ratios specified within the approved capital plan. Additionally, the bank is prohibited from taking on debt, redeeming its own stock, or paying out dividends or distributions without the prior approval of state and federal regulators.
Oklahoma ties maximum interest on loans to fed funds rate
The Oklahoma governor recently signed SB 794, which increases the maximum loan finance charge for certain loans (i.e., supervised loans under applicable Oklahoma law) by additionally including the federal funds rate published by the Federal Reserve Board. Specifically, a loan finance charge may not exceed the equivalent of the greater of either of the following: the total of (i) 32 percent plus the federal funds rate per year on the part of the unpaid balances of the principal which is $7,000 or less; (ii) 23 percent plus the federal funds rate per year on the part of the unpaid balances of the principal which greater than $7,000 but less than $11,000; and (iii) 20 percent plus the federal funds rate per year on the part of the unpaid balances of the principal which exceeds $11,000; or 25 percent plus the federal funds rate per year on the unpaid balances of the principal. The federal funds rate is defined as the rate published by the Fed that is “in effect as of the first day of each month immediately preceding the month during which the loan is consummated.” Supervised lenders may contract for and receive a loan finance charge not exceeding what is allowed by the Act. The Act is effective November 1.
Republicans say regulators are coordinating on de-banking digital assets
On April 26, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Patrick McHenry (R-NC), Digital Assets, Financial Technology and Inclusion Subcommittee Chairman French Hill (R-AR), and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Bill Huizenga (R-MI) sent separate letters to the Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell, FDIC Chair Martin J. Gruenberg, and acting Comptroller of the Currency Michael J. Hsu seeking information to help the lawmakers determine whether there exists a “coordinated strategy to de-bank the digital asset ecosystem in the United States” and “suppress innovation.”
The text common to each letter pointed to actions taken by the federal prudential regulators as discouraging banks from offering services to digital asset firms. The lawmakers cited OCC guidance issued in 2021 (Interpretive Letter 1179, covered by InfoBytes here), which stated that banks can engage in certain cryptocurrency activities as long as they are able to “demonstrate, to the satisfaction of its supervisory office, that it has controls in place to conduct the activity in a safe and sound manner” and the banks receive a regulator’s written non-objection. Also discussed were FDIC instructions released in April 2022, which directed banks to promptly notify the agency if they intend to engage in, or are currently engaged in, any digital-asset-related activities, as well as a joint statement issued by the regulators in January that highlighted key risks banks should consider when choosing to engage in cryptocurrency activities. (Covered by InfoBytes here and here.)
Referring to certain recent bank collapses, the lawmakers argued that they do not believe that the underlying problems were caused by digital asset-related customers. The lawmakers requested information related to non-public records and communications between agency employees and supervised banks relating to the aforementioned guidance by May 9.
Fed governor weighs tokenization and AI
On April 20, Federal Reserve Governor Christopher J. Waller spoke on innovation and the future of finance during remarks at the Global Interdependence Center. Commenting that “[i]nnovation is a double-edged sword, with costs and benefits, and different effects on different groups of people,” Waller stressed the importance of considering whether innovation is creating new efficiencies and helping to mitigate risks and increase financial inclusion or whether it is creating new or exacerbating existing risks. Waller’s remarks focused on two specific areas of innovation that he believes may have the potential to deliver substantial benefits to the banking industry: tokenization and artificial intelligence (AI).
With respect to tokenization and tokenized assets, Waller flagged several advantages to innovations in this space that use blockchain over traditional transaction approaches, including (i) being able to offer faster or “even near-real time transfers,” which can, among other things, give parties precise control over settlement times and reduce liquidity risks; and (ii) “smart contract” functionalities, which can help mitigate settlement and counterparty credit risks by constructing and executing transactions based on the meeting of specified conditions. He acknowledged, however, that both innovations introduce risks, including potential cyber vulnerabilities and other risks.
Waller also addressed the banking industry’s use of AI to increase the range of marketing possibilities, expand customer service applications, monitor fraud, and refine credit underwriting processes and analysis, but cautioned that AI also presents “novel risks,” as these models rely on high volumes of data, which can complicate efforts to detect problems or biases in datasets. There is also the “black box” problem where it becomes difficult to explain how outputs are derived, where even AI developers have difficulty understanding exactly how the AI technology approach works, Waller stated. “All of these innovations will have their champions, who make claims about how their innovation will change the world; and I think it’s important to view such claims critically,” Waller said. “But it’s equally important to challenge the doubters, who insist that these innovations are much ado about nothing, or that they will end in disaster.”
FSOC seeks feedback on risk framework, nonbank determinations
On April 21, the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) released a proposed analytic framework for financial stability risks, “intended to provide greater transparency to the public about how [FSOC] identifies, assesses, and addresses potential risks to financial stability, regardless of whether the risk stems from activities or firms.” FSOC explained in a fact sheet that the proposed framework would not impose any obligations on any entity, but is instead designed to provide guidance on how FSOC expects to perform certain duties. This includes: (i) identifying potential risks covering a broad range of asset classes, institutions, and activities, including new and evolving financial products and practices as well as developments affecting financial resiliency such as cybersecurity and climate-related financial risks; (ii) assessing certain vulnerabilities that most commonly contribute to financial stability risk and considering how adverse effects stemming from these risks could be transmitted to financial markets/market participants, including what impact this can have on the financial system; and (iii) responding to potential risks to U.S. financial stability, which may involve interagency coordination and information sharing, recommendations to financial regulators or Congress, nonbank financial company determinations, and designations relating to financial market utility/payment, clearing, and settlement activities that are, or are likely to become, systemically important.
The same day, FSOC also released for public comment proposed interpretive guidance relating to procedures for designating systemically important nonbank financial companies for Federal Reserve supervision and enhanced prudential standards. (See also FSOC fact sheet here.) The guidance would revise and update previous guidance from 2019, and “is intended to enhance [FSOC’s] ability to address risks to financial stability, provide transparency to the public, and ensure a rigorous and clear designation process.” FSOC explained that the proposed guidance would include a two-stage evaluation and analysis process for making a designation, during which time companies under review would engage in significant communication with FSOC and be provided an opportunity to request a hearing, among other things. Designated companies will be subject to annual reevaluations and may have their designations rescinded should FSOC determine that the company no longer meets the statutory standards for designation.
Comments on both proposals are due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.
Both CFPB Director Rohit Chopra and OCC acting Comptroller Michael J. Hsu issued statements supporting the issuance of the proposed interpretive guidance. Chopra commented that, if finalized, the proposed guidance “will create a clear path for the FSOC to identify and designate systemically important nonbank financial institutions” and “will accelerate efforts to identify potential shadow banks to be candidates for designation.” Hsu also noted that sharing additional details to improve the balance and transparency of FSOC’s work “would both make it easier for [FSOC] to explain its analysis of potential risks and create an opportunity for richer public input on the analysis.”
Fed governor outlines CBDC risks
On April 18, Federal Reserve Governor Michelle W. Bowman cautioned that the risks of creating a U.S. central bank digital currency (CBDC) may outweigh the benefits for consumers. Bowman said the Fed continues to engage in exploratory work to understand how a CBDC could potentially improve payment speeds or better financial inclusion, and noted that the agency is also trying to understand how new potential forms of money like CBDCs and other digital assets could play a larger role in the economy. In prepared remarks delivered before Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business Psaros Center for Financial Markets and Policy, Bowman raised several policy considerations relating to privacy, interoperability and innovation, and the potential for “unintended effects” on the banking system should a CBDC be adopted. She also commented that due to the upcoming rollout of the agency’s FedNow Service in July (covered by InfoBytes here), real-time retail payments will happen without the introduction of a CBDC. With respect to privacy, Bowman cautioned that any CBDC “must ensure consumer data privacy protections embedded in today’s payment systems continue and are extended into future systems.” She added that “[i]n thinking about the implications of CBDC and privacy, we must also consider the central role that money plays in our daily lives, and the risk that a CBDC would provide not only a window into, but potentially an impediment to, the freedom Americans enjoy in choosing how money and resources are used and invested.”
Hsu says OCC focused on fairness in banking
On March 30, acting Comptroller of the Currency Michael J. Hsu commented that the safety and soundness of the federal banking system continues to be a top agency priority, as is improving fairness in banking. Speaking at a conference, Hsu discussed several measures taken by the OCC to elevate and advance fairness, particularly for the underserved and financially vulnerable. Explaining that OCC examiners are encouraging bank management to review existing overdraft protection programs and consider adopting pro-consumer reforms, Hsu referred to CFPB guidance issued last October to address unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices associated with “so-called ‘surprise overdraft’ fees.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.) He also commented that both the Federal Reserve Board and the FDIC have cited the risk of violating UDAP in connection with the certain overdraft practices. Hsu noted that not all overdraft practices are equal, stating that “authorize positive, settle negative” and “representment” fees both present heightened risks.
Recognizing the recent decline in banks’ reliance on overdraft fees, Hsu emphasized that most bankers he has spoken to “understand the importance of treating their customers fairly and have been open to learning about best practices.” He noted that “[t]hese bankers are committed to being there for their customers and providing them with short-term, small dollar liquidity when it is needed most. Many customers tell their banks, as well as groups that have studied overdraft practices, that this banking service helps them meet payments when they come due.” Hsu added that the OCC’s intended goal is to “improve the fairness of these programs by making them more pro-consumer, not to eliminate them,” and that “[m]ore fairness means more financially healthy communities, which means more trust in banking.” Hsu also discussed efforts taken by the OCC to combat discriminatory lending practices, including working to enhance supervisory methods for identifying appraisal discrimination.
Fed to launch FedNow in July
On March 15, the Federal Reserve Board announced a July launch date for its FedNow Service. (Covered by a Special Alert here.) Beginning the first week of April, the Fed will start formally certifying participants, with early adopters completing a customer testing and certification program in preparation for sending live transactions through the system. The certification process “encompasses a comprehensive testing curriculum with defined expectations for operational readiness and network experience,” the Fed explained. “We couldn’t be more excited about the forthcoming FedNow launch, which will enable every participating financial institution, the smallest to the largest and from all corners of the country, to offer a modern instant payment solution,” said Ken Montgomery, First Vice President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and FedNow program executive. “With the launch drawing near, we urge financial institutions and their industry partners to move full steam ahead with preparations to join the FedNow Service,” Montgomery added.
In addition to certifying early adopters for the July launch, the Fed said it will continue to engage with financial institutions and service providers to complete the testing and certification program throughout 2023 and beyond. FedNow “will launch with a robust set of core clearing and settlement functionality and value-added features,” the agency said, explaining that “[m]ore features and enhancements will be added in future releases to continue supporting safety, resiliency and innovation in the industry as the FedNow network expands in the coming years.”
Fed governor says transparency is key for promoting innovation in the banking system
On March 14, Federal Reserve Governor Michelle W. Bowman presented thoughts on innovation trends within the U.S. financial system during a conference held by the Independent Community Bankers of America. Bowman commented that innovation has always been a priority for banks of all sizes and business models, and that regulators—often accused of “being hostile to innovation” within the regulated financial system—are continually trying to learn and adapt to new technologies, which often introduce new risks and vulnerabilities. In order to address these challenges, which are often amplified for community banks, Bowman said banks must be prepared to make improvements to risk management, cybersecurity, and consumer compliance measures, and regulators—playing a complementary role—must ensure rules are clear and transparent. She further stressed that “[i]t is absolutely critical that innovation not distract banks and regulators from the traditional risks that are omnipresent in the business of banking, particularly credit, liquidity, concentration, and interest rate risk.” Noting that these types of risks are present in all bank business models, Bowman said they “can be especially acute for banks engaging in novel activities or exposed to new markets, including crypto-assets.”
Explaining that transparency is important for promoting a safe, sound, and fair banking system, particularly when it comes to innovation, Bowman stated that insufficient clarity or transparency or disproportionately burdensome regulations may “cause new products and services to migrate to the shadow banking system.” Bowman went on to discuss ways bank regulation and supervision can support responsible innovation, and highlighted unique challenges facing smaller banks, as well as key actions taken by regulators to date relating to crypto assets, third-party risk management, cybersecurity, Community Reinvestment Act reform, bank mergers, and overdraft fees, among others.
Fed issues Bank Term Funding Program FAQs
On March 13, the Federal Reserve Board issued FAQs on its Bank Term Funding Program, which launched March 12, to provide additional funding to eligible depository institutions in order to meet depositors’ needs. The program will serve as an additional source of liquidity against high-quality securities, and will eliminate the need for an institution to quickly sell those securities in times of stress. Loans of up to one year in length will be made available to “banks, savings associations, credit unions, and other eligible depository institutions pledging U.S. Treasuries, agency debt and mortgage-backed securities, and other qualifying assets as collateral.” The Fed said in its announcement that it “is closely monitoring conditions across the financial system and is prepared to use its full range of tools to support households and businesses, and will take additional steps as appropriate.”