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Core Principles for Financial Regulation

On February 3, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order setting forth his administration’s core principles for the regulation of the U.S. financial system.  While generally touted as the administration’s first affirmative steps to dismantle the Dodd-Frank Act, the executive order actually does little to implement any immediate change but says a lot about the overall framework by which the Trump Administration intends to approach financial regulation.

In addition to standard executive order boilerplate, the executive order sets forth two specific actions.  First, it establishes the “principles of regulation” that the administration will look at in evaluating regulations.

Section 1. Policy. It shall be the policy of my Administration to regulate the United States financial system in a manner consistent with the following principles of regulation, which shall be known as the Core Principles:

(a) empower Americans to make independent financial decisions and informed choices in the marketplace, save for retirement, and build individual wealth;

(b) prevent taxpayer-funded bailouts;

(c) foster economic growth and vibrant financial markets through more rigorous regulatory impact analysis that addresses systemic risk and market failures, such as moral hazard and information asymmetry;

(d) enable American companies to be competitive with foreign firms in domestic and foreign markets;

(e) advance American interests in international financial regulatory negotiations and meetings;

(g) restore public accountability within Federal financial regulatory agencies and rationalize the Federal financial regulatory framework.

Notwithstanding partisanship biases, I think most of these principles express ideas that most Americans could support, even if some would say there are additional principles (such as protecting consumers) that might also be relevant.  Even with some “norms” going out the window, I think everyone should be able to get behind the concept that our financial regulations should seek to “prevent taxpayer-funded bailouts.”  If nothing else, the Core Principles reflect generally mainstream Republican views of the goals (and implied limitations) of federal regulations.

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Is the OCC on a Path to Greater Power?

bankthinkIn a recent American Banker BankThink article, Partner Dan Wheeler explores the possibility that the OCC could rise in stature, while the other banking regulatory agencies fall out of favor.  By largely staying out of Congress’ scrutiny and taking a lead on fintech regulation, Dan argues that the OCC is well positioned to obtain greater chartering and regulatory responsibility under a Trump administration.

Some regulatory agencies, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Federal Reserve Board, appear ripe for more congressional criticism and even curbs to their authority under the incoming Trump administration. But one may be in relatively good position to have its authority expanded: the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

The OCC has stayed under the radar and avoided the political backlash aimed at other regulators while also emerging as a new leader in the fast-growing area of fintech regulation. The OCC’s focus on innovation and its largely pristine image among lawmakers could lead to greater chartering authority and — if the CFPB continues to lose favor — more responsibility to oversee consumer rules.

Continue Reading Dan’s position, OCC Could Gain Power as Other Agencies Fall Out of Favor, on AmericanBanker.com.

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The OCC Rises, the FSOC Dies, and Other Regulatory Predictions

Eight bold regulatory predictions on the direction of U.S. Banking and Fintech regulation in light of the election results.

1.   The era of “outside the law” Federal regulation is over. Critics of the CFPB (exclusively Republicans) have criticized and challenged the agency’s structure and tactics.  These challenges include criticism of the agency’s broad jurisdiction and rulemaking power as an unconstitutional delegation by Congress of its legislative power.  Members of Congress and private litigants have assailed the CFPB’s reliance on enforcement actions instead of true rulemaking as undercutting due process and basic fairness.  Republicans have been united in believing that the agency’s existence and actions violated the Constitution, the agency’s grant of power under Dodd-Frank and the Administrative Procedures Act.  Increasingly, the courts have dealt the agency significant setbacks.  This author believes that Director Cordray only persisted in his aggressive pursuit of policy goals because he believed that pursuit was blessed by the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party.  Whatever one thinks of President-Elect Trump and his incoming administration, we can be certain that it will not support or defend an aggressive pursuit of policy goals even when that pursuit is perceived to exceed the scope of the law.  If a CFPB official decides to pursue such an enforcement action will be doing so without political cover.  As a result, I believe the CFPB will not bring enforcement actions unless the law and the facts clearly support that decision.  This is a major change of direction for the agency.  Once the agency is limited to strictly enforcing the law and promulgating only regulations that comply with the Administrative Procedures Act, it will be able to obtain many fewer settlements (and for much lower amounts) than it was able to do before when it enforced standards that it essentially made up on the spot.

2.  Director Cordray will either resign or be fired by the President. The extent of the anger and resentment towards Director Cordray by Republicans in Congress cannot be overstated.  I suspect President Trump does not have a strong personal opinion on the matter, but his advisors are close to Congressional leaders and I think there is zero chance that Republicans will not give the Director what they see as his long-overdue comeuppance.  A recent District Court opinion supports the Constitutional authority of the President to fire the Director, but I think President Trump will not hesitate to articulate a “for cause” basis to fire the Director under Dodd-Frank if the Director were to contest the President’s power to fire him at will.

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Engaging Your Board with a New Bank Logo


From time to time we hear from bank senior management that their board doesn’t seem engaged, or that they can’t get a sustained conversation out of their board.  Instead, board meetings consist of routine review of management reports, with motions, seconds, and unanimous adoptions of management recommendations without any meaningful discussion.  Years of bank board meetings can go by without a single dissenting vote recorded in the bank’s board minutes.  Regulators may being to question, perhaps correctly, that the board has merely become a rubber stamp for management, and that the board is merely “going through the motions” at each board meeting.

Over time, we have found one topic for which no board member can remain silent, and everyone (and I mean everyone) has an opinion.

What color should the bank’s new logo be?

Branch lobby carpet colors can also be quite effective, as can capitalization (grammar, not balance sheet, i.e. Fintech vs. FinTech),  a change in mascot or marketing gimmick, or minor tweaks to branch hours.

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Bitcoin after Brexit: Safe Haven or Harbinger of Future Distress?

What a difference a week can make! On June 17, 2016, bitcoin was trading at more than $750. Five days later, as polls showed the Brexit vote leaning heavily to “remain,” bitcoin dropped as low as $585. After the vote to leave the European Union became final, the British Pound, the Euro, the Chinese Yuan, and global stocks dropped precipitously. Bitcoin, on the other hand, spiked to more than $676. Could this mean bitcoin is being perceived as a new safe-haven asset?

A Brief Background on Bitcoin Generally

Bitcoin often is described as a “digital currency.” On a more technical level, bitcoin is a digital asset within a peer-to-peer computer network payment system created in 2008 by an anonymous cryptographer going by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. Because the computer network uses open-source, peer-to-peer software, no truly central authority administers and oversees transactions, and no government controls or backs the digital “currency.” Instead, users or “nodes” on the network verify transactions by solving complex computer algorithms. The verified transactions are then recorded on a public ledger (called the blockchain) for all to see. Because transactions employ lengthy key codes rather than traditional personally-identifiable information, users can trade bitcoin quasi-anonymously.

Because bitcoin lacks government or centralized control, conceptually it is accessible to anyone with an internet connection and eliminates many of the transaction costs associated with traditional currency trading. For the same reasons, however, it can be highly volatile. At the inception of the network in 2009 and through 2012, a single bitcoin was worth mere pennies. In 2013, amid a financial crisis and the seizure of bank accounts in Cyprus, holders of Cypriot accounts began buying massive amounts of bitcoin, which drove the price of bitcoin to more than $260 for the first time. By November 2013, the value of bitcoin peaked at $1,242. The price of bitcoin declined thereafter amid hacking scandals, the insolvency proceeding of Mt. Gox (bitcoin’s then largest exchange), and negative perceptions created by the high-profile criminal case involving the elicit online marketplace known as Silk Road. Despite its volatility over the last seven years, however, bitcoin has endured and shows no signs of disappearing.

Bitcoin as a Safe Haven?

Bitcoin’s sharp rise after the Brexit vote appears to evidence a new confidence in bitcoin as a safe haven. Investment professionals, however, have been extremely reluctant to give bitcoin such status. One recent research note observed that calling bitcoin a safe haven “obfuscates the fact that bitcoin is a high-risk and volatile investment” and ignores that “bitcoin’s correlation to other traditional safe-haven assets has fluctuated significantly.” Instead, bitcoin can be viewed as “something entirely different that does not fit into the normal buckets that investments are typically bracketed into.”

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Economies of Scale Encourage Continued Consolidation

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis just published a short summary of research by economists with the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City concluding that compliance costs weigh “quite a bit” more heavily on smaller banks than their larger counterparts in the community banking segment.  Looking specifically at banks under $10 billion in total assets (where additional Dodd-Frank-related burdens are triggered), the study found that the ratio of compliance costs as a percentage of total noninterest expenses were inversely correlated with the size of the bank.  While banks with total assets between $1 and $10 billion in total assets reported total compliance costs averaging 2.9% of their total noninterest expenses, banks between $100 million and $250 million reported total compliance costs averaging 5.9% and banks below $100 million reported average compliance costs of 8.7% of non-interest expenses.

While nominal compliance costs continued to increase as banks increased in size (from about $160 thousand in compliance expense annually for banks under $100 million to $1.8 million annually for banks between $1 and $10 billion), the banks were better able to absorb this expense in the larger banks.  Looked at another way, the marginal cost of maintaining a larger asset base, at least in the context of compliance costs, decreases as the asset base grows.

With over 1,663 commercial banks with total assets of less than $100 million in the United States as of March 31, 2016 (and 3,734 banks with between $100 million and $1 billion), barring significant regulatory relief for the smallest institutions, we believe we will continue to see a natural consolidation of banks.  While we continue to believe there is no minimum size that an institution must be, we also consistently hear from bankers in the industry that they could be more efficient if they are larger… and the research bears them out.

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Considering a Sale of the Bank? Don’t Forget the Board’s Due Diligence

In today’s competitive environment, some bank directors may view an acquisition offer from another financial institution as a relief. With directors facing questions of how to gain scale in the face of heightened regulatory scrutiny, increased investor expectations, and general concerns about the future prospects of community banks, a bona fide offer to purchase the bank can change even the most entrenched positions around the board table.

So, how should directors evaluate an offer to sell the bank? A good starting place is to consider the institution’s strategic plan to identify the most meaningful aspects of the offer to the bank’s shareholders. The board can also use the strategic plan to provide a baseline for the institution’s future prospects on an independent basis. With the help of a financial advisor, the board can evaluate the institution’s projected performance should it remain independent and determine what premium to shareholders the purchase offer presents. Not all offers present either the premium or liquidity sought by shareholders, and the board may conclude that continued independent operation will present better opportunities to shareholders.

Once the board has a framework for evaluating the offer, it should consider the financial aspects of the offer. The form of the merger consideration—be it all stock, all cash, or a mix of stock and cash—can dictate the level of due diligence into the business of the buyer that should be conducted by the selling institution.

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Banks and Marketplace Lenders Absorb a Blow

In a blow to banks and the marketplace lending industry, on June 27, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the petition by Midland Funding to hear the case Midland Funding, LLC v. Madden (No. 15-610).  That case involves a debt-collection firm that bought charged-off credit card debt from a national bank.  The borrower’s legal team argued that a buyer of the debt was subject to New York interest rate caps even though the seller of the debt, a national bank, was exempt from those state law rate caps due to preemption under Section 85 the National Bank Act.  The borrower won on this startling argument and the debt collector appealed to the Supreme Court.  The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (the regulator for national banks), the U.S. Solicitor General and various stakeholders in the banking and lending industries vigorously argued that the 2nd Circuit’s decision contravened established law.  The fear was that, if preemption strips loans of their usury-exempt status when the loans are sold, then banks’ ability to sell consumer loans, including the common practice of banks originating and quickly selling those loans to investors and marketplace lenders, would be significantly limited, if not curtailed.

The Supreme Court denied the debt collector’s appeal without explanation, which means the 2nd Circuit’s ruling is binding law in that Circuit, which includes New York, Connecticut and Vermont.  However, the 2nd Circuit’s ruling is not the law outside of the 2nd Circuit.

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Brexit: Stay Calm, but Be Prepared for Changes

We have all woken up on June 24th to the surprising news that the UK has voted to leave the European Union following a contentious referendum.  The vote was very close, with 52% voting to leave and 48% voting to remain.  Markets are reacting with volatility, as might be expected, and British Pound Sterling values have sunk overnight to a historic 30 year low against the dollar.  To add to the turmoil, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has announced that he will be stepping down with his successor to be in place by the October Conservative Party conference.

That said, nothing is going to happen immediately.  There is a very specific legal process for Brexit and the timeline is hardly swift.  As the first step, the UK has to give notice to leave under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.  Based on the Prime Minister’s announcement this morning and questions surrounding who might lead the negotiations on the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU, that notice may not be given for many weeks, if not months. That notice is also just the commencement of the process. Once notice has been given, there is then a two year period in which to negotiate the terms of an exit Treaty.

Our colleagues have posted more details on the Brexit process on Bryan Cave’s EU & Competition blog.

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Hightower Explores Intersection of Fintech and Bank Mergers

Atlanta Partner Jonathan Hightower authored a BankThink piece in the American Banker on May 9, 2016 titled “Don’t Ignore This FDIC ‘Request for Comment.’”  The discusses FDIC Financial Institution Letter FIL-32-2016,  which asks for comment on the agency’s plan to explore the economic inclusion potential of mobile financial services.

Jonathan notes “banks’ focus on mobile products not only provides innovative benefits to underserved consumers who may lack branch access, but in light of regulators’ interest in the potential for mobile technology to expand economic inclusion, this focus may also help institutions overcome regulatory and community-based challenges to mergers.”

Click here to read the whole article.

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