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Public Banks and Proxy Advisors

the-bank-accountOn the latest episode of The Bank Account, Jonathan and I were joined by our colleague, Kevin Strachan, to discuss the role and importance of the various proxy advisory services.  Corporate governance continues to be a hot topic in the industry, and the proxy advisory services have a significant sway in determining what provisions are deemed “acceptable” by many institutional investors.

Within the podcast, we look at the two primary proxy advisory services, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS, not to be confused with ISIS, although we have them pronounced identically by some frustrated boards) and Glass Lewis.  We look at the differences between the two services, where they’ve historically focused, and ways in which they sometimes have diminished power and sometimes enhanced power.

As with so many issues, obtaining the right corporate governance for any individual bank or holding company is not something that should simply be taken off a shelf (or off a podcast).  Instead, we encourage interested parties to engage experienced counsel, such as Bryan Cave LLP, to identify the best individualized approach for the specific situation.

You can also always follow us on Twitter.  Jonathan is @HightowerBanks, Kevin is @KevinStrachan, and I’m @RobertKlingler.

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Changes in Georgia’s Law on Director Duties

On July 1, 2017, significant amendments to the director and officer liability provisions of Georgia’s Financial Institution Code and Business Corporation Code will take effect.  These amendments, adopted as House Bill 192 during the 2017 General Assembly session and signed into law by Governor Deal in May, enhance the protections available to directors and officers of Georgia banks when they are sued for violating their duty of care to the bank.  The amendments also apply to directors and officers of Georgia corporations, including bank holding companies.

First and foremost, House Bill 192 creates a statutory presumption, codified at O.C.G.A. § 7-1-490(c) for banks and at O.C.G.A. §§ 14-2-830(c) and 14-2-842(c) for corporations, that a director or officer’s decision-making process was done in good faith and that the director or officer exercised due care.  This presumption may be rebutted, however, by evidence that the process employed was grossly negligent, thus effectively creating a gross negligence standard of liability in civil lawsuits against directors and officers.  This is a response to the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in FDIC v. Loudermilk, in which the Court recognized the existence of a strong business judgment rule in Georgia but also held that it did not supplant Georgia’s statutory standards of care requiring ordinary diligence.  The Court interpreted the statutes as permitting ordinary negligence claims against directors and officers when they are premised on negligence in the decision-making process.  (As you may recall, Loudermilk also held emphatically that claims challenging only the wisdom of a corporate decision, as opposed to the decision-making process, cannot be brought absent a showing of fraud, bad faith or an abuse of discretion.  This part of the Loudermilk decision is unaffected by the new amendments.)  Many Georgia banks and businesses expressed concern that allowing ordinary negligence suits would open the door to dubious and harassing litigation.  The Court’s opinion noted these concerns but held that they were for the General Assembly to address.

As amended, O.C.G.A. § 7-1-490(c) and its corporate code counterparts will foreclose the possibility of ordinary negligence claims by requiring a plaintiff (which can be a shareholder, the bank or corporation itself, or a receiver or conservator) to show evidence of gross negligence, which the statutes define as a “gross deviation of the standard of care of a director or officer in a like position under similar circumstances.”   It is important to note that the actual standard of care that directors and officers must exercise is essentially unchanged.  As we have written in the past, it is important for a bank board in today’s legal and business environment to develop careful processes for all decisions that are entrusted to the board, and to follow those processes.  A director should attend board meetings with reasonable regularity and should always act on an informed basis, which necessarily entails understanding the bank’s business, financial condition and overall affairs as well as facts relevant to the specific decision at issue.  The new amendments should not be read as relaxing these requirements.  The only thing that has changed is the standard of review that courts will follow when evaluating a process-related duty of care claim.  By requiring plaintiffs to show gross negligence in order to defeat the statutory presumption, the amended statute should discourage the filing of dubious lawsuits, and also provide defendants with a strong basis for moving to dismiss such suits when they are filed.  Many states, including Delaware, recognize a gross negligence floor for personal liability either by statute or under the common law.  The amendments bring Georgia law more closely in line with these states.

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New Broad Treasuries Repo Rate “Best Practice” Benchmark

On June 22, the Alternative Reference Rates Committee (the “ARRC”) identified a broad Treasuries repo financing rate (the “Broad Treasuries Financing Rate”) that, according to the ARRC, in its consensus view represents best practice for use in certain new U.S. dollar derivatives and other financial contracts.

The work of the ARRC grew out of the past instances of manipulation of the LIBOR market which caused a loss of confidence in LIBOR – particularly as it had previously been determined and reported – as a reliable interest rate benchmark.  That led the G20 to instruct the Financial Stability Board to review broadly-recognized interest rate benchmarks and devise a plan to ensure that the construction of these benchmarks are sound and used appropriately in the markets.  According to the Working Group on Alternative Interest Rates initiated by the Federal Reserve in furtherance of the plan, the goals were two-fold: (1) strengthen the integrity of existing benchmark rates, and (2) develop alternative reference rates that would be free of many of the risks (including manipulation) associated with existing benchmarks.  The Broad Treasuries Financing Rate would be one such alternative rate.

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Planning for Strategic Planning Session

the-bank-accountWhile I continued on a family vacation (which was totally worthwhile), Jonathan and Jim McAlpin recorded an episode of The Bank Account looking at planning a strategic planning session for your bank.  Jonathan and Jim cover a wide array of topics based on their collective experience in assisting dozens of banks with their strategic planning.

Among the multitude of topics covered include:

  • thinking about shareholder interests in strategic planning;
  • what the “new normal” means for community banks;
  • how frequently strategic planning sessions should occur;
  • the importance of efficiency ratio analysis;
  • the length of a “good” strategic plan;
  • board composition; and
  • the need to address whether or not to pursue the sale of the bank with the board.

I’m biased, but if you haven’t listed to The Bank Account, I highly encourage this episode as an introduction.

Other items mentioned on the podcast include:

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter at @HightowerBanks.  Jim isn’t on Twitter, but has mastered the latest in carrier pigeon technology.

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Regulatory Supervision of Third Party Service Providers

the-bank-accountWith Jonathan and I attending the Georgia Bankers Association’s 125th Annual Meeting, Bryan Cave colleagues Ken Achenbach and Sean Christy broke into our podcasting studio to record an episode of The Bank Account looking at vendor negotiations through a regulatory lens.

The FDIC’s Office of Inspector General’s Report on Technology Service Provider Contracts provides another source of regulatory guidance that needs to be considered while negotiating vendor contracts.  Ken and Sean look at the evolving state and federal framework of regulatory oversight of service providers, and how banks should adopt to this framework in contract negotiations.

You can follow Sean on Twitter at @SeanChristy.  Ken doesn’t need Twitter; he’s already following you.

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The Financial CHOICE Act and Shareholder Engagement

The Financial CHOICE Act introduced in the House this spring has largely garnered attention because of its rollback of Dodd-Frank, but the bill would also significantly change the rules governing shareholder resolutions for public companies. Currently, the restrictions are relatively modest, requiring that investors have at least $2,000 in stock or one percent of the stock at a company in order to be eligible to file resolutions. In contrast, the CHOICE Act would limit eligibility for proposing shareholder resolutions to investors that have held at least one percent of the company’s stock for a minimum of three years. This change would drastically limit who can file resolutions, given that one percent of the shares of larger companies could translate to millions or billions of dollars.

The timing of the proposed change potentially reducing shareholder engagement contrasts with recent shareholder decisions approving shareholder resolutions, as demonstrated by votes at Occidental Petroleum and ExxonMobil. Shareholder majorities at those companies, exercising their rights as owners, required Occidental and Exxon to disclose the risks climate change poses to their businesses and how the companies are preparing to respond to those risks. Although these votes were historic, they are not entirely surprising; surveys show that investors are significantly interested in the business impact of regulation and are dissatisfied with current disclosure practices when it comes to environmental and climate change risks.  Moreover, some research shows that corporations that adopt the kinds of disclosure practices demanded by shareholders are better at managing long term risk and adapt to changes more quickly.

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Convenience vs. Compliance: Behavior-Driven Marketing of Credit Products

the-bank-account Bryan Cave colleague Ken Achenbach joined Jonathan and me on the latest episode of The Bank Account for a discussion of the potential compliance issues associated with a behavior-driven marketing focus within financial services.  To borrow the immortal words of Salt-N-Pepa, should banks “Push it?  Push it real good?”

While new app technologies are allowing banks to market in new ways, we analyze many of the ways in which behavior-driven marketing already permeates our culture, and why financial services-based behavior-driven marketing may be treated differently.  Some of the articles referenced on the podcast include:

You can also follow us on Twitter with Jonathan at @HightowerBanks and me at @RobertKlingler.  Ken cannot be followed on Twitter, as Ken’s thoughts cannot be limited to 140 characters.

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Preserving Deferred Tax Assets in a Capital Raise

the-bank-accountOn the latest episode of The Bank Account, Jonathan and I discuss the ability of bank holding companies to raise capital while preserving valuable deferred tax assets.

Section 382 of the Internal Revenue Code triggers a limitation on the carry-forward of net operating losses and built-in losses in the event of an “ownership change” in the company.  However, Section 382’s definition of what constitutes an ownership change is very different than many interpretations of a change in control.  Various segregation and aggregation rules can result in an ownership change being triggered when one might not expect it, but can also permit, with advanced planning, significant capital raises without triggering an ownership change.  This podcast provides a high level overview of some of the intricacies involved in Section 382, and offers insight as to how some of the recent large recapitalizations have preserved valuable deferred tax assets.

I think Jonathan and I broke several rules of good podcasting on this episode in that we discuss (1) numbers, (2) math, and (3) the tax code.  However, we think and hope that we’ve done so in an informative manner.  Enjoy!

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If the Shoe Fits, Wear It – Bank Third Party Vendors as Institution-Affiliated Parties

When negotiating bank third party vendor contracts it is not unusual to ask the vendor to acknowledge in the contract that bank regulators might exercise some sort of supervision over the vendor. Vendors will oftentimes push back on that point, claiming that since they are not a bank the FDIC has no jurisdiction over their affairs. We typically respond that “if the shoe fits, wear it.”

The fit arises because of the definition of “institution-affiliated party” (“IAP”). The definition was added under FIRREA when the regulatory agencies were seeking additional authority to impose sanctions against lawyers, accountants and appraisers whose negligence may have contributed to the failure of a bank. The language added to the statute is broader than just those professionals and covers any shareholder, consultant joint venture party, any other person determined by the appropriate federal banking agency (by regulation or case-by case) who participates in the conduct of the affairs of the bank and any independent contractor who knowingly or recklessly participates in any violation of law or regulation, any breach of fiduciary duty or any unsafe or unsound practice which caused or is likely to cause more than a minimal financial loss to the bank. (12 USC 1813(u))

The practical application of being designated an IAP was recently driven home in an enforcement action the FDIC took against Bank of Lake Mills, Freedom Stores, Inc. and Military Credit Services, Inc. All three parties entered into Consent Orders with the FDIC. The Bank agreed to fund restitution of $3,000,000 and to pay a civil money penalty of $151,000 while Freedom Stores, Inc. agreed to pay a penalty of $54,000 and Military Credit Services agreed to pay a penalty of $37,000.

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The CFPB’s Small Business Lending Data Request

the-bank-accountOn the latest episode of The Bank Account, Jonathan and I discuss the CFPB’s request for comments regarding information about the small business lending market.

Section 1071 of the Dodd-Frank Act amended the Equal Credit Opportunity Act to require financial institutions to compile, maintain and report information concerning credit applications made by women-owned, minority-owned and small businesses.  In connection with this obligation, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is now seeking comments to identify, among other things, how to define small business lending, what business lending data is currently easily available, and what kinds of institutions should be obligated to make such reports.

Jonathan and I discuss the need for the depository industry to provide comments in response to this request.

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