Fed’s fault-finding on bank failures could lead to stronger regulations

By: - May 10, 2023 7:00 am

A Federal Reserve police officer guards the entrance to the Federal Reserve’s William McChesney Martin Building Washington, D,C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

New banking regulations proposed by federal watchdogs don’t go far enough in countering potential problems, but could help lower bank fees and calm financial markets and nerves, leading to a more stable financial system, according to some economists.

The Federal Reserve, FDIC, and Government Accountability Office released reports blaming mismanagement of risk, including overreliance on uninsured deposits and rapid growth on problems at California-based Silicon Valley Bank and New York-based Signature Bank, which were shut down in March.

The Federal Reserve report criticized its own delay in recognizing and addressing problems at SVB and changes in the supervision of banks resulting from the 2018 banking deregulation law. 

In the Fed’s report, Michael Barr, vice chair for supervision at the Fed, said the regulator would “re-evaluate a range of rules for banks with $100 billion or more in assets.” In March, several Democratic senators called for the Fed to exercise its discretion to enforce stricter requirements for banks that have assets between $100 billion and $250 billion. Lawmakers are also considering options for holding bank executives accountable for their mismanagement.

A worker tells people that the Silicon Valley Bank headquarters is closed on March 10, 2023, in Santa Clara, Calif. Silicon Valley Bank was shut down by California regulators and was put under the control of the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp (Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Barr said the Fed could set higher capital or liquidity requirements in some cases until there are better safeguards in place at a bank to protect against risk. He mentioned the possibility of limits on incentive compensation in some cases. The report said that Silicon Valley Bank’s incentive compensation was “primarily based on SVBFG’s financial performance, with minimal to no linkage to risk management and control factors.” 

The Fed’s approach to “stress testing,” or weighing how some scenarios would affect banks and whether they have sufficient capital to absorb losses, should be “revisited,” Barr said.

Without the banking deregulation law signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018, a 2019 tailoring rule that followed the law, and related rulemaking, Silicon Valley Bank would have had to meet additional requirements such as tighter management of liquidity risk and annual and semiannual company-run stress test requirements, the Fed report explained. 

Aaron Klein, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, said the Fed report doesn’t take enough responsibility for the magnitude of its mistakes or reasons for those mistakes even though it did admit its approach was “too deliberative.” 

“It’s still too uncomfortable to admit publicly the magnitude and reason for its mistakes,” he said. “Nowhere in the report does the Fed acknowledge the impact of the SVB CEO serving on the board of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank that was in charge of its supervision, so absent more fundamental structural reforms, there will be further mistakes. … Bank CEOs need to be taken off the boards of the Federal Reserve Banks who regulate them.” (Silicon Valley Bank CEO Greg Becker left the board in March.) 

Klein said Congress also needs to force larger structural reforms at the Fed but feels it’s unlikely to happen.

He added that stress tests are only as valuable as the scenarios they contemplate, and that they still failed to take into account one the Fed should have seen coming — higher interest rates.

“No stress test would have predicted COVID. Any stress test should have predicted interest rate hikes and they missed them both,” he said. “When you miss the one that no one could see coming and you miss the one that everyone should have seen coming, it ought to set off deeper alarm bells about the overreliance on the test to begin with.”

Proposed rules already having effect

Some of these changes wouldn’t go into effect for several years because federal rulemaking requires a notice-and-comment period and a period to phase-in these changes. But some economists say that the mere consideration of those rules is already having an effect. 

“The same tipping points that caused SVB to go under are being closely examined at every bank already regardless of the new regulation that’s coming down,” said Lara Rhame, economist and managing director at FS Investments. “Just the signal that some banks have gone under and the regulators are going to be looking at this is already going to cause that reaction.”

She added: “For some people that will just mean less money to spend elsewhere and for some businesses, it will mean that where before 10 of them would have taken out a loan, maybe now only nine of them will be able to and one of them won’t either be able to afford it or won’t qualify. So, it’s just less growth out there.”

Although the banking system will be more resilient as a result, there will be shorter-term economic challenges ahead as a result of these changes.

“More regulation will, in theory, prevent some of these issues from cropping up again, thus ensuring the safety of consumers’ deposits at those particular institutions. And that, in turn, will calm financial markets and nerves,” Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, stated in an email to States Newsroom. “Yes, it may require all banks to hold more reserves and that would mean less credit but longer term, it would mean a more stable financial system.”

On Monday, Moody’s responded to potential regulatory changes in a report for investors that said they would affect more than just regional banks, which would be “a credit positive for U.S. banks.” The report added: “The potential strengthening of U.S. bank regulation and supervision would likely help address weaker capital, interest rate risk, and funding risk at some U.S. banks.” 

Rhame said that from Moody’s perspective these regulations would result in better capitalization and improve the credit rating of bonds or other investment vehicles in banks.

“From the point of view of the consumer or business owner, tighter credit standards will be a headwind for credit availability and financing. So, net this is a positive for the financial investments in banks, but a negative for the economy in the form of incremental tightening of lending standards,” she said.

Klein said that more regulation could result in lower bank fees, a plus for consumers “because ultimately FDIC bailouts end up being paid back disproportionately by the lowest-income Americans in the form of higher bank fees.” 

Congress responds

Congress is looking closely at how to prevent more bank failures and incentivize better risk management by banks. A bipartisan Senate bill, proposed by U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-NV), Josh Hawley (R-MO), and Mike Braun (R-IN), would force bank executives to give up some or all of their compensation, which includes bonuses, performance pay, and salaries, for the five years that led up to the failure of their bank. According to CNBC’s reporting, Silicon Valley Bank employees were paid bonuses hours before federal regulators took over the bank.

On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held another in a series of hearings on recent bank failures, where senators spoke to law professors and a U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive about how existing law could hold bank executives accountable for their mismanagement.

Da Lin, assistant professor of law at the University of Richmond, said there are limitations in federal regulators’ authority to remove bankers from office and prohibit them from continuing to work in the banking industry, and that enforcement tends to affect rank-and-file workers more than executives. Executives are often shielded from knowledge of bank problems even though they have not set up structures to prevent mismanagement of risk and other problems, law professors explained.

“Instead, regulators have primarily excluded rank-and-file workers [from the industry] for low-level misconduct such as embezzlement that has little impact on banks’ safety or administration … ,” Lin said. “… This disparity exists because the current law is not well-designed to be applied to senior bank leadership. … The culpability requirement for removal and prohibition is overly demanding, requiring, as I have mentioned, personal dishonesty or a willful or continuing disregard for safety and soundness of the institution. Yet, failed management is seldom a deliberate act and is even less likely to be provable as one.” 

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Casey Quinlan
Casey Quinlan

Casey Quinlan is an economy reporter for States Newsroom, based in Washington D.C. For the past decade, they have reported on national politics and state politics, LGBTQ rights, abortion access, labor issues, education, Supreme Court news and more for publications including The American Independent, ThinkProgress, New Republic, Rewire News, SCOTUSblog, In These Times and Vox.