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Georgia Noncompete Law Remains Enforceable

In light of the continued merger activity within the state, including the blockbuster SunTrust/BB&T merger, we’ve seen a renewed focus on the enforceability of non-compete provisions – from banks looking to hire, from banks hoping to retain, and bank employees considering a change.

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Apparently, we’re not alone. On May 1, 2019, the American Banker published a story titled “What ruling on non-compete clauses means for banks — and job hunters.” The article looks at the potential impact of the the Georgia Court of Appeals’s decision in Blair v. Pantera Enters., Inc. (2019 Ga. App. LEXIS 114). Among other things, the article posits that “if BB&T and SunTrust want to enforce non-compete agreements with all their loan officers and wealth management experts stationed in Georgia, some of those contract provisions might not pass legal muster, according to legal experts.” While the enforceability of non-compete agreements is always subject to legal uncertainty, with the specific facts at play and the trial judge potentially playing a significant role, we think this vastly overstates the impact of Blair v. Pantera, particularly in the bank context.

Blair v. Pantera involved the enforceability of a non-compete provision against a backhoe operator. The court found, correctly and consistently with the Georgia Restrictive Covenants Act (O.C.G.A. § 13-8-50 et seq.), that he was not an employee under the statute against whom a non-compete could be enforced. Under the Georgia Restrictive Covenants Act, non-competes may generally only be enforced against employees that: manage the business, regularly direct the work of two or more other employees, can hire or fire other employees, are regularly engaged in the solicitation of customers or with making sales or taking orders, or meet the definition of a “key employee” under the statute. Under the statute, an employee must fit in one of these categories to sign a valid non-compete. See O.C.G.A. § 13-8-53.

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FAST Act Rule Changes for Banks

FAST Act Rule Changes for Banks

April 30, 2019

Authored by: Kevin Strachan

The SEC recently published final rules that allow publicly traded bank holding companies and banks to simplify their public disclosures and provide more meaningful information to investors. Most of the rules become effective on May 2, 2019, which allow many registrants to benefit from them on their Form 10-Q filings for the quarter ended March 31, 2019.

This post is intended to highlight those changes that we expect to be most significant to registrants in the banking industry. BCLP has also produced a more thorough summary of the final rules as applicable to all registrants. The complete, 252-page adopting release is available here.

MD&A

Most registrants provide three years of MD&A narrative.  The new rule allows such registrants to omit discussion of the earliest of the three years if such discussion was previously filed, so that the 10-K MD&A will address only the year being reported and the previous year.  Smaller reporting companies are only required to provide two years of financials and MD&A (and emerging growth companies are allowed to omit periods prior to their IPO), so these registrants will not see any benefit from this change.

The revisions to the MD&A requirements also eliminate the requirement that issuers provide a year-to-year comparison.  In the related commentary in the adopting release, the SEC characterizes this change as providing registrants flexibility to tailor their presentation.  Hopefully, over time, the SEC’s expressed purpose will encourage creative approaches to this area. 

Exhibits – Material Contracts

Previously, a two year “lookback” applied, such that material contracts entered into in the two years prior to the filing were required to be disclosed on the exhibit index even if the contracts had been fully performed.  A common example is merger agreements—companies are currently required to continue to file merger agreements as exhibits even after closing.  The new rule eliminates this requirement (other than for newly public companies), such that material contracts that have been fully performed are no longer required to be disclosed.

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Public Comments Due Soon on Proposed Community Bank Leverage Ratio Rules

The public comment period for the banking agencies’ capital simplification rules for qualifying community banking organizations (i.e. the Community Bank Leverage Ratio proposal) are due on Tuesday, April 9th.

As previously discussed, the regulators have proposed a new, alternative, simplified capital regime for qualifying institutions that will deem an institution to be well-capitalized so long as it maintains a leverage ratio of at least 9% and adequately capitalized so long as it maintains a leverage ratio of at least 7.5%. While initially proposed last November, publication in the Federal Register was delayed until February of this year. As a result the comment period for the rule ends on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. Comments can be submitted online through Regulations.gov.

Through the publication of this blog post, the primary comments online appear to be the appropriate threshold for the new Community Bank Leverage Ratio. As background, EGRRCPA, the statutory basis for the reforms, obligates the regulators to apply a threshold of between 8% and 10%, and the regulators proposed 9%. Most of the submitted comments, including several from community bankers, comments from the Kansas Bankers Association and the Independent Bankers Association of Texas argue for a lower 8% ratio. Conversely, the Mercatus Center has submitted a comment supporting a 10% ratio.

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Volcker Rule Impact When Crossing $10 Billion

Under the Economic Growth, Regulatory Reform and Consumer Protection Act, depository institutions and their holding companies with less than $10 billion in assets are excluded from the prohibitions of the Volcker Rule. Accordingly, institutions under $10 billion may, so long as consistent with general safety and soundness concerns, engage once again in proprietary trading and in making investments in covered funds.

On December 21, 2018, the federal regulatory agencies proposed rules implementing this EGRRCPA provision. However, as previously noted, even pending finalization of these regulations, the regulatory agencies have also noted that they will not enforce the Volcker Rule in a manner inconsistent with EGRRCPA.

EGRRCPA, and the proposed rule, effect the exclusion of smaller institutions from the Volcker Rule by modifying the scope of the term “banking entity” for purposes of the Volcker Rule. The proposed rule excludes from being a “banking entity” any institution that has (i) $10 billion or less in assets and (ii) trading assets of 5% or less.

Neither EGRRCPA nor the proposed rule, however, addresses the impact on an institution when it goes over $10 billion in assets, either as a result of organic growth or via merger. The proposed rule does not even apply the tests on a quarter-end or other reporting period basis, much less an average balance or consecutive quarter requirement. The proposing release notes that they believe that insured depository institutions “regularly monitor their total consolidated assets” for other purposes, and therefore do not believe this ongoing test requirement would impose any new burden.

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Did Congress Release Nearly All Banks from the Volcker Rule?

Yes.  

The Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act (EGRRCPA) provided significant regulatory relief for community banks, including broad relief from the Volcker Rule’s prohibition on proprietary trading and investments in covered funds. As previously discussed, Section 203 of EGRRCPA provided an exemption from the Volcker Rule for institutions that are less than $10 billion and whose total trading assets and liabilities are not more than 5% of total consolidated assets. The exemption provides complete relief from the Volcker Rule by exempting such depository institutions from the definition of “banking entity” for purposes of the Volcker Rule.

On December 21, 2018, the financial regulatory agencies invited public comments on a proposal to implement the EGRRCPA changes to the Volcker Rule. The proposed rule provides that an insured depository institution is exempt from the Volcker Rule if “it has, and every company that controls it has, total consolidated assets of $10 billion or less and total trading assets and trading liabilities, on a consolidated basis, that are 5% or less of total consolidated assets.” While the proposed rule is not yet effective, the Federal Reserve has previously confirmed that it would not enforce the Volcker Rule in a manner inconsistent with EGRRCPA, so the proposed rule is effectively already in place.

Based on September 30, 2018 call report data, this change to the Volcker Rule exempted approximately 97.5% of the 5,486 U.S. depository institutions. (The actual number is probably slightly less, as some of those exempted depository institutions are affiliated with larger and/or foreign banks, each of which would remain subject to the Volcker Rule.) Of note, the $10 billion asset threshold is by far the most relevant determinant of the eligible relief. Based on that call report data (which necessarily excludes any trading assets and liabilities held by a parent company), only 0.15% of depository institutions had trading assets equal to at least 5% of their total assets (and only 0.16% of the institutions had trading assets equal to 3% or more of their total assets).

While few community banks ever engaged in proprietary trading before the Volcker Rule, EGRRCPA still provides meaningful relief from the compliance obligations of the Volcker Rule, the risk of inadvertently being deemed to engage in proprietary trading, or the prohibition from investing in covered funds (or the need to ensure that vehicles that were invested in qualified for an exemption from the covered fund definition).

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Regulators Propose Community Bank Leverage Ratio Framework

On November 21, 2018, the Federal Reserve, Office of Comptroller of the Currency and the FDIC jointly published a notice of proposed rulemaking (the “NPR”) to provide an alternative capital system for qualifying banking organizations.  Specifically, the regulators have proposed a new, alternative, simplified capital regime for qualifying institutions that will deem an institution to be well-capitalized so long as it maintains a leverage ratio of at least 9% and adequately capitalized so long as it maintains a leverage ratio of at least 7.5%.

The NPR seeks to implement the community bank leverage ratio (CBLR) mandated by Section 201 of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act (“EGRRCPA”).  EGRRCPA requires the regulatory agencies to develop a CBLR of not less than 8 percent and not more than 10 percent for qualifying community banking organizations, and provides that organizations that meet such CBLR will deemed well capitalized for all purposes.  EGRRCPA further provides that a qualifying community banking organization to be a depository institution or depository institution holding company with total consolidated assets of less than $10 billion.

Summary of the NPR

The NPR establishes five criteria for an depository institution or holding company to be deemed a Qualifying Community Banking Organization:

  • Total consolidated assets of less than $10 billion;
  • Total off-balance sheet exposures of 25% or less of total consolidated assets;
  • Total trading assets and trading liabilities of 5% or less of total consolidated assets;
  • MSAs of 25% or less of CBLR tangible equity; and
  • Temporary difference DTAs of 25% or less of CBLR tangible equity.

Under the NPR, the numerator of the CBLR would be CBLR tangible equity.  CBLR tangible equity would be equal to total equity capital, determined in accordance with Call Report or Form Y-9C instructions, prior to including any minority interests, less (i) accumulated other comprehensive income (AOCI), (ii) all intangible assets (other than MSAs) including goodwill and core deposit intangibles, and (iii) DTA’s arising from net operating loss and tax credit carryforwards.

The CBLR denominator would be average total consolidated assets, calculated in accordance with Call Report or Form Y-9C instructions, less the items deducted from the CBLR numerator, except AOCI.  The NPR notes that the calculation is similar to the one used in determining the denominator of the tier 1 leverage ratio.

Under the NPR, a Qualifying Community Banking Organization may elect to use the CBLR framework at any time, so long as it has a CBLR greater than 9% at the time of the election.  Under the CBLR framework, the Qualifying Community Banking Organization will be considered well capitalized so long as it has a CBLR greater than 9%. A qualifying depository institution that previously elected to use the CBLR framework but has fallen below 9% will not be required to convert back to the regular capital system.  Instead, the following CBLR leves will serve as proxies for the PCA categories:

  • Adequately Capitalized – CBLR of 7.5% or greater;
  • Undercapitalized – CBLR of less than 7.5%; and
  • Significantly Undercapitalized – CBLR of less than 6%.

The framework for Critically Undercapitalized would remain unchanged at a ratio of tangible equity to total assets of 2% or below.  Any institution that would be deemed Significantly Undercapitalized under the CBLR framework would be required to promptly provide its appropriate regulators sufficient information to calculate the PCA tangible equity ratio.

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Two Key EGRRCPA Provisions Now Effective

As of the end of August 2018, two key provisions of The Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (aka the Crapo bill, S.2155, or increasingly, EGRRCPA) have become effective: the increase in the small bank holding company policy statement threshold and the increase in the expanded examination cycle threshold.  Before looking at those provisions, I have to acknowledge the fabulous Wall Street Journal story by Ryan Tracy, “Can You Say EGRRCPA? Tongue-Twister Banking Law Confuses Washington.”  Personally, I’m now leaning towards “egg-rah-sip-uh.”

On July 6, 2018, the federal banking agencies released an Interagency statement regarding the impact of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act that provided guidance as to which provisions were immediately effective versus which provisions would require further regulatory action.  Included in this guidance was confirmation that the banking regulators would immediately implement EGRRCPA’s changes to the Volcker Rule, freeing most institutions with total assets of less than $10 billion from the constraints of the Volcker Rule.  The regulators noted that they “will not enforce the final rule implementing section 13 of the BHC Act in a manner inconsistent with the amendments made by EGRRCPA to section 13 of the BHC Act.”

Unfortunately, two of the more significant areas of regulatory relief for community banks, the respective increases in thresholds for the small bank holding company policy statement and the expanded examination cycle were not granted such immediate effectiveness.  While EGRRCPA required the Federal Reserve to act on the expansion of the policy statement within 180 days, anyone familiar with the deadlines set forth in the Dodd-Frank Act for regulatory action would not be holding their breath.

Small Bank Holding Company Policy Statement Expansion.  On August 30, 2018, the Federal Reserve published an interim final rule implementing the revisions to the small bank holding company policy statement.  The Federal Reserve’s small bank holding company policy statement generally exempts such institutions from the requirement to maintain consolidated regulatory capital ratios; instead, regulatory capital ratios only apply at the subsidiary bank level.  The small bank holding company policy statement was first implemented in 1980, with a $150 million asset threshold.  In 2006, it was increased to $500 million, and in 2015, it was increased to $1 billion.  Section 207 of EGRRCPA called for the Federal Reserve to increase the threshold to $3 billion, and the interim final rule implements this change.

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SEC Increases Smaller Reporting Company Threshold

The Securities and Exchange Commission amended its definition of “smaller reporting company” (an “SRC”) increasing the public float threshold (cap on portion of shares held by public investors) to $250 million, up from the prior $75 million threshold.  Companies with a public float of up to $700 million may also qualify for SRC status under the new rule if their annual revenues are less than $100 million.

Benefits of SRC Status

The less rigorous reporting requirements for SRC’s provide a number of benefits to qualifying companies.  The Independent Community Bankers of America estimates that SRC status—thus exemption from the 404(b) reporting requirements—could cut audit fees for qualifying bank holding companies by as much as 50%.   Included in the lesser filing requirements for SRCs are the following scaled disclosure accommodations:

  • Audited historical financial statement filing requirements are reduced to two years (rather than three for larger reporting companies)
  • Less rigorous disclosure for annual and quarterly reports, proxy statements and registration statements
  • Two years of income statements (rather than three)
  • Two years of changes in stockholders’ equity (rather than three)
  • Reduced compensation disclosures
  • No stock performance graph required
  • Not required to make quantitative and qualitative disclosures about market risk

Methods of Calculation

A company’s public float, the total market value of the company’s outstanding common stock (voting and non-voting) held by non-affiliates or non-insiders, is the amount reflected on the first page of the company’s 10-K as the “aggregate market value of the common stock held by nonaffiliates of the registrant.”   The public float is measured as of June 30th each year.

To calculate “annual revenues” for the $100 million SRC limit, a financial institution must calculate its gross revenues earned from traditional banking activities.

Interest income

+ non-interest income

– gains and losses on securities

= annual revenues

The calculation of annual revenues is from the most recent 12 months for which audited financials are available.  We have no reason to believe based on the issuance of this new rule that the SEC will change the calculation of annual revenues for financial institutions.

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Senate-passed Regulatory Reform Offers Real Benefits to Depository Institutions under $10 Billion in Assets

On March 14, 2018, the Senate passed, 67-31, the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, or S. 2155.  While it may lack a catchy name, its substance is of potentially great importance to community banks.

The following summary focuses on the impact of the bill for depository institutions with less than $10 billion in consolidated assets.  The bill would also have some significant impacts on larger institutions, which could, in turn, affect smaller banks… either as a result of competition or, perhaps more likely, through a re-ignition of larger bank merger and acquisition activity.  However, we thought it was useful to focus on the over 5,000 banks in the United States that have less than $10 billion in assets.

Community Bank Leverage Ratio

Section 201 of the bill requires the federal banking regulators to promulgate new regulations which would provide a “community bank leverage ratio” for depository institutions with consolidated assets of less than $10 billion.

The bill calls for the regulators to adopt a threshold for the community bank leverage ratio of between 8% and 10%.  Institutions under $10 billion in assets that meet such community bank leverage ratio will automatically be deemed to be well-capitalized.  However, the bill does provide that the regulators will retain the flexibility to determine that a depository institution (or class of depository institutions) may not qualify for the “community bank leverage ratio” test based on the institution’s risk profile.

The bill provides that the community bank leverage ratio will be calculated based on the ratio of the institution’s tangible equity capital divided by the average total consolidated assets.  For institutions meeting this community bank leverage ratio, risk-weighting analysis and compliance would become irrelevant from a capital compliance perspective.

Volcker Rule Relief

Section 203 of the bill provides an exemption from the Volcker Rule for institutions that are less than $10 billion and whose total trading assets and liabilities are not more than 5% of total consolidated assets.  The exemption provides complete relief from the Volcker Rule by exempting such depository institutions from the definition of “banking entity” for purposes of the Volcker Rule.

Accordingly, depository institutions with less than $10 billion in assets (unless they have significant trading assets and liabilities) will not be subject to either the proprietary trading or covered fund prohibitions of the Volcker Rule.

While few such institutions historically undertook proprietary trading, the relief from the compliance burdens is still a welcome one.  It will also re-open the ability depository institutions (and their holding companies) to invest in private equity funds, including fintech funds.  While such investments would still need to be confirmed to be permissible investments under the chartering authority of the institution (or done at a holding company level), these types of investments can be financially and strategically attractive.

Expansion of Small Bank Holding Company Policy Statement

Section 207 of the bill calls upon the federal banking regulators to, within 180 days of passage, raise the asset threshold under the Small Bank Holding Company Policy Statement from $1 billion to $3 billion.

Institutions qualifying for treatment under the Policy Statement are not subject to consolidated capital requirements at the holding company level; instead, regulatory capital ratios only apply at the subsidiary bank level. This rule allows small bank holding companies to use non-equity funding, such as holding company loans or subordinated debt, to finance growth.

Small bank holding companies can also consider the use of leverage to fund share repurchases and otherwise provide liquidity to shareholders to satisfy shareholder needs and remain independent. One of the biggest drivers of sales of our clients is a lack of liquidity to offer shareholders who may want to make a different investment choice. Through an increased ability to add leverage, affected companies can consider passing this increased liquidity to shareholders through share repurchases or increased dividends.

Of course, each board should consider its practical ability to deploy the additional funding generated from taking on leverage, as interest costs can drain profitability if the proceeds from the debt are not deployed in a profitable manner. However, the ability to generate the same income at the bank level with a lower capital base at the holding company level should prove favorable even without additional growth.  This expansion of the small bank holding company policy statement would significantly increase the ability of community banks to obtain significant efficiencies of scale while still providing enhanced returns to its equity holders.

Institutions engaged in significant nonbanking activities, that conduct significant off-balance sheet activities, or have a material amount of debt or equity securities outstanding that are registered with the SEC would remain ineligible for treatment under the Policy Statement, and the regulators would be able to exclude any institution for supervisory purposes.

HVCRE Modifications

Section 214 of the bill would specify that federal banking regulators may not impose higher capital standards on High Volatility Commercial Real Estate (HVCRE) exposures unless they are for acquisition, development or construction (ADC), and it clarifies what constitutes ADC status. The HVCRE ADC treatment would not apply to one-to-four-family residences, agricultural land, community development investments or existing income-producing real estate secured by a mortgage, or to any loans made prior to Jan. 1, 2015.

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Basel III Treatment of DTAs and MSAs

We have heard, read and seen (and internally had) some confusion regarding the joint proposed rulemaking regarding the potential simplification of the capital rules as they relate to Mortgage Servicing Assets (MSAs) and certain Deferred Tax Assets (DTAs).

In addition to simply being complicated regulations, the regulators also have two proposed rulemakings outstanding related to these items. In August 2017, the banking regulators jointly sought public comment on proposed rules (the “Transition NPR“) that proposed to extend the treatment of MSAs and certain DTAs based on the 2017 transition period. Then, in September 2017, the banking regulators jointly sought comment on proposed rules (the “Simplification NPR“) that proposed to alter the limitations on treatment of MSAs and certain DTAs (and also addressed High Volatility Commercial Real Estate or HVCRE loans).

The Simplification NPR also addressed the interplay of the Simplification NPR and the Transition NPR. The Simplification NPR provided that the Transition NPR, if finalized, would only remain effective until such time as the Simplification NPR became effective. Accordingly, the Simplification NPR, if adopted, will ultimately control, with no transition periods for MSAs and certain DTAs following January 1, 2018.

Net Operating Loss DTAs

Importantly, neither the Transition NPR nor the Simplification NPR have any affect on the Basel III capital treatment net operating loss (NOL) DTAs. DTAs that arise from NOL and tax credit carryforwards net of any related valuation allowances and net of deferred tax liabilities must be deducted from common equity tier 1 capital. Through the end of 2017, the deduction for NOL DTAs are apportioned between common equity tier 1 capital and tier 1 capital. In 2017, 80% of the NOL DTA is deducted directly from common equity tier 1 capital, while the remaining 20% is separately deducted from additional tier 1 capital. Starting in 2018, 100% of the NOL DTA will be deducted from common equity tier 1 capital.

The end of the transition period will have the effect of lowering the common equity tier 1 capital ratio of all institutions with NOL DTAs, although the tier 1 capital and leverage ratios should remain unchanged. This impact is entirely unaffected by the adoption (or non-adoption) of the Transition NPR and/or Simplification NPR.

Similarly, other aspects of NOL DTAs are unaffected by the proposed rules. Specifically, (i) GAAP still controls the appropriateness of valuation allowances in connection with the DTA, (ii) tax laws still control the length of time over which DTAs can be carried forward, and (iii) Section 382 of the Internal Revenue Code still controls the limitation (and potential loss) of DTAs upon a change in control of the taxpayer.

Temporary Difference DTAs

Unlike Net Operating Loss DTAs, DTAs arising from temporary differences between GAAP and tax accounting, such as those associated with an allowance for loan losses and other real estate write-downs, can be included in common equity tier 1 capital, subject to certain restrictions. To the extent that such DTAs could be realized through NOL carryback if all those temporary differences were deemed to have been reversed, such DTAs are includable in their entirety in common equity tier 1 capital. Essentially, to the extent the temporary difference DTAs could be realized by carrying back against taxes already paid, then such DTAs are fully includable in capital. Carryback rules vary by jurisdiction; while federal law generally permits a bank to carry back NOLs two years, many states do not allow carrybacks.

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