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OCC Continues Digital Banking Modernization

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s (“OCC”) attention to modernizing regulation to better accommodate innovative products and industries is continuing full steam ahead since our recent post about a potential payments charter. In the weeks since we posted that article, Brian Brooks has become the acting Comptroller of the Currency, so it should come as no surprise that his goals are garnering some attention.

On Thursday, June 6, the OCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking public comment to update its rules for national bank and federal savings association activities and operations and an advance notice of proposed rulemaking seeking comment on rules on national banks’ and federal savings associations’ (banks) digital activities. These releases confirm that the agency is “reviewing its regulations on bank digital activities to ensure that its regulations continue to evolve with developments in the industry.”

As part of a substantial modification of the regulatory system, the OCC seeks comment on additional flexibility for banks with respect to permissible derivatives activities, tax equity finance transactions, corporate governance, anti-takeover provisions, capital stock issuances and repurchases, and participation in financial literacy programs.

In addition, the OCC seeks comment on a significant number of banking issues related to digital technology and innovation. The OCC asks whether current legal standards are sufficient flexible, whether they create undue hurdles, and whether there are other areas they should cover. Their requests for comments also touch on current questions, namely whether the pandemic has brought any concerns to light and what issues are unique to smaller institutions – which performed well with the rollout of the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program, but may encounter hard times to come.

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CFPB Rolls Out Pilot Program Offering Advisory Opinions

The devil is in the details.  The best intentioned new financial services rules and regulations can present challenges for compliance folks trying to implement the rules into their institutions’ existing systems and practices.  Requirements, which may seem simple in the abstract, sometimes create herculean challenges because of system limitations, programming challenges, or simple ambiguity when loaded into real world operations.  To hopefully overcome these compliance obstacles, on Thursday, June 18, 2020, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) began its trial phase of a pilot program offering advisory opinions aimed at “reduc[ing] ambiguity and increas[ing] regulatory certainty, support[ing] proactive consumer protection, and enhanc[ing] the timeliness of guidance.”  The CFPB first previewed this pilot program in March 2020 so that financial services providers could solicit provisional legal opinions on matters pertaining to the interpretation of the Bureau’s rules and laws.

Joining other agencies, like HUD who have had a no action letter procedure in place for years, the CFPB pilot will focus on four stated priorities:  (1) “Consumers are provided with timely and understandable information to make responsible decisions”; (2) “Identify outdated, unnecessary or unduly burdensome regulations in order to reduce regulatory burdens”; (3) “Consistency in enforcement of Federal consumer financial law in order to promote fair competition”; and (4) “Ensuring markets for consumer financial products and services operate transparently and efficiently to facilitate access and innovation.”

As the pilot program is new and untested, the CFPB will pick which company questions to answer based on a review of the various petitions, granting priority to those questions that are novel and whose answers might benefit those in the greater consumer financial services community.  The Bureau has said it will consider questions such as those arising during CFPB exams and those that have not otherwise been authoritatively addressed.  In this regard, the CFPB noted the following factors that will drive its prioritization of requests:

  • The request’s alignment with the CFPB’s statutory objectives;
  • The scope of the impact on consumers if the CFPB is to provide an answer or interpretation;
  • In the event where two regulators share concurrent jurisdiction over a specific consumer protection measure, whether the CFPB’s advisory opinion will impact the manner in which the other regulator regulates the same measure; and
  • The impact the advisory opinion would have on the CFPB’s existing resources and personnel.
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Coming Up: A National Non-Depository Payments Charter?

Brian Brooks, Chief Operating Officer of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) said on Monday that he believes the OCC should investigate the viability and utility of a non-depository payments charter: “One of the things I think we have to ask ourselves as an agency is, if it makes sense to have a non-depository lending charter, which was the original fintech concept, would it also make sense to have a non-depository payments charter?”

In his talk, given as part of the Consensus: Distributed virtual conference, Brooks focused on cross-border concerns that are particularly salient to crypto companies. He notes that we may have come to a point where the traditional state-federal divisions of licensing and oversight authority are less relevant, particularly in the crypto space. Brooks says there is an argument that “crypto looks a lot like banking for the twenty-first century,” in which case a single national license may provide modern update to the current patchwork of laws, which is burdensome and time-consuming for both payments companies and state regulators.

Brooks said “one of [his] missions at the OCC . . . is to investigate the extent to which over time it makes sense to think of crypto companies like banks and to think of charter types that might be appropriate for crypto companies.” While Brooks’ comments focused on crypto in mentioning a payments charter, he noted Stripe and PayPal as non-blockchain payments companies, which would presumably also be covered by such a payments charter.

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Lessons for Community Bank Boards from the Great Recession to Apply in the Pandemic

In March, I dialed into the first ever “conference call only” meeting of a 14 year old community bank. The main office of the bank is located in Philadelphia and there was growing concern about the rapidly increasing number of Coronavirus cases in New York and New Jersey, and the spread of new cases into eastern Pennsylvania. I recalled that our board had reviewed an updated version of the bank’s pandemic policy in December but I couldn’t remember the details. Suddenly that policy had relevance in a way I could never have imagined. In April, our board held its second conference call only meeting, and we are likely to continue that pattern for several more months.

We are all aware of the circumstances that led to pandemic policies being retrieved from file folders and read with interest for the first time.  What we don’t yet know is how severe the resulting economic shock will be, and the degree to which loan portfolios of community banks will be adversely impacted.  It is clear, however, that the adverse impact on small to medium sized businesses across the U.S. has been considerable. As the CEO of one of our law firm’s bank clients in the Southwest recently remarked, we are experiencing the first ever government imposed recession.

God willing, the banking industry will remain strong and be a source of support for the nation’s economy as we recover from the onslaught of COVID-19.  In that context, the boards of community banks could benefit from recalling some hard learned lessons from the recent Great Recession. 

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In Praise of Community and Regional Banks

Last week my partner Rob Klingler posted an impassioned plea to the SBA and bank regulators to allow banks with less than 500 employees to be borrowers under the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP as it has become known. Rob joined a chorus of voices across the country pointing out that community banks are small businesses too, and if the jobs of employees at a community bank can be saved isn’t that as helpful to the economy as any other small business? Unfortunately, the overhang of TARP appears to continue to cloud decisions in Washington and banks were excluded from receiving loans under the PPP. Irony drips from that decision. At the beginning of the last financial crisis, when the business fortunes of some of the largest banks appeared at risk, Washington rushed to their aid with TARP. Now, at the beginning of a financial crisis that is hitting small business hard, community banks are being told they are the only small businesses in America which must soldier on without government financial assistance.

In that context, isn’t it remarkable that small and mid-sized businesses across the country are flocking to community and regional banks for responsive assistance in the PPP process? My practice has always been a mix of corporate finance and advisory work for middle market businesses and consulting and board advisory work for banks. I like the balance and the perspective that mix brings. Over the past two weeks this view into two worlds has revealed to me the true nature of relationship banking, and the absolute commitment to that concept at most community and regional banks. My clients and contacts in the middle market business world have been frequently asking for updates on the roll out of the PPP program. That was understandable and to be expected. What I did not expect was the volume of calls I’ve been receiving for referrals to smaller banks from customers of large banks. Those calls often begin with expressions of frustration at the inability to get anyone from the larger bank on a call or even to respond to an email regarding the PPP process, and that the most frequent communication received is “you need to visit our website for assistance.” In an environment where hundreds of thousands and likely millions of small to medium sized businesses across the country are suddenly struggling, and with no sense of the near term path, it really matters to the persons running those businesses that they receive support, encouragement and, if possible, assistance from their bankers. It is in the difficult times when relationship banking really matters, not the boom times.

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Community Banks Should be Encouraged to Participate (as Borrowers) in the SBA Paycheck Protection Program

Community Banks should not only be permitted, they should be encouraged, to participate as borrowers in the CARES Act SBA Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Both the Small Business Administration and each of the federal and state banking regulators should expressly acknowledge that community banks with less than 500 employees are both permitted and encouraged to participate, as borrowers, in the PPP. 

[Update, Evening of April 2, 2020. The SBA has now published the interim final rule for the PPP. Although the guidance published under either “2(a) Am I eligible?” or “2(b) Could I be ineligible even if I meet the eligibility requirements in (a) above?” make no mention of banks being ineligible, provision 2(c) provides that “Businesses that are not eligible for PPP loans are identified in 13 CFR 120.110 and described further in SBA’s Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 50 10.” Banks are included as non-eligible borrowers under both provisions. As discussed below, this remains in apparent disagreement with the CARES Act, but unless the SBA changes its mind, it appears we’re missing an opportunity to further expand credit for small businesses.]

[Update #2, Still Evening of April 2, 2020. The Interim Final Rule clearly contemplates that the PPP is not otherwise subject to SBA rules as it provides “The program requirements of the PPP identified in this rule temporarily supersede any conflicting Loan Program Requirement.” So, to be clear, the SBA and Treasury chose not to allow community banks to participate.]

Without this encouragement, community banks risk regulatory criticism and reputational concerns that participating in the PPP represents a warning regarding the bank’s safety and soundness.   I would argue that the truth is far different.  Participating in the PPP would demonstrate that bank management, notwithstanding the economic uncertainty, wants to fortify the bank’s safety and soundness while extending its ability to provide credit to households and business throughout the United States.

In the last week, the federal banking agencies have announced a number of regulatory actions intended to “increase banking organizations’ ability to provide credit to households and businesses,” including modifications to the supplementary leverage ratio.  These changes are both reasonable and appropriate, but only affect the largest banking institutions.  Like the aims of the Small Business Administration and the Paycheck Protection Program more broadly, efforts should also be taken to support community banks in their efforts to continue to provide credit to households and businesses as we all work through the impacts of the coronavirus.  Banking regulators could directly “increase community banking organizations’ ability to provide credit to households and businesses” by encouraging their participation in the PPP.  

The text of the CARES Act provides that “any business concern … shall be eligible to receive a covered loan” if the business concern meets the employee thresholds set forth in the CARES Act.  If law school taught me anything, it was that any should mean any. Neither the Borrower nor Lender Information Sheet on the program published by the U.S. Treasury Department discuss any additional limitations based on type of business.  In fact, the Borrowers Information sheet states that “All businesses – including nonprofits, veterans organizations, Tribal business concerns, sole proprietorships, self-employed individuals, and independent contractors – with 500 or fewer employees can apply.”  If law school taught me anything else, it was that all should mean all. Similarly, the initial application provided by the U.S. Treasury does not contemplate or provide for any collection of the type of business engaged in by the borrower.

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In Memory of Walt: Beware the False Assumptions!

One year ago today, on March 4, 2019, we lost our patriarch, colleague and friend, Walt Moeling.  I don’t know that any client situation, much less a working day, goes by without each of us thinking about how Walt would have handled it.

On one hand, that makes the writing of this blog post one of the more difficult assignments.  On the other hand, I have the good fortune of knowing exactly what Walt thinks about this post (albeit in a wholly different context).  I wrote the first draft of this post almost five years ago.  After sharing with Walt, he commented that he liked the concept, but didn’t want it to be “all about him.”  The post then got added to my ever-growing “blog post ideas” folder, potentially never to be seen again.

But this post is supposed to be all about Walt, so I’m happy to publish it now.

One advantage of Bryan Cave Leighton Pasiner’s banking practice is our depth and camaraderie.  Based on what Walt Moeling and Kathryn Knudson have built over the last 40+ years, we have a breadth of experience that few can match.

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2019 Banking Landscape – Charter Types

Whenever discussing bank charter types, I’m reminded of a comparison made by Walt Moeling. Walt would always say that the bank charter choice is like choosing between a Ford and a Chevy truck. There are strong, die-hard advocates for the superiority of one over the other. But either one is functionally adequate, and will enable you to get from location a to b. Of course, neither is going to be confused for a Lamborghini or a Maserati either.

Looking at the breakdown of charters as of the beginning of 2019, while the majority of all U.S. banks are state, non-member banks (i.e. with primary federal supervision by the FDIC), each charter choice appears to continue to have its advocates.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the primary federal prudential regulator for national banks, has earned a reputation as the regulator of the largest banks, but the underlying data doesn’t necessarily support that viewpoint. While all of the four largest U.S. banks are national banks, in all asset classifications, there remains a variety of bank charter, showing that no one charter type is necessarily better based purely on asset size.

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The So-Called Rise of Credit Union Buyers

The increasing number of banks selling to credit unions has been a hot topic at investor conferences, within the trade press, amongst clients, at trade associations events, and in conversations with investment bankers. To that end, I’ll be on the main stage at BankDirector’s 2020 Acquire or Be Acquired Conference discussing the new players in the bank M&A game.

And the numbers would appear to support that conversation…

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2019 U.S. Bank Landscape

2019 U.S. Bank Landscape

September 23, 2019

Authored by: Robert Klingler

The landscape of the banking industry in the United States continues to be highly concentrated when looking at asset sizes, but with the vast majority of the depository institutions continuing to be smaller institutions. As of June 30, 2019, approximately 84% of the assets held by depository institutions are held by less than 3% of U.S. banks.

85% of the banks in the United States, or 4,511 institutions, have less than $1 billion in total assets. 73% (or 3,855 institutions) have less than $500 million in total assets. 53% (or 2,799 institutions) have less than $250 million in total assets. 23% (or 1,230 institutions) have less than $100 million in total assets.

The concepts reflected above aren’t new. We showed the same thing in our Landscapes as of the end of 2016 and the end of 2017. In both of those reports, we attempted to look at the historical trends of consolidation (and that trend certainly continues). But this year, we’re taking a different tack and trying to dig deeper into the FDIC data. All of the data presented is based on the underlying data in the FDIC’s Statistics on Depository Institutions as of June 30, 2019.

As with all statistical reports, I’m well aware that all statistics can be massaged, with relatively innocuous adjustments, to tell different stories. Certainly, extremes can disrupt averages and otherwise minimize the value of the outcomes (or suggest that median or modal outcomes are more important than mean outcomes). Even if you never took a statistics class or have blocked all statistics concepts from your mind, I encourage you to check out Planet Money’s Modal American episode. The modal U.S. bank would have total assets of between $100 million and $250 million, would be taxed as a C-corporation, have a holding company and be a state-chartered, non-member bank. By comparison, the “average” bank would be $3.4 billion and the media bank would be the $228 million Bank of the Lowcountry, in Walterboro, South Carolina.

I am also reminded that no bank desires to be “average,” nor are investors generally looking for an “average” return. That said, I believe there is value in understanding what average is, and recognizing that expectations should be different for different institutions.

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