Financial Institutions

 

Photo by TaxRebate.org.uk

For several years we’ve been advocating that state-chartered banks that do not require a bank holding company should ditch the holding company structure. It now appears that several banks are paying attention. This morning, The Wall Street Journal published an article spotlighting banks that have recently dispensed with their bank holding company in an effort to reduce their regulatory burden.

Bank holding companies previously gained popularity as a means by which banks could conduct business across state lines when states had rules about interstate banking. Banks also used holding company structures to bolster their regulatory capital, including through the issuance of trust preferred securities. However, with the passage of Dodd-Frank, which effectively eliminated prohibitions on interstate banking and the ability of banks to count newly issued trust preferred securities for regulatory capital purposes, the reasons for smaller banks to maintain a holding company structure are fewer and farther between now more than ever.

Stand-alone bank structures can offer several advantages over bank holding company structures. For example, as compared to a bank holding company, banks can raise capital at a substantially lower cost due to the exemptions available under the Securities Act of 1933 for securities issued by a bank. Related to this, banking organizations that are publicly held, or are seeking to become publicly held, have the advantage of filing their Exchange Act filings and reports with the FDIC as opposed to the SEC. Among other advantages, the FDIC’s reporting system does not require the payment of any fees and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Certain filings with the SEC require the payment of filing fees and may only be filed during the times that the EDGAR filing system is open. Speaking of EDGAR, one of the other benefits of not filing with EDGAR is that it is more difficult for plaintiff lawyers to monitor the FDIC’s filing system to bring strike suits in connection with announced mergers. There are several software programs or services that can be used to monitor merger-related filings on EDGAR, but we aren’t aware of any such programs or systems for the FDIC’s system.

Reducing regulation, or at least the number of regulators, is also a key advantage to operating as a stand-alone bank. A publicly held bank holding company with a state-chartered non-member bank Continue Reading Our organizational suggestions for bank holding companies has gone mainstream!

Earlier this month, the Federal Reserve proposed changes to its guidance on corporate governance for banking organizations.  The proposals suggest a new approach to corporate governance that could extend beyond the banking industry; among other things, they suggest that boards should spend more time on more important matters, such as strategy and risk tolerance, than on compliance box-ticking. However, taken as a whole, the proposals strike me as being something of a mixed bag.  And some of the positive aspects of the proposals are already being subjected to attacks.

The Good News

The good news is that the Fed seems to be acknowledging that the board’s role is that of oversight and that boards are spending far too much time micro-managing compliance and should focus on big picture items such as strategy and risk.  Those of us who speak with board members know that this has been a significant concern since the enactment of Dodd-Frank.

Continue Reading Federal Reserve governance guidance: the pendulum swings back (?)

Photo by Nancy Kamergorodsky
Photo by Nancy Kamergorodsky

Earlier this week, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) proposed a rule that would require investment advisers registered with the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) to establish anti-money laundering (“AML”) programs and report suspicious activity to FinCEN pursuant to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”). FinCEN’s proposed rule would also add “investment advisers” to the general definition of “financial institution,” which, among other things, would require such advisers to file reports and keep records relating to certain transfers of funds. The public comment period for the proposed rule will commence once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register and will continue for a period of 60 days. In the spirit of public debate, here are a few of our initial thoughts regarding the proposed rule:

  • The rule would require those investment advisers registered with the SEC to comply with its obligations. Generally speaking, only those investment advisers who manage $100 million or more in client assets must register with the SEC. This, in addition to the laundry list of exemptions from the SEC’s registration requirements, appears to leave a gaping whole through which potential money launderers may nonetheless access the United States financial system through an investment adviser, i.e., through small, midsize, or other unregistered advisers.
  • Most, if not all, investment advisers regularly work with financial institutions already subject to BSA requirements, such as when executing trades through broker-dealers to purchase or sell client securities, or when directing custodial banks to transfer assets. And if FinCEN’s August 2014 proposed rule requiring financial institutions to identify and verify the beneficial owners of legal entity customers comes to fruition, it may, in many cases, expand the scope of customer due diligence for banks and broker dealers with respect to their investment adviser customers and, in turn, the customers of their investment adviser customers. Thus, in many ways, imposing BSA compliance obligations on registered investment advisers might be unnecessarily duplicative.
  • FinCEN’s proposed rule would not require registered advisers to develop and maintain a customer identification program (“CIP”) or comply with certain other AML requirements applicable to financial institutions. While FinCEN has, in other cases, omitted CIP requirements for certain financial institutions, it did not do so with respect to broker dealers and, given FinCEN’s emphasis on investment advisers’ ability to appreciate a broader understanding of their clients’ movement of funds through the financial system, a CIP might actually be a key to accurately capturing and utilizing that broad understanding.
  • FinCEN is proposing to delegate its authority to examine investment advisers for compliance with these requirements to the SEC. Even assuming the SEC isn’t busy enough already, given the issues discussed above, the increase in supervisory and enforcement burden on the SEC may not be justified.

Feel free to join the debate, and please contact us if you have any questions regarding the proposed rule, the BSA or AML compliance generally. After the close of the public comment period, the proposed rule will be subject to additional review and revision based on public comments before it is finalized by FinCEN.

There have been a number of press reports in recent days about attempts by the new Republican majority to repeal all or part of Dodd-Frank.  Depending upon whom you choose to believe (assuming you choose to believe anyone in the current political environment), the Republicans want to eviscerate it, and the Democrats refuse to change one word, or possibly even a punctuation mark.

The real problem with Dodd-Frank is that it’s a mixed bag – a mess, of course, but a mixed bag nonetheless.  My take on it is that there are some provisions that are reasonable and make sense; others go way too far; and still others don’t go far enough.  For example, the infamous (and, IMHO, ridiculous) provision requiring public companies to disclose the ratio of the CEO’s pay to that of the mean of all employees’ compensation.  On the other side, one wonders if the statute really did anything to regulate the financial services industry or if it did nothing more than exponentially increase the costs of compliance while leaving open the possibility that recent history (i.e., an economic collapse) could happen all over again for the same reasons.

What this suggests is that to make Dodd-Frank a good statute – assuming that’s possible – would require delicate surgery that would take time, careful thought and bipartisanship.  It may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – that isn’t going to happen in the current environment.  Grandstanding and blustery populist oratory seem to be the order of the day, and careful drafting isn’t even on the agenda.  (Of course, that was the case when the statute was being drafted – one of the scariest things I ever saw on a monitor was a live webcast of Barney Frank’s subcommittee hearing, when multi-page riders were waltzed in to the hearing room and voted upon before anyone could read them – much less debate them.)

I’m not sure where that leaves us, but wherever that is, it’s not a good place to be.

There it is.  I’d like to know what you think.

Foreign Account Tax Compliance ActThe Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (“FATCA”) is a US law designed to counter offshore tax avoidance by US persons. Controversial because of its wide-ranging breadth and application to non-US financial institutions, in the most general sense, FATCA imposes a 30% withholding tax on payments of US source income made to foreign financial institutions (“FFIs”) unless they enter into an agreement with the US Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) and disclose information about their US account holders.

After having revised the timelines for FATCA’s implementation on several occasions (culminating in an implementation delay of over three years from the date of its adoption in March of 2010), FATCA’s official July 1, 2014 implementation date is on the horizon. As a result, FFIs worldwide have made a mad dash in the race toward FATCA compliance over the last few months.

So why does this matter to non-banking/non-financial institutions? Well, as an initial matter, FATCA’s definition of an FFI is broad, including more types of entities than one might expect. As a result, US entities must make sure they have evaluated their corporate structure to determine whether its network includes an FFI. Under FATCA rules, the following types of entities may qualify as FFIs, subject to certain exceptions:

  • Non-US retirement funds and foundations
  • Special purpose entities and banking-type subsidiaries
  • Captive insurance companies
  • Treasury centers, holding companies, and captive finance companies

Additionally, even if an organization’s affiliate network does not include an FFI, US-based entities could be Continue Reading FATCA: What it is, and why it may apply to your business

Cybersecurity in the cross hairs of the SEC
Photo by Marina Noordegraaf

The SEC continues to increase its focus on cybersecurity preparedness. As we have reported in prior blogs here and here, we believe that cybersecurity will become an increasingly important element of the SEC’s disclosure and enforcement efforts. Recent events show that the SEC is ramping up its efforts in the cybersecurity area, and we believe that all companies who are potentially affected by these SEC activities should pay special attention to their cybersecurity preparedness and should anticipate possible SEC action in this area.

The SEC’s most recent activity in the cybersecurity area involves registered broker-dealers and registered investment advisers. These entities are logical choices for a cybersecurity focus because of the large volume of confidential and very sensitive customer information that they hold. The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) announced this cybersecurity focus in an April 15, 2014 Risk Alert which stated that the SEC plans to mount an initiative to assess cybersecurity preparedness in the securities industry. The SEC had previously laid the groundwork for this initiative during a March 26, 2014 Cybersecurity Roundtable when Chair White stressed the vital importance of cybersecurity to our market system and consumer data protection. She also called for more public/private cooperation in strengthening cybersecurity preparedness. Other SEC participants at this Roundtable stressed the importance of gathering data and information regarding cybersecurity preparedness so that the SEC could determine what additional steps it should take in this area.

The OCIE’s cybersecurity initiative will assess cybersecurity preparedness in the securities industry and obtain data and information about the securities industry’s recent experiences with cyber threats and cybersecurity breaches. As part of this initiative, the OCIE announced that it will conduct examinations of more than 50 registered broker-dealers and registered investment advisers to obtain cybersecurity data and information and to assess the preparedness of these entities to defend against cyber threats. According to the Risk Alert, this investigation will focus on such things as Continue Reading SEC increases focus on cybersecurity

BSA ComplianceGenerally speaking, the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) requires financial institutions in the United States to assist U.S. government agencies to detect and prevent money laundering. But while anyone can imagine that the BSA and its implementing regulations apply to those entities we typically classify as “financial institutions” such as banks and other depository institutions, it is important to note that the BSA Rules also apply to other entities that we may not traditionally think of as “financial institutions” including securities broker-dealers.

The BSA rules require brokers-dealers to, among other things, develop and implement BSA compliance programs. In accordance with the BSA rules, FINRA Rule 3310 sets forth minimum standards for broker-dealers’ BSA compliance programs. First, the rule requires firms to develop and implement a written BSA compliance program. The program has to be approved in writing by a member of senior management and be reasonably designed to achieve and monitor the firm’s ongoing compliance with the requirements of the BSA Rules. Additionally, and consistent with the BSA Rules, the rule also requires firms, at a minimum, to:

  • establish and implement policies and procedures that can be reasonably expected to detect and cause the reporting of suspicious transactions;
  • establish and implement policies, procedures, and internal controls reasonably designed to achieve compliance with the BSA and implementing regulations;
  • provide for annual (on a calendar-year basis) independent testing for compliance to be conducted by member personnel or by a qualified outside party. If the firm does not execute transactions with customers or otherwise hold customer accounts or act as an introducing broker with respect to customer accounts (e.g. engages solely in proprietary trading or conducts business only with other broker-dealers), the independent testing is required every two years (on a calendar-year basis);
  • designate and identify to FINRA (by name, title, mailing address, e-mail address, telephone number, and facsimile number) an individual or individuals responsible for implementing and monitoring the day-to-day operations and internal controls of the program.  Such individual or individuals are associated persons of the firm with respect to functions undertaken on behalf of the firm.  Each member must review and, if necessary, update the information regarding a change to its BSA compliance person within 30 days following the change and verify such information within 17 business days after the end of each calendar year.

Compliance with the BSA Rules is no easy task. To effectively address these rules, Continue Reading Bank Secrecy Act: Broker-Dealers Must Also Comply

Uniform fiduciary duty standard for broker-dealers
Illustration by Divine Harvester

As we blogged about last August, Section 913 of the Dodd-Frank Act directed the SEC to study the need for establishing a new, uniform, federal fiduciary standard of care for brokers and investment advisers providing personalized investment advice. Recall that, traditionally, broker-dealers and investment advisors are subject to different duties of care: a suitability standard for broker-dealers and a more stringent, fiduciary duty for investment advisors. 

Despite the express mandate given to it by Section 913 of the Dodd-Frank Act, the SEC has made slow progress in determining whether to adopt a uniform fiduciary standard rule. In January 2011, the SEC issued its Section 913 Report, recommending “the consideration of rulemakings” that would establish a uniform fiduciary standard for both broker-dealers and investment advisers. In the wake of issuing its Section 913 Report, in March 2013 the SEC opened its doors comments, requesting data and other information relating to the costs and benefits of implementing a uniform fiduciary standard. While the comment period ended in July of 2013, the SEC has apparently not yet completed its anticipated cost-benefit analysis. Based on the SEC’s regulatory agenda for the 2014 fiscal year, it does not seem to be in much of a rush: in the agenda, the SEC listed the “Personalized Investment Advice Standard of Conduct” as a “long-term action” and as its 40th priority out of 43 items. That said, in a speech at the SEC Speaks Conference in Washington on February 21, 2014, SEC Chair Mary Jo White said she Continue Reading Uniform Fiduciary Standard for Broker-Dealers: An Update

Uncertainty lingers in recent exception to Volcker Rule
Photo by Patrik Jones

In a joint press release issued on January 15, 2014, five federal agencies indicated their approval of an interim final rule to permit banking entities to retain interests in collateralized debt obligations backed primarily by trust preferred securities (“TruPS CDOs”).  These interests would have otherwise been prohibited under the new Volcker Rule, which prohibits certain investments by banks and is found in Section 619 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank Act”). The interim final rule comes just weeks after the agencies’ approval of the Volker Rule on December 10, 2013.

With the hope of avoiding the need for future bailouts of the financial system, the Volker Rule prohibits an insured depository institution and its affiliates from engaging in “proprietary trading,” from acquiring or retaining any equity, partnership, or other ownership interest in a hedge fund or private equity fund, and from sponsoring a hedge fund or a private equity fund. Essentially, the Volcker Rule is intended to limit profit-seeking proprietary trading at commercial banks by essentially banning these banks, which accept federally insured deposits, from making speculative bets with that money.

So, preventing banks from taking unreasonable risk with customer money, isn’t this a good thing? Well, according to critics, the issue with the Volker Rule is that, in strict application, the rule would capture a substantial amount of legitimate activity conducted by banks, activity that is essential to growing jobs and small businesses. In this regard, the American Bankers Association took specific issue with the Volcker Rule provisions that would force banks to rid themselves of TruPS CDOs, arguing that such provisions are against the spirit of the rule since banks that invested in TruPS CDOs “do not pose the kind of systemic risk the Volcker rule is intended to capture” and are “facing unexpected and precipitous write-downs on these investments that are not justified by any safety and soundness concern.”

In the run-up to the financial crisis, some banks issued trust-preferred securities, which have characteristics of both debt and equity, to raise capital. Some of those securities were then packaged into CDOs and sold to banks and other financial institutions, i.e. TruPS CDOs. These securities lost much of their value during the financial crisis, and banks that invested in them have been holding on to them in the hope that they will recover in value. The Volcker Rule, if left unchanged, would have forced banks not only to sell those securities but also to recognize the losses on them.

In issuing the interim rule, the regulators have sought to balance the spirit of the Volker Rule with the need for banks to engage in legitimate types of trading. Among other exemptions provided, the interim final rule permit the retention of an interest in or sponsorship of covered funds such as a TruPS CDO by banking entities if the following qualifications are met:

  • the TruPS CDO was established, and the interest was issued, before May 19, 2010;
  • the banking institution reasonably believes that the offering proceeds received by the TruPS CDO were invested primarily in Qualifying TruPS Collateral; and
  • the banking institution’s interest in the TruPS CDO was acquired on or before December 10, 2013, the date the agencies issued final rules implementing Section 619 of the Dodd-Frank Act.

While the rapidity with which the regulators responded to industry-wide concerns demonstrates the regulators’ intent to cooperate with industry stakeholders, it might also show a more reactionary approach to implementing final rules under other controversial Dodd-Frank Act provisions, which have taken them years to write. If this is the case, the full impact of the Volker Rule, and other controversial Dodd-Frank Act provisions not yet finalized, will continue to remain an uncertainty.

Publicly traded bankDid you know that banks can go public and trade on Nasdaq and not have to file reports on the SEC’s EDGAR filing system?  Well, they can, but it may not be such a good thing.  You get this result when a bank goes public without a holding company.  These banks are instead required to register with their primary federal regulator (i.e., the FDIC, the Federal Reserve or the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency) and these regulators do not use the SEC’s EDGAR filing system.  So no EDGAR filings are required for these banks.

The problem is that EDGAR helps public companies satisfy SEC and other requirements.  For example, the national exchanges have listing requirements that are in addition to the reporting requirements of the SEC and the bank regulators. To comply, listed banks and bank holding companies must, on or before the applicable due date, file copies of all reports and other documents filed with the SEC or their appropriate regulatory authority. For listed bank holding companies, compliance with these requirements is easy because they file on EDGAR, which provides public access and download capabilities at no cost. Due to electronic links with the EDGAR system, most national exchanges generally provide that their filing requirements are considered fulfilled if the bank holding company files a required report or document with the SEC on EDGAR.  This is the result for the vast majority of publicly traded banks in the U.S.  According to the Federal Reserve, currently, about 84% of commercial banks in the U.S. are part of a bank holding company, and in addition, only a limited few publicly traded banks don’t have holding companies.

But what about banks that do not have holding companies? These banks can still go public by registering with their primary federal bank regulator, but they don’t get the benefit of the EDGAR system.  Instead, the bank regulatory authorities have their own filing requirements and the banks must comply with these rules to maintain their good standing as a public company. Where does this leave these publicly traded banks when it comes to their Nasdaq or national exchange filing requirements?  The answer is that these banks must still comply with the reporting requirements of Nasdaq or the national exchanges by undertaking an alternative filing process. For example, the Nasdaq requires these banks to provide it with three paper copies of the applicable filing. So there are more filings involved and more room for error.

Another problem with not using the EDGAR system is that Continue Reading Publicly Traded Banks Illustrate the Side Benefits of EDGAR