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Unveiling the Force Behind Big Banks’ Fear

Yelling at Michael Barr, the Federal Reserve’s top banking regulator, has never been particularly effective, his friends and co-workers will tell you. That hasn’t stopped America’s biggest banks, their lobbying groups and even his own colleagues, who have reacted to his proposal to tighten and expand oversight of the nation’s large lenders with a mix of incredulity and outrage.

“There is no justification for significant increases in capital at the largest U.S. banks,” Kevin Fromer, the president of the Financial Services Forum, said in a statement after regulators released the draft rules spearheaded by Mr. Barr. The proposal would push up the amount of easy-access money that banks need to have at the ready, potentially cutting into their profits.

Even before its release, rumors of what the draft contained triggered a lobbying blitz: Bank of America’s lobbyists and those affiliated with banks including BNP Paribas, HSBC and TD Bank descended on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers sent worried letters to the Fed and peppered its officials with questions about what the proposal would contain.

The Bank Policy Institute, a trade group, recently rolled out a national ad campaign urging Americans to “demand answers” on the Fed’s new capital rules. On Tuesday, the organization and other trade groups appeared to lay the groundwork to sue over the proposal, arguing that the Fed violated the law by relying on analysis that was not made public.

Some of Mr. Barr’s own colleagues have opposed the proposed changes: Two of the Fed’s seven governors, both Trump appointees, voted against them in a stark sign of discord at the consensus-oriented institution.

“The costs of this proposal, if implemented in its current form, would be substantial,” Michelle Bowman, a Fed governor and an increasingly frequent critic of Mr. Barr’s, wrote in a statement.

The reason for all of the drama is that the proposal — which the Fed released alongside two other banking agencies — would notably tighten the rules for both America’s largest banks and their slightly smaller counterparts.

If adopted, it would mark both the completion of a process toward tighter bank oversight that started in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the beginning of the government’s regulatory response to a series of painful bank blowups this year.

For the eight largest banks, the new proposal could raise capital requirements to about 14 percent on average, from about 12 percent now. And for banks with more than $100 billion in assets, it would strengthen oversight in a push that has been galvanized by the implosion of Silicon Valley Bank in March. Lenders of its size faced less oversight because they were not viewed as a huge risk to the banking system if they collapsed. The bank’s implosion required a sweeping government intervention, proving that theory wrong.

Mr. Barr does not seem, at first glance, like someone who would be the main character in a regulatory knife fight.

The Biden administration nominated him to his role, and Democrats tend to favor tighter financial rules — so he was always expected to be harder on banks than his predecessor, a Trump nominee. But the Fed’s vice chair for supervision, who was confirmed to his job in July 2022, has a knack for coming off as unobtrusive in public: He talks softly and has a habit of smiling as he speaks, even when challenged.

And Mr. Barr came into his job with a reputation — correct or not — for being somewhat moderate. As a top Treasury official, he helped design the Obama administration’s regulatory response to the 2008 financial crisis and then negotiated what would become the 2010 Dodd-Frank law.

The changes that he and his colleagues won drastically ramped up bank oversight — but the Treasury Department, then led by Secretary Timothy Geithner, was often criticized by progressives for being too easy on Wall Street.

That legacy has, at times, dogged Mr. Barr. He was in the running for a seat on the Fed’s Board of Governors in 2014, but progressive groups opposed him. When he was floated as the likely candidate to lead the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in 2021, a similar chorus objected, with powerful Democrats including Senator Sherrod Brown, the chair of the Banking Committee, lining up behind another candidate.

Mr. Barr’s chance to break back into Washington policy circles came when Sarah Bloom Raskin, a law professor nominated for vice chair for supervision at the Fed, was forced to drop out. In need of a new candidate, the Biden administration tapped Mr. Barr.

Suddenly, the fact that he had just been accused of being too centrist to lead the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency was a boon. He needed a simple majority in the 100-seat Senate to pass, and received 66 votes.

By then, the idea that he would have a mild touch had taken hold. Analysts predicted “targeted tweaks” to regulation on his watch. But banks and some lawmakers have found plenty of reasons to complain about him in the 14 months since.

Wall Street knew that Mr. Barr would need to carry out the U.S. version of global rules developed by an international group called the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision. Banks initially expected the American version to look similar to, perhaps even gentler than, the international standard.

But by early this year, rumors were swirling that Mr. Barr’s approach might be tougher. Then came the collapse this spring of Silicon Valley Bank and other regional lenders — whose rules had been loosened under the Trump administration. That seemed destined to result in even tighter rules.

In one of his first acts as vice chair, Mr. Barr wrote a scathing internal review of what had happened, concluding that “regulatory standards for SVB were too low” and bluntly criticizing the Fed’s own oversight of the institution and its peers.

Mr. Barr’s conclusions drew some pushback: Ms. Bowman said his review relied “on a limited number of unattributed source interviews” and “was the product of one board member, and was not reviewed by the other members of the board prior to its publication.”

But that did little to stop the momentum toward more intense regulation.

When Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, gave his regular testimony on the economy before Congress in June, at least six Republicans brought up the potential for tighter regulation, with several warning against going too far.

And when the proposal was finally released in July, it was clear why banks and their allies had worried. The details were meaningful. One tweak would make it harder for banks to game their assessments of their own operational risks — which include things like lawsuits. Both that and other measures would prod banks to hold more capital.

The plan would also force large banks to treat some — mostly larger — residential mortgages as a riskier asset. That raised concerns not just from the banks but from progressive Democrats and fair housing groups, who worried that it could discourage lending to low-income areas. News of the measure came late in the process — surprising even some in the White House, according to people familiar with the matter.

Representative Andy Barr, a Kentucky Republican, said that aspects of the proposal went beyond the international standard, which “caught a lot of people off guard,” and that the Fed had not provided a clear cost-benefit analysis.

“Vice Chair Barr is using some of the bank failures as a pretext,” he said.

The banks “feel like he’s being obstinate,” said Ian Katz, an analyst at Capital Alpha Partners, a research firm in Washington. “They feel like he’s the guy making the decisions, and there are not a lot of workarounds.”

But he does have fans. Andrew Cecere, the chief executive of U.S. Bancorp and a member of a Fed advisory council, said Mr. Barr was “quite collaborative” and “a good listener.”

“We may not agree on everything, but he tries to understand,” Mr. Cecere said.

The Fed did not provide a comment for this article.

The question now is whether the proposal will change before it is final: Bankers have until Nov. 30 to offer suggestions for how to adjust it. Colleagues who worked with Mr. Barr the last time he was reshaping America’s bank regulations — in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse — suggested that he could be willing to negotiate but not when he viewed something as essential.

Amias Gerety, a Treasury official during the Obama administration, joined him and other government policymakers for those discussions over consumer protection and big bank oversight. He watched Mr. Barr leave some ideas on the cutting-room floor (such as an online marketplace that would allow consumers to compare credit card terms), while fighting aggressively for others (such as a powerful structure for the then-nascent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau).

When people disagreed with Mr. Barr, even loudly, he would politely listen — often before forging ahead with the plan he thought was best.

“Sometimes to his detriment, Michael is who he is,” Mr. Gerety said. “He is very willing to sacrifice small-p interpersonal politics to achieve policy goals that he thinks are good for people.”

Some tweaks to the current proposal are expected: The residential mortgage suggestion is getting a closer look, for instance. But several analysts said they expected the final rule to remain toothy.

In the meantime, Mr. Barr appears to have shaken his reputation for mildness. Dean Baker, an economist at a progressive think tank who, in 2014, was quoted in a news article saying Mr. Barr could not “really be trusted to go after the industry,” said his view had shifted.

“I definitely have had a better impression of him over the years,” Mr. Baker said.

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