Posts Tagged ‘Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’

Federal Reserve Asks for Comments Before Implementing the Volcker Rule

Monday, October 24th, 2011

Federal regulators have requested public comment on the Volcker Rule – the Dodd-Frank Act restrictions that would ban American banks from making short-term trades of financial instruments for their own accounts and prevent them from owning or sponsoring hedge funds and private-equity funds.  The Volcker rule, released by the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, is intended to head off the risk-taking that caused the 2008 financial crisis.  The rule, which is little changed from drafts that have been leaked recently, would ban banks from taking positions held for 60 days or less, exempt certain market-making activities, change the way traders involved in market-making are compensated and assure that senior bank executives are responsible for compliance.

Analysts say the proposed rule could slash revenue and cut market liquidity in the name of limiting risk.  Banks such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc., have already been winding down their proprietary trading desks in anticipation of the Volcker Rule kicking in.  Banks’ fixed-income desks could see their revenues decline as much as 25 percent under provisions included in a draft, brokerage analyst Brad Hintz said.  Moody’s Investors Service said the rule would be “credit negative” for bondholders of Bank of America Corporation, Citigroup, Inc., Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley, “all of which have substantial market-making operations.”  The rule, named for former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, was included in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act with the intention of reining in risky trading by firms whose customer deposits are insured by the federal government.

John Walsh, a FDIC board member and head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, said that he was “delighted” that regulators had reached an agreement on the proposed rule, “given the controversy that has surrounded this provision — how it addressed root causes of the financial crisis.”  “I expect the agencies will move in a careful and deliberative manner in the development of this important rule, and I look forward to the extensive public comments that I’m sure will follow,” Martin J. Gruenberg, the FDIC’s acting chairman, said.  The rule will be open for public comment until January.

Not surprisingly, Wall Street opposes the rule, saying it will cut profits and limit liquidity at a difficult time for the banking industry.  Moody’s echoed those concerns, saying the current version of the Volcker rule would “diminish the flexibility and profitability of banks’ valuable market-making operations and place them at a competitive disadvantage to firms not constrained by the rule.”  Some Democratic lawmakers and consumer advocates are pushing to close loopholes in the rules, especially the broad exemption for hedging.  Supporters of the Volcker rule take issue with a plan to excuse hedging tied to “anticipatory” risk, rather than clear-and-present problems.  “Unfortunately, this initial proposal does not deliver on the promise of the Volcker Rule or the requirements of the statute,” said Marcus Stanley, policy director of Americans for Financial Reform, an advocacy group.  Additionally, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association raised concerns about whether the exemption for trades intended to make markets for customers is too narrow.

According to Moody’s, the large financial firms all have “substantial market-making operations,” which the Volcker Rule will target.  The regulations also will recreate compensation guidelines so pay doesn’t encourage big risk-taking.  Derivatives lawyer Sherri Venokur said restrictions on compensation are “intended to create a sea change in the mindsets of those who create the culture of our banking institutions — to value ‘safety and soundness’ as well as profitability.”

Equity analysts at Bernstein say that the Volcker Rule — if implemented in its current form – will slash Wall Street brokers’ revenues by 25 percent, and cut pre-tax margin of their fixed income trading businesses by 33 percent.  According to Bernstein, the Volcker Rule’s potential limitations are a surprise because it appears to prohibit flow trading in “nonexempt portions” of the bond-trading business.  Bernstein says inventory levels – and, in all probability, risk taking – must be based on client demands and not on “expectation of future price appreciation.”

A Bloomberg.com editorial offers support to the Volcker Rule, while admitting it won’t be perfect.  According to the editorial, “This week, the first of several regulatory agencies will consider a measure aimed at ending the practice.  Known as the Volcker rule, after Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, the measure would curb federally insured banks’ ability to make speculative bets on securities, derivatives or other financial instruments for their own profit — the kind of ‘proprietary’ trading that can lead to catastrophic losses.  Whatever form it takes will be far from perfect.  It will also be better than the status quo.  The bank bailouts of 2008, and the public outrage over traders’ and executives’ bonuses, laid bare a fundamental problem in big institutions such as Bank of America Corporation, Citigroup Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

“They attempt to combine two very different kinds of financial professionals: those who process payments, collect peoples’ deposits and make loans, and those who specialize in making big, risky bets with other peoples’ money.  When these big banks run into trouble, government officials face a dilemma. They want — and in some ways are obligated — to save the part of the bank that does the processing and lending, because those elements are crucial to the normal functioning of the economy.  But in doing so, they also end up bailing out the gamblers, a necessity that erodes public support for bailouts and stirs enmity for banks.  Separating the bankers from the gamblers is no easy task. Commercial banks’ explicit federal backing — including deposit insurance and access to emergency funds from the Federal Reserve — is attractive to proprietary traders, who can use a commercial bank’s access to cheap money to boost profits.  Bank executives like to employ traders because they generate juicy returns in good times that drive up the share price and justify large bonuses. In effect, both traders and managers are reaping the benefits of a government subsidy on financial speculation.  The Volcker rule will not — and probably cannot — fully dissolve the union of bankers and gamblers.”

Regulators Cracking Down on Banks Over Foreclosures

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

Federal regulators at the Departments of Justice, Treasury and Housing, as well as the Federal Trade Commission, have ordered the nation’s largest banks to revamp their foreclosure procedures and compensate borrowers who were financially hurt by “pervasive” bad behavior or carelessness.  According to the bank regulators, failure to comply with the rules will result in fines and a broad investigation conducted by state attorneys general and other federal agencies.  The regulators acted after being criticized for not putting a halt to risky lending practices during the housing boom.

Describing the lending practices as “a pattern of misconduct and negligence,” the Federal Reserve said that “These deficiencies represent significant and pervasive compliance failures and unsafe and unsound practices at these institutions.”  Borrowers in trouble have complained that applying for a modification using the Obama administration’s program has been too complicated and characterized by multiple games of telephone tag.  Enforcement requires servicers to set up compliance programs and hire an independent firm to review residential-foreclosures.  The banks will be required to make sure that communications are more “effective” between borrowers and banks when it comes to foreclosure and mortgage-modification proceedings.

Citibank, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, the nation’s four leading banks, top the list of financial firms cited by the Federal Reserve, Office of Thrift Supervision and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.  Citigroup said that it had “self-identified” desired changes in 2009 and that it has helped more than 1.1 million homeowners avoid foreclosure.  “We are committed to working with our regulators to further strengthen our programs in these areas and meeting these new requirements,” the company said.

As stern as the recent move seems to be, there are still critics.  “These consent orders are worse than doing nothing,” said Alys Cohen, staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center.  “They set the bar so low on some things and they give the banks carte blanche on others.  And they give the appearance of doing something while giving banks control of the process.”  Additionally, consumer advocates and members of Congress said the new rules are too little, too late.

Congressional critics maintain that the order is too moderate.  House Democrats introduced legislation that would require lenders to perform specific actions, including an appeals process, before starting foreclosures.  “I want to know what abuses (the government agencies) identified, which banks committed them and how their proposed consent agreement is going to fix these problems,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) the ranking member of the House Government and Oversight Committee.  “Based on what I have read…I am not encouraged at all.”

More than 50 consumer groups don’t like the settlement,  and claim that the expected settlements do little more than require mortgage servicers to obey existing laws and that they lack penalties.  “They’re left to police their new improvements,” said Katherine Porter, a University of Iowa law professor who is an expert on mortgage services.  Another concern is that the settlements may weaken the ability of 50 state attorneys general to force concessions from mortgage servicers.  The attorneys general have been investigating mortgage servicers since last fall, and in March sent the companies a list of terms, which go further than those pursued by bank regulators.  Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who’s leading the joint effort, says any settlements with banking regulators will not “pre-empt” the states’ efforts.

White House Pushes Fannie and Freddie to Make More Mortgage Modifications

Monday, December 20th, 2010

White House Pushes Fannie and Freddie to Make More Mortgage Modifications

The Obama administration is leaning on mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to write down underwater loans and make life easier for homeowners who are at risk of default and may see their personal finances deteriorate.  The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) wants Fannie and Freddie to join a Federal Housing Authority (FHA) program that allows banks and other creditors, which agree to write down mortgages, to transfer the reduced loans to the FHA.

According to government estimates, between 500,000 and 1.5 million homeowners have the potential to benefit from the program.  This is a fraction of the 11 million homeowners who were underwater as of June 30, according to CoreLogic, Inc.  To put that number into perspective, approximately 23 percent of all American households with a mortgage are underwater.  According to the mortgage industry, the FHA program will be of minor benefit to the housing market unless Fannie and Freddie participate.  In its first three months, the program accepted 61 applications and modified three loans.

David Stevens, the FHA’s commissioner, said resistance by lenders has been frustrating.  Obama administration officials have given lenders “a responsible way to address borrowers with negative equity and if institutions are blatantly refusing” to participate, then that is “short-sighted.”  “Letting the status quo continue is going to be much more expensive than people think,” said Kenneth Rosen, a professor of economics and real estate at the University of California at Berkeley.  “We’ve got a downward spiral in housing here, and they’d better break the back of this with some shock and awe.”

Fannie and Freddie have been reluctant to reduce mortgage principal, primarily for the reason that it limits their opportunity to recover losses.  According to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Fannie and Freddie have reduced only 10 of the 120,000 loans modified during the 2nd quarter of 2010.  “We have historically counted on the fact that the vast majority of borrowers – even borrowers who are underwater – continue making their payments,” said Don Bisenius, a Freddie Mac executive vice president.