US regulators clamp down in bid to prevent more bank failures

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK, Dec 6 (Reuters) – U.S. bank supervisors are increasing scrutiny of lenders’ risk management practices and taking disciplinary action as they try to fix problems that could lead to more bank failures, banking industry sources said.

The changes follow the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, Signature Bank, and First Republic Bank earlier this year after depositor runs sparked, in part, by worries that high-interest rates would hurt bank balance sheets. After official reviews found frontline examiners failed to act quickly upon spotting problems, they are taking a tougher, more proactive approach.

Interviews with a dozen industry executives, lawyers, and regulatory officials show examiners are executing surprise reviews of a key confidential supervisory bank health rating and in some cases have issued downgrades. They are increasingly warning big banks they will be placed under an order restricting a range of activities if they don’t fix lapses, and are pressing top executives to take personal accountability for addressing the banks’ problems.

While regulators including the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) have pledged to get tough on supervision, the process is confidential and officials have not released details. The activity, which Reuters is reporting for the first time, sheds light on how the agencies are making good on that promise and suggests they continue to have concerns about some lenders’ health amid high-interest rates and a slowing economy.

Supervisors are targeting small, mid-size, and larger banks, the people said. Reuters could not ascertain exactly how many banks overall were targeted, but eight of the sources said they each had knowledge of multiple cases or banks affected.

“This is not unlike some of the more enhanced monitoring we saw during the Great Recession, where there was concern over all the banks’ financial health,” said John Geiringer, a Partner and banking attorney at Barack Ferrazzano Kirschbaum & Nagelberg LLP.

The FDIC and other regulators wrote in recent months to regional and community banks in a number of states notifying them they had launched surprise reviews of their “CAMELS” rating, five of the people said. The confidential rating measures bank safety and soundness on metrics including capital adequacy, asset quality, management competence and liquidity.

Examiners typically review small banks’ ratings every 12 to 18 months via an analysis of financial and loan data banks report quarterly, onsite exams, and discussions with executives.

Anne Balcer, a senior executive vice president at the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA), said members of the Washington trade group in different regions had received letters around October notifying them of the off-cycle reviews.

In some cases, banks were advised components of their CAMELS rating had been downgraded. The reviews were based on regulators’ analysis of the quarterly data, she and three other people with knowledge of several other cases said.

The implications “are pretty far-reaching,” said Balcer. CAMELS ratings contribute to banks’ deposit insurance premiums and affect their audits. Downgraded lenders can be barred from doing deals, and could be denied emergency Fed liquidity.

Reasons regulators cited for downgrades included insufficient capital, management issues, and in many cases, exposure to commercial real estate, a sector struggling amid high rates and lingering office vacancies, the people said.

The ICBA, which represents banks with up to $50 billion in assets, declined to name the banks concerned.

“Off-cycle downgrades are a touchy thing,” said Michael Tierney, CEO of the Community Bankers of Michigan, who said he had been briefed on some off-cycle reviews. “What I’ve been told by regulators is that this will be used sparingly, they will only downgrade CAMEL components, not the overall CAMELs rating.”

In those conversations, officials said they are looking much harder at liquidity and interest rate risk management. “They’ve been very clear…those are their top priorities,” said Tierney.

‘PAINFUL’

A spokesperson for the FDIC said the agency has long used off-site monitoring to supplement and guide examinations and has developed tools using quarterly data reports to do so.

“Off-site monitoring programs can provide an early indication that an institution’s risk profile may be changing,” he said.

“CAMELS ratings, including those that are changed on an interim basis, are confidential, but as a general matter, ratings trends tend to deteriorate as macroeconomic conditions worsen,” he continued, citing inflation and high rates as key headwinds.

Two small banks have failed since First Republic, and the FDIC recently added another to its list of problem banks. Many lenders are holding onto piles of cash as insurance against a slowing economy, Reuters has reported.

Spokespeople for the Fed and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, another federal regulator, declined to comment.

Bigger banks are monitored continuously but they are still feeling increased pressure, said five other sources that work with multiple big lenders. Their supervisors are more frequently warning top management that failing to fix problems could result in a confidential “4(m)” sanction, the people said.

Supervisors typically impose a 4(m) for weak capital, poor management, or following a CAMELS downgrade. Banks under a 4(m) must get regulatory approval to engage in some new business, such as securities underwriting, or to make nonbank investments.

Exiting a 4(m) can take years. It can involve hiring new people and reorganizing businesses. “It’s really painful,” said one source who asked not to be identified discussing confidential supervisory issues.

Supervisors are also pressing big bank bosses to take more personal accountability for problems, in some cases seeking briefings with C-suite executives or board members to secure assurances that they are personally on top of the problems, two of the people said.

They said this had raised concerns for some senior executives worried about personal liability.

“As risks increase, supervisors are going to react appropriately,” said Karen Lawson, executive vice president for policy and supervision at the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, the national organization representing state regulators, which supervise 79% of U.S. banks alongside federal agencies.

State regulators are discussing ways to be more responsive, including by moving independently to quickly address problems without waiting for a consensus with federal regulators, she said.

“Certainly, we all learned things earlier this year.”

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