Responsiveness Is Key to Another Productive Year

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Welcome to 2016, community bankers! We had a prolific year of advocacy in 2015, and I want to thank all of you for doing your part. ICBA is again primed and ready to hit the ground running in Washington on a number of fronts. But we can’t forget that diligence alone will not ensure another successful year. We must also be flexible and quick to respond to the constantly churning and evolving political realities of the nation’s capital.

That means not only actively working to advance long-standing ICBA initiatives, such as building on the common-sense regulatory relief we achieved last year, but also defending against new and dangerous threats to relationship banking and Main Street economies as they arise.

Take last year, for example. Sure enough, ICBA and community bankers achieved numerous significant victories by actively supporting pro-community bank policies. That means the Plan for Prosperity provisions eliminating redundant privacy notice requirements, extending the 18-month exam cycle, and allowing more banks to qualify as “rural” mortgage lenders under CFPB rules. It means mandated community bank representation on the Fed, call report reform, the cybersecurity information-sharing law, stricter capital standards on the riskiest megabanks, and tax relief for Subchapter S corporations. None of this could have been achieved without active community bank advocacy on behalf of established industry goals.

However, just as important is a forceful defense against the misguided policies that continue to crop up in Washington and elsewhere. Some of these we can anticipate year after year, including the persistent and oft-frustrated attempts by credit unions and the Farm Credit System to expand into commercial banking without facing the same regulatory and tax obligations. And some we’ve worked for years to moderate, including Basel III capital guidelines and the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s costly and burdensome standards update. But some bad ideas seem to come out of nowhere, such as last year’s Senate-passed plan to cut dividends on Federal Reserve Bank stock. Following vociferous ICBA opposition, Congress exempted community banks under $10 billion in assets, saving them an estimated $200 million per year. And lawmakers softened the blow on banks over $10 billion by providing a variable rate on Fed stock tied to the 10-year Treasury.

Sometimes the policies that didn’t pass are as important as those that are signed into law. Let’s not forget that our job as community bank advocates—whether by supporting pro-community bank measures or neutralizing hostile policies—is to promote an environment where community banks flourish. That is our mission. And after a busy and productive year, I am confident we can continue advancing that mission in 2016 and beyond.

FASB Fabrications Show Genuine Disconnect with Reality

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Some might be surprised to learn that I’ve encountered circumstances so unbelievable I’ve been left speechless (hard to believe, I know), but last Thursday was one of those times. After years of meeting with the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) to raise concerns about the harmful impact of its proposed accounting reforms on community banks, I was astonished to find that no one at FASB has listened to a single word we’ve said. In a recent speech, FASB Chairman Russell Golden had the gall to not only dismiss community bank concerns with the proposal, but also to implicate Main Street banks in the Wall Street financial crisis!

In addition to misrepresenting his organization’s proposal and what it will mean for local lenders (more on that later), Golden said that bank failures following the crisis show that community banks were a “major part of the problem.” I was so struck by this outright fabrication—this slander against the hardworking Americans who pulled our economy out of Wall Street’s toilet—that I was at a complete loss for words, for about a minute. Then it came time to respond and call these remarks out for what they are: a cynical and ahistorical justification of shoddy policies by an organization that refuses to acknowledge its own mistakes.

As ICBA noted this week in a letter from our entire Executive Committee, the truth is that the vast majority of community banks fared extremely well during the Wall Street crisis because of their personalized, relationship-based business model—the very model that FASB accounting reforms completely contradict. While too-big-to-fail banks developed irresponsible financial instruments that incentivized disastrous risk-taking and then survived on taxpayer assistance after wrecking the economy, community banks continued their business of meeting face-to-face with their customers and providing badly needed credit. Blaming community banks for the crisis is like blaming Poland for World War II. It shows either a misunderstanding of our financial system, a disdain for local financial institutions, or a selective historical view that one might expect at a lower Manhattan cocktail lounge—not the nation’s financial accounting standards-setter.

Adding insult to injury, Golden also flatly disavows the cost and complexity inherent in FASB’s proposed Current Expected Credit Loss model (CECL). In fact, the CECL plan requires banks of all sizes to record a provision for credit losses the moment they make a loan, mandating expensive credit modeling systems that will crush the localized financial decision-making that is fundamental to community bank lending. Further, Golden downplayed the strict regulatory requirements the new standards will necessitate, showing a clear disconnect with regulators that have already launched webinars on the plan and have predicted a resulting 30 to 50 percent hike in loan-loss reserves.

This financial accounting doublespeak demonstrates a callous disregard for ICBA’s repeated attempts to make FASB’s plan work for community banks—including numerous meetings, our alternative proposal based on historical losses, and the nearly 5,000 community bankers who signed ICBA’s petition advocating the alternative model. If FASB continues to ignore the community banking industry’s calls for reform, the damage to our industry, the American consumer, and local economies will be irreparable. Golden’s temerity might have left me momentarily speechless, but it’s only going to turn up the volume of our opposition to this costly, burdensome and economically catastrophic plan.

Community Bank Persistence Pays Dividends

800px-US_capitol_domeIt wasn’t exactly what ICBA was advocating; nevertheless, nearly all community banks scored a major victory with the industry’s hard-fought exemption from a backdoor tax hike on most members of the Federal Reserve System.

Following passionate industry advocacy to scrap a Senate-passed plan that would have required all Fed-member banks to pay for federal highways via cuts to Fed dividend payments, lawmakers agreed to exempt community banks under $10 billion in assets. Larger banks will receive a floating dividend not to exceed 6 percent (which in itself is far superior to the flat 1.5 percent rate that was contained in the original bill).

While ICBA and community bankers have pushed to completely drop the dividend cut ever since the ill-conceived proposal advanced last July, this community bank exemption will save our industry an estimated $200 million each year. That’s roughly $150,000 in annual savings for a $500 million bank, $300,000 for a $1 billion bank, and so on. With more than 1,800 members of the Federal Reserve at less than $10 billion in assets, the benefits will be felt in communities nationwide.

We were also able to push through some beneficial regulatory relief policies from ICBA’s Plan for Prosperity. The bill eliminates redundant privacy notice requirements, expands the 18-month exam cycle, eases restrictions on rural mortgage lenders, enhances TruPS CDO relief for small bank holding companies, and allows thrift holding companies to take advantage of new SEC registration thresholds. Further, the final law restores funds cut from the federal crop insurance program and drops an ICBA-opposed plan to raise Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guarantee fees.

Together, these successes show what ICBA and the community banking industry can accomplish by working together on all fronts. No, we didn’t get everything we wanted—a complete withdrawal of this bad public policy—but by being the first to identify this issue and then bird-dogging it and never giving up on it, we made a meaningful difference for our industry. Thank you, community bankers, for all of your hard work. And congratulations on this outstanding success, which will provide lasting benefit to your customers and communities across the nation.

Loan-Loss Plan Is Direct Hit on Community Bank Lending

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The following op-ed originally appeared Nov. 9 on American Banker’s BankThink blog.

It is no wonder that the banking industry strongly opposes the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s proposed reforms to loan-loan loss reserve calculations. The proposal would force community banks, in particular, to completely overhaul their approach to lending. Even some FASB members and more than half of the board’s own Investor Advisory Committee oppose it as well.

The proposal would revamp how banks recognize credit losses on all types of loans. Because community banks follow generally accepted accounting principles — known as GAAP — they normally record a provision for credit losses when they actually have evidence they’ll incur a default. But under the FASB plan, known as the Current Expected Credit Loss model, banks of all sizes would instead take a hit the moment they make a loan. Banks would be required to estimate expected credit losses for the life of a financial instrument and recognize the net present value of those losses at the moment of origination.

This is flawed accounting and antithetical to the community banking model itself. Requiring local institutions to institute and maintain complex and expensive credit modeling systems removes their discretion to make localized financial decisions. Pushing up loan losses in the credit-loss cycle to the point of origination also effectively penalizes community banks for investing in loans, which are made predominantly to individuals and small businesses in their local communities.

This will restrict the flow of credit from banks of all kinds. Tying up more capital in loan-loss allowances will mean lower regulatory capital, fewer loans to consumers and even tighter economic growth. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency estimates that the proposal will increase loan-loss reserves by an average of 30 to 50 percent, which translates into a decline in bank capital to support local lending.

So, the FASB proposal has problems. What can we do about it? Can we address concerns over recognizing credit losses without damaging the community bank business model? Fortunately, community banks are still in the business of finding solutions. To borrow from John Adams, we want to have a better hand at building up than pulling down, which is why we’ve come up with an alternative proposal.

The ICBA’s alternative plan for institutions with less than $10 billion would base loan-loss provisions on historical losses for similar assets. Expected losses on financial assets that have not incurred losses would be based on the entity’s own historical loss experience for identical or similar assets. If the institution does not have historical data, it could base expected losses on the experience of a representative peer group. If a loan or security became impaired and a loss was probable, institutions would be allowed to increase the reserve based on a specific measurement of impairment.

This plan would build necessary allowances for potential losses and match each loan’s credit risk with its earning potential. It also would recognize reserves sooner in the credit cycle, which meets FASB’s objective of reforming the shortfalls exposed during the recent credit crisis. Most important, the alternative removes the principle of recognizing losses on day one, reflecting the fact that losses generally occur later in the life of the loan. This would limit the negative impact on community bank lending.

Nearly 5,000 community bankers have signed a petition advocating this simpler approach to financial accounting. The FASB should heed the concerns of community bankers, the rest of the banking industry, and its own board and committee members. Fortunately, we can address concerns with our system of loan-loss provisioning without disrupting community bank lenders and those who depend on them for access to capital.