A Matter of Responsibility

20130920 Another Day Another Fine

A hallmark of community banking is accountability. Community bankers are held accountable to their customers because they live and work in the same neighborhoods. As locally based institutions with a stake in the prosperity of their communities, community bankers simply can’t afford to take advantage of their customers.

So Wells Fargo’s failure to take responsibility for fraudulently opening 2 million unwanted consumer bank accounts has been particularly disturbing for the community banking industry.

The megabank’s leadership has repeatedly blamed the widespread fraud on the 5,300 employees it fired as its $185 million settlement was announced—a fine that is nothing more than a rounding error for the $2 trillion-asset institution. Chairman and CEO John Stumpf refuses to concede that the scandal stemmed from failed leadership and a poisoned corporate culture. And even fellow banking industry representatives have responded by merely condemning dishonest or unethical behavior at “any bank, anywhere, any time.”

Any bank? Suddenly this massive breach of trust isn’t about Wells Fargo, but the banking industry in its entirety? Absolutely Not! No! This isn’t about “any” bank or all banks. This isn’t about universal condemnations of wrongdoing. And this certainly isn’t about community banks, who remain, as always, accountable for their actions.

What this whole sordid mess is about, however, is the massive negative consequences not just on American consumers, but the local banks that had nothing to do with it. Community bankers have seen time and time again how the consequences of megabank misdeeds rain down hardest not on the perpetrators, but on us!

Again and again, Washington responds to the largest banks’ bad behavior by rolling out new regulations that fall disproportionately hard on the smallest banks. While we fight and scrap and claw for exemptions and carve-outs, the truth is that community banks always get roped in to new regulatory burdens that take our attention away from our customers and toward red tape. Meanwhile, the large banks that incited the response have the resources to hire teams of lawyers to manage their compliance.

No, no, no—not again. We WILL NOT get dragged into this mess! Community banks are NOT Wells Fargo!

ICBA is doing its utmost to ensure Washington and the American public make a clear distinction between community banks and systemically risky institutions. We take responsibility for exclusively representing community banks, not the megabanks that make our members’ lives more difficult. Therefore, we will be with you—the community banker—every step of the way, ensuring that your name is not tarnished by this scandal. Because #WeAreNotWells!

As we’ve told Congress again and again, we need a system of tiered and proportional regulation based on size and risk, which will ensure appropriate standards on the largest banks while allowing local banks to continue serving their communities. In doing so, we can fix what’s wrong with our banking system by strengthening what’s right with it—community banks.

Standing Up to a Reckless Regulator

regulationEvery now and then we have the chance to stand up for what’s right against powerful forces. As the legacy of a group of colonists who stared down and defeated the world’s greatest empire, it’s virtually our birthright as Americans. So in some ways ICBA’s federal lawsuit against the National Credit Union Administration for its unlawful lending rule feels like the extension of a longstanding national tradition.

ICBA’s suit challenges the NCUA’s rule allowing tax-exempt credit unions to exceed commercial lending limits set by Congress. In a nutshell, federal law defines credit union “member business loans” to include any and all commercial loans on a credit union’s balance sheet. But the NCUA’s final rule unlawfully allows nonmember commercial loans and purchased loan participations to be excluded from the statutory limits.

Regulatory Rubber Stamp
If this issue sounds familiar, that’s because credit unions have been trying to push it through Congress for more than a decade. But lawmakers have repeatedly declined to expand credit union lending loopholes. What is a tax-exempt industry to do?

Well, if you’re the credit union industry, you simply wait for your captive federal regulator to rewrite the law for you. And that is precisely what the NCUA has done—unilaterally sidestep the legislative branch. You know, the branch of government those scrappy American provincials later enshrined in Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

The only problem for the credit unions is that ICBA was watching. Indeed, we’ve seen more than enough. After years of evolving from a regulatory agency to a cheerleader for its tax-exempt industry, the NCUA has finally gone too far. In attempting to serve as the regulatory rubber stamp for a handful of growth-oriented credit unions seeking to expand at all costs, the NCUA has overstepped its legal bounds.

Bad Faith, Bad Policy
Quite simply, the NCUA’s business-lending rule contradicts federal law, which expressly limits the amount of member business loans that may be held on credit union balance sheets. The NCUA has absolutely no authority to concoct its own exceptions to the “member business loan” definition. Indeed, the agency itself has acknowledged that it “does not have authority to amend the MBL definition through regulation.”

Not only is the NCUA rule unlawful, it’s also bad policy. The agency’s plan places undue risk on U.S. taxpayers, expands government-sponsored advantages for credit unions, and jeopardizes the safety and soundness of these institutions. Our tax dollars should not be used to promote reckless lending practices at these tax-exempt companies.

So here we are—taking a stand. ICBA’s volunteer board of community bankers has elected to confront a heedless federal agency and hold it accountable. We might not be Washington, Jefferson and Adams, but the NCUA isn’t exactly the British Empire, either.

So I encourage community bankers, our allies, and consumers everywhere to go to ICBA’s “Stop the CU Grab” website to learn more about the lawsuit and how to help through the ICBA Credit Union Litigation Fund. After all, we’re taking action not only because the law is on our side, but because it’s the right thing to do.

A Voice That Must Be Heard

“You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.”

Frank Luntz, political strategist

Community bankers aren’t the type to hold back an opinion, whether it’s offering advice to a small-business customer or weighing in on how to promote local economic activity. But in this age of short news cycles and even shorter attention spans, community bankers have to be willing to tell their story time and time again to connect with policymakers and the broader public.

The future of the industry depends on our ability to speak out passionately and directly. And with ICBA Community Banking Month and the countdown to the ICBA Washington Policy Summit underway, now is the time for community bankers to make their voice heard loud and clear. That’s why ICBA is offering a variety of resources to help community bankers spread the industry’s message.CheckOutInfographic

The ICBA Community Banking Month website offers resources that community bankers can use to espouse the benefits of community banking, including a custom news release and op-ed, sample social media updates, and an infographic. It also offers a custom letter to Congress that community bank customers can use to advocate on behalf of the industry to their lawmakers.

Meanwhile, community bankers can continue the industry’s push for regulatory relief and other important policy goals at this month’s ICBA Washington Policy Summit. Scheduled for April 24-27 in the nation’s capital, the summit allows community bankers to meet directly with their members of Congress and regulators to advance smarter banking policies.

As ICBA Chairman Rebeca Romero Rainey said at last month’s ICBA Community Banking LIVE convention, each community bank has a unique story of how they serve their local communities and make an individualized impact on their customers. Our industry’s success depends on our ability to share that story—to the people in our communities, to the news media, to the policymakers who establish the laws we live by, and to the next generation of community bankers.

So let’s tap into that and tell the community banking story—again and again. While you might get tired of repeating the benefits of banking locally and the need for policymakers to allow this system to thrive, we owe it to our communities, our economy and the future of our industry to make sure our voices are truly heard.

Mortgage Relief Recognizes Community Banks’ Unique Role

It was a long time coming, but persistence paid off when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently updated its mortgage regulations to ease unnecessary restrictions on many community banks. Under an interim final rule, the CFPB expanded Qualified Mortgage eligibility for balloon loans held in portfolio and exempted more rural lenders from escrow mandates.

That might sound a little complicated to the layman. But all it really means is that Washington regulators will allow many community bankers to keep doing what they’ve done for years—making mortgage loans that meet the unique needs of their customers and communities.

And that’s really the heart of the matter here. This isn’t an example of ICBA, our affiliated state associations and community bankers achieving some abstract policy goal. No, this is a case of policymakers acknowledging the benefit of a service that community bankers have offered for generations.

The case for reform has been overwhelming. According to the ICBA Community Bank Lending Survey released last year, three-quarters of respondents said regulatory burdens are keeping them from making more residential mortgage loans. Half of all rural banks said they did not qualify for the QM rule’s “rural” exception. That report followed the release of ICBA’s 2013 Community Bank Qualified Mortgage Survey, which found that less than half of those offering balloon loans would qualify for the QM rule’s balloon mortgage exception.

Ultimately, it was this hard evidence combined with dogged initiative that saw crucial reforms all the way through—from winning portfolio QM treatment for small creditors in the original rule, to achieving the CFPB’s expanded definition of “rural area,” to the additional relief that advanced last December in the FAST Act. In fact, we still want to take this even further and implement QM safe harbor treatment and escrow relief for all community bank loans originated and held in portfolio.

I’m thrilled that our persistence has paid off—that the concerns of ICBA have been heard and that thousands of community banks and the customers they serve will regain access to mortgage credit. And I’m thankful for all the hard work that community bankers and the state associations have put into their advocacy. But more than anything, I’m hopeful that this development reminds policymakers that community banks are and always have been in the business of serving local communities—something that Washington should be looking to promote, not regulate out of business.