Banks Want Efficiency. Critics Warn of Backsliding.

WASHINGTON — A decade after big banks needed government support to dig out of the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve is slowly, but steadily, making a series of regulatory changes that could chip away at new requirements put in place to prevent a repeat of the 2008 meltdown.

Some of the changes, seemingly incremental and technical on their own, could add up to a weakening of capital requirements installed in the wake of the crisis to prevent the largest banks from suffering the kind of destabilizing losses that imperiled the United States economy.

Fed officials and others who support the changes, including big banks, say the Fed is engaging in what they call “tailoring” — a regulatory correction that will bring greater efficiency to standards written in the heat of a meltdown. They say the tweaks will not weaken the ability of banks to withstand financial losses but will reduce burdensome regulations that could have unintended consequences, like encouraging risk-taking.

But some current and former Fed officials worry that the central bank and its fellow regulators are giving large banks, which are making big profits, an unnecessary gift that could leave the economy exposed in the next downturn. They say the overseers should be forcing banks to maintain or even build up their defenses given the strong economy, which is in its longest expansion on record, rather than eroding those buffers.

“No individual thing jumps out, but if you look at the sum total, the direction of travel is not entirely encouraging,” Jeremy Stein, a Harvard professor and former Fed governor, said on a recent panel. “You need to be incredibly vigilant, and really understand this stuff very well. It’s very opaque, in many ways.”

The changes, some put into place and others still under consideration, range from making it easier for big banks to pass the Fed’s annual “stress test” of their financial health to allowing some to borrow more. One idea being floated could quietly reduce capital levels at the biggest American banks over the course of the business cycle.

The tinkering is being driven by Randal K. Quarles, the Fed’s vice chair for supervision, whom President Trump nominated in 2017, and the effort has earned the consideration of Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair. At a news conference last month, Mr. Powell said the Fed was weighing a proposal that might have the effect of reducing average capital levels at big banks over time.

Bolstering capital at large banks was a centerpiece of postcrisis efforts, as regulators looked for ways to ensure that banks would have stable sources of financing in the event of another downturn. In a crisis, depositors and creditors may demand that a bank return their money, destabilizing the financial system. Indeed, that helped to fell Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that collapsed in 2008.

But capital — money raised from shareholders or retained as profits — does not have to be repaid. The 18 biggest banks, which include American firms like JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Bank of America, added more than $650 billion in common equity capital from the beginning of 2009 through the end of last year.

Bankers acknowledged that capital needed to be higher after the 2008 crisis, but increasingly say enough is enough. Big banks have complained of measures that might increase capital from current levels or that could make year-to-year requirements fluctuate more, and have criticized United States rules for being more demanding than international standards.

Bank lobbying groups like the Bank Policy Institute have pushed back on calls to lift capital requirements, saying that stricter regulations “would harm economic growth with little benefit to the safety and soundness of the financial system.” And the country’s large banks have been working for more than a year to persuade the Fed to avoid putting more stringent capital rules in place.

Representatives from each of the biggest banks have met multiple times with Fed officials to talk about the stress capital buffer, a measure that would condense and streamline capital requirements, according to two people familiar with the matter. Each bank also used a public comment period in 2018 to send letters detailing specific suggestions for changes the Fed could make when it enacts the new standard.

“We’re comfortable with the capital regime that we’re operating under,” John Shrewsberry, Wells Fargo’s chief financial officer, said on a call with reporters last month.

Executives have a reason for opposing tougher capital requirements. They force banks to limit stock buybacks and dividend payments, curbing moves that help lift share prices. A big chunk of senior bank executives’ compensation is made up of stock. Yet existing capital requirements have not stopped banks from returning large amounts of excess capital to their shareholders. Last year, the eight largest American banks spent $104 billion on stock buybacks and dividend payments, up nearly a fourth from $84 billion in 2017.

Some Fed officials say capital requirements are already on the low side and should be beefed up, and careful watchers of financial regulation warn that current regulatory tweaks could bite into capital over time.

Lael Brainard, a Fed governor who was appointed by President Barack Obama, has now dissented on six separate regulatory matters, and has said that the Fed must be “especially vigilant to safeguard the resilience of our financial system in good times when vulnerabilities may be building.”

The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Robert Kaplan, and Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, have warned against making changes that reduce capital requirements.

Fed research shows that bank capital should be in a range of 13 percent to more than 26 percent of a bank’s assets, adjusted for risk, to best balance threats that emerge during downturns against costs to economic activity during times of expansion. Capital ratios at the eight biggest American banks stood at about 12.3 percent early this year.

“The biggest banks need substantially more capital,” Mr. Kashkari said in an interview, calling changes that could weaken requirements “concerning.”

Mr. Powell and Mr. Quarles often say that capital levels are “about right” at the moment. But an idea being floated by Mr. Quarles has the potential to lower capital levels at the biggest banks over the course of the business cycle.

Mr. Quarles has said the Fed should revisit what’s known as the “countercyclical capital buffer” — a fancy name for an extra level of capital that the Fed can require banks to add during robust economic times. The buffer, created by an international statute, allows regulators to respond to economic conditions — turning it down to unleash money and encourage lending when the economy needs it and raising it when the economy is running hot.

The Fed has never turned on the capital buffer, though Ms. Brainard and Janet L. Yellen, the former Fed chair, have been advocating that the Fed should consider enacting it now, when the economy is strong.

The other Fed governors have resisted enacting it, arguing that capital levels are high enough and that financial risks are not elevated. Mr. Quarles has gone a step further, saying that the extra layer is essentially always “on” because the Fed and its fellow regulators require American banks to maintain much higher capital levels than their global peers.

Mr. Quarles has suggested that the countercyclical buffer should be counted toward existing capital requirements. The move could reduce capital requirements over time, relative to the status quo, because banks would face lower standards during downturns, analysts say.

Mr. Powell indicated on July 31 that the Fed was contemplating such a change.

“The idea of putting it in place so that you can cut it — that’s something other jurisdictions have done, and it’s worth considering,” Mr. Powell said. “This isn’t something we’ve decided to do. It’s just under consideration.”

Critics say that treating the countercyclical buffer as part of current requirements, instead of as a cherry on top, even risks permanently lowering capital requirements.

“I’ll believe it when I see it, that a Federal Reserve constituted like we have now will ever voluntarily turn on the capital buffer,” said Jeremy Kress, a former Fed regulator who now works at the University of Michigan. “It’s a backdoor reduction of capital.”

A proposal already underway will lower capital slightly, while making a hard cap on how much the biggest banks can borrow more flexible. Known as the “enhanced supplemental leverage ratio,” the measure was put in place to ensure that the eight largest United States banks did not overextend themselves with borrowed money, as some did in the lead-up to the financial crisis. The changes would give banks more room to borrow and bring United States rules in line with global standards.

Mr. Quarles has called it a “modest recalibration” that will ensure that banks’ capital requirements better reflect the risks to which they are exposed. Bank executives support the change, which could free $400 million of bank holding company capital — 0.04 percent of the total — for dividend payouts and buybacks, according to staff estimates.

Not all of the tweaks act on capital directly. For example, the Fed has also begun disclosing more information about its stress tests, which critics equate to giving banks the answers ahead of the test. Mr. Quarles takes objection to that characterization, saying the point of stress testing is to encourage strong capital standards, not to punish banks.

“Like a teacher, we don’t want banks to fail. We want them to learn,” he said in a July speech.

The Fed has also cut a qualitative component from most banks’ tests, one that checks in on their processes, rather than assessing numbers alone. Ms. Brainard voted against the move.

The Fed is also expected to soon approve changes to the Volcker Rule, which was ushered in after the crisis to limit banks’ investment activities. The revised rule, which must be approved by the Fed and four other financial regulators, could give banks more flexibility to invest in private equity and hedge funds and will probably be “helpful to the big banks, especially in terms of making compliance easier,” Ian Katz, an analyst with Capital Alpha, wrote in a note previewing the move. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. will discuss the proposal on Tuesday.

The risk with all the fiddling, experts say, is less that any individual change will burn down the house — in fact, banks and some lawmakers have urged the Fed to move faster. It is more that this gradual drip of deregulation points in one direction for the largest banks, and could undermine standards just as the expansion hits record length and the economy faces challenges.

Mr. Stein, the former Fed governor, said in an interview that his concern was partly about the message sent to bank supervisors in the field.

“What is the tone that you’re setting?” he said.

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