Regulators Move to Ease Post-Crisis Oversight of Wall Street

WASHINGTON — Federal regulators moved on Wednesday to ease oversight of the country’s largest banks and other financial firms, continuing a push by the Trump administration to reverse rules that were put in place following the 2008 financial crisis.

The Federal Reserve said it would adjust the structure of its annual “stress tests,” which measure the ability of leading banks to withstand a potential economic or financial storm. The changes are likely to make it easier for banks to get regulatory approval to pay higher dividends or buy back their own shares.

Separately, a federal oversight panel announced that it planned to no longer designate big, non-bank financial institutions — insurers, asset managers and the like — as “systemically important.” The classification subjected such firms to more intrusive government regulation.

Taken together, the announcements on Wednesday represented a big win for the financial industry, which has been arguing since the Obama administration that a flurry of regulations imposed following the financial crisis were onerous and made it harder for banks to make loans and support economic growth. Bank executives also argue that because the industry is much financially stronger than it was a decade ago,many recent regulations are now unnecessary.

“Today’s actions reflect the stability of the financial system and the Fed’s growing experience with stress testing,” said Jeff Sigmund, a spokesman for the American Bankers Association, which represents the nation’s largest banks.

Critics, however, argued that the relaxation of the rules, while financially beneficial to bank shareholders and executives, will lead to a less safe, less transparent financial system that is more vulnerable to a repeat of last decade’s devastating crisis.

“It’s like if we all had to go to gym class and we all had to do the same things, now they’re saying half of you don’t even have to go, and the other half that have to go can do something easier,” said Christopher Wolfe, a managing director at Fitch Ratings, which evaluates the creditworthiness of big companies. “It’s just another data point that reinforces the view that there’s been a regulatory easing.”

The Trump administration has said that deregulation is a top priority, along with tax cuts and overhauling trade agreements, in its efforts to accelerate economic growth.

Soon after taking office, President Trump directed the Treasury Department to produce a series of reports with recommendations for regulatory changes, including watering down the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act and the Volcker Rule, which barred banks from making trades with their own money.

In recent months, Fed officials have signaled growing interest in reassessing and lightening the regulatory burdens faced by big banks.

Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chairman, said during his Senate confirmation hearings that regulations on Wall Street banks were “tough enough” and suggested an appetite for streamlining post-crisis rules. Late last year, Randal K. Quarles, the Fed’s vice chairman for supervision, called for a more tailored approach to regulating financial institutions and suggested that the Fed might loosen rules governing the safety of their balance sheets.

The move on Wednesday by the Financial Stability Oversight Council to no longer treat non-banks as systemically important is largely symbolic.

Only four financial institutions, including American International Group and MetLife, previously had that “too big to fail” designation. All of them argued successfully for the labels to be removed. Prudential Financial was the final firm to escape from the tougher regulation, after the oversight council concluded last fall that it no longer represented a threat to financial stability.

Going forward, the oversight panel said it would introduce a new system for identifying activities and products that could pose broad risks. The council said it would only designate a firm as “systemically important” if there was no other way to curb the risk it poses to the financial system by addressing its activities.

“Today’s proposal would make significant improvements to how the council identifies, assesses, and responds to potential risks to U.S. financial stability,” Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said in a statement.

The bigger change is the Fed’s adjustments to how it conducts its stress tests of 11 of the biggest banks that received government bailouts in 2008.

The Fed said on Wednesday that it would end its practice of awarding “pass” or “fail” grades to banks on a portion of the stress tests that measured the capacity of banks to keep lending during a financial crisis or economic downturn. This so-called qualitative section of the test also measured the strength of their risk management and anti-money laundering systems.

The stress tests will still have a pass/fail component when it comes to gauging whether they have enough capital to keep functioning properly during a simulated financial emergency.

Bank executives have been exasperated by the stress tests, complaining that the qualitative section in particular relies on regulators’ subjective judgment.

The Fed’s planned changes are “an attempt to be sensitive to how time-consuming and resource-oriented these regulatory testing processes are,” said Evan Stewart, a partner at the law firm Cohen & Gresser.

The stress tests have tripped up a number of big banks. The Fed in 2014 shot down Citigroup’s plans to return money to shareholders after it failed the qualitative section. The following year, Deutsche Bank and the Spanish bank Santander failed, while Bank of America barely eked out a passing grade.

The end of the pass/fail grades “reduces transparency and deprives the public of the ability to hold the banks and regulators accountable,” said Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets, a financial industry watchdog group. “The markets are not going to have the full picture.”

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