Guidance Regarding Roles of Bank Boards.

On August 3, the Federal Reserve (Fed) took an important step towards easing the heavy regulatory burden placed on the boards of directors at the largest U.S. banking organizations, when it issued for public comment a corporate governance proposal intended to “enhance the effectiveness of boards of directors” and “refocus the Federal Reserve supervisory expectations for the largest firms’ boards of directors on their core responsibilities, which will promote the safety and soundness of the firms.”

The proposal is a result of a multi-year review conducted by the Fed of practices of boards of directors, particularly at the largest banking institutions. The Fed focused on the challenges boards face, the factors that make boards effective, and the ways in which boards influence the safety and soundness of their firms and promote compliance within. The key takeaways of this review included:

  • supervisory expectations for boards of directors and senior management have become increasingly difficult to distinguish;
  • boards devote a significant amount of time satisfying supervisory expectations that do not directly relate to board’s core responsibilities; and
  • boards of large financial institutions face significant information flow challenges, which can result in boards being overwhelmed by the complexity and quantity of information received.

The Fed expects that these issues can be remediated by allowing banks to refocus on their core responsibilities, including: (i) developing the firm’s strategy and risk tolerance; (ii) overseeing senior management and holding them accountable for effective risk management and compliance; (iii) supporting the independence of the firm’s independent risk management and internal audit functions; and (iv) adopting effective governance practices.

In April, Fed Governor Jerome Powell indicated that the financial crisis led to a “broad increase in supervisory expectations” for these boards of directors, but cautioned that the Fed needs to “ensure that directors are not distracted from conducting their key functions by overly detailed checklist of supervisory process requirements.” Explaining that the Fed was reassessing its supervisory expectations for boards, Powell stated “it is important to acknowledge that the board’s role is one of oversight, not management.”

The proposed guidance better distinguishes the supervisory expectations for boards from those of senior management, and includes new criteria by which the Fed will assess bank boards. The Fed describes effective boards as those which:

  • set clear, aligned, and consistent direction regarding the firm’s strategy and risk tolerance;
  • actively manage information flow and board discussions;
  • hold senior management accountable;
  • support the independence and stature of independent risk management and internal audit; and
  • maintain a capable board composition and governance structure.

The proposal also clarifies expectations regarding internal communications within firms for communicating supervisory findings internally, stating that for all supervised firms, most supervisory findings should be communicated to the firm's senior management for corrective action, rather than to its board of directors. Such findings would only be directed to the board for corrective action when the board needs to address its corporate governance responsibilities or when senior management fails to take appropriate remedial action.

While the proposal does not address all of the post-crisis challenges faced by bank boards, it is a welcome message to the industry that the Fed recognized the need to recalibrate their expectations. The proposal also identifies existing supervisory expectations for boards of directors that could be eliminated or revised and notes that the Fed intends to continue assessing whether its expectations of bank boards require further changes.

New SIFI Rating System.

On August 3, the Fed also issued for public comment a new risk rating system for Large Financial Institutions (“LFI”s) that would replace the RFI rating system for bank holding companies with total consolidated assets of $50 billion or more; non-insurance, non-commercial savings and loan holding companies with total consolidated assets of $50 billion or more; and U.S. intermediate holding companies of foreign banking organizations established pursuant to the Fed’s Regulation YY. (The Fed will continue to use the same RFI rating system that has been in place since 2004 to evaluate community and regional bank holding companies.)

The LFI rating system is designed to evaluate LFIs on whether they possess sufficient financial and operational strength and resilience to maintain safe and sound operations through a range of conditions. The system would consist of three chief components:

  • Governance and Controls
    • board of directors
    • management of core business lines and independent risk management and controls and
    • recovery planning (for domestic bank holding companies subject to LISCC);
  • Capital Planning and Positions; and
  • Liquidity Risk Management and Positions.

The Governance and Control component would evaluate a LFI’s effectiveness in ensuring that the firm’s strategic business objectives are safely within the firm’s risk tolerance and ability to manage the accordant risk. The component will focus on LFIs’ effectiveness in maintaining strong, effective and independent risk management and control functions, including internal audit and compliance, and providing for ongoing resiliency.

The second and third components are intended to incorporate LFI supervision activities, including CCAR and CLAR, which will be directly reflected within the respective component ratings–resulting in a more comprehensive supervisory approach than the RFI rating system which did not incorporate the results of those supervisory activities.

Each LFI would receive a component rating using a multi-level scale (Satisfactory/Satisfactory Watch, Deficient-1 and Deficient-2). “Satisfactory Watch” would indicate that a firm is generally considered safe and sound, however certain issues require timely resolution. Any Deficiency rating would result in that LFI being considered less than “well managed.”