Washington Super Sizing Bank Boards Oversight

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Regulators Intensify Scrutiny of Bank Boards outlined many of the problems inherent in bank boards, especially in the wake of the great crash of 2008 when the banking industry was exposed for just how risky and reckless a business it always has been, versus the illusion of prudence, conservatism and moderation. The result has been increased layers of oversight, now with final authority in Washington:

The Federal Reserve and other bank regulators are holding frequent, in some cases monthly, meetings with individual directors at the nation’s biggest banks, demanding detailed minutes and other documentation of board meetings and singling out boards in internal regulatory critiques of bank operations and oversight. In some instances, Fed supervisors meet more often with directors than the directors meet formally as a full board. Boards at small banks are also getting new attention from regulators.

But while the “2008 crisis showed regulators that some boards—and senior management—didn’t understand the risks firms were taking or didn’t exercise appropriate oversight,” additional problems may not be where you expect them:

In some cases, board members weren’t experienced enough or were too closely tied to the bank to perform their duties. Studies since the financial crisis—for example, the International Monetary Fund’s October 2014 Global Financial Stability report— have shown banks with independent directors are less likely to take on risk, while boards chaired by the bank’s CEOs take more risk.

As a result, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has turned its attention to bank boards and their activities as they specifically address risk, as well as their understanding of the activity their institutions are engaged in, resulting in “more supervisory contact with the boards than ever before.” According to the head of bank supervision at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, “while the level of engagement varies across firms, in general, we are seeing boards being more active in asking questions, providing oversight of management and engaging with supervisors.”

Will it work? See two articles in the Financial Times from last year that may suggest otherwise: A reckless banking industry is a drag on the economy and Financial reforms will make the next crisis even messier.

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