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Fed Lets Break for Banks Expire but Opens Door to Future Changes


The Federal Reserve said on Friday that it would not extend a temporary exemption of a rule that dictates the amount of capital banks must keep in reserve, a loss for big banks and their lobbyists, who had been pushing to extend the relief beyond its March 31 expiration.

At the same time, the Fed opened the door to future tweaks to the regulation if changes are deemed necessary to keeping essential markets functioning smoothly. Banks are required to keep easy-to-access money on hand based on the size of their assets, a requirement known as the supplementary leverage ratio, the design of which they have long opposed.

The Fed introduced the regulatory change last year. It has allowed banks to exclude both their holdings of Treasury securities and their reserves — which are deposits at the Fed — when calculating the leverage ratio.

The goal of the change was to make it easier for the financial institutions to absorb government bonds and reserves and still continue lending. Otherwise, banks might have stopped such activities to avoid increasing their assets and hitting the leverage cap, which would mean having to raise capital — a move that would be costly for them. But it also lowered bank capital requirements, which drew criticism.

As a result, the debate over whether to extend the exemptions was a heated one.

Bank lobbyists and some market analysts argued that the Fed needed to keep the exemption in place to prevent banks from pulling back from lending and their critical role as both buyers and sellers of government bonds. But lawmakers and researchers who favor stricter bank oversight argued that the exemption would chip away at the protective cash buffer that banks had built up in the wake of the financial crisis, leaving them less prepared to handle shocks.

The Fed took a middle road: It ended the exemption but opened the door to future changes to how the leverage ratio is calibrated. The goal is to keep capital levels stable, but also to make sure that growth in government securities and reserves on bank balance sheets — a natural side effect of government spending and the Fed’s own policies — does not prod banks to pull back.

“Because of recent growth in the supply of central bank reserves and the issuance of Treasury securities, the Board may need to address the current design and calibration of the S.L.R. over time,” the Fed said in its release. It added that the goal would be “to prevent strains from developing that could both constrain economic growth and undermine financial stability.”

The Fed said it would “shortly seek comment” on measures to adjust the leverage ratio and would make sure that any changes “do not erode” bank capital requirements.

“The devil’s going to be in the details,” said Jeremy Kress, a former Fed regulator who teaches at the University of Michigan. “I want to make sure any changes the Fed makes to the supplementary leverage ratio doesn’t undermine the overall strength of bank capital requirements.”

The temporary exemption had cut banks’ required capital by an estimated $76 billion at the holding company level, although in practice other regulatory requirements lessened that impact. Critics had warned that lowering bank capital requirements could leave the financial system more vulnerable.

That is why the Fed was adamant in April, when it introduced the exemption, that the change would not be permanent.

“We gave some leverage ratio relief earlier by temporarily — it’s temporary relief — by eliminating, temporarily, Treasuries from the calculation of the leverage ratio,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said during a July 2020 news conference. He noted that “many bank regulators around the world have given leverage ratio relief.”

Other banking regulators, like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, took longer to sign on to the Fed’s exemption, but eventually did.

Even though the…



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