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Do Banks Need a Holding Company?

the-bank-accountOn April 11, 2017, Bank of the Ozarks announced that it would be completing an internal corporate reorganization to eliminate its holding company.  As a result, it will continue as a publicly-traded, stand-alone depository bank, without a bank holding company.

In this episode of The Bank Account, Jonathan and I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the bank holding company structure.  Specific topics include:

  • praise for Bank of the Ozarks innovative approach to further improve its already impressive efficiency,
  • a review of the existing landscape of holding company and non-holding company structures,
  • activities that may require a holding company,
  • size-related thresholds impacting holding company analysis,
  • charter and corporate-governance related elements to the analysis, and
  • the impact the absence of a holding company may have on merger and acquisition activity.

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FRB Lifts Threshold for Financial Stability Review

In its March 2017 approval of People United Financial, Inc.’s merger with Suffolk Bancorp (the “Peoples United Order”), the Federal Reserve Board eased the approval criteria for certain smaller bank merger transactions by expanding its presumption regarding proposals that do not raise material financial stability concerns and providing for approval under delegated authority for such proposals.  The Dodd-Frank Act amended Section 3 of the Bank Holding Company Act to require the Federal Reserve to consider the “extent to which a proposed acquisition, merger, or consolidation would result in greater or more concentrated risks to the stability of the United States banking or financial system.”

In a 2012 approval order, the Federal Reserve established a presumption that a proposal that involves an acquisition of less than $2 billion in assets, that results in a firm with less than $25 billion in total assets, or that represents a corporate reorganization, may be presumed not to raise material financial stability concerns absent evidence that the transaction would result in a significant increase in interconnectedness, complexity, cross-border activities, or other risks factors.  In the Peoples United Order, the Federal Reserve indicated that since establishing this presumption in 2012, its experience has been that proposals involving an acquisition of less than $10 billion in assets, or that results in a firm with less than $100 billion in total assets, generally do not create institutions that pose systemic risks and typically have not involved, or resulted in, firms with activities, structures and operations that are complex or opaque.

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Financial Stability Board Task Force Issues Recommendations on Climate Change-Related Disclosures

In January 2016, the G20’s Financial Stability Board organized a task force, chaired by Michael Bloomberg, to come up with recommendations for a uniform framework for the disclosure of financial risks and opportunities related to climate change. On December 14, the Task Force released its recommendations, which are intended to assist “all financial and non-financial organizations with public debt or equity” in figuring out what climate-related issues merit disclosure.  The report characterizes the “catastrophic economic and social consequences” of unchecked climate change as “[o]ne of the most significant, and perhaps most misunderstood, risks that organizations face today.” It notes that numerous climate-related disclosure frameworks already exist, but so far the information produced under those frameworks has been inconsistent, non-comparable and lacking the context needed for a full understanding of its importance. Because there is no standardized protocol for disclosure, the report indicates that companies face uncertainty as to what information should be disclosed, and how it should be presented to potential investors.  The recommendations, along with the extensive “implementation guidance” the Task Force released along with the report, aim to address this problem by providing a framework for disclosure that will assist companies in providing information that is “consistent, comparable, reliable and clear.”

The Task Force begins by noting that climate-related risks fall into two categories: (i) physical risks, such as those posed to coastal storms or droughts that can cause damage or disruption to the company’s facilities, infrastructure or supply chain; and (ii) transition risks, which can result from governmental efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or the shift to a low carbon economy. Transition risks are further defined to include “policy and legal risks” (e.g., those posed by carbon pricing or new regulations mandating a reduction in emissions); “technology risks” (for example, where new energy-efficient technologies disrupt existing technologies –like what LED technology has done to fluorescents); “market risk” (i.e., a shift in supply or demand for products and services); and “reputational risk.”

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How Many Times Do We Have to Tell You Not to Open the Cat Video

Everyone has been in a movie theater when one of the actors approaches that door to the basement behind which strange noises are coming. They reach out to turn the knob and in unison the audience is thinking “Fool, haven’t you ever been to the movies? Don’t you know that the zombies or ghouls or some other equally disgusting creature are waiting for you behind that door. Don’t do it!” They of course open the door, blissfully unaware of the grisly fate waiting for them.

I get the same sort of feeling when I read about cybersecurity lapses at banks. Think about the following:

  • “Someone dropped a thumb drive, I think I’ll just plug it into my computer at work and see what is on it. Surely nothing bad will happen. If nothing else, I’ll give it to one of my kids, they can use it on the home computer.”
  • “My good friend, the one who sends me those emails asking me to pass them along to three of my closet friends, just sent me an email with an adorable cat video. I just love cat videos, I’ll open it on my computer at work and see what is on it. Surely nothing bad will happen. Doesn’t the FBI monitor the internet keeping us safe from bad people?”
  • “Someone from a small European country that I have never heard of has sent me an email telling me that I might be the recipient of an inheritance. I always knew I was destined for better things in life, I’ll just click on the attachment and follow the instructions. Surely nothing bad will happen.”
  • “My good customer Bob just sent me an email telling me that he is stuck in jail in South America. He needs me to wire money to post his bail. I didn’t know that Bob was traveling, I am pretty sure I just saw him in the bank a couple of days ago. I probably won’t try and call his house or wife or his cell phone to doublecheck, I’m sure his email is legitimate.”

If you were in the movie theater you’d be yelling out “Don’t do it!” If this were a movie you would see the green glowing blob patiently waiting to silently flow into the office computer. The blob just sits there though, waiting for the bank officer to hit that keystroke that opens the file. Now we see it watching as the person sits down at the computer and logs in, types in a password and initiates a wire transfer. The blob silently memorizes both the log in ID and the password. Weeks can go by as the suspense builds. The ominous music begins to swell in the background, we know that something is going to happen when as fast as lightning, the blob springs to life initiating wire transfers for tens of millions of dollars.

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Survey of 2015 Georgia Corporate Case Law Developments

The annual survey of decisions by state and federal courts during 2015 addressing Georgia corporate and business organization issues is now available.

This survey covers the legal principles governing Georgia businesses, their management and ownership. It catalogs decisions ruling on issues of corporate, limited liability company and partnership law, as well as transactions and litigation issues involving those entities, their governance and investments in them.

In 2015, there were a number of noteworthy decisions spanning a wide variety of corporate and business law issues. There were two significant decisions involving directors of corporations who simultaneously serve as trustees for trusts who hold a minority interest in the corporation – one dealing with liability issues, the other an insurance coverage dispute. Elsewhere, the Georgia Supreme Court issued an important opinion reaffirming the duty to read transactional documents and clarifying the circumstances under which that duty can be excused. The Supreme Court also addressed the availability of prejudgment interest in an action for specific performance of a stock purchase agreement, and the remedy of equitable partition in the context of a joint venture agreement. The Georgia Court of Appeals addressed two issues of first impression: the first dealing with a judgment creditor’s right to a charging order against an LLC member, the other dealing with an LLC’s right to recover for discomfort and annoyance in a nuisance action. The courts also dealt with interesting questions of jurisdiction and venue over corporate entities, including whether a foreign corporation or LLC with its corporate headquarters outside of Georgia can remove a tort action from the county in which it is filed to the county where its largest Georgia office is located.

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Supervisory “Concerns” with Shareholder Protection Arrangements

In December 2015 (following years of sporadic and seemingly random criticism) of shareholder protection arrangements, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System issued guidance that the Federal Reserve “may” object to a shareholder protection agreement based on the facts and circumstances and the features of the particular arrangement.  Federal Reserve Supervisory Letter SR 15-15 does not require submission of such arrangements to the Federal Reserve for comment prior to implementation, but rather directs institutions considering the implementation or modification of such arrangements to “review this guidance to help ensure that supervisory concerns are addressed.”

Supervisory Letter SR 15-15 casts a long shadow, with little clarity as to the line between acceptable and unacceptable arrangements. SR 15-15 cites a wide array of potentially objectionable shareholder protection arrangements, but then indicates that supervisory staff has “in some instances” found that these arrangements would “have negative implications on a holding company’s capital or financial position, limit a holding company’s financial flexibility and capital-raising capacity, or otherwise impair a holding company’s ability to raise additional capital.”  Presumably speaking only of these particular arrangements (although not clearly so stating), SR 15-15 states “[t]hese arrangements impede the ability of a holding company to serve as a source of strength to its insured depository subsidiaries and were considered unsafe and unsound.”

SR 15-15 provides a number of examples of categories of shareholder protection arrangements that have (sometimes) raised supervisory issues.  Some of these examples are entirely consistent with past Federal Reserve precedent and are generally impermissible in bank-related investments, including price protections in offering arrangements whereby a holding company agrees to a cash payment or additional shares to the investor in the event that additional shares are issued in subsequent transactions at lower prices.  These “down-round” provisions have always been viewed by the Federal Reserve as acting as an impermissible disincentive (and potential disabling mechanism) for a holding company to raise additional capital going forward.  (In a surprising move of clarity, the Federal Reserve guidance does, by footnote, specifically indicate that preemptive rights, or the right to participate in subsequent offerings to prevent dilution of ownership, does not, in general, raise any supervisory concerns.)

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How to Get the Most out of Annual Board Reviews

There has never been a more challenging time to be a bank director. The combination of today’s hugely competitive banking market, increased regulatory burden and rapid technological developments have raised the bar for director oversight and performance. In response, an increasing number of community banks have begun to assess the performance of directors on an annual basis.

Evaluation of board performance is done in many ways, and ranges from an assessment by the board of its performance as a whole to peer-to-peer evaluation of individual directors. Public company boards are increasingly being encouraged by institutional investors and proxy advisory firms to conduct meaningful assessments of individual director performance. The pace of turnover and change on most bank boards is slow, and more often the result of mandatory retirement age limits than focus by the board on individual director performance. This may be untenable, however, as the pace of external change affecting financial institutions often greatly exceeds the pace of changes on the bank’s board.

While some institutions prefer a more ad hoc approach to assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the board and its directors, we suggest that a more formal approach, perhaps in advance of your board’s annual strategic planning sessions, can be a powerful tool. These assessments can improve communication between management and the board, identify new skills that may not be possessed by the current directors, and encourage engagement by all directors. If used correctly, these assessments often provide valuable information that can focus the board’s strategic plan and help shape future conversations on board and management succession.

So what are the key considerations in designing an effective board evaluation process? Let’s look at some points of emphasis:

  • Think big picture. Ask the board as a whole to consider the skill sets needed for the board to be effective in today’s environment. For example, does the board have a director with a solid understanding of technology and its impact on the financial services industry? Are there any board members with compliance experience in a regulated industry? Does the board have depth in any areas such as financial literacy, in order to provide successors to committee chairs when needed? Do you have any directors who graduated from high school after 1985?
  • Develop a matrix. Determine the gaps in your board’s needs by first writing down all of the skill sets required for an effective board, and then chart which of those needs are filled by current directors. Then discuss which of the missing attributes are most important to fill first. In particular, consider whether demographic changes in your market will make recruiting a diverse and/or female candidate a priority.
  • Determine the best approach to assessment. Engaging in an exercise of skills assessment will often focus a board on which gaps must be filled. It can also focus a board on the need to assess individual board member performance. Many boards are not prepared to launch into a full peer evaluation process, and a self-assessment approach can be a good initial step. Prepare a self-assessment form that touches upon the aspects of being an effective director, such as engagement, preparedness, level of contribution and knowledge of the bank’s business and industry. Then, have each director complete the self-assessment, with a follow-up meeting scheduled with the chair of the governance committee and lead independent director for a conversation about board performance. These conversations are often the most impactful part of the assessment process.
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SEC Adopts Pay Ratio Rule

SEC Adopts Pay Ratio Rule

October 13, 2015

Authored by: Bryan Cave

On August 5, 2015, in a 3-2 vote, the SEC adopted the rule implementing the controversial pay ratio requirement pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Act. The rule requires companies to disclose:

  • the median of the annual total compensation of all employees, excluding the principal executive officer, or CEO;
  • the annual total compensation of the CEO (which is already required to be disclosed); and
  • the ratio of  these two amounts.

The new rule applies to companies required to provide executive compensation disclosure under Item 402(c)(2)(x) of Regulation S-K in proxy statements or annual reports on Form 10-K, as well as registration statements or other filings. Most companies are required to report the pay ratio disclosure for their first fiscal year beginning on or after January 1, 2017.

View Bryan Cave’s Client Alert on the Pay Ratio Rule.

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FDIC Examinations and Cyberattack Risk

FDIC bank examinations generally include a focus on the information technology (“IT”) systems of banks with a particular focus on information security. The federal banking agencies issued implementing Interagency Guidelines Establishing Information Security Standards (Interagency Guidelines) in 2001. In 2005, the FDIC developed the Information Technology—Risk Management Program (IT-RMP), based largely on the Interagency Guidelines, as a risk-based approach for conducting IT examinations at FDIC-supervised banks. The FDIC also uses work programs developed by the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) to conduct IT examinations of third party service providers (“TSPs”).

The FDIC Office of the Inspector General recently issued a report evaluating the FDIC’s capabilities regarding its approach to evaluating bank risk to cyberattacks. The FDIC’s supervisory approach to cyberattack risks involves conducting IT examinations at FDIC-supervised banks and their TSPs; staffing IT examinations with sufficient, technically qualified staff; sharing information about incidents and cyber risks with regulators and authorities; and providing guidance to institutions. The OIG report determined that the FDIC examination work focuses on security controls at a broad program level that, if operating effectively, help institutions protect against and respond to cyberattacks. The program-level controls include risk assessment, information security, audit, business continuity, and vendor management. The OIG noted, however, that the work programs do not explicitly address cyberattack risk.

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Ownership Succession for Family-Owned Banks: Building the Right Estate Plan

For a number of community banks, the management and ownership of the institution is truly a family affair. For banks that are primarily controlled by a single investor or family, these concentrated ownership structures can also bring about significant bank regulatory issues upon a transfer of shares to the next generation.

Unfortunately, these regulatory issues do not just apply to families or individuals that own more than 50 percent of a financial institution or its parent holding company. Due to certain presumptions under the Bank Holding Company Act and the Change in Bank Control Act, estate plans relating to the ownership of as little as 5 percent of the voting stock of a financial institution may be subject to regulatory scrutiny under certain circumstances. Under these statutes, “control” of a financial institution is deemed to occur if an individual or family group owns or votes 25 percent or more of the institution’s outstanding shares. These statutes also provide that a “presumption of control” may arise from the ownership of as little as 5 percent to 10 percent of the outstanding shares of a financial institution, which could also give rise to regulatory filings and approvals.

Upon a transfer of shares, regulators can require a number of actions, depending on the facts and circumstances surrounding the transfer. For transfers between individuals, regulatory notice of the change in ownership is typically required, and, depending on the size of the ownership position, the regulators may also conduct a thorough background check and vetting process for those receiving shares. In circumstances where trusts or other entities are used, regulators will consider whether the entities will be considered bank holding companies, which can involve a review of related entities that also own the institution’s stock. For some family-owned institutions, not considering these regulatory matters as part of the estate plan has forced survivors to pursue a rapid sale of a portion of their controlling interest or the bank as a whole following the death of a significant shareholder.

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