Senate Banking Committee presses Federal Reserve chair on capital requirements following big bank lobbying blitz

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell before the Senate Banking Committee March 7, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell appeared Tuesday before the Senate Banking Committee for a semiannual report on monetary policy after a lobbying blitz. The committee includes 10 Republicans who sent Powell a letter Friday pushing back on potential increases to the amount of funding banks are required to keep on hand to absorb losses.

The pushback reportedly followed weeks of lobbying by big banks trying to head off increased capital requirements with their allies in Congress, many of whom heavily benefit from contributions from commercial bank PACs and self-identified employees. 

Michael Barr, vice chair for supervision at the Federal Reserve, triggered the banking lobby blitz when he announced plans for a “holistic” review of bank capital late last year, signaling his position that current rates were not sufficient. In the Friday letter, lawmakers expressed concern that such a review could “unjustly” increase those capital requirements and have a “chilling effect” on financial services.

“We should not be pursuing actions that are harmful. Rather, we should be supporting the engines of our economy — small businesses,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the ranking member on the Senate Banking Committee who penned the letter, told Powell during the hearing. “I am hopeful you will ensure this review is appropriate, keeping the impacts on our banking center front and center.”

“As you and I both know, capital and its quality must be continually scrutinized. But increased capital does not necessarily provide an increased benefit, and requiring banks to hold increased capital that is not risk-based and appropriately tailored to a bank’s size, scope and activities can cause more harm than good,” Scott told Powell. He warned in the letter that increased capital requirements were “ultimately harming Main Street and American economic opportunity.”

But Carter Dougherty, communications director at Americans for Financial Reform, told OpenSecrets this was about big banks, not Main Street. The left-leaning nonprofit organization formed in the wake of the 2008 crisis to study and advocate for policies that advance a more just, equitable financial system.

“Strong capital requirements are about ensuring that we have a safe and stable banking system. And when banks are pushing back against those, it’s almost always a question, a simple question, of profit and executive compensation,” Dougherty told OpenSecrets.

Commercial banks contribute heavily to members of the Senate Banking Committee, steering $5.8 million to the current members of the committee since the start of the 2018 election cycle. The commercial banking industry also spent $64.8 million on federal lobbying in 2022 alone. 

The nine other Republicans who signed on to the letter are also top recipients of contributions from PACs and individuals affiliated with commercial banks. That includes Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who received $623,060 from commercial banks from 2017 through 2022. Tillis has consistently advocated for policies that benefit Wall Street.

When Tillis asked Powell how he felt about the current level of capital in the banking sector, Powell defended the vice chair’s “fresh look” to ensure capital requirements are at the right level. Tillis said he was planning to meet directly with Barr and called the review a “good idea,” but he noted the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act was the “law of the land” and expressed his hope that the Federal Reserve would take an institution’s activity, size, complexity and risk into consideration as part of their review.

“There are ways to strengthen bank capital that might not be as lucrative for banks or their executives, but are perfectly sound and do the job for the economy as a whole,” including selling shares to the public or retaining earnings instead of disbursing them to shareholders to increase capital, Dougherty told OpenSecrets.

Lawmakers pin Powell on tailoring bank capital review

Lawmakers who pressed Powell on capital requirements during the hearing homed in on tailoring requirements set in 2018 under the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act

“Both the Ranking Member and Chair Powell agreed that regulations are required to be tailored to a financial institution’s size, scope, risk, and activity rather than a one-size-fits-all approach,”  a spokesperson for Scott told OpenSecrets in a written statement noting that the law “makes clear that tailoring is required.”

Powell also appeared Wednesday before the House Financial Services Committee, whose members during the 117th Congress received $4.3 million from the commercial banking industry over the 2022 election cycle. Committee members during the last Congress received an average of $80,723, eight times as much money as the average House member, according to OpenSecrets data. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle pressed Powell on the bank capital review.

Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) warned the Federal Reserve is “on the verge of making a terrible mistake” on capital requirements, specifically as it related to applying big bank standards to regional banks. Scott’s campaign reported receiving $101,850 from the commercial bank industry during the 2022 election cycle.

“I want you to reverse this,” Scott told Powell. Powell pushed back, reiterating his agency’s commitment to tailoring regulations as laid out in federal law.

Dougherty noted that tailoring as defined in the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act gives the regulator latitude to write the rules. While Powell agreed with Scott that tailoring is “now a requirement in the law,” an excerpt of the law included in the letter confirms tailoring means “taking into consideration their capital structure, riskiness, complexity, financial activities (including the financial activities of their subsidiaries), size, and any other risk-related factors that the Board of Governors deems appropriate.”

“If you want a weaker implementation, this is what you do, you petition your electeds to pressure the regulator,” Dougherty said.

Scott’s spokesperson told OpenSecrets, “the Banking Committee’s role is one of oversight – Vice Chairman Barr has made public comments about a review of capital requirements that do not appear to be reflective of the law, and the Banking Committee is asking questions about the review per its oversight role.”

Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) also asked Powell if he would support capital requirement increases that are “either unduly aggressive or appear to contradict the spirit” of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act. While Powell said he could not answer this question “in the abstract,” the Fed chair stated several times his commitment to tailoring.

Intense questions on inflation dominated both hearings. In his opening statement, Powell told the Senate Banking Committee the Federal Reserve is likely to raise rates higher than forecasted given strong economic data. Banking committee members also pressed Powell on rising housing prices, unemployment that could arise as the economy cools and regulation of digital assets including cryptocurrency.