Banks Poised for Big Win on Loan Losses in Senate’s Virus Bill

Robert Schmidt and Jesse Hamilton
Banks Poised for Big Win on Loan Losses in Senate’s Virus Bill

(Bloomberg) -- The banking industry is close to gaining relief from a much-hated accounting rule imposed after the 2008 financial crisis, thanks to a provision tucked deep in the Senate’s massive coronavirus aid bill.The legislation, which still must be voted on by the House, would likely delay until the end of the year a requirement that lenders partially write down losses when they make a loan –- a directive that banks say paints an unfair picture of their books and could stymie lending, especially during a time of economic tumult.

Lawmakers also added a separate provision that would make it easier for banks to temporarily modify loans without downgrading them to troubled status, a step meant to give flexibility for borrowers under pressure in this pandemic.

Postponement of the accounting rule -- known as the current expected credit losses method, or CECL -- would be a big win for regional lenders including Capital One Financial Corp., Regions Financial Corp. and Truist Financial Corp., which have been lobbying Congress and regulators for more than a year to get the standard changed.

Still, the banks had to head off a last-minute opposition effort by the group that oversees the Financial Accounting Standards Board -- which wrote the CECL rule -- that deployed investor groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to argue that the intervention was an unseemly use of the crisis to achieve a long-standing policy goal.

‘Unprecedented Measures’

“It is the very urgency behind Congress’s response to the pandemic that also cautions against rashly adopting unprecedented measures that would act to diminish confidence in generally accepted accounting principles, financial reporting and our markets during this critical time,” Kathleen Casey, chairwoman of the Financial Accounting Foundation’s board of trustees, wrote in a March 23 letter to Senate and House leaders.

The foundation, which spearheaded the campaign against the banks, said any adjustments would be better left to the regulators. For their part, those agencies have been working for days on their own effort to delay CECL for banks, hoping it might ease capital demands and free them to make loans, people familiar with the talks have said. While the discussions continued Thursday, the legislation could make the help unnecessary.

Nicolas Veron, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said there is no perfect way to account for credit risk in banks’ loan portfolios, simply because one can’t predict the future. Still, he called the action by Congress “crazy” because it overrides accounting rule setters and the Securities and Exchange Commission, which oversees them.

“It undermines the authority and independence of the U.S. accounting standard setting process -- that is fundamental and serious,” he said.

Only Temporary

Though the banks were reluctant to discuss their lobbying campaign, executives downplayed the effect of the legislation, saying the halt was only temporary. The bill would delay compliance with the accounting standard until the coronavirus emergency is declared over or the end of the year, whichever comes first.

Bankers also said that at a time when the government is asking them to lend more because of the faltering economy, they shouldn’t be asked to essentially test drive a new accounting scheme that many think would hinder lending.

The lenders were given a boost by the chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., who endorsed their request in a letter to FASB requesting that the rule be delayed, and there has been bipartisan support in Congress for such a move. European authorities have also begun weighing the temporary suspension of similar accounting requirements, according to a joint document by European Union regulators seen by Bloomberg.

CECL and its counterparts abroad are products of a years-long effort to address a lesson learned during the 2008 crisis -- that financial firms were unprepared for the level of losses they ended up experiencing.

Most banks have opposed the U.S. effort from the start and have trained their sights on Congress to roll it back.

“Certain banks and their trade groups are intent on legislatively derailing an accounting standard,” Daniel Crowley of K&L Gates warned in a widely circulated email. Crowley, an outside lobbyist for the Financial Accounting Foundation, argued that it would be “the first time in our nation’s history” that happened, and he urged people to check in with officials at the Chamber of Commerce and the Council of Institutional Investors for more information.

Losing Fight

“These banks have been losing in their fight to kill CECL for months,” Crowley wrote. “Now they are using the urgency of COVID-19 as a need for ‘relief.’”

The rule is already in force for the giant Wall Street banks, and many have already updated their bookkeeping systems. They didn’t lobby for the halt and are unlikely to take advantage of it, executives said.

Nevertheless, for the regional banks and many smaller lenders, the delay is a welcome development. Several said they would use the time to keep the pressure on standard setters and continue to push for either getting rid of the rule or giving it a major overhaul.

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