If Only We Knew the Problems Facing America's Banks

The US has yet to fully address one of the greatest weaknesses revealed by last year’s failure of Silicon Valley Bank and other regional lenders: Supervisors saw the problems, but they failed to compel action before it was too late.

Some well-placed transparency could go a long way toward creating a much-needed sense of urgency.

Before its demise in March 2023, SVB had accumulated more than 30 supervisory warnings, noting problems such as the interest-rate risks that contributed to its failure. These included “matters requiring immediate attention,” or MRIAs, which tend to demand a board-level response and a timeline for remedial action. As of June 2023, the 18 large banks overseen by the Federal Reserve — those with more than $100 billion in assets, but not among the eight global systemically important institutions — had 221 supervisory findings outstanding, up from 157 a year earlier. About half failed to achieve a satisfactory rating from the Fed, largely due to risk-management deficiencies in areas including cybersecurity and anti-money-laundering compliance.

Banks’ supervisory issues can be highly relevant to investors, given the risks they reveal and the costs they can entail. US securities law typically requires companies to disclose such material information. Yet bank regulators treat it as confidential, providing only an aggregate overview in semi-annual reports. This keeps markets in the dark and reduces pressure on managers to address problems quickly.

The opacity extends even to the most severe situations, in which the Fed concludes that a bank’s operations are so deficient that it’s in danger of losing its financial holding company status. Under such 4(m) agreements, banks typically can’t do acquisitions or enter new lines of business. The logic is that if the bank can’t manage its existing business well, expansion would be imprudent. This has occasionally led to mergers being mysteriously called off, with no mention of the underlying reason.

Better disclosure is amply warranted. This would presumably include MRIAs that are costly to remediate or have a material impact on the bank’s profitability and viability, as well as 4(m) agreements that limit acquisitions or expansions. It might also encompass downgrades (and upgrades) of supervisory ratings (though these might be less useful, as they can’t always be tied back directly to specific issues). In any case, the added transparency would provide a powerful nudge to bank managers and directors: If their response wasn’t credible, shareholders would flee and the share price would plummet.