US Fed’s top bank cop defends effort to hike bank capital

By Pete Schroeder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Federal Reserve’s top regulatory official defended a sweeping proposal to overhaul bank capital rules before the country’s largest bank lobby on Monday, arguing the benefits of a bigger cushion outweigh any additional costs banks might face.

Fed Vice Chair for Supervision Michael Barr’s said that the complex “Basel Endgame” proposal overhauling how banks gauge the amount of capital they must hold against potential losses should have a “limited” impact on banks’ lending costs, with much of the focus on other activities, like trading.

The proposal implements international capital standards agreed by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision in the aftermath of the 2007-2009 financial crisis. Since its release in July, banks have been pushing back hard against the plan, enlisting allies in Congress and launching ad campaigns. They say it will hurt mortgage borrowers, lending to green projects and the broader economy.

Barr’s Monday speech, which is his first on bank regulation since the proposal came out, served as a broad-based defense of the effort. He said the Fed and other bank regulators welcome comments from the industry to help refine the plan, but maintained the benefits of higher capital for lenders.

“The private costs of capital must be weighed against the social benefits of higher capital in creating a healthier, more resilient financial system,” he said, according to prepared remarks.

Barr also pushed back against the industry’s refrain that higher capital costs for banks will mean curtailed lending and potential economic harm. He noted that banks sounded similar warnings when regulators imposed tougher rules in the wake of the financial crisis, but the U.S. banking system has remained vibrant and the economy has grown.

Barr has maintained that strong capital ensures lenders can weather downturns and any surprise risks. He has cited the failure of Silicon Valley Bank and two other U.S. lenders this year as evidence the system needs to be strengthened.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell voted to propose the rules, but noted he had questions and was eager to solicit feedback. While Powell has said he would defer to Barr as the Fed’s Wall Street regulator, industry executives hope Powell’s concerns may lead to a less-stringent proposal.

“This whole episode is the first test of the operational latitude that the vice chairman for supervision has from a policymaking perspective,” said Isaac Boltansky, director of policy research for brokerage BTIG.

Barr said the Fed was “very interested” in feedback on the proposal and would welcome comments and data that ensure the final rules “accurately reflect risk.”

(Reporting by Pete Schroeder; Editing by Michelle Price, Josie Kao and Andrea Ricci)