WASHINGTON — After dialing back some of its most onerous requirements, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. board issued final guidelines Wednesday dictating restrictions on private-equity investors that buy failing banks.
It also extended for six months a program that offers a blanket guarantee for non-interest-bearing checking accounts.
In its final guidelines, the FDIC reduced the minimum capital ratio for private-equity firms to 10%, from 15% in a July proposal, eased cross-guarantee requirements and removed certain restrictions related to investors' being a "source of strength" for their banks.
Still, the final guidelines retained a requirement that private-equity investors retain a bank stake for at least three years, though the obligation is waived for certain mutual funds.
The guidelines were approved on a 4-to-1 vote after debate among board members right up until the final moment. The plan's two key goals essentially conflicted with each other: attracting needed capital to the banking industry and keeping new banking entrants in check.
FDIC Vice Chairman Marty Gruenberg raised concerns Wednesday that new entrants "by definition lack a history of experience" in the industry, but he said the final guidelines took the right approach. Gruenberg had been said to be seeking a tougher position on private-equity firms.
"The policy statement is an effort in my view to strike this balance and do it in a way that is transparent," he said. It is a "reasonable effort to strike a balance of what amounts to competing public policy interests."
Comptroller of the Currency John Dugan, who opposed the July proposal and had argued it would raise resolution costs by dampening private-equity interest in bidding for failed banks, said the final product was "considerably improved."
"It's a reasonable compromise, and I hope it works," he said.
The July proposal would have required a minimum 15% Tier 1 leverage ratio, forced private-equity owners to hold on to banks for at least three years before selling them, designated a firm as a "source of strength" for its bank and made investors with majority stakes in multiple banks cover FDIC losses should any of these institutions fail.
But the final guidelines reduced the required capital ratio to 10% and weakened the cross-guarantee provision. Investors would only have to give what the FDIC referred to as "cross support" in cases where common investors own 80% or more of at least two depository institutions.
The guidelines also stated that the FDIC board can waive provisions on a case-by-case basis. And they also provided exemptions for investors owning less than 5% of voting shares, if they are not acting in concert with other investors. FDIC officials said the policy would be reviewed after six months to gauge its impact.
Despite the compromises, the vote was not unanimous. John Bowman, the acting director of the Office of Thrift Supervision, continued to oppose the guidelines, saying evidence was insufficient that private-equity firms deserve heightened scrutiny. He raised concerns that the standards could be applied more broadly than intended.
"We are being asked to make a decision on a policy statement for which there is a surprising lack of certainty as to its impact on the" Deposit Insurance Fund's "rate payers," Bowman said.
The proposal was overwhelmingly opposed by private-equity firms, many of which said they would not do bank deals while it was under consideration. Though the final guidelines were loosened, the measures still mean a significant amount of scrutiny for private-equity investors trying to get into the banking arena. The minimum capital level is still considerably higher than what is required of most traditional bank owners.
"There is obviously a lot at stake for the FDIC with these deals," FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair said at the meeting. She added later, "The compromise position that we struck today is a good and balanced one."
Though many observers have expressed concern that the strict proposal may have kept investors away from the bidding process for good, policymakers hope that clearer rules will ultimately attract capital as the FDIC looks for private-sector help to resolve a persistent wave of failures.
The vote on private equity largely overshadowed the FDIC's decision to extend its Transaction Account Guarantee Program until next June 30. The voluntary program — part of a broader FDIC plan launched at the height of the financial crisis to protect bank liquidity — gives unlimited insurance to non-interest-bearing checking deposits.
The agency also increased fees for institutions that want to remain in the program. Currently, participating institutions pay 10 cents for every $100 guaranteed. The extension would require banks to pay one of three possible fees — 15, 20, or 25 basis points — depending on the institution's riskiness.
The FDIC and other banking regulators also said Wednesday that they would go along with a rule issued by the Financial Accounting Standards Board, immediately triggering higher capital requirements when it takes effect next year. The FASB issued a rule in June that would require financial institutions to bring some off-balance-sheet assets, such as securitizations and special-purpose entities, onto the balance sheet.
Doing so would immediately require banks to hold more capital for these exposures.