WASHINGTON — Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen pushed back Wednesday against the idea that big banks are "too big to manage," a notion that has gained steam among bank critics in the wake of revelations that thousands of Wells Fargo employees opened fraudulent accounts over the course of several years.
"I'm not endorsing a general conclusion that banks of that size are too big to manage," she said. "We have high expectations for what we expect to be in place in a large organization or any banking organization. ... I don't think these are impossible standards to meet."
Yellen cited the Fed's expectations, including strong risk management functions, an active board of directors and the ability to hold senior management accountable for mistakes that occur.
"They may be challenging, but I wouldn't, at this point, arrive at the conclusion that just because an organization is large, it can't live up to those standards," she said.
Because the fraud occurred at the level of Wells' national bank, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau had primary jurisdiction over the civil enforcement actions that led to a $190 million settlement earlier this month, Yellen said. But she added that examining other banks for this kind of behavior "will be a particular focus of our supervision going forward over next year."
While she could not comment specifically about what, if any, additional consumer abuses the agency was seeing indications of, the Fed is looking into abuses "not only at Wells, but across bank holding companies." She added that those kinds of consumer abuses can pose safety and soundness risks.
"Consumer issues and issues that involve [defrauding] of consumers can become safety and soundness issues," Yellen said. "One of the lessons from the financial crisis I think was that abuses of consumers of this sort … we saw in subprime lending. I think those did become safety and soundness issues and so … we're focused there."
Yellen's remarks come a day after Wells Chief Executive John Stumpf was hammered in the Senate Banking Committee by members of both parties. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called on him to resign and Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., said it was "a stretch to believe" Stumpf's explanation that the fraud was perpetrated solely by the 5,300 terminated low-level employees.
The scandal has even percolated into the presidential campaign, with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton releasing an open letter Tuesday calling Wells' conduct "outrageous" and saying that if the bank can't be expected to know whether it is perpetrating fraud on this scale, it should be broken down to a size that can be managed.
"Executives should be held individually accountable when rampant illegal activity happens on their watch," Clinton said. "And if any bank can't be managed effectively, it should be broken up."
Fed Gov. Daniel Tarullo also said earlier this month that the Wells scandal illustrated that banks need to be more "proactive" in their pursuit of a compliant and law-abiding culture within their ranks, and that regulators should put "a focus on individuals as well as the fines put on the institutions" to punish wrongdoers.
During the press conference, Yellen repeatedly demurred when asked questions related to the upcoming presidential election. She maintained that the Federal Open Market Committee is not a political body and does not consider politics when deciding at what level to set interest rates. She denied accusations made by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that she personally was keeping rates artificially low in order to benefit President Obama and Clinton.
"I think Congress very wisely established the Federal Reserve as an independent agency in order to insulate monetary policy from short-term political pressures," Yellen said. "And I can say emphatically that partisan politics plays no role in our decisions about the appropriate stance of monetary policy. I have no concern that the Fed is politically motivated, and I will assure you that you will not find any signs of political motivation when the transcripts are released in five years."
The Federal Open Market Committee decided to maintain its target federal funds rate at between 0.25% and 0.5% despite some speculation in recent weeks that the committee might hike the target range up another 0.25% at the September meeting because of improving labor market conditions and increasing concern about low rates driving up equity prices. Three committee members did dissent from the majority decision: Kansas City Fed President Esther George, Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester and Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren.
The committee's estimates for year-end interest rates appear to have congealed somewhat, with 10 of the 17 members expecting the year-end federal funds rate to be between 0.5% and 0.75%. With only one more "live" meeting left in the year — that is, one where Yellen will hold a press conference — it is an increasingly safe assumption that the FOMC will raise rates by 25 basis points during that meeting. Three members expected rates to remain unchanged at between 0.25% and 0.5%, while another three members expected the rate to rise to between 0.75% and 1%. A single member expected rates to end the year above 1%.
It also seems that the committee remains skeptical of a faster ramp-up in 2017. Seven members expected the year-end 2017 rate to be between 1% and 1.25% — suggesting only three rate hikes between now and December 2017. Another seven members expected the 2017 year-end rate to settle between 1.25% and 2.25%, with the rest seeing rates remain below 1%. Expectations for the long-term "neutral" funds rate have also fallen over the course of the year, with 15 of the 17 members seeing the long-term neutral rate between 2.5% and 3%.
The FOMC's economic projections for this year worsened somewhat between the June meeting and the September meeting. The committee revised down its projection for 2016 growth from 2% to 1.8% while revising up its estimate of unemployment to 4.8% from 4.7%. The committee also estimated personal consumption expenditure inflation down from 1.4% to 1.3%, while estimating that core inflation was unchanged at 1.7%. Those figures suggest a less optimistic near-term outlook, though the estimates for 2017, 2018 and 2019 were substantially unchanged.