WASHINGTON — While government officials acknowledge that so-called derisking, in which banks sever ties with businesses considered high risk, is a growing problem, it's increasingly clear they believe it's mostly up to the banks to solve it.
In speeches and appearances in recent weeks, Treasury Department and other officials have raised renewed concerns about derisking, recognizing it can hurt economically disadvantaged consumers. But when asked about solutions, they generally put the onus on institutions to address the issue, rather than addressing the heightened fear of enforcement penalties that banks say is the reason behind the problem.
"Fear of such penalties should not color the decision-making approach of banks that are carrying out good-faith efforts to abide by the law, maintain strong [anti-money-laundering] standards, and invest in the personnel and technology necessary to implement these standards," said Nathan Sheets, Treasury undersecretary for international affairs, said in a speech on Thursday.
Speaking after his remarks, he added, "Ultimately, it will require some investment on the sake of institutions."
He likened the issue to Dodd-Frank Act capital requirements, which have been costly to implement but which make the institution safer. Institutions could see similar results by stepping up compliance, making it easier to evaluate business customers on a case-by-case basis, rather than dropping whole business lines.
"My sense is that [investment] contributes to stronger, safer financial institutions and a stronger safer financial system. It wouldn't surprise me if over time if these kind of reforms end up paying for themselves," Sheets said after his speech. "It is consistent with the regulatory initiatives and regulatory agenda that the policy making agenda has pursued after the financial crisis."
But John Byrne, executive vice president at the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists and a former top anti-laundering official at Bank of America, said this kind of one-sided solution is counterproductive.
"If policy leaders in the government continue to talk about derisking as solely an obligation of the financial sector to improve processes … it will never get solved," he warned. "There has to be a concerted effort with regulators law enforcement and the financial sector to candidly discuss risk issues, because it is all about risk appetite, risk management, risk assessment."
Derisking has many causes, but the underlying issue is that banks feel they will receive extra scrutiny — and perhaps an enforcement action — for keeping certain kinds of businesses as clients. Regulators insist that isn't the case, however.
In his speech, Sheets acknowledged that communication is an issue.
"Treasury will continue to explore ways to improve the effectiveness of our communication," he said.
In an ideal world, he said, banks would have stronger risk management practices but regulators would also ensure that "expectations around compliance have been successfully clarified."
One specific criticism has been that the Financial Action Task Force, an international policymaking body could better communicate its expectations.
"FATF… could do a better job of clarifying terms," Clay Lowery, vice president of Rock Creek Global Advisors and former assistant secretary for international affairs at the Treasury Department, said on a panel at the event following Sheets.
Matthew Collin, a research fellow at the Center for Global Development who also spoke on the panel, said that having more data would be a "massive assistance" in understanding the derisking problem.
The center put out a report this week titled "Unintended Consequences of Anti-Money Laundering Policies for Poor Countries," noting that victims of derisking are often the most vulnerable.
"Regulators sometimes send mixed signals about whether and how banks and other entities should manage" their money laundering and terror financing risk, the report said. It added that fines on some large banks have had "chilling effect" on financial inclusion.
Sheets said more data is necessary for policymakers to understand the breadth of the problem.
"More data is positive, that is very much where we think this discussion should go," he said. "We need to continue to improve our understanding of the scope, nature, and drivers of the problem through better data collection."
Sheets' speech was the second time in as many weeks that Treasury officials have specifically addressed the derisking problem. In a speech two weeks ago, Daniel Glaser, Treasury assistant secretary for terrorist financing, spoke to officials representing Persian Gulf nations who are concerned about losing their correspondent banking relationships with the U.S.
"We recognize the central role of the U.S. financial system in the global economy, and we recognize that open access depends on the connectivity of our financial institutions," Glaser said in his remarks. "I would like to stress that we take concerns related to correspondent banking seriously."
However, he said that, despite "quiet calls in some circles for scaling back regulations and tamping down enforcement, we are not going to loosen laws or lower global standards, and we are not going to walk away from supervising our financial institutions or enforcing our laws."
In the wake of the Friday terrorist attacks in Paris, financial regulators may have yet another motivation to err on the side of extreme caution.