An unprecedented rise in enforcement actions against banks has caught even longtime industry observers off guard.

Regulators issued 1,143 formal enforcement actions against banks and their holding companies last year, a new record and more than double the 2008 tally.

Informal actions by the agencies, which are not made public and often go untracked, also doubled during that time, reaching 1,099 last year, according to data provided to American Banker.

Regulators defended their actions as a natural response to the economy, but some observers think they are playing catch up or are responding to political heat for being asleep at the wheel early in the crisis. Some contend the pendulum has now swung too far, and regulatory zeal is hampering the economic recovery.

In an online poll, a majority of respondents, or 52%, said continued economic weakness and the state of banks' balance sheets are the primary reason for the record number of enforcement actios. Another 37% attributed it to pressure from Congress, while just 11% said regulators are playing catch up because baseline enforcement numbers were low.

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