Court Asked to Second-Guess Bank Capital, Earnings, Risk Ratings

By Chris Bruce

A now-shuttered Chicago bank is taking on the proverbial giant in a fight to give banks the right to challenge safety and soundness ratings by federal regulators.

Builders Bank, an Illinois-chartered community bank that technically closed its doors in April, wants a federal judge to review a so-called CAMELS rating of 4 it got from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, a rating it said triggered higher costs for insurance premiums ( Builders Bank v. Federal Dep. Ins. Corp. , N.D. Ill., 15-cv-06033, response 9/13/17 ). The rating should be reviewed by a court, it said, because it didn’t accurately reflect the bank’s risk profile. A 3 rating would have been more appropriate, it said.

It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of the awkwardly-named CAMELS ratings, which also are used by the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The ratings — which measure capital, assets, management, earnings, liquidity, and sensitivity to market risk on a range of 1 to 5, with 1 being the best rating — can mean thumbs-up or thumbs-down on business plans by banks and affiliates.

Want to merge with or buy another bank? Don’t bet on it if your bank has a low CAMELS rating. Want to pay lower premiums for federal deposit insurance? A high rating may mean yes, a low rating probably not. Want to lower your capital costs? Endure fewer examinations? Open new branches? Hold on to a profitable business unit or face regulatory demands to divest it? All of those business decisions and others can turn on how well a bank scores under the CAMELS system.

Pinchus D. Raice, a partner with Pryor Cashman LLP in New York who represents the New York League of Independent Bankers, said judges should be able to look over those rating decisions.

Judicial review would enhance the integrity of bank examinations, he said. “I think it would increase confidence in the process,” Raice told Bloomberg BNA. “Somebody should be looking over the shoulders of the agency, because CAMELS ratings are critical to the life of an institution.” The New York trade group has filed a brief in the suit urging the court to rule against the FDIC.

FDIC Rating Challenged

The FDIC has asked Judge Sharon J. Coleman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois to dismiss the case on several grounds.

For one, the FDIC said, Builders Bank no longer exists. It voluntarily dissolved itself earlier this year and in April transferred its assets to Builders NAB LLC, a nonbank limited liability company in Evanston, Ill., that couldn’t be reached for comment. In a Sept. 13 filing, the bank said Illinois law allows it to continue the suit even though it’s now merged with the LCC, and that it’s seeking damages in the amount of the excessive deposit insurance premiums it says were paid.

Bank Groups Join

The next likely step is a ruling on the FDIC’s motion to dismiss, though it’s not clear when the court might make a decision. Meanwhile, the case has attracted briefs from several banking groups — a joint brief filed in August by the Clearing House Association, the American Bankers Association, and the Independent Community Bankers of America, and a separate brief a few weeks later by the New York League of Independent Bankers.

None of the four groups is wading into the actual dispute between Builders Bank and the FDIC, and their briefs explicitly said they’re not supporting either party. However, all four groups urged the court not to issue a sweeping decision that says CAMELS ratings are exempt from outside review.

According to the Clearing House, the ABA, and the ICBA, banks should be able to seek judicial review in exceptional cases “where such review is necessary and appropriate,” such as if regulators get their calculations wrong, or if regulators use ratings to retaliate against banks that criticize FDIC policies or personnel.

“At a minimum, given the complexity of the CAMELS rating system and the consequences of CAMELS ratings, this court should not issue a ruling that is broader than necessary to decide this dispute and that may undermine the ability of other banks to obtain judicial review,” the brief said.

New York League

The New York League of Independent Bankers struck a similar tone. Among other points, the FDIC says the suit should be dismissed because Builders hasn’t alleged a violation of a statute. However, according to the New York League, accepting the FDIC’s arguments “would risk significantly increasing the potential for arbitrary, capricious, and unjustified agency action by the FDIC, as well as the other federal banking agencies that issue CAMELS ratings.”

Even though the Fed and the OCC use CAMELS ratings, neither regulator is a party to the lawsuit. FDIC spokesman David Barr declined to comment on the case.

David Reiss, professor of finance law at Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, N.Y., called the case a signal that the banking industry believes a range of agency actions might be held to be unreviewable. “As a general philosophy, unless Congress has made unreviewability crystal clear, I think we want to be careful,” Reiss told Bloomberg BNA. “This does seem intuitively overbroad to me.”

He also said the case, because it involves a bank that no longer exists, raises the possibility of a result that might not be welcomed by the banking industry. “The bank groups may be somewhat worried that a now-dissolved bank may get a court ruling that could have unintended consequences for banks still doing business,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Bruce in Washington at cbruce@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Ferullo at MFerullo@bna.com

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