Some of the narratives Banking Dive sees taking shape for 2022 — crypto, for example — are carryovers from last year, reaching a logical conclusion or forward motion. Others, such as the office-return debate, may be at a pivot point.
Given how adamant Goldman Sachs had been last winter to return to the office — "aberration," anyone? — the bank's move Sunday to ask U.S. employees to work from home through Jan. 18 if they can is the most glaring signal that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over.
The omicron variant that is fueling the recent rash of remote-work capitulations is hardly the first virus mutation to prompt banks to delay office-repopulation strategies — several banks prolonged remote work amid the delta variant's swell last summer. However, with omicron, it seems more banks may be accepting that remote work for safety's sake is more necessity than choice.
JPMorgan Chase, another office-return hard-liner, insisted in a memo last week it is "not changing [its] long-term plans of working in the office."
“However, with the increase in holiday travel and gatherings, we are allowing for more flexibility during the first two weeks of January to work from home (if your role allows) at your manager’s discretion,” the bank said Dec. 30.
JPMorgan added it expects employees to resume their in-office schedules by Feb. 1.
Bank of America is taking a more granular approach, urging employees to work from home this week. Meanwhile, Citi left its timeline considerably more vague.
“We are asking that you work from home for the first few weeks of the New Year if you are able to do so,” the bank said Dec. 30. “We will continue to monitor the data and provide an update in January on when we expect to be back in the office.”
"Realistically, we do not foresee us all having a safe opportunity to be together in our offices" until then, CEO Richard Handler wrote in a memo posted on Instagram. “We are encouraging everyone to work remotely unless there is a very good reason to be in our office.”
Some banks, such as Wells Fargo and Capital One, have postponed office returns indefinitely. But that stance is still in the minority. Hard chargers like Goldman, while conceding to remote work in the moment, are also doubling down on protective measures once employees do return.
People entering the bank's offices must get a COVID-19 booster shot by Feb. 1, Goldman told its U.S. workers Dec. 27. The bank will also double mandatory testing for in-office workers to twice a week, it said.
Regulatory speed bumps
As worthwhile as it may be to look at individual regulations looming on the horizon in 2022, it may be just as prudent to look at the regulators themselves. New leaders at some regulators — notably, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) — took office in 2021 with the aim to give the rules more teeth.
From the time Rohit Chopra was confirmed to lead the CFPB, analysts had predicted an uptick in enforcement. The bureau collected about $1.5 billion in consumer redress during the two-year tenure of Chopra's predecessor, Kathy Kraninger, compared with $12 billion in five years under Obama appointee Richard Cordray. Chopra launched an effort in October to collect information on big tech companies' payments systems, with an emphasis on stablecoins.
But perhaps his most impactful move thus far has come in his role as a member of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s board, where he and former FDIC Chair Martin Gruenberg published a review of bank merger policies without the approval of the regulator's now-outgoing leader, Jelena McWilliams. McWilliams said the FDIC board conducted no such vote and a review had not been approved. Republican lawmakers likened the maneuver to a coup, and Democrats such as House Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters, D-CA, have urged bank regulators to “impose a moratorium on approving any large bank M&A" while a policy review takes place.
McWilliams' resignation, effective in February, eliminates the FDIC board's only Republican roadblock toward completing that initiative. While the review may be geared toward only the most lucrative of bank combinations, it is guaranteed to generate attention throughout the banking industry. However, the maneuver's political polarization could make it increasingly difficult for the Biden administration to fill regulators' remaining vacancies with any candidate whose stance is seen as anything other than moderate. That includes three yet-to-be-announced nominees at the Federal Reserve (and confirmation hearings for two more) and an open post to lead the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the regulator that oversees roughly 85% of the nation's banks.
Saule Omarova, the latest candidate to fill the OCC slot, withdrew her nomination last month after a particularly contentious appearance on Capitol Hill, where, among other issues, some Republicans attacked her upbringing in the former Soviet Union.
Despite its lack of a permanent figurehead, however, regulatory progress at the OCC has remained steady. Under Acting Comptroller Michael Hsu, the agency has — cautiously — followed through on its promises. It said in November it would lay out a framework of expectations surrounding big banks' management of climate risks. The framework dropped a month later. The OCC said in July it would rescind the Trump-era rewrite to the Community Reinvestment Act. And by December, it did. Hsu has announced other intentions, saying the OCC would re-examine Trump-era policies regarding cryptocurrency activities and crypto firm charters. And that it would conduct a review of overdraft policies. Expect the OCC to keep its word.
Change won't always be quick. After a months-long "crypto sprint," bank regulators essentially kicked the can down the road, saying they plan to issue guidance throughout 2022 regarding banks' engagement with digital assets. But given a focus on stablecoins by the treasury secretary and others, regulators clearly intend for this to be a promise kept.
Meanwhile, the SEC appears champing at the bit to mark its territory in regulating crypto. Under Gary Gensler, the regulator took issue with several firms' interest-bearing accounts. Brokerages, too, may be in for stiffer regulations. Toward the end of 2021, companies such as Coinbase and Ripple laid out their visions of how they would like to be regulated — with the former calling for a new regulator to oversee the space (after, to some extent, accusing the SEC of mission creep) and the latter leaning toward the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).
Finally, the Federal Reserve — albeit on a delayed timeline — could issue its long-awaited paper on the prospect of a central bank digital currency.
Digital assets and cryptocurrencies
While on the subject of crypto, 2021 yielded key developments in that space that have shown financial institutions are likely leaving money on the table if they choose to watch from the sidelines.
While banks have had legitimate reasons to remain cautious, the growing interest in digital assets among consumers and investors has spurred fintechs, neobanks and traditional firms to carve out their services regarding crypto.
Some of the nation’s largest traditional firms can no longer be considered holdouts, with major players like BNY Mellon and others introducing varying services that allow their clients to engage with the assets.
This broader adoption comes as fintechs and neobanks see their decisions to participate in the sector as yet another way to showcase the innovative thinking they say differentiates them from incumbents.
As banks of varying sizes and market reach respond to growing demand for crypto services, crypto custody firms such as Anchorage Digital are securing funding and partnerships.
“As more and more institutions look to add crypto services into their offerings, we find ourselves at an inflection point," Diogo Mónica, the company's president and co-founder, said in a statement, adding the firm’s recent $350 million capital raise will help it meet an “unprecedented institutional demand” for the rapidly evolving market.
As mentioned in the previous section, regulators have taken notice and are expected to release guidance for banks regarding crypto in 2022, the result of a months-long “crypto sprint” conducted by the OCC, Federal Reserve and FDIC.
As evidenced by a pair of December congressional hearings focused on digital assets and stablecoins, lawmakers have expressed measured curiosity about the space and the potential benefits and pitfalls crypto could usher in for consumers.
As the sector continues to grow, crypto firms will likely continue to tout the financial inclusion benefits of digital assets, while urging Congress not to take a heavy handed approach to regulation in 2022.
However, Ashley Ebersole, a former SEC enforcement attorney, said he doesn’t expect the crypto regulatory situation to change dramatically in 2022 from where it is now.
“Chair [Gary] Gensler of the SEC has said that they need no new law to operate in the crypto space. And the CFTC has similarly not appeared to suffer from a legal deficit,” said Ebersole, who is now a financial regulatory partner with law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. “I don’t see a new law coming in this space unless it comes from Congress or the White House. The process to enact any new law that originates from either of those sources is long and cumbersome, so my guess is that things will continue as they are for the foreseeable future, perhaps with increased enforcement activity.”
When the Bank of Montreal agreed in December to pay $16.3 billion to help French lender BNP Paribas get out of the U.S. retail banking business, it all but assured that 2022 would be a more subdued year for mergers and acquisitions than its predecessor.
M&A in 2021 split its time between two narratives: foreign banks offloading cost-inefficient U.S. footprints, and U.S. banks expanding their business into banking-adjacent spaces.
2020 gave us hints of the former when PNC paid $11.6 billion to acquire BBVA's U.S. retail banking operations, prompting questions of which fellow foreign juggernauts would sell. HSBC in May spun off much of its network to Citizens — and a little to Cathay Bank. Japan's Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group in September agreed to sell its U.S. banking arm to U.S. Bank. Even Israel's Bank Leumi cut its U.S. business loose.
Many of the biggest pieces have fallen into place, leaving banks looking around the margins to expand. And 2021 showed there's plenty of that business to go around. JPMorgan Chase made more than 30 such deals last year.
The nation's largest bank may be an outlier — regulations prohibit it from acquiring additional U.S.-based deposit-taking institutions because JPMorgan Chase already holds more than 10% of U.S. deposits. So it spent 2021 picking up a U.K. robo-adviser, inserting itself into the payments business of two German conglomerates, buying a college financial planning business and even a restaurant platform. Not everything worked. It also perpetuated the cliche that Americans don't understand soccer.
JPMorgan did, however, get in on another space that is bustling with deals: healthcare. The bank announced the debut of Morgan Health — meant to boost the quality of medical care for JPMorgan employees and to improve health equity and medical cost control — in May, three months after Haven, a health venture the bank backed in cooperation with Amazon and Berkshire Hathaway, suspended operations.
Other banks bought and innovated their way into the health niche. Capital One in October announced plans to purchase Minneapolis-based healthcare investment bank TripleTree. Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank in June moved to buy Provide, a digital platform for healthcare practices. Its cross-Ohio rival, Cleveland-based KeyBank, launched the digital bank Laurel Road for Doctors in March.
It's safe to expect smaller-scale niche M&As throughout 2022.
The future of the SAFE Banking Act
The past year was a disappointing one for supporters of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act.
While the bill, which would provide protections for banks that serve legal cannabis businesses, is no stranger to defeat — SAFE Banking has been introduced in every Congress since 2013 — many proponents believed 2021 would finally be the year the legislation would pass.
With the 2020 election awarding Democrats control of the Senate — the chamber that had served as a major roadblock for the bill — SAFE Banking’s future looked promising.
But efforts among some Senate Democrats to push for broader cannabis reform ahead of the narrower SAFE Banking Act ultimately stalled the bill’s momentum.
Even though the House passed the bill in April, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, argued the text doesn’t do enough for wider cannabis reform and mostly serves the interests of the banking industry.
Attention turned instead to the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA), draft legislation that would remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances and expunge federal nonviolent marijuana crimes.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-CO, one of SAFE Banking’s strongest advocates, told Banking Dive in December he still plans to push for the legislation next year.
“While it was frustrating to see the SAFE Banking Act excluded from the final NDAA, I believe we advanced the cause and made headway in terms of educating and raising awareness about this problem and the benefits of the bill,” he said in an email. “As I’ve said before, I will continue to pursue every possible avenue to get SAFE Banking over the finish line and signed into law sooner rather than later.”
In an interview with Marijuana Moment in December, Perlmutter hinted at potential other legislative vehicles he could fold SAFE Banking into, should a stand-alone measure once again fail. But he declined to share specifics, saying “it’s premature to talk about.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-OR, meanwhile, appeared confident the Senate could pass SAFE Banking in 2022.
“We’ve given them a bill. It is clean. It has broad support in the Senate,” he said, according to Marijuana Moment. “That’s the simplest effort, but there will be vehicles going back and forth. And you will see there will be strong support to make sure that we don’t come up short on this again.”
The bill’s supporters are “playing the long game here, and we are in the best position we’ve ever been with the Senate,” Blumenauer said in December. “I’m confident, when we get these aligned, that we’ll be able to move.”