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Fed's Sanctions on Wells Fargo Seen as Warning for Bank Boards

As Wells Fargo reels from the implications of a consent order with the Federal Reserve, industry watchers say that the bank regulator may be thinking more broadly than just Wells Fargo. According to a New York Times analysis, the Federal Reserve’s settlement with the bank holding company is an attempt to impress upon banks that their boards of directors should be vigorous, independent watchdogs and could face consequences if they fail. According to the Fed’s order, Wells Fargo’s governance and risk management practices led to “significant violations of law and substantial consumer harm.” In a letter to Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Fed Chair Janet Yellen described the Fed’s actions, which include a restriction on the firm’s growth in total assets -- a sanction which Yellen’s letter describes as “unique and more stringent than the penalties the Board has imposed” against other firms for similar unsafe and unsound practices - and requirements on Wells Fargo’s board and senior management to take specific actions to address governance and risk management deficiencies at the firm. The firm’s former board chair and former lead independent director were separately reprimanded. Yellen’s letter recognized Wells Fargo’s actions to reshape its board -- naming an independent director as chair and adding new independent directors. Yellen’s letter also indicated that the bank’s woes highlight the need for guidance on the attributes of effective boards that the Fed proposed in 2017. That guidance proposed fewer specific directives for bank boards to allow directors to focus on management oversight, strategy and risk management. According to the Wall Street Journal, new Fed Chair Jerome Powell who was instrumental in the Fed’s proposing of the guidance is expected to continue seeking clearer standards for bank boards.