Big Bank Draws Senate Scrutiny for Its Switch to Trump Regulator

(Bloomberg) -- Japan’s biggest bank has been accused by New York officials of dodging tough oversight by swapping its state license for a federal one, putting itself under a U.S. agency on the front lines of President Donald Trump’s push to ease financial rules.

The November move by Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc. is now drawing scrutiny from a key U.S. Senate investigative panel known for its post-crisis probes into Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and other financial firms, said a person with knowledge of the matter.

The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has been gathering documents about how MUFG dropped its New York license and won approval to instead be supervised by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, said the person who asked not to be named because the review isn’t public.

The Tokyo-based bank’s effort to change regulators has generated controversy because it happened unusually fast last year as the New York Department of Financial Services was preparing to reprimand the lender.

MUFG was cleared by the OCC to come under its oversight just eight days after applying. Such requests are uncommon, and a similar one from UBS Group AG took several months to win OCC approval in 2017.

After getting the OCC’s sign-off, MUFG then sued New York’s regulator to prevent it from pursuing any further enforcement actions.

Maria Vullo, the state’s superintendent of financial services, responded in a January court filing by calling the license conversion “contrary to the law, invalid and not effective.” She has asked a federal judge in Manhattan to let her agency fine the Japanese bank for allegedly making false statements about its efforts to improve sanctions controls and for failing to conduct due diligence of financial transactions in cities that border North Korea.

Big Bank Draws Senate Scrutiny for Its Switch to Trump Regulator

Emily Benavides, a spokeswoman for the Senate panel’s chairman, Ohio Republican Rob Portman, declined to comment. Spokesmen for MUFG, the New York Department of Financial Services and the OCC also declined to comment.

MUFG’s decision to shift watchdogs comes as federal regulators run by Trump appointees look to relax oversight of banks, a long-standing goal of Republicans in Congress. Yet the probe by the Senate panel indicates there remains some desire to keep scrutinizing the industry a decade after the financial crisis.

How the Senate review plays out will likely have implications for other global lenders that have considered pursuing an escape from New York’s financial services regulator, which has hit firms with billions of dollars in fines in recent years.

“Other banks are looking at charter conversions with an eye to business fundamentals,” said Karen Shaw Petrou, a managing partner at Federal Financial Analytics in Washington. MUFG’s decision was a “classic case of charter arbitrage,” she added.

Consolidating Operations

In its November approval letter, the OCC said the Japanese bank’s proposal was “consistent with U.S. regulatory objectives, which call for centralization of U.S. operations of foreign banks.” The federal regulator said it would continue to enforce New York demands that MUFG improve internal controls that are meant to prevent transactions with sanctioned countries.

MUFG, which owns a 24 percent stake in Morgan Stanley, had said in a statement that its license conversion was “part of a larger effort to consolidate its U.S. banking operations under federal supervision.” Its U.S. business is spread across four states, including its Union Bank affiliate in California.

Big Bank Draws Senate Scrutiny for Its Switch to Trump Regulator

The OCC is led by Joseph Otting, who ran California’s OneWest Bank when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was its chairman. Since taking over the OCC in late November, Otting has shown he’s industry-friendly by sharing anecdotes about feeling harassed by regulators during his OneWest tenure. He’s also said he considers banks to be his customers, and commented at an industry event this week that “bankers are good people, and I say that over and over again.”

Otting, a former executive at MUFG’s Union Bank, hadn’t joined the OCC when it approved the parent company’s license swap. At the OCC, he has to avoid certain matters involving Union Bank because his wife is owed a pension from her own stint at the MUFG unit. Otting’s recusal is narrow and doesn’t prevent him from participating in policy tied to other aspects of the Japanese bank.

When the OCC agreed to put MUFG under its oversight, the agency was being run by Keith Noreika -- a bank lawyer who stayed out of the decision because he had done previous legal work for the Japanese lender.

The scope of the Senate panel’s examination and its timeline for finishing the review couldn’t be determined. Under Portman, the investigations subcommittee has recently focused on criminal sex trafficking and opioid addiction. When led by former Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, it garnered global notoriety for hearings in which executives from Goldman, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and other banks were grilled for hours by lawmakers.

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