The pandemic crisis has accelerated the entry of financial technology (‘fintech’) firms into the banking industry. Some of the new fintech banks are owned or controlled by commercial enterprises. As I explain in a recent paper, affiliations between commercial firms and fintech banks raise fresh concerns about the dangers of mixing banking and commerce. Scandals surrounding the failures of Wirecard and Greensill Capital (Greensill) reveal the potential magnitude of those perils.
In the United States, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) have encouraged commercial enterprises to acquire fintech banks. The FDIC has authorized commercial firms to acquire FDIC-insured industrial banks in reliance on a controversial loophole in the Bank Holding Company Act (BHC Act). The OCC is seeking to charter non-depository fintech national banks, which commercial firms could own under a separate exemption in the BHC Act. The FDIC’s and OCC’s initiatives undermine—and could potentially destroy—the BHC Act’s longstanding policy of separating banking and commerce.
The disasters at Wirecard and Greensill demonstrate the importance of maintaining a strict separation between banking and commerce. Regulators in Germany and other countries allowed banks controlled by Wirecard and Greensill to engage in risky and abusive transactions that benefited their parent companies and other related parties, including commercial firms connected to their major investors. Wirecard Bank provided financial support to its parent company and CEO, and it also made fraudulent transfers of funds to insiders and their controlled entities. Greensill Bank made preferential and unsound loans that benefited its parent company and leading investors. Greensill Bank securitized many of its reckless loans, and Greensill Capital sold the resulting asset-backed securities as ‘safe’ and ‘liquid’ investments to misinformed investors.
Regulators failed to take timely enforcement actions against Wirecard and Greensill because they did not exercise consolidated supervisory authority over the complex international structures created by both firms. In addition, Wirecard and Greensill built extensive networks of influence that generated significant political favors and regulatory forbearance in Germany and the UK. The collapse of Wirecard and Greensill embarrassed government agencies and inflicted massive losses on investors, creditors, and other stakeholders.
The failures of Wirecard and Greensill provide clear warnings about the dangers of allowing fintechs to offer banking services while evading prudential regulatory requirements and supervisory standards that apply to traditional banks and their corporate owners. Regulators and policymakers should not allow fintechs’ claims of ‘innovation’ to serve as a rationale for regulatory arbitrage and as camouflage for fraud. Both disasters show that high-tech firms engaged in banking and commercial activities are likely to create the same unacceptable hazards as previous banking-and-commercial conglomerates, including toxic conflicts of interest, reckless lending, dangerous concentrations of economic power and political influence, supervisory blind spots, and systemic threats to economic and financial stability.
Arthur E. Wilmarth, Jr. is a Professor Emeritus of Law at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.