While banks have complained about the crushing burden of regulations in a post-Franken-Dodd world, in one area they could use a little more regulation. Not of the banks, but of third-party service providers to banks.
I have yapped repeatedly on this rag sheet about how banks need to treat regulatory guidance seriously. While some regulators send confusing signals about the legal enforceability of guidance, they have also made clear that they expect banks to comply with it. Period.
One piece of guidance that we have discussed is OCC Bulletin 2013-29 regarding third-party relationships, which is a reworking and expansion of guidance first issued in 2001 (OCC Bulletin 2001-47). Other federal financial institution regulators have issued similar guidance. One portion of that guidance deals with provisions that the OCC expects to be incorporated into written agreements between banks and their service providers. Banks who take regulatory guidance seriously attempt to ensure that their written agreements with their significant vendors meet the regulators’ expectations.
If some technology service providers are to be believed, not many banks take the guidance seriously.
Repeatedly, attorneys who advise banks on such agreements will hear a common complaint: the bank asking for such a contractual provision is the only bank that has ever asked the vendor for the same. Putting aside my stock response (“You’ll never be able to say that again, will you?”), let’s take them at their word and see what this means.
Let’s pick two provisions, access by the bank’s regulators to the service provider’s records concerning the services it provides to the bank, and a binding agreement by the vendor to provide the bank with a disaster recovery plan and modifications to it. These aren’t the only provisions. There are many more, but I don’t make a living off this blog, so they’ll have to do for now.
OCC Bulletin 2013-29 provides in part as follows:
In contracts with service providers, stipulate that the performance of activities by external parties for the bank is subject to OCC examination oversight, including access to all work papers, drafts, and other materials. The OCC treats as subject to 12 USC 1867(c) and 12 USC 1464(d)(7), situations in which a bank arranges, by contract or otherwise, for the performance of any applicable functions of its operations. Therefore, the OCC generally has the authority to examine and to regulate the functions or operations performed or provided by third parties to the same extent as if they were performed by the bank itself on its own premises.
That’s pretty clear. Yet, we have repeatedly encountered service providers, including one of the major technology service providers in the United States, who have resisted such a contractual “stipulation”. In one discussion, a service provider that was providing an online banking system and related customer-facing services asked the bank to cite the provision of the law that gave the OCC the right to have such access. When we gave it the citation to 12 USC 1867(c), it responded that its inside counsel did not agree with the OCC’s interpretation of the Bank Service Company Act and that examinations that it had permitted the OCC to make were purely voluntary and could be terminated at any time. We responded that we didn’t give a flying fig in a rolling donut what its in-house counsel thought about the OCC’s interpretation since the law was clear on its face. In that case, we compromised on language that required such regulatory access “as is required by applicable law.” However, we were told by that vendor that other banks did not insist on such a provision in the agreement.
With respect to business continuity plans, OCC Bulletin 2013-29 provides the following:
Ensure that the contract requires the third party to provide the bank with operating procedures to be carried out in the event business resumption and disaster recovery plans are implemented. Include specific time frames for business resumption and recovery that meet the bank’s requirements, and when appropriate, regulatory requirements. Stipulate whether and how often the bank and the third party will jointly practice business resumption and disaster recovery plans.
Recently, we have encountered a technology service provider who provides a critical online banking service that absolutely refuses to agree to any provision in the agreement that addresses business continuity plans or procedures. While it states that it has such a plan and that the bank can review it, it will not agree to put anything in the contract regarding such plans. Again, the bank was informed by the vendor that it has never agreed to provide such contractual protection to a financial institution, and that no other bank has insisted upon it. Again, this is a critical service provider whose service, if it went “offline” for any length of time, would cause intense heartburn to the bank.
These are only two examples. There are many, many more. It’s as if not only are many vendors unaware of requirements that their bank clients must meet (and that have been required for over a decade), but that many banks do not care about complying with regulatory guidance. In the case of smaller institutions, there is also the problem that they lack the expertise to negotiate, or perhaps they believe that they do not have sufficient importance to the vendor to bargain effectively. Whatever the reasons, many of them are rolling over with their paws in the air instead of trotting in the other direction.
This leaves those banks that take regulatory guidance seriously in a tough position. Some of them are simply walking away and trying to find vendors who “get it,” even if they are not the first choice from a purely business standpoint. Others end up negotiating with themselves to arrive at less-than-reasonable contractual compromises.
I have a couple of suggestions for the regulators. First, try enforcing the guidance across the board. There are financial institutions that are trying to “do it right,” but who are being undercut by those who aren’t. Moreover, use your authority under the Bank Service Company Act and otherwise to bring home to the vendors directly that if they want to play in this arena, they need to play by your rules. Some of them are not getting the message. Perhaps it would be helpful to start naming names on both ends of the spectrum. Perhaps that would get some attention.
In fairness, there are technology service providers who are doing it right. They understand the guidance, and while they are not willing to fall over and play dead, they are willing to make a reasonable attempt to accommodate what is essentially appropriate risk allocation between the parties, and appropriate accommodation to their customers’ regulators’ expectations. They “get it.” Here’s hoping that more of them eventually get the message, as well.