American Banker
by Sasha Werblin

Some of the most important regulatory agencies just fumbled a major chance to start fixing a problem that ails our financial system. Fortunately, the story isn’t quite over yet.

The 2008 financial crisis caused widespread hardship. But it particularly devastated communities of color, many of which had been targeted by predatory practices that stripped billions of dollars in wealth from those who could least afford to lose it. For several reasons, regulators and financial industry executives alike seemed to have little idea of what was happening in these communities, leaving them ill-equipped to anticipate the crisis and reduce its impact.

One such reason for these huge blind spots was, and continues to be, the financial industry’s lack of diversity. It’s a simple fact that people’s lived experiences affect what they perceive and understand. When the experiences of people of color aren’t represented in the people who serve them, important developments in those communities get missed.

To address this critical problem, members of the Congressional Black Caucus set out in 2010 to enact reforms that would help prevent similar injustices in the future. They succeeded in passing Section 342 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which created 20 Offices of Minority and Women Inclusion in the nation’s most powerful financial regulatory agencies.

OMWIs were given the responsibility of creating standards that would diversify the financial sector’s hiring and contracting opportunities. This represents a historic chance to improve connections between financial institutions and our nation’s fastest-growing communities, potentially generating trillions of dollars in investment.

Such standards are clearly needed. Research conducted by the Greenlining Institute and the NAACP found that in 2012, some of the top banks did less than 6% of their discretionary contracting with minority-owned businesses, while less than 20% of bank managers were people of color.

This problem can be fixed. For example, look at what happened when California began requiring regulated utilities and telecommunications providers to report their level of contracting with diverse-owned businesses. The simple act of creating transparency caused a boom in contracting with businesses owned by women, racial and ethnic minorities, and service-disabled veterans. So for the past five years, stakeholders have been advocating for the OMWIs and their agency leaders to seize this opportunity and issue strong workforce and supplier diversity standards for the 70,000-plus companies they regulate.

Recently, the OMWIs in the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Federal Reserve Board of Governors, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Securities and Exchange Commission, National Credit Union Administration and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released their final joint standards as required by section 342. But to our shock, the “standards” aren’t standards at all. Standards would have helped promote important policy objectives and helped financial companies understand an acceptable level of performance.

Unfortunately, regulators’ proposed standards achieve none of these objectives. They set no criteria or expectations for diversity and inclusion and provide no benchmarks against which to measure progress. Instead of standards, the document is a collection of nice suggestions coupled with a choose-your-own-adventure reporting system.

That’s no exaggeration. The “standards” encourage banks and other financial institutions to report diversity data, but leaves every important detail for the companies to decide: whether to report, what to report, how to present the data. It’s a bit like your college professor letting you decide whether or not to take a final exam, and then write it and grade it yourself. The lack of standards leaves the public and advocates with no way to compare companies, practically inviting them to provide spin instead of substance.

Financial companies need direction and clarity to get things done, as regulators know too well. Unfortunately, they seem to be ignoring the lessons of the past.

Oddly, the agencies seem to have some doubts about their authority to impose clear, measureable reporting requirements. This is doubly puzzling because the key congressional architects of Sec. 342 specifically addressed this point, stating: “We believe it is necessary to achieve both the spirit and plain letter of Section 342 that the final standards include: (1) mandatory diversity assessments and disclosures from all regulated entities; (2) information on both workforce and supplier diversity practices and policies of the regulated entities; and (3) that the diversity data be made available to the public.”

So why did the agencies ignore the clear intent of the law’s authors? We can only speculate. But it’s possible that regulators are worried holding the private sector accountable for its diversity would bring the agencies’ own performance into the spotlight. Surprisingly, a 2013 Government Accountability Office study found that that the diversity record of federal financial regulators is even worse than the private sector entities these offices oversee.

For example, in 2012, one federal agency did as little as 3.8% of its total contractor spending with minority-owned businesses, while another had just 9% people of color in management.

This should be unacceptable. The OMWIs and diversity overall are tremendously underutilized tools in helping to strengthen the economy. It’s been well documented that communities of color aren’t getting an equal shot at participating in and benefitting from this economy. Nearly any economist, including the conservative former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, will tell you that the more unequal an economy is, the more unstable and vulnerable it is. The banking sector, our communities and our economy overall will be improved by serious diversity efforts in the financial industry. Real standards with defined metrics can start the ball rolling.

Happily, this tale may not be finished yet. The OMWIs are giving the public one last opportunity to provide feedback on these standards. It’s important that stakeholders hold the agencies’ feet to the fire and stay engaged.

Sasha Werblin is economic equity program director at The Greenlining Institute.