When a little-known New York regulator this month threatened to revoke the charter of a major international bank for allegedly laundering money for Iran, the shock waves were felt in Washington as much as on Wall Street.
Federal regulators were furious. Some felt New York had jumped the gun, jeopardizing a more methodical investigation that was being conducted inside the Beltway, officials familiar with the matter said.
It wasnt the first time state officials leapt ahead of federal authorities. State attorneys general were the driving force in reining in corrupt mortgage practices by big banks, a task federal regulators had repeatedly failed to accomplish on their own.
In the wake of the financial crisis, some state regulators and officials have been flexing their muscle against big banks blamed for nearly bringing down the financial system. And they have been using state laws to get some of the worlds biggest financial institutions in the world to fall in line.
The cases can result in big paydays for states, such as the $340 million settlement New York reached with Standard Chartered, the London-based bank accused of flouting U.S. sanctions by concealing $250 billion in Iranian transactions.
Some state officials say federal regulators have been too industry-friendly or too mired in bureaucracy to quickly react to misconduct. Federal regulators argue that coordinated action is the most efficient way to handle enforcement and that sudden moves by lone actors could compromise the larger efforts.
Competition between government authorities is a natural consequence of the Byzantine regulatory system that requires a myriad of agencies to oversee the same firms. The New York Department of Financial Services is coming under fire for moving ahead of Washington with a case against Standard Chartered. Officials at the New York banking regulator said they told the feds in April that they were moving ahead with the Standard Chartered case and received no push back.
Yet people familiar with the matter say federal agencies were not expecting Benjamin M. Lawsky, head of the state banking regulator, to act last Monday.
Theyre angry because Lawsky committed the cardinal sin in Washington: He embarrassed others by exposing their lack of action on evidence theyd been sitting on for two years, said Neil Barofsky, a former special inspector general of the U.S. Treasury Departments Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Standard Chartered said it alerted the Justice Department, Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the New York Department of Financial Services in 2010 to Iranian transactions that were in violation of sanctions.
Lawskys office, created last year by merging the existing state banking and insurance departments, forged ahead with its own investigation of Standard Chartered. Meanwhile, people familiar with the matter said, federal regulators were working together to build a case.
Holding a bank accountable for past misconduct doesnt need to take years of negotiation over the size of the penalty, said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. It simply requires a regulator with backbone to act.