Banking

Bank of America granted penalty relief after SEC compromise

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has resolved an impasse over punishing Bank of America Corp. in a mortgage case, clearing the way for the Charlotte lender to complete a $16.7 billion global settlement, people familiar with the matter said.

In a private meeting Wednesday, SEC commissioners voted to waive most of a set of additional sanctions that would kick in when the settlement is entered into court, according to the people, who asked not to be named because the decision hasn’t been made public. The bank did get hit with a penalty that takes away its ability to issue more shares or bonds without SEC approval each time.

The SEC decision came as Bank of America and the agency were reaching a deadline for having a federal judge in North Carolina sign off on the settlement. The two sides had twice sought more time from the court as negotiations dragged on.

The agreement ends a legal headache for Bank of America, which, like most Wall Street firms, has been trying to settle numerous government probes that arose after the 2008 financial crisis. Last week, the bank was one of several companies fined by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in connection with a foreign-exchange manipulation investigation.

At the SEC, the hold-up was a 2-2 deadlock between Republican and Democratic commissioners. Chair Mary Jo White, who as a private attorney represented ex-Bank of America Chief Executive Officer Ken Lewis, was recused.

John Nester, a spokesman for the SEC, declined to comment, as did Lawrence Grayson, a spokesman for Bank of America.

The penalty waivers, once a routine job handled by staff, have in recent months become a flashpoint at the five-member commission. Democratic Commissioners Luis Aguilar and Kara Stein have pushed to debate many exemptions, arguing that the extra penalties may be appropriate for recidivist Wall Street firms.

There were three main sanctions at issue in the Bank of America matter.

In its vote, the commission granted a full waiver on the harshest penalty, which would have barred the bank from managing mutual funds, the people familiar with the matter said. The commission also refused to halt a punishment that precludes the bank from raising capital without jumping through regulatory hoops.

The commissioners compromised by granting a partial waiver on the third penalty, which would have banned the bank from helping clients such as hedge funds raise money in private share sales. The agreement allows the firm to continue the work it already does in this area for 30 months, the people said.

During that time, the bank will have to hire an independent consultant to monitor its policies and procedures and compliance. The bank will need to reapply to the SEC for full relief and the application must be signed by the chief legal officer or chief executive, the people said.

The case is part of a deal the bank struck in August with the Justice Department, state attorneys general and other regulators over claims that it sold souring mortgage securities without disclosing all the risks to investors. Most of the alleged wrongdoing involved Merrill Lynch & Co. and Countrywide Financial Corp., companies Bank of America bought.

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