Miami Vice?

by Roberlan Borges

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The BNA Banking Report quoted me in BofA, Wells Fargo Try to Squelch High-Risk City Bias Suits (behind a paywall). It opens,

Bank of America and Wells Fargo are hoping an Election-Day U.S. Supreme Court argument will help them sidestep allegations of biased lending practices and the massive liability that could follow (Bank of Am. Corp. v. Miami, U.S., No. 15-cv-01111, argument scheduled 11/8/16).

At issue is a 2015 federal appeals court ruling that reinstated a Fair Housing Act lawsuit by the city of Miami. The suit said Bank of America and Wells Fargo made discriminatory home loans that spurred widespread foreclosures while driving tax revenues down and city expenditures skyward.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Nov. 8, with a focus on two questions – whether Miami has the right to assert such claims, and whether it can establish the critical “causal link” by tracing its problems to actions by the banks.

The case is high on the “must-watch” list of banks and consumer advocates. The court’s decision will affect a series of separate lawsuits against Bank of America and Wells Fargo by other cities that are now on hold and awaiting a decision in this case, as well as lawsuits against JPMorgan, Citigroup, and HSBC.

“There are suits all over the country raising these issues,” said Karen McDonald Henning, associate professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. “The potential exposure to banks could be enormous.”

The case also could clarify how the law is applied to address societal wrongs, Henning added in an assessment echoed by Mehrsa Baradaran, associate professor of law at the University of Georgia School of Law in Athens, Ga.

“This could really give the Fair Housing Act some teeth to do away with problems it was meant to remedy,” she said.

Fair Housing Act

According to Miami, Bank of America and Wells Fargo violated the Fair Housing Act in two ways. The city said the banks intentionally discriminated against minority borrowers by targeting them for loans with burdensome terms.

Miami also said the banks’ practices had a disparate impact on minority borrowers that resulted in a disproportionate number of foreclosures and exploitive loans in minority neighborhoods.

Bank of America did not immediately respond to a request for comment ahead of the argument. Wells Fargo spokesman Tom Goyda declined to comment.

Both banks have consistently defended their lending practices, citing efforts to boost community development and trying in some cases to take what Wells Fargo has called “a collaborative approach” when it comes to disputes.

But both banks say the lawsuits are off-base as a matter of law. In its petition to the U.S. Supreme Court in June, Bank of America said the plaintiffs are making demands “based on a multi-step theory of causation that would have made Rube Goldberg proud.”

Risk Goes Local

Even so, if Miami’s suit is allowed to go forward, it could expose global financial institutions to liability from local governments across the nation, said Professor David Reiss of Brooklyn Law School in New York.

That’s new, he said. Although the federal government and state attorneys general have reached multi-billion settlements with banks in the wake of the financial crisis, local governments haven’t had much of a role in those battles, Reiss told Bloomberg BNA.

But if Miami’s suit goes ahead, mortgage lenders could face significant litigation costs and monetary judgments under new theories of liability. “These new theories are independent of the theories relied upon by the federal government and the states and could therefore expand the overall liability of financial institutions from the same underlying set of facts,” Reiss said.

Regulating Rationally for Consumers

Alan Schwartz has posted Regulating for Rationality to SSRN. The abstract reads,

Traditional consumer protection law responds with various forms of disclosure to market imperfections that are the consequence of consumers being imperfectly informed or unsophisticated. This regulation assumes that consumers can rationally act on the information that it is disclosure’s goal to produce. Experimental results in psychology and behavorial economics question this rationality premise. The numerous reasoning defects consumers exhibit in the experiments would vitiate disclosure solutions if those defects also presented in markets. To assume that consumers behave as badly in markets as they do in the lab implies new regulatory responses. This Essay sets out the novel and difficult challenges that such “regulating for rationality” — intervening to cure or to overcome cognitive error — poses for regulators. Much of the novelty exists because the contracting choices of rational and irrational consumers often are observationally equivalent: both consumer types prefer the same contracts. Hence, the regulator seldom can infer from contract terms themselves that reasoning errors produced those terms. Rather, the regulator needs a theory of cognitive function that would permit him to predict when actual consumers would make the mistakes that laboratory subjects make: that is, to know which fraction of observed contracts are the product of bias rather than rational choice.

The difficulties exist because the psychologists lack such a theory. Hence, cognitive based regulatory interventions often are poorly grounded. A particular concern is that consumers suffer from numerous biases, and not every consumer suffers from the same ones. Current theory cannot tell how these biases interact within the person and how markets aggregate differing biased consumer preferences. The Essay then makes three further claims. First, regulating for rationality should be more evidence based than regulating for traditional market imperfections: in the absence of a theory the regulator needs to see what actual people do. Second, when the facts are unobtainable or ambiguous regulators should assume that bias did not affect the consumer’s contracting choice because the assumption is autonomy preserving, administerable and coherent. Third, disclosure regulation can ameliorate some reasoning errors. Hence, abandoning disclosure strategies in favor of substantive regulation sometimes would be premature.

This essay adds to a growing literature that challenges the ability of regulators to effectively incorporate the lessons of behavioral economics into consumer protection regimes. I take no position at this time on the particular claims of this essay, but I certainly think that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should grapple with this growing body of literature. The only thing worse than no consumer protection regime at all, would be one that was designed all wrong.