Fight Over The Community Reinvestment Act

Bloomberg BNA quoted me in Community Investment Revamp for Banks Likely To Spark Fight (behind a paywall). It opens,

Community groups and banks agree that the Community Reinvestment Act needs an update, but with regulators beginning an ambitious overhaul of the 1977 law there is little agreement on how that update should look.

The Trump administration has been targeting the CRA — which measures how well banks lend to low- to middle-income areas — for a rewrite since last June. Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting said March 28 that the first draft would be coming in early April.

Otting set out some broad ideas that his agency, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the other regulators that oversee the CRA will present to the public. The Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation also have responsibility for measuring banks’ compliance with the law, and the OCC says that it hopes the two agencies will sign on to the coming advanced notice of proposed rulemaking.

Banking industry experts and community groups all said that the broad strokes of the regulators’ plan sound promising, but few expect that comity to continue when the details come more into view.

“I think you can assume that everybody is not going to be happy,” Laurence Platt, a partner at Mayer Brown LLP, told Bloomberg Law.

The CRA’s Present

The Trump administration first put the CRA in its sights in a June 2017 Treasury Department report outlining its broader views on altering the rules banks operate under.

The law calls for the OCC, the Fed and the FDIC to periodically measure how much lending the banks they oversee do inside geographical assessment areas based on their branch and ATM locations. If banks are found not to do enough of such lending, regulators can stop some business activities or hold up branch expansions and mergers. But it hasn’t been updated for nearly two decades.

The Treasury Department followed up the June 2017 statement on the CRA with an April 3 report outlining its thinking on ways to modernize the law. The report largely aligns with the path laid out by Otting.

“Our recommendations will improve the effectiveness of CRA by enhancing the assessment and examination process, enhancing the ability of banks to deliver services in the communities they serve while considering technological advances in the financial industry,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement accompanying the report.

Changes to the Community Reinvestment Act have already begun, with the OCC under former acting Comptroller of the Currency Keith Noreika in October declaring that the OCC examiners would no longer include enforcement actions that are not linked to a bank’s CRA compliance in their rating.

That change was minor, and affected only one of the three regulators responsible for the CRA. Otting on March 28 laid out a host of other changes likely coming in a new proposal.

The CRA’s Future?

The broad outline Otting provided on March 28 largely highlights the areas in the CRA that community activists and banks have said need to be addressed.

Among the changes Otting said will be put out for comment include expanding the types of lending that would be included in calculations of banks’ CRA compliance to encompass small business, student lending and other money going into a community.

“I think there’s a sense that community-based activities, beyond individual lending, should be given more credit, such as small business loans and infrastructure loans,” Mayer Brown’s Platt said.

Other areas that are going to be addressed in the proposal will touch on the way CRA information is calculated and reported to the public. Currently, banks are examined for compliance every three to five years, and the banks’ reviews take an additional year.

Overall, Otting said the changes would be significant.

“This is monumental change for America,” Otting said in an appearance March 28 at the Operation Hope Global Forum in Atlanta.

The changes Otting discussed all sound promising, but they are vague. So fights are likely to emerge when the details come out.

“The comments that were made were vague enough to give you both concern and possible joy,” Taylor said.

One other aspect of the CRA that is ripe for reform is the geographic assessment areas regulators use to evaluate banks’ lending efforts. Otting and other regulators have yet to specifically outline their ideas for making changes to that, but both the comptroller and Fed Vice Chair for Supervision Randal Quarles have discussed including mobile banking, online lending, and other financial technology tools into their reviews.

How they elect to make that change is likely to be contentious as well.

“If the assessment area is poorly defined, then the CRA will lose its teeth and that’s going to drive CRA policy for a long time to come,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

“Modernizing” the Community Reinvestment Act

President Carter signs the Housing and Community Development Act of 1977, which contains the Community Reinvestment Act

The Trump Administration has been signaling its intent to do a makeover of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 (CRA) for quite a while, describing it as a much needed update.  Last June, Treasury stated in its Banks and Credit Unions report (one of a series of reports on A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities which I discuss here),

The CRA statute is in need of modernization, regulatory oversight must be harmonized, and greater clarity in remediating deficiencies is called for. It is very important to better align the benefits arising from banks’ CRA investments with the interest and needs of the communities that they serve and to improve the current supervisory and regulatory framework for CRA. . . . Aligning the regulatory oversight of CRA activities with a heightened focus on community investments is a high priority for the Secretary. (9)

Well, the modernization effort has now taken off with a Treasury Memorandum for The Office of The Comptroller of the Currency, The Board of Governors of The Federal Reserve System, The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. By way of background, the memorandum notes that

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977 was enacted to encourage banks to meet the credit and deposit needs of communities that they serve, including low- and moderate-income (LMI) communities, consistent with safe and sound operations. Banks are periodically assigned a CRA rating by one of the primary regulators – the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (FRB), and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), collectively the CRA regulators – based on the bank’s performance under the appropriate CRA tests or approved Strategic Plan. CRA was enacted in response to concerns about disinvestment and redlining as well as a desire to have financial institutions “play the leading role” in providing the “capital required for local housing and economic development needs.”

The U.S. banking industry has experienced substantial organizational and technological changes; however, the regulatory and performance expectations under CRA have not kept pace. Interstate banking, mortgage securitization, and internet and mobile banking are just a few of the major changes that have come about in the past four decades. In this evolving banking environment, changes should be made to the administration of CRA in order for it to achieve its intended purpose. (1, footnotes omitted)

The bank that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin used to head up, OneWest, had its own run-ins with CRA compliance. As a result, we should look carefully at how Treasury seeks to “modernize” the CRA. The Treasury memo has four recommendations:

  • Assessment Areas. The concept of assessment areas originated within the banking environment that existed in 1977, when there was no interstate banking and deposits almost always came from the community surrounding a branch. Treasury offers recommendations for updating the definitions of geographic assessment areas to reflect the changing nature of banking arising from changing technology, customer behavior, and other factors.
  • Examination Clarity and Flexibility. Both banks and communities would benefit from additional flexibility in the CRA performance evaluation process, including increasing clarity in the examination guidance. Treasury recommends improvements that could be made to CRA performance evaluation criteria that would increase the transparency and effectiveness of CRA rating determinations.
  • Examination Process. Certain aspects of the examination process need to be addressed in order to improve the timeliness of performance evaluations and to allow banks to be more accountable in planning their CRA activity. Treasury recommends improvements that could be made with respect to the timing of CRA examinations and issuance of performance evaluations, and to the consistent use of census data throughout an assessment period.
  • Performance. The purpose of CRA is to encourage banks to meet the credit and deposit needs of their entire community. The law does not have explicit penalties for nonperformance. However, performance is incentivized as regulators must consider CRA ratings as a part of various bank application processes and performance evaluation reports are made available to the public. Treasury offers recommendations as to how the current regulatory approach to downgrades for violations of consumer protection laws and various applications from banks with less than a Satisfactory rating could be improved to incentivize CRA performance. (2, footnotes omitted)

While there is lot to chew on here, I think a key issue will be the scope of the Assessment Areas. As banks move from straight ‘bricks and mortar’ to ‘bricks and clicks’ or even to pure clicks, it is harder to identify the community each bank serves.

While the memo does not offer a new definition for Assessment Areas, one could imagine alternative definitions that are either loose or stringent as far as CRA compliance is concerned. Because the CRA was intended to ensure that low and moderate-income communities had access to mortgage credit after years of redlining, any new definition of Assessment Areas should be designed to support that goal. We’ll have to see how the Trump Administration proceeds in this regard, but given its attitudes toward fair housing enforcement, I am not hopeful that the Administration will take the CRA’s goals seriously.

Fox in The CRA Henhouse

Law360 quoted me in Treasury’s Fair Lending Review Worries Advocates (behind a paywall). It reads, in part,

President Donald Trump’s Treasury Department said Monday that revisiting a 1977 law aimed at boosting bank lending and branches in poor neighborhoods was a “high priority,” but backers of the Community Reinvestment Act fear that any move by this administration would be aimed at weakening, not modernizing, the law.

Critics and some backers of the Community Reinvestment Act say that the law does not take into account mobile banking and the decline of branch networks among a host of other updates needed to meet the realities of banking in 2017.

While there is some agreement on policy, the politics of reworking the CRA are always difficult. Those politics will be even more difficult with the Trump administration and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who ran into problems with the CRA when he was the chairman of OneWest Bank, leading the review, said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

“A team at Treasury led by the OneWest leadership should give consumer advocates pause,” he said.

*   *   *

Across the administration, from the U.S. Department of Education to the Department of Justice, civil rights enforcement has taken a back seat to other concerns. And Mnuchin is in the process of populating the Treasury Department with former colleagues from OneWest.

Trump nominated former OneWest CEO Joseph Otting to be comptroller of the currency earlier this month and is reportedly close to nominating former OneWest Vice Chairman and Chief Legal Officer Brian Brooks as deputy Treasury secretary. Brooks is currently the general counsel at Fannie Mae.

Activists who fought the CIT-OneWest merger on CRA grounds say that the placement of those former OneWest executives in positions of authority over the law should raise alarms.

“[Mnuchin’s] bank, OneWest, also had one of the worst community reinvestment records of all the banks that CRC analyzes in California, which raises questions about his motivation in ‘reforming’ the Community Reinvestment Act. Is he interested in reforming it to help communities, or to help the industry do even less?” said Paulina Gonzalez of the California Reinvestment Coalition.

The Treasury secretary has defended his bank’s foreclosure practices and others that drew fair lending advocates’ ire, saying that most of the problems at OneWest were holdovers from IndyMac, the failed subprime lender OneWest’s investors purchased after it failed.

Discussing reforms to the CRA under any administration, particularly a typical Republican administration, would be difficult on its own for lawmakers and inside regulatory agencies, Schaberg said.

“Anybody down in the middle-management tier of any of the banking agencies, they’re not going to touch this because it’s so politically charged,” he said.

The added distrust of the Trump administration and Mnuchin among fair housing advocates makes the prospect of any legislation to reshape even harder to imagine. Even without legislation, new leadership at the regulatory agencies that monitor for CRA compliance could take a lighter touch. And that has fair housing backers on edge.

“In my mind, there’s a fox-in-the-henhouse mentality,” Reiss said.

The Community Reinvestment Act: Guilty of What?

Ray Brescia recently posted the final version of The Community Reinvestment Act: Guilty, but not as Charged to SSRN. The article wades into a seemingly technical debate that has extraordinary political and ideological implications: did misguided liberal policies push financial institutions to engage in the risky lending practices that led to the financial crisis. I never gave this argument much credit because the supposed chain of causation seemed too attenuated to me. Nonetheless, the debate has had legs among some policy analysts. The article generally agrees with my own — admittedly impressionistic — views of the matter. It also argues that the CRA needs to be modernized to reflect how mortgage credit is extended in the 21st century. The abstract reads,

Since its passage in 1977, the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) has charged federal bank regulators with “encourag[ing]” certain financial institutions “to help meet the credit needs of the local communities in which they are chartered consistent with safe and sound” banking practices. Even before the CRA became law – and ever since – it has become a flashpoint. Depending on your perspective, this simple and somewhat soft directive has led some to charge that it imposes unfair burdens on financial institutions and helped to fuel the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 and the financial crisis that followed. According to this argument, the CRA forced banks to make risky loans to less-than creditworthy borrowers. Others defend the CRA, arguing that it had little to do with the riskiest subprime lending at the heart of the crisis.

Research into the relationship between the mortgage crisis and the CRA generally vindicates those in the camp that believe the CRA had little to do with the risky lending that fueled these crises. At the same time, recent research by the National Bureau of Economic Research attempts to show that the CRA led to riskier lending, particularly in the period 2004-2006, when the mortgage market was overheated.

This paper reviews this and other existing research on the subject of the impact of the CRA on subprime lending to assess the role the CRA played in the mortgage crisis of 2007 and the financial crisis that followed. This paper also takes the analysis a step further, and asks what role the CRA played in failing to prevent these crises, particularly their impact on low- and moderate-income communities: i.e., the very communities the law was designed to protect. Based on a review of the best existing evidence, the initial verdict of not guilty – that the CRA did not cause the financial crisis, as some argue – still holds up on appeal. At the same time, as more fully described in this piece, an appreciation for the weaknesses inherent in the law’s structure, when combined with an understanding of the manner in which it was enforced by regulators, lead one to a different conclusion; although the CRA did not cause the crisis, it failed to prevent the very harms it was designed to prevent from befalling the very communities it is supposed to protect.

The defects in the CRA that emerge from this review, in total, suggest not that the CRA was too strong, but, rather, too weak. They also point to important reforms that should be put in place to strengthen and fine-tune the CRA to ensure that it can meet its important goal: ensuring that financial institutions meet the needs of low- and moderate-income communities, communities for which access to capital and banking services on fair terms is a necessary condition for economic development, let alone economic survival. Such reforms could include expanding the scope of the CRA to cover more financial institutions, creating a private right of action that would grant private and public litigants an opportunity to enforce the law through the courts, and having regulators enforce the CRA in such a way that will put more pressure on banks to modify more underwater mortgages.

I doubt that this article will be the final word on this topic, both because the existing empirical work seems inconclusive and also because the topic is one that has important ideological implications for the right and the left (‘government caused the financial crisis’ versus ‘corporate greed run amok caused the crisis’). Nonetheless, this article provides a thorough critique of one of the leading empirical studies of the topic.

Tuesday’s Regulatory & Legislative Round-up

  • House of Representatives Introduced Bill H.R. 855 to Permanently Extend the New Markets Tax Credit which was designed to spur new or increased investments into operating businesses and real estate projects located in low-income communities. The NMTC Program attracts investment capital to low-income communities by permitting individual and corporate investors to receive a tax credit against their Federal income tax return in exchange for making equity investments in specialized financial institutions called Community Development Entities (CDEs).
  • Banking Regulators Seek Public Comment – The Agencies are asking the public to comment on regulations in the Banking Operations, Capital, and the Community Reinvestment Act categories to identify outdated or otherwise unnecessary regulatory requirements imposed on insured depository institutions and their regulated holding companies.

Industry City in Brooklyn

Some readers of the blog may be interested in this upcoming event at Brooklyn Law School, sponsored by the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship (CUBE):

Presentation by Andrew Kimball

Director, Innovation Economy Initiatives, Jamestown
and CEO, Industry City

About the Presentation
Manufacturing is once again widely seen as an important and growing component of New York City’s economy. Andrew Kimball, CEO of Industry City in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and former President and CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Corporation, will discuss the strategies behind adaptively reusing and transforming these massive and long underutilized industrial complexes into creative communities that are now at the forefront of manufacturing’s rebirth in New York City and the evolution of the innovation economy.

The event is on Wednesday, September 17, 2014 from 6:30 — 8:30 pm

Location
Brooklyn Law School
Feil Hall
Forchelli Conference Center, 22nd Floor
205 State Street
Brooklyn, NY

RSVP online: www.brooklaw.edu/cubepresentation
before Monday, September 15, 2014

Directions
www.brooklaw.edu/directions

Reiss on The Future of the Private Label Securities Market

I have posted The Future of the Private Label Securities Market to SSRN (as well as to BePress). I wrote this in response to the Department of Treasury’s request for input on this topic. The abstract reads,

The PLS market, like all markets, cycles from greed to fear, from boom to bust. The mortgage market is still in the fear part of the cycle and recent government interventions in it have, undoubtedly, added to that fear. In recent days, there has been a lot of industry pushback against the government’s approach, including threats to pull out of various sectors. But the government should not chart its course based on today’s news reports. Rather, it should identify fundamentals and stick to them. In particular, its regulatory approach should reflect an attempt to align incentives of market actors with government policies regarding appropriate underwriting and sustainable access to credit. The market will adapt to these constraints. These constraints should then help the market remain healthy throughout the entire business cycle.