Cutting Back on Community Reinvestment

Bloomberg Law quoted me in Banks Look to Narrow Exams Under Community Reinvestment Act. It opens,

Banks see an opening to limit the types of violations that could lead to a Community Reinvestment Act downgrade as federal regulators begin rewriting rules under the 1977 law.

Banks say regulators have improperly used consumer fair lending and other violations involving credit cards or other financial products to evaluate compliance with the law meant to increase lending and investment to lower-income communities.

“When a bank violates a consumer protection law, there is no shortage of enforcement agencies and legal regimes available to seek redress and punishment. Adding the CRA to that long list thus has little marginal benefit, and risks diluting and undermining the CRA’s core purpose of promoting community reinvestment,” the Bank Policy Institute, a leading bank lobbying group, said in a Nov. 19 comment letter to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

The OCC set the stage for a CRA rewrite in August by releasing an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking. The Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. have signaled a desire to sign on to a joint proposal.

With that momentum building, banks are taking their shot to limit the types of enforcement actions included in CRA reviews. They want CRA reviews to focus on mortgages, small business and other community development investments.

The question of how non-CRA-related violations apply to banks’ community lending reviews is not merely a theoretical exercise.

Wells Fargo & Co. saw its CRA grade downgraded two levels to “needs to improve”in March 2017 following the revelation of the fake accounts it generated for consumers. Several states and municipalities cut off business with the bank in response.

CRA exam cycles run three years for large national banks and can run longer for smaller banks that perform well. Banks receive one of four grades—outstanding, satisfactory, needs to improve or substantial noncompliance—and a poor grade can restrict their merger and branch expansion plans.

OCC, Treasury Leading Push

The Trump administration, led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting, has been pushing for the latest CRA revision.

Both of those officials ran into CRA trouble when they tried to sell OneWest Bank to CIT Group Inc. Mnuchin was OneWest’s chairman and Otting its chief executive.

The Treasury Department released a report on “modernizing the CRA” in April. Included in that report is a call to not allow fair lending enforcement investigations from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other regulators to slow down CRA reviews.

Otting went farther, issuing a bulletin on Aug. 15 highlighting that his agency’s examiners will no longer take into account non-CRA lending violations when assessing a bank’s CRA compliance.

The FDIC and the Fed have not yet followed suit. But banks want the three agencies to set a common policy on dealing with non-CRA related enforcement actions in their community lending reviews.

“Regulators should develop consistent policies clarifying that CRA will not be used as a general enforcement tool,” the American Bankers Association said in a Nov. 15 comment letter.

There is some merit to the idea, according to David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and the research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.

“It’s delinking fair lending concerns, which are regulated elsewhere, from CRA concerns. From an industry perspective that may make a lot of sense,” he said in a Nov. 30 phone interview.

The proposal, taken in a vacuum, may be reasonable. But in the context of broader attempts to weaken the CRA, it should be viewed more skeptically.

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.

The Homeownership Rate and The Kerner Commission

 

photo by Marion S. Trikosko

President Johnson with some members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission

The Economic Policy Institute released a report, 50 Years After The Kerner Commission.  It finds that “African Americans are better off in many ways but are still disadvantaged by racial inequality.” (1) The report opens,

The year 1968 was a watershed in American history and black America’s ongoing fight for equality. In April of that year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and riots broke out in cities around the country. Rising against this tragedy, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 outlawing housing discrimination was signed into law. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute as they received their medals at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Arthur Ashe became the first African American to win the U.S. Open singles title, and Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives.

The same year, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, delivered a report to President Johnson examining the causes of civil unrest in African American communities. The report named “white racism”—leading to “pervasive discrimination in employment, education and housing”—as the culprit, and the report’s authors called for a commitment to “the realization of  common opportunities for all within a single [racially undivided] society.” The Kerner Commission report pulled together a comprehensive array of data to assess the specific economic and social inequities confronting African Americans in 1968.

Where do we stand as a society today? In this brief report, we compare the state of black workers and their families in 1968 with the circumstances of their descendants today, 50 years after the Kerner report was released. We find both good news and bad news. While African Americans are in many ways better off in absolute terms than they were in 1968, they are still disadvantaged in important ways relative to whites. In several important respects, African Americans have actually lost ground relative to whites, and, in a few cases, even relative to African Americans in 1968. (1, footnote omitted)

I was particularly shocked by one figure in the report:

One of the most important forms of wealth for working and middle-class families is home equity. Yet, the share of black households that owned their own home remained virtually unchanged between 1968 (41.1 percent) and today (41.2 percent). Over the same period, homeownership for white households increased 5.2 percentage points to 71.1 percent, about 30 percentage points higher than the ownership rate for black households. (4)

It is pretty extraordinary that the homeownership rate for African Americans has not really gone up, given all of the resources that were directed to increasing it. The FHA, Fannie, Freddie and other government programs have all focused on increasing that rate for decades. People of different political stripes will read what they want into this state of affairs. My own take is that wage instability has driven down homeownership rates across the board, but that it has hit African American households particularly hard. Households cannot commit to homeownership if they cannot reasonably depend on getting their wages month-in, month-out.

The Long-Term Effects of Redlining

Daniel Aaronson et al. have posted The Effects of the 1930s HOLC “Redlining” Maps to SSRN. The paper provides empirical support for the argument that discriminatory government policies have consequences that can last for decades, including increased segregation. The abstract reads,

In the wake of the Great Depression, the Federal government created new institutions such as the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) to stabilize housing markets. As part of that effort, the HOLC created residential security maps for over 200 cities to grade the riskiness of lending to neighborhoods. We trace out the effects of these maps over the course of the 20th and into the early 21st century by linking geocoded HOLC maps to both Census and modern credit bureau data. Our analysis looks at the difference in outcomes between residents living on a lower graded side versus a higher graded side of an HOLC boundary within highly close proximity to one another. We compare these differences to “counterfactual” boundaries using propensity score and other weighting procedures. In addition, we exploit borders that are least likely to have been endogenously drawn. We find that areas that were the lower graded side of HOLC boundaries in the 1930s experienced a marked increase in racial segregation in subsequent decades that peaked around 1970 before beginning to decline. We also find evidence of a long-run decline in home ownership, house values, and credit scores along the lower graded side of HOLC borders that persists today. We document similar long-run patterns among both “redlined” and non-redlined neighborhoods and, in some important outcomes, show larger and more lasting effects among the latter. Our results provide strongly suggestive evidence that the HOLC maps had a causal and persistent effect on the development of neighborhoods through credit access.

The paper’s conclusion is just as interesting:

That the pattern begins to revert starting in the 1970s is at least suggestive that Federal interventions like the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 may have played a role in reversing the increase in segregation caused by the HOLC maps. . . . We believe our results highlight the key role that access to credit plays on the growth and long-running development of local communities. (33)

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.