Taking Apart The CFPB, Bit by Bit

graphic by Matt Shirk

Mick Mulvaney’s Message in the CFPB’s latest Semi-Annual Report is crystal clear regarding his plans for the Bureau:

As has been evident since the enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act, the Bureau is far too powerful, and with precious little oversight of its activities. Per the statute, in the normal course the Bureau’s Director simultaneously serves in three roles: as a one-man legislature empowered to write rules to bind parties in new ways; as an executive officer subject to limited control by the President; and as an appellate judge presiding over the Bureau’s in-house court-like adjudications. In Federalist No. 47, James Madison famously wrote that “[t]he accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands … may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Constitutional separation of powers and related checks and balances protect us from government overreach. And while Congress may not have transgressed any constraints established by the Supreme Court, the structure and powers of this agency are not something the Founders and Framers would recognize. By structuring the Bureau the way it has, Congress established an agency primed to ignore due process and abandon the rule of law in favor of bureaucratic fiat and administrative absolutism.

The best that any Bureau Director can do on his own is to fulfill his responsibilities with humility and prudence, and to temper his decisions with the knowledge that the power he wields could all too easily be used to harm consumers, destroy businesses, or arbitrarily remake American financial markets. But all human beings are imperfect, and history shows that the temptation of power is strong. Our laws should be written to restrain that human weakness, not empower it.

I have no doubt that many Members of Congress disagree with my actions as the Acting Director of the Bureau, just as many Members disagreed with the actions of my predecessor. Such continued frustration with the Bureau’s lack of accountability to any representative branch of government should be a warning sign that a lapse in democratic structure and republican principles has occurred. This cycle will repeat ad infinitum unless Congress acts to make it accountable to the American people.

Accordingly, I request that Congress make four changes to the law to establish meaningful accountability for the Bureau :

1. Fund the Bureau through Congressional appropriations;

2. Require legislative approval of major Bureau rules;

3. Ensure that the Director answers to the President in the exercise of executive authority; and

4. Create an independent Inspector General for the Bureau. (2-3)

Mulvaney gets points for speaking clearly, but a lot of what he says is wrong and at odds with how the federal government has operated for nearly one hundred years. He is wrong in stating that the CFPB Director acts without judicial oversight. The Director’s decisions are appealable and his predecessor’s have, in fact, been overturned. And his call to a return to the federal government of the type recognizable to the Framers has a hollow ring since at least 1935 when the Supreme Court decided Humphrey’s Executor v. United States.

I would think that it should go without saying that the federal government has grown exponentially since its founding in the 18th century. The Supreme Court has acknowledged as much in Humphrey’s Executor which held that Congress could create independent agencies.  Independent agencies are now fundamental to the operation of the federal government.

Mulvaney and others are seeking to chip away at the legitimacy of the modern administrative state. That is certainly their prerogative. But they should not ignore the history of the last hundred years and skip all the way back to 18th century if they want their arguments to sound like anything more than a bit of sophistry.

Trump Wins Another Round in CFPB Fight

OMB Director Mick Mulvaney

Judge Gardephe (SDNY) ruled against the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union in their suit against President Trump and Mick Mulvaney over the control of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (Case 1:17-cv-09536-PGG, filed February 1, 2018) Trump has sought to install Mulvaney, his OMB Director, as the Acting Director of the CFPB. I submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the Credit Union along with a number of other academics who write about the consumer financial services sector but the judge did not reach the merits of the case. Rather, the judge found that the Credit Union did not have standing to bring the lawsuit. Standing, for you non-lawyers out there, refers to a showing by the plaintiff that it has enough of a connection to, as well as harm from, an action that the plaintiff is challenging to be the basis for the lawsuit.

The dispute over the leadership of the CFPB is still ongoing as Leandra English, the Deputy Director appointed by former Director Cordray, is still pressing the suit that she filed in the District Court for the District of Columbia. In that suit, English claims that she is the rightful Acting Director of the CFPB. While she lost in the District Court, she has filed an appeal to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. That case turns on the complex interaction between the Dodd-Frank Act and the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, so it is hard to predict what the Court of Appeals will end up doing in that case.

In the short term, it means that the CFPB is somewhat rudderless as two people claim to lead the agency. This condition will likely prevail until President Trump gets a permanent Director confirmed by the Senate.

People’s Credit Union v. Trump

photo by Janine and Jim Eden

Twenty-one consumer finance regulation scholars (including yours truly) filed an amicus brief in Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union v. Trump, No. 1:17-cv-09536 (SDNY Dec. 14, 2017). The Summary of the Argument reads as follows:

The orderly succession of the leadership of regulatory agencies is a hallmark of American democracy. Regulated entities, such as Plaintiff Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union (LESPFCU) rely on there being absolute clarity regarding who is duly authorized to exercise regulatory authority over them. Without such clarity, regulated entities cannot be certain if agency actions, including the promulgation or repeal of rules and informal regulatory guidance, are actual agency policy or mere ultra vires actions.

This case involves a controversy over who lawfully serves as the Acting Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB or the Bureau) following the resignation of the Bureau’s first Senate-confirmed Director. The statute that created the CFPB, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (Dodd-Frank Act), is clear: the Deputy Director of the CFPB “shall . . . serve as acting Director in the absence or unavailability of the Director.” 12 U.S.C. § 5491(b)(5)(B). Thus, upon the resignation of the Director, the CFPB’s Deputy Director, Leandra English, became Acting Director and may serve in that role until a new Director has either been confirmed by the Senate or been recess appointed.

Despite the Dodd-Frank Act’s clear statutory directive, Defendant Donald J. Trump declined to follow either of the routes constitutionally permitted to him for appointing a Director for the Bureau. Instead, Defendant Trump opted to illegally seize power at the CFPB by naming the current Director of Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Defendant John Michael Mulvaney, as Acting CFPB Director. Defendants claim this appointment is authorized by the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 (FVRA), 5 U.S.C. § 3345(a).

As scholars of financial regulation, we believe that Deputy Director English’s is the rightful Acting Director of the CPFB for a simple reason: the only applicable statute to the succession question is the Dodd-Frank Act. In the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress expressly provided for a mandatory line of succession for the position of CFPB Director, stating that the Deputy Director “shall” serve as the Acting Director in the event of a vacancy. Congress selected this provision after considering and rejecting the FVRA during the drafting of the Dodd-Frank Act, and Congress’s selection of this succession provision is an integral part of its design of the CFPB as an agency with unique independence and protection from policy control by the White House. The appointment of any White House official, but especially of the OMB Director as Acting CFPB Director is repugnant to the statutory design of the CFPB as an independent agency.

The FVRA has no application to the position of CFPB Director. By its own terms, the FVRA is inapplicable as it yields to subsequently enacted statutes with express mandatory provisions for filling vacancies at federal agencies. This is apparent from the text of the FVRA, from the FVRA’s legislative history, and from the need to comport with the basic constitutional principle that a law passed by an earlier Congress cannot bind a subsequent Congress. Moreover, the FVRA does not apply to “any member who is appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate to any” independent agencies with a multi-member board. 5 U.S.C. § 3349c(1). The CFPB Director is such a “member,” because the CFPB Director also serves as a member of a separate multi-member independent agency: the Board of Directors of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

Plaintiff LESPFCU is seeking a preliminary injunction against acts by Defendants Mulvaney and Trump to illegally seize control of the CFPB, and it should be granted. As will be shown, LESPFCU has a high likelihood of success on the merits given the strength of its statutory arguments that the Dodd-Frank Act controls the CFPB Directorship succession. Unless the Court grants LESPFCU’s request for a preliminary injunction, LESPFCU will suffer irreparable harm because it will be subjected to regulation by a CFPB that would be under the direct political control by the White House that Congress took pains to forbid. Moreover, without a preliminary injunction, Defendant Mulvaney will continue to take actions that may place LESPFCU at a competitive disadvantage by creating an uneven regulatory playing field that favors certain types of institutions. See, e.g., Jessica Silver-Greenberg & Stacy Cowley, Consumer Bureau’s New Leader Steers a Sudden Reversal, N.Y.TIMES, Dec. 5, 2017. Nor will the President’s rights be in any way limited by such a preliminary injunction: the President remains able to seek Senate confirmation of a nominee for CFPB Director. All the President is being asked to do is fish or cut bait and proceed through normal constitutional order. The granting of a preliminary injunction is also very much in the public interest as it enables the controversy over the rightful claim to the CFPB Directorship to be resolved through an impartial court and not through a naked grab of power by the President.

American Bankers on Mortgage Market Reform

The American Bankers Association has issued a white paper, Mortgage Lending Rules: Sensible Reforms for Banks and Consumers. The white paper contains a lot of common sense suggestions but its lack of sensitivity to consumer concerns greatly undercuts its value. It opens,

The Core Principles for Regulating the United States Financial System, enumerated in Executive Order 13772, include the following that are particularly relevant to an evaluation of current U.S. rules and regulatory practices affecting residential mortgage finance:

(a) empower Americans to make independent financial decisions and informed choices in the marketplace, save for retirement, and build individual wealth;

(c) foster economic growth and vibrant financial markets through more rigorous regulatory impact analysis that addresses systemic risk and market failures, such as moral hazard and information asymmetry; and

(f) make regulation efficient, effective, and appropriately tailored.

The American Bankers Association offers these views to the Secretary of the Treasury in relation to the Directive that he has received under Section 2 of the Executive Order.

 Recent regulatory activity in mortgage lending has severely affected real estate finance. The existing regulatory regime is voluminous, extremely technical, and needlessly prescriptive. The current regulatory regimen is restricting choice, eliminating financial options, and forcing a standardization of products such that community banks are no longer able to meet their communities’ needs.

 ABA recommends a broad review of mortgage rules to refine and simplify their application. This white paper advances a series of specific areas that require immediate modifications to incentivize an expansion of safe lending activities: (i) streamline and clarify disclosure timing and methodologies, (ii) add flexibility to underwriting mandates, and (iii) fix the servicing rules.

 ABA advises that focused attention be devoted to clarifying the liability provisions in mortgage regulations to eliminate uncertainties that endanger participation and innovation in the real estate finance sector. (1, footnote omitted)

Its useful suggestions include streamlining regulations to reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens; clarifying legal liabilities that lenders face so that they can act more freely without triggering outsized criminal and civil liability in the ordinary course of business; and creating more safe harbors for products that are not prone to abuse.

But the white paper is written as if the subprime boom and bust of the early 2000s never happened. It pays not much more than lip service to consumer protection regulation, but it seeks to roll it back significantly:

ABA is fully supportive of well-regulated markets where well-crafted rules are effective in protecting consumers against abuse. Banks support clear disclosures and processes to assure that consumers receive clear and comprehensive information that enables them to understand the transaction and make the best decision for their families. ABA does not, therefore, advocate for a wholesale deconstruction of existing consumer protection regulations . . . (4)

If we learned anything from the subprime crisis it is that disclosure is not enough.  That is why the rules.  Could these rules be tweaked? Sure.  Should they be dramatically weakened? No. Until the ABA grapples with the real harm done to consumers during the subprime era, their position on mortgage market reform should be taken as a special interest position paper, not a white paper in the public interest.

Understanding The Ability To Repay Rule

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

The Spring 2017 edition of the Consumer Financial Bureau’s Supervisory Highlights contains “Observations and approach to compliance with the Ability to Repay (ATR) rule requirements. The ability to repay rule is intended to keep lenders from making and borrowers from taking on unsustainable mortgages, mortgages with payments that borrowers cannot reliably make.  By way of background,

Prior to the mortgage crisis, some creditors offered consumers mortgages without considering the consumer’s ability to repay the loan, at times engaging in the loose underwriting practice of failing to verify the consumer’s debts or income. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act) amended the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) to provide that no creditor may make a residential mortgage loan unless the creditor makes a reasonable and good faith determination based on verified and documented information that, at the time the loan is consummated, the consumer has a reasonable ability to repay the loan according to its terms, as well as all applicable taxes, insurance (including mortgage guarantee insurance), and assessments. The Dodd-Frank Act also amended TILA by creating a presumption of compliance with these ability-to-repay (ATR) requirements for creditors originating a specific category of loans called “qualified mortgage” (QM) loans. (3-4, footnotes omitted)

Fundamentally, the Bureau seeks to determine “whether a creditor’s ATR determination is reasonable and in good faith by reviewing relevant lending policies and procedures and a sample of loan files and assessing the facts and circumstances of each extension of credit in the sample.” (4)

The ability to repay analysis does not focus solely on income, it also looks at assets that are available to repay the mortgage:

a creditor may base its determination of ability to repay on current or reasonably expected income from employment or other sources, assets other than the dwelling (and any attached real property) that secures the covered transaction, or both. The income and/or assets relied upon must be verified. In situations where a creditor makes an ATR determination that relies on assets and not income, CFPB examiners would evaluate whether the creditor reasonably and in good faith determined that the consumer’s verified assets suffice to establish the consumer’s ability to repay the loan according to its terms, in light of the creditor’s consideration of other required ATR factors, including: the consumer’s mortgage payment(s) on the covered transaction, monthly payments on any simultaneous loan that the creditor knows or has reason to know will be made, monthly mortgage-related obligations, other monthly debt obligations, alimony and child support, monthly DTI ratio or residual income, and credit history. In considering these factors, a creditor relying on assets and not income could, for example, assume income is zero and properly determine that no income is necessary to make a reasonable determination of the consumer’s ability to repay the loan in light of the consumer’s verified assets. (6-7)

That being said, the Bureau reiterates that “a down payment cannot be treated as an asset for purposes of considering the consumer’s income or assets under the ATR rule.” (7)

The ability to repay rule protects lenders and borrowers from themselves. While some argue that this is paternalistic, we do not need to go much farther back than the early 2000s to find an era where so-called “equity-based” lending pushed many people on fixed incomes into default and foreclosure.

Assessing RESPA

image by Yoel Ben-Avraham

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a Request for Information Regarding 2013 Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act Servicing Rule Assessment. The Bureau

is conducting an assessment of the Mortgage Servicing Rules Under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (Regulation X), as amended prior to January 10, 2014, in accordance with section 1022(d) of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The Bureau is requesting public comment on its plans for assessing this rule as well as certain recommendations and information that may be useful in conducting the planned assessment. (82 F.R. 21952)

This is certainly a pretty obscure initiative, albeit one required by the Dodd-Frank Act. But it is worth determining what is at stake in it. The Request includes some additional background:

Congress established the Bureau in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act).1 In the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress generally consolidated in the Bureau the rulemaking authority for Federal consumer financial laws previously vested in certain other Federal agencies. Congress also provided the Bureau with the authority to, among other things, prescribe rules as may be necessary or appropriate to enable the Bureau to administer and carry out the purposes and objectives of the Federal consumer financial laws and to prevent evasions thereof. Since 2011, the Bureau has issued a number of rules adopted under Federal consumer financial law.

Section 1022(d) of the Dodd-Frank Act requires the Bureau to conduct an assessment of each significant rule or order adopted by the Bureau under Federal consumer financial law. The Bureau must publish a report of the assessment not later than five years after the effective date of such rule or order. The assessment must address, among other relevant factors, the rule’s effectiveness in meeting the purposes and objectives of title X of the Dodd-Frank Act and the specific goals stated by the Bureau. The assessment must reflect available evidence and any data that the Bureau reasonably may collect. Before publishing a report of its assessment, the Bureau must invite public comment on recommendations for modifying, expanding, or eliminating the significant rule or order.

In January 2013, the Bureau issued the ‘‘Mortgage Servicing Rules Under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (Regulation X)’’ (2013 RESPA Servicing Final Rule). The Bureau amended the 2013 RESPA Servicing Final Rule on several occasions before it took effect on January 10, 2014. As discussed further below, the Bureau has determined that the 2013 RESPA Servicing Final Rule and all the amendments related to it that the Bureau made that took effect on January 10, 2014 collectively make up a significant rule for purposes of section 1022(d). The Bureau will conduct an assessment of the 2013 RESPA Servicing Final Rule as so amended, which this document refers to as the ‘‘2013 RESPA Servicing Rule.’’ In this document, the Bureau is requesting public comment on the issues identified below regarding the 2013 RESPA Servicing Rule. (Id., footnotes omitted)

The Bureau will be evaluating servicer activities such as responses to loss mitigation applications and borrower notices of error. It will also be evaluating fees and charges; the exercise of rights by consumers under the rule; and delinquency outcomes.

The Bureau is requesting comment on some technical subjects relating to the assessment plan itself. But if you think you have something to add, you should submit comments by July 10th here.

Wall Street Naughty List

Damian Gadal

Law360 quoted me in Checks Needed For Naughty List To Improve Wall Street’s Rep. It reads, in part, 

Wall Street banks may back a push to create a central registry of employees who misbehave in a bid to improve internal culture at the country’s biggest banks, but worries about the accuracy of any potential list and other due process concerns have given some observers pause.

Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William F. Dudley has been advocating for the creation of such a central registry that can be used by banks when recruiting new talent as a way to make sure that serial rulebreakers are kept out of the biggest banks. And a readout of a meeting on bank culture with Wall Street bigwigs in November appear to show that the banks are getting behind the idea.

While creating such a central registry could go a long way toward preventing bad actors from engaging in future frauds and improving the internal workings of banks, there are risks that people could be wrongly included on the list and shut out from jobs, or that individuals could be made scapegoats for larger, institutional failures at the big banks.

In order to prevent that from happening, any formal registry of wrongdoers set up by the banks must have strict rules for when a person is added and how they can appeal their placement on the list, said Ellen Zimiles, a managing director at Navigant Consulting.

*     *     *

Still, despite her concerns, Zimiles said that having a registry of bad actors could increase the amount of individual accountability for Wall Street’s misdeeds, something that has been lacking.

But some say it does not go far enough.

The Dodd-Frank Act mandated new compensation rules, and more than five years after the law’s passage, they have still not been completed. Without compensation reforms, including clawbacks for violations, a central registry will not be enough to truly reform Wall Street’s internal culture, said David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor.

“Together, perhaps the registry and clawbacks could have a positive effect on firm behavior if they are implemented thoughtfully and are designed to work together,” he said.

And even with the addition of compensation reforms to the central registry forming a “belt and suspenders” approach to reform bank culture, the fiercest of Wall Street critics say that changes will not come unless bankers are brought before courts for alleged violations and sent to jail if found guilty.

“And, of course, along with the belt and suspenders, there should be prison bars as well,” Bart Naylor of Public Citizen said.

That’s something that critics say was missing after the financial crisis.

The registry, however, could be a start to bringing about much-needed accountability, they said.