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.

Treasury’s Take on Housing Finance Reform

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Being Sworn In

The Department of the Treasury released its Strategic Plan for 2018-2022. One of its 17 Strategic Objectives is to promote housing finance reform:

Support housing finance reform to resolve Government-Sponsored Enterprise (GSE) conservatorships and prevent taxpayer bailouts of public and private mortgage finance entities, while promoting consumer choice within the mortgage market.

Desired Outcomes

Increased share of mortgage credit supported by private capital; Resolution of GSE conservatorships; Appropriate level of sustainable homeownership.

Why Does This Matter?

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been in federal conservatorship for nine years. Taxpayers continue to stand behind their obligations through capital support agreements while there is no clear path for the resolution of their conservatorship. The GSEs, combined with federal housing programs such as those at the Federal Housing Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs, support more than 70 percent of new mortgage originations. Changes should encourage the entry of greater private capital in the U.S. housing finance system. Resolution of the GSE conservatorships and right-sizing of federal housing programs is necessary to support a more sustainable U.S. housing finance system. (16)

The Plan states that Treasury’s strategies to achieve these objectives are to engage “stakeholders to develop housing finance reform recommendations.” (17) These stakeholders include Congress, the FHFA, Fed, SEC, CFPB, FDIC, HUD (including the FHA), VA, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Association of State Banking Regulators as well as “The Public.” Treasury further intends to disseminate “principles and recommendations for housing finance reform” and plan “for the resolution of current GSE conservatorships.” (Id.)

This is all to the good of course, but it is at such a high level of generality that it tells us next to nothing. In this regard, Trump’s Treasury is not all that different from Obama and George W. Bush’s. Treasury has not taken a lead on housing finance reform since the financial crisis began. While there is nothing wrong with letting Congress take the lead on this issue, it would move things forward if Treasury created an environment in which housing finance reform was clearly identified as a priority in Washington. Nothing good will come from letting Fannie and Freddie limp along in conservatorship for a decade or more.

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.

Fannie and Freddie Visit the Supreme Court

Justice Gorsuch

Fannie and Fredddie investors have filed their petition for a writ of certiorari in Perry Capital v. Mnuchin. The question presented is

Whether 12 U.S.C. § 4617(f), which prohibits courts from issuing injunctions that “restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions of” the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) “as a conservator,” bars judicial review of an action by FHFA and the Department of Treasury to seize for Treasury the net worth of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in perpetuity. (i)

What I find interesting about the brief is that relies so heavily on the narrative contained in Judge Brown’s dissent in the Court of Appeals decision. As I had noted previously, I do not find that narrative compelling, but I believe that some members of the court would, particularly Justice Gorsuch. The petition’s statement reads in part,

In August 2012—nearly four years after the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac1 in conservatorship during the 2008 financial crisis—FHFA, acting as conservator to the Companies, agreed to surrender each Company’s net worth to the Treasury Department every quarter. This arrangement, referred to as the “Net Worth Sweep,” replaced a fixed-rate dividend to Treasury that was tied to Treasury’s purchase of senior preferred stock in the Companies during the financial crisis. FHFA and Treasury have provided justifications for the Net Worth Sweep that, as the Petition filed by Fairholme Funds, Inc. demonstrates, were pretextual. The Net Worth Sweep has enabled a massive confiscation by the government, allowing Treasury thus far to seize $130 billion more than it was entitled to receive under the pre-2012 financial arrangement—a fact that neither Treasury nor FHFA denies. As was intended, these massive capital outflows have brought the Companies to the edge of insolvency, and all but guaranteed that they will never exit FHFA’s conservatorship.

Petitioners here, investors that own preferred stock in the Companies, challenged the Net Worth Sweep as exceeding both FHFA’s and Treasury’s respective statutory powers. But the court of appeals held that the Net Worth Sweep was within FHFA’s statutory authority, and that keeping Treasury within the boundaries of its statutory mandate would impermissibly intrude on FHFA’s authority as conservator.

The decision of the court of appeals adopts an erroneous view of conservatorship unknown to our legal system. Conservators operate as fiduciaries to care for the interests of the entities or individuals under their supervision. Yet in the decision below, the D.C. Circuit held that FHFA acts within its conservatorship authority so long as it is not actually liquidating the Companies. In dissent, Judge Brown aptly described that holding as “dangerously far-reaching,” Pet.App. 88a, empowering a conservator even “to loot the Companies,” Pet.App. 104a.

The D.C. Circuit’s test for policing the bounds of FHFA’s statutory authority as conservator—if one can call it a test at all—breaks sharply from those of the Eleventh and Ninth Circuits, which have held that FHFA cannot evade judicial review merely by disguising its actions in the cloak of a conservator. And it likewise patently violates centuries of common-law understandings of the meaning of a conservatorship, including views held by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”), whose conservatorship authority under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (“FIRREA”), served as the template for FHFA’s own conservatorship authority. Judge Brown correctly noted that the decision below thus “establish[es] a dangerous precedent” for FDIC-regulated financial institutions with trillions of dollars in assets. Pet.App. 109a. If the decision below is correct, then the FDIC as conservator could seize depositor funds from one bank and give them away—to another institution as equity, or to Treasury, or even to itself—as long as it is not actually liquidating the bank. The notion that the law permits a regulator appointed as conservator to act in a way so manifestly contrary to the interests of its conservatee is deeply destabilizing to our financial regulatory system. (1-2)

We shall see if this narrative of government overreach finds a sympathetic ear at the Court.

GSE Investors’ Hidden Win

Judge Brown

The big news yesterday was that the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in the main for the federal government in Perry Capital v. Mnuchin, one of the major cases that investors brought against the federal government over the terms of the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships.

In a measured and carefully reasoned opinion, the court rejected most but not all of the investors’ claims.  The reasoning was consistent with my own reading of the broad conservatorship provisions of the Housing and Economic Recover Act of 2008 (HERA).

Judge Brown’s dissent, however, reveals that the investors have crafted an alternative narrative that at least one judge finds compelling. This means that there is going to be some serious drama when this case ultimately wends its way to the Supreme Court. And there is some reason to believe that a Justice Gorsuch might be sympathetic to this narrative of government overreach.

Judge Brown’s opinion indicts many aspects of federal housing finance policy, broadly condemning it in the opening paragraph:

One critic has called it “wrecking-ball benevolence,” James Bovard, Editorial, Nothing Down: The Bush Administration’s Wrecking-Ball Benevolence, BARRONS, Aug. 23, 2004, http://tinyurl.com/Barrons-Bovard; while another, dismissing the compassionate rhetoric, dubs it “crony capitalism,” Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr., Commentary, Fannie/Freddie Bailout Baloney, CATO INST., http://tinyurl.com/Cato-O-Driscoll (last visited Feb. 13, 2017). But whether the road was paved with good intentions or greased by greed and indifference, affordable housing turned out to be the path to perdition for the U.S. mortgage market. And, because of the dominance of two so-called Government Sponsored Entities (“GSE”s)—the Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae” or “Fannie”) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac” or “Freddie,” collectively with Fannie Mae, the “Companies”)—the trouble that began in the subprime mortgage market metastasized until it began to affect most debt markets, both domestic and international. (dissent at 1)

While acknowledging that the Fannie/Freddie crisis might justify “extraordinary actions by Congress,” Judge Brown states that

even in a time of exigency, a nation governed by the rule of law cannot transfer broad and unreviewable power to a government entity to do whatsoever it wishes with the assets of these Companies. Moreover, to remain within constitutional parameters, even a less-sweeping delegation of authority would require an explicit and comprehensive framework. See Whitman v. Am. Trucking Ass’ns, Inc., 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001) (“Congress . . . does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions—it does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes.”) Here, Congress did not endow FHFA with unlimited authority to pursue its own ends; rather, it seized upon the statutory text that had governed the FDIC for decades and adapted it ever so slightly to confront the new challenge posed by Fannie and Freddie.

*     *     *

[Congress] chose a well-understood and clearly-defined statutory framework—one that drew upon the common law to clearly delineate the outer boundaries of the Agency’s conservator or, alternatively, receiver powers. FHFA pole vaulted over those boundaries, disregarding the plain text of its authorizing statute and engaging in ultra vires conduct. Even now, FHFA continues to insist its authority is entirely without limit and argues for a complete ouster of federal courts’ power to grant injunctive relief to redress any action it takes while purporting to serve in the conservator role. See FHFA Br. 21  (2-3)

What amazes me about this dissent is how it adopts the decidedly non-mainstream history of the financial crisis that has been promoted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Peter Wallison.  It also takes its legislative history from an unpublished Cato Institute paper by Vice-President Pence’s newly selected chief economist, Mark Calabria and a co-author.  There is nothing wrong with a judge giving some context to an opinion, but it is of note when it seems as one-sided as this. The bottom line though is that this narrative clearly has some legs so we should not think that this case has played itself out, just because of this decision.

Consumer Protection’s Holy Grail

The Round Table experiences a vision of the Holy Grail by Évrard d'Espinques

The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) has issued a notice and request for comment regarding the Uniform Interagency Consumer Compliance Rating System (the CC Rating System). The FFIEC’s six members represent the Federal Reserve Board, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, National Credit Union Administration, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, State Liaison Committee and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This veritable roundtable of regulators is seeking to revise the CC Rating System “to reflect the regulatory, examination (supervisory), technological, and market changes that have occurred in the years since the current rating system was established.” (81 F.R. 26553)

I know, I know, this is a deeply technical issued and you are wondering why I am writing about it for a somewhat general audience. The answer is that I think this is a good thing for people to know about: the federal government is seeking to implement a consistent approach to consumer protection across a broad swath of the financial services industry.

One of the CC Rating System’s categories is Violations of Law and Consumer Harm. The request for comment notes that over the last few decades, the financial services

industry has become more complex, and the broad array of risks in the market that can cause consumer harm has become increasingly clear. Violations of various laws, including, for example, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act 5 and Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, as well as fair lending violations, may potentially cause significant consumer harm and raise serious supervisory concerns. Recognizing this broad array of risks, the proposed guidance directs examiners to consider all violations of consumer laws, based on the root cause, severity, duration, and pervasiveness of the violation. This approach emphasizes the importance of a range of consumer protection laws and is intended to reflect the broader array of risks and the potential harm caused by consumer protection related violations. (81 F.R. 26556)

This is all to the good. A big part of the problem the last time around (pre-Subprime Crisis) was that financial services companies used regulatory arbitrage to avoid scrutiny. Lots of mortgage lending migrated to nonbanks. Nonbanks did not need to worry about unwanted attention from the regulators that scrutinized banks and other heavily regulated mortgage lenders. (To be clear, Alan Greenspan and other regulators did not do a good job of scrutinizing the banks. But let’s leave that for another post.) With the CFPB now regulating nonbanks and with this coordinated approach to consumer protection, we should expect that regulatory arbitrage will decrease.

If successful, this would amount to a regulatory equivalent of finding the Holy Grail.  So, while this is a technical issue, it is something to feel good about.

Comments due July 4th, so get crackin’!