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.

Violations of Law and Consumer Harm

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The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) issued a notice and request for comment regarding the Uniform Interagency Consumer Compliance Rating System (CC Rating System). My comment letter reads as follows:

The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) issued a notice and request for comment regarding the Uniform Interagency Consumer Compliance Rating System (CC Rating System). The FFIEC 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.  It is a positive development that the federal government is seeking to implement a consistent approach to consumer protection across a broad swath of the financial services industry.  Nonetheless, the proposed CC Ratings System can be refined to further improve consumer protection in 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 the Fair Housing Act and other fair lending laws, for example – may cause significant consumer harm that should raise supervisory concerns.  Recognizing this broad array of risks, the proposed revisions directs examiners to consider all violations of consumer laws based on the root cause, severity, duration, and pervasiveness.  This approach emphasizes the importance of various consumer protection laws, and is intended to reflect the broader array of risks and potential harm caused by consumer protection violations.  81 F.R. 26556.

This is all to the good.  Prior to the Subprime Crisis, a big part of the problem was that financial services companies used regulatory arbitrage to avoid scrutiny.  Lots of mortgage lending migrated to nonbanks that 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 federal regulators did not do a good job of scrutinizing the banks. But let’s leave that for another day.)  With the CFPB now regulating many nonbanks and with an updated CC Rating System in place, we should expect that regulatory arbitrage will decrease in the face of this coordinated regulatory action.

I would note, however, an ambiguity in the “Violations of Law and Consumer Harm” category, an ambiguity that should be cleared up in favor of additional consumer protections.  The category title, “Violations of Law and Consumer Harm,” implies that there are some types of consumer harm that are distinct from violations of law and that is obviously true. The discussion of the category emphasizes this by stating that it encompasses “the broad range of violations of consumer protection laws and evidence of consumer harm.” 81 F.R. 26556 (emphasis added).  And the text of the guidance itself states this as well, indicating that the category’s assessment factors “evaluate the dimensions of any identified violation or consumer harm.”  81 F.R. 26558 (emphasis added).

But the remainder of the discussion of this category only focuses on violations of law and pays little attention to “the broad array of risks in the market that can cause consumer harm” that are not also violations of law.  81 F.R. 26556.  Indeed, the four assessment factors for this category are all premises on causes of identified “violations of law.”  This is a significant failing for the CC Rating System because of the many types of consumer harm that are not clear violations of law.  As proposed, the “Violations of Law and Consumer Harm” category appears to be as much about protecting the bank from legal liability from lawsuits brought on behalf of consumers as it is about addressing the legitimate interests of the consumers of financial services.

As we sort out the after-effects of the Subprime Crisis, we have seen many situations where there was no clear violation of law but homeowners suffered from outrageous industry practices.  For instance, many borrowers are suffering needlessly at the hands of their mortgage servicers.  Some servicers are under-resourced, intentionally or not, and continue to treat their borrowers with a maddening disregard.  In some cases, this outrageous behavior does not amount to a clear violation of law, but is behavior that reflects most badly on the parties engaged in it.  The CC Rating System should both acknowledge this type of harm and address it to maximize the benefits that can flow from this forthcoming revision to it.