Relegating Consumer Protection To The Shadows

The Department of the Treasury released its report on Asset Management and Insurance, which follows on the heels of its report on the capital markets. The latest report calls for replacing the term “shadow banking” with “market based finance.” (63) The term “shadow banking” reflected a belief that there was a less regulated sector of the financial services industry that operated in the shadows of heavily regulated financial services sectors like banking.

While innocent enough as a matter of nomenclature, retiring “shadow banking” reflects the Trump Administration’s desire to reduce regulation across the financial services industry and to put an end to any negative connotations that the term shadow banking carries. The report makes this crystal clear:  “Applying the term “shadow banking” to registered investment companies is particularly inappropriate as the word “shadow” could be interpreted as implying insufficient regulatory oversight, or disclosure.” (63)

Given that the Trump Administration is focused on rolling back many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, it is worth reviewing the changes that this report advocates. I focus here on how the report seeks to limit the regulatory oversight role of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau:

Title X of Dodd-Frank expressly excludes the “business of insurance” from the list of financial products and services within the CFPB’s jurisdiction. Dodd-Frank also prohibits the CFPB from exercising enforcement authority over “a person regulated by a State insurance regulator.” A “person” is defined to be “any person that is engaged in the business of insurance and subject to regulation by any State insurance regulator, but only to the extent that such person acts in such capacity.”

There are, however, a limited number of exceptions where the CFPB may exercise its authority over the business of insurance and persons regulated by state insurance regulators:

• If an insurer offers a financial product or service to the extent that the insurer is engaged in the offering or provision of a consumer financial product or service (e.g., debt protection contracts that are administered by insurers on behalf of a bank); To supervise and enforce violations of federal consumer laws (e.g., violations of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act that relate to insurers);

• If persons knowingly or recklessly provide substantial assistance in an Unfair, Deceptive, or Abusive Acts and Practices (UDAAP) violation (i.e., if an insurer knowingly or recklessly supports a covered person or service provider in violation of the UDAAP provisions of Dodd-Frank); or

• To request information from a person regulated by a state insurance regulator in connection with the CFPB’s rulemaking, investigative, subpoena, or hearing powers.

Despite the general exclusions, these statutory exceptions create considerable uncertainty concerning what the CFPB can examine or regulate. Insurers are concerned that, if the CFPB interprets the exceptions broadly, it could potentially regulate insurers or the business of insurance in a manner more expansive than the statutory exceptions intend. Such regulatory actions could also be duplicative of actions undertaken by state insurance regulators.

Recommendations

Treasury recommends that Congress clarify the “business of insurance” exception to ensure that the CFPB does not engage in the oversight of activities already monitored by state insurance regulators. (108-09)

This recommendation seeks to further reduce consumer protection in the financial services industry. Republicans have been quite open with this goal, so there is really nothing hypocritical about this recommendation. It is just a bad one. There have been a lot of abusive debt protection contracts like credit life insurance products that are priced way higher than comparable life insurance products. Blocking the CFPB from regulating in this area will be bad news for consumers.

 

Nonbank Mortgage Servicers and the Foreclosure Crisis

photo by kafka4prez

The United States Government Accountability Office has issued a report, Nonbank Mortgage Servicers: Existing Regulatory Oversight Could Be Strengthened. The GAO found that

The share of home mortgages serviced by nonbanks increased from approximately 6.8 percent in 2012 to approximately 24.2 percent in 2015 (as measured by unpaid principal balance). However, banks continued to service the remainder (about 75.8 percent). Some market participants GAO interviewed said nonbank servicers’ growth increased the capacity for servicing delinquent loans, but they also noted challenges. For example, rapid growth of some nonbank servicers did not always coincide with their use of more advanced operating systems or effective internal controls to handle their larger portfolios—an issue identified by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and others.

Nonbank servicers are generally subject to oversight by federal and state regulators and monitoring by market participants, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the enterprises). In particular, CFPB directly oversees nonbank servicers as part of its responsibility to help ensure compliance with federal laws governing mortgage lending and consumer financial protection. However, CFPB does not have a mechanism to develop a comprehensive list of nonbank servicers and, therefore, does not have a full record of entities under its purview. As a result, CFPB may not be able to comprehensively enforce compliance with consumer financial laws. In addition, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) is the safety and soundness regulator of the enterprises. As such, it has indirect oversight of third parties that do business with the enterprises, including nonbanks that service loans on the enterprises’ behalf. However, in contrast to bank regulators, FHFA lacks statutory authority to examine these third parties to identify and address deficiencies that could affect the enterprises. GAO has previously determined that a regulatory system should ensure that similar risks and services are subject to consistent regulation and that a regulator should have sufficient authority to carry out its mission. Without such authority, FHFA may lack a supervisory tool to help it more effectively monitor third parties’ operations and the enterprises’ actions to manage any associated risks.

As with many GAO reports, this one provides a lot of information about a very obscure, but important, subject. In this case, the report provides a good overview of the servicing industry since the financial crisis. The report also highlights the risks to consumers and the financial industry that result from the rapid expansion of the servicing market share of nonbanks.

One of the disturbing aspects of the foreclosure crisis was the sense that the servicing sector couldn’t do a better job of assisting borrowers, even if it wanted to, because it did not have the resources to meet the challenge. Changes implemented since then, driven in large part by the CFPB, may make things better during the next such crisis. But this report does not give one the sense that they will be all that much better. The GAO report rightly calls for further work to be done to ensure that the industry is prepared to meet the challenges that are sure to come its way.

Dodd-Frank and Mortgage Reform at Five

"Seal on United States Department of the Treasury on the Building" by MohitSingh - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Seal_on_United_States_Department_of_the_Treasury_on_the_Building.JPG#/media/File:Seal_on_United_States_Department_of_the_Treasury_on_the_Building.JPG

The Department of Treasury has issued a report, Dodd-Frank at Five Years: Reforming Wall Street and Protecting Main Street. The report is clearly a political document, trumpeting the achievements of the Obama Administration. It is interesting nonetheless. It opens,

When President Obama took office in January 2009, the U.S. economy was in crisis. The nation was shedding more than 750,000 jobs per month, and confidence in our financial system had been shaken to its core. The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression exposed a toxic mix of excessive risk-taking, shoddy lending practices, inadequate capital levels, unstable funding, and weaknesses in regulatory oversight. A collapsing financial system choked off credit to consumers seeking to purchase a car, a home, groceries, or to finance an education. Nearly 9 million Americans lost their jobs, and over 5 million lost their homes. Nearly $13 trillion of families’ wealth was destroyed, wiping out almost two decades of gains.

In response to the crisis, the Administration released a proposed set of reforms in June 2009. Congress held numerous hearings and crafted legislation based on the Administration’s proposal, incorporating ideas from both Republicans and Democrats throughout the process. On July 21, 2010, President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act into law, a historic and comprehensive set of financial reforms, which put in place critical new protections for consumers, investors, and taxpayers. Five years later—as a result of Dodd-Frank and other Wall Street reforms—our financial system is stronger, safer, more resilient, and more supportive of sustainable economic growth. Regulators also have better tools to deal with financial shocks when they occur, to protect Main Street and taxpayers from Wall Street recklessness.

Critics of reform have claimed that Wall Street Reform would deter lending and choke off the recovery. But, today it is clear that the opposite is true. Reform has served as a building block for economic growth, providing Americans with safe places to invest their savings and enabling banks to lend to individuals, businesses, and communities. Only a financial system strong enough to withstand a major financial shock is capable of promoting sustainable economic growth. Five years after the President signed Wall Street Reform into law, nearly all of the major elements of financial reform are in place. Today, our financial system is safer and stronger as a result of these hard-won reforms, and our economy is in a far better position to continue growing and creating jobs. (1)

I was struck by the fact that the report does not address the biggest financial reform failure of the last five years, the lack of reform of the housing finance system.  Fannie and Freddie remain in conservatorship, putting the housing finance system at risk of another crisis.

I was also struck by the following passage:

In the run-up to the financial crisis, abusive lending practices and unclear underwriting standards resulted in risky mortgages which hurt consumers and ultimately threatened financial stability. Wall Street Reform bans many of the abusive practices in mortgage markets that helped cause the crisis, and requires lenders to determine that borrowers can repay their loans. (2)

My recollection from academic conferences over the course of the last six or seven years is that many leading academics denied the link between abusive lending practices and systemic risk. It seemed pretty clear to me, but I was in the minority on that one. I am glad to see that at least the Treasury agrees with me.

Reforming the Fed

Peter Conti-Brown and Simon Johnson posted their policy brief, Governing the Federal Reserve System after the Dodd-Frank Act, on SSRN (also on the Peterson Institute for International Economics website). I have said before that the Fed is a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” and I stand by that characterization. This policy brief is very helpful, however, in identifying the legal structure of the Federal Reserve System as well as the practical constraints and political forces that affect the workings of that legal structure.

The authors write that by statute, the chair of the Fed

decides almost nothing herself: The Federal Reserve System is supervised by a Board of seven presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed governors, of whom the chair is but one. In practice, the chair has frequently had a disproportionate influence on the monetary policy agenda and also the potential to predominate on regulatory matters—working closely with the Fed Board’s senior staff. Even so, for the most significant decisions, the Board must vote, and the chair must rely on the votes of the other six governors (for Board matters) and in addition, on a rotating basis, the votes of five of the twelve Reserve Bank presidents (for monetary policy). On regulation and supervision issues, the chair can do little of consequence without the support of at least three other governors. (1)

The brief goes on to document other aspects of the Fed’s organizational structure and the practical politics of Fed decisionmaking. For those of us who have a hard time parsing how the Fed acts, this is a useful document.

The brief also argues for a new approach to Fed governance:

The Fed chair is arguably the most important economic appointment any president makes. After the crises, new statute, and bold decisions of recent years, this job has become even more important.

During its first 100 years of existence, the position of Fed chair has risen to exercise great potential power. By statute, an appointee can remain in office 20 years or more. A perceived “maestro” effect in which insiders and outsiders are discouraged from challenging the chair is no longer a model with broad appeal, if it ever was.

The Board of Governors could provide an effective counterweight to the chair. Indeed, such a counterweight is what Congress intended by requiring presidential appointment and Senate confirmation of the entire Board. In order to break the tradition of a chair-dominated board, governors need sufficient expertise and experience to engage with and in some instances counteract the chair and Fed staff.

A president’s choice for Fed chair matters enormously, but the choice for members of the Board also matters a great deal. Monetary policy remains a crucial criterion but not at the exclusion of regulatory policy. The Board is second to none—in the nation and indeed arguably in the world—in its responsibility for regulatory oversight over the financial system. The president, members of the Senate, and the general public ignore these considerations at significant peril to the financial system and the economy. (9)

The brief presents a powerful alternative to business as usual at the Fed.  Hopefully, it will gain some traction.