Federal Reserve Board Reports On Prepaid Cards, Domestic Payments

Recently, the Federal Reserve Board released two payments-related reports: (i) a report to Congress on government-administered general use prepaid cards; and (ii) a detailed report on the Federal Reserve’s 2013 payments study. The report on government-administered prepaid cards analyzes the $502 million in fee revenue collected by issuers in 2013, a majority of which was attributable to interchange fees. For consumer-related fees, the report indicates such fees derived primarily from ATM-related charges. The second report details findings from the 2013 Federal Reserve Payments Study, the fifth in a series of triennial studies conducted by the Federal Reserve System to comprehensively estimate and study aggregate trends in noncash payments in the United States. The paper expands on the 2013 summary findings originally published last December, and includes, among many other things, the following new findings: (i) credit cards are more prevalent than other general-purpose card types; (ii) among general-purpose cards with purchase activity in 2012, consumers preferred debit cards, with an average use of 23 payments per month, compared with an average of 11 payments per month for general-purpose credit cards and 10 payments per month for general-purpose prepaid cards; (iii) although the number of ATM cash withdrawals using debit cards and general-purpose prepaid cards dropped slightly, growth in the value of ATM withdrawals continued to exceed inflation; (iv) the number of online bill payments reported by major processors, which included those initiated through online banking websites and directly through billers and settled over ACH, exceeded three billion in 2012; and (v) there were more than 250 million mobile payments made using a mobile wallet application, and at least 205 million person-to-person or money transfer payments.

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Trade Group White Paper Assesses Virtual Currency Landscape

On June 23, the ICBA and The Clearing House published a white paper on virtual currency that (i) defines virtual currency and describes the current regulatory environment; (ii) describes key players in the Bitcoin system; (iii) discusses the application of certain functional and prudential payment system regulations that may be applied to the Bitcoin system and other convertible decentralized virtual currencies; and (iv) evaluates potential regulation of virtual currency, virtual currency investment programs, and exchanges. The paper concludes, among other things, that: (i) credentials used to transact in Bitcoin are functionally similar to prepaid cards and arguably fall within the definition of such cards provided in Regulations E and II; and (ii) the CFPB may determine that cross-border transactions in Bitcoin fall within the scope of the CFPB’s Remittance Transfer Rule, which would require entities facilitating such transfers to comply with the rule’s disclosure, reversibility, and error-resolution requirements. The paper discusses potential safety and soundness oversight for entities in the Bitcoin system. It also suggests that existing regulations intended to protect consumers and market participants in the event of the failure of a securities or commodities exchange may be inapplicable to Bitcoin exchanges, and that alternative means of protecting investors and accountholders—such as disclosure requirements and coordinated state-level registration of exchanges—should be explored.

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FDIC Restricts Bank’s Card Businesses Pending BSA Compliance Enhancements

On June 5, the FDIC and a Delaware bank entered a consent order that prohibits the bank from entering into any new relationships with third-party prepaid card processors or prepaid card program managers until the FDIC approves a written report from the bank that details the steps taken by the bank to (i) implement new BSA compliance policies and procedures; (ii) improve staff training; (iii) implement controls sufficient to mitigate BSA and safety and soundness risk associated with prepaid card, credit card merchant acquiring, and ACH activities; and (iv) perform a BSA risk assessment. The order similarly restricts the bank’s activities related to credit card merchant acquiring and ACH merchant payment processing. The order does not prohibit the bank from issuing prepaid cards through existing distribution channels under existing contracts with third-parties, but does restrict certain activities related to existing credit card and ACH processing activities. In addition, the bank must (i) retain and designate BSA and OFAC officers; (ii) conduct a suspicious activity reporting look-back review; and (iii) submit periodic progress reports. Finally, the order requires increased board supervision of the bank’s BSA compliance program and mandates the creation of a board-level BSA committee.

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House Oversight Committee Report Challenges DOJ’s Operation Choke Point

On May 29, the House Oversight Committee released a staff report on Operation Choke Point, DOJ’s investigation of banks and payment processors purportedly designed to address perceived consumer fraud by blocking fraudsters’ access to the payment systems. The report provides the following “key findings”: (i) the operation was created by DOJ to “choke out” companies it considers to be “high risk” or otherwise objectionable, despite the fact that those companies are legal businesses; (ii) the operation has forced banks to terminate relationships with a wide variety of lawful and legitimate merchants; (iii) DOJ is aware of these impacts and has dismissed them; (iv) DOJ lacks adequate legal authority for the initiative; and (v) contrary to DOJ’s public statements, Operation Choke Point is primarily focused on the payday lending industry, particularly online lenders. The findings are based on documents provided to the committee by DOJ, including internal memoranda and other documents that, among other things, “acknowledge the program’s impact on legitimate merchants” and show that DOJ “has radically and unjustifiably expanded its [FIRREA] Section 951 authority.” The committee released the nearly 1,000 pages of supporting documents, which are available in two parts, here and here.

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CSBS Hosts Emerging Payments Hearing

On May 16, the Conference of State Bank Supervisors Emerging Payments Task Force held a public hearing to examine the changing payments landscape and opportunities and risks presented by current and emerging technologies. The Legacy Payment Systems panel focused on continued efforts to improve efficiency and speed while simultaneously “preserving consumer confidence and system stability.” The Retail Payments Innovations panelists described innovative electronic and mobile payment systems and suggested that further innovation would be best supported by existing regulatory framework, which offers sufficient consumer protections. Finally, the Virtual Currencies panel urged state and federal regulators to “provide clear and consistent regulatory expectations and guidance without restricting innovation.” The event was the most recent of a number held by federal and state policymakers to address the proliferation of emerging financial technologies used to move money and transfer funds, which range from enhancements of traditional ACH or credit and debit methods of payment to virtual currencies that disrupt the traditional model. The CSBS is expected to use public hearings like this one to develop a proposed regulatory framework for state agencies.

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D.C. Circuit Rejects Merchant Challenge To Higher Cap On Debit Card Transaction Fees

On March 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that the Federal Reserve Board’s final rule imposing a 21-cent per transaction limit on debit card interchange fees (up from a 12-cent per transaction limit in its proposed rule) was based on a reasonable construction of a “poorly drafted” provision of the Dodd-Frank Act and that the Board acted reasonably in issuing a final rule requiring debit card issuers to process debit card transactions on at least two unaffiliated networks. NACS v. Bd. of Governors of the Fed. Reserve Sys., No. 13-5270, 2014 WL 1099633 (D.C. Cir. Mar. 21, 2014). The action was brought by a group of merchants challenging the increase to the interchange fee cap and implementation of anti-exclusivity rule for processing debit transactions that was less restrictive than other options. In support of their challenge, the merchants argued that in setting the cap at 21 cents the Board ignored Dodd-Frank’s command against consideration of “other costs incurred by an issuer which are not specific to a particular electronic debit transaction.” The court held, in a decision that hinged on discerning statutory intent from the omission of a comma, that when setting the fee cap the Board could consider both the incremental costs associated with the authorization, clearance, and settlement of debit card transactions (ACS costs) and other, additional, non-ACS costs associated with a particular transaction (such as software and equipment). The court further concluded that the Board could consider all ACS costs, network processing fees, and fraud losses. The court, however, remanded the question of whether the Board could also consider transaction-monitoring costs when setting the fee cap, given that monitoring costs are already accounted for in another portion of the statute. Finally, the court rejected the merchants’ argument that the Board’s final rule should have required the card issuers to allow their cards to be processed on at least two unaffiliated networks per method of authentication (i.e., PIN authentication or signature authentication) holding that the statute goes no further than preventing card issuers or networks from requiring the exclusive use of a particular network.

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Visa, MasterCard Announce Payment Security Working Group

On March 7, Visa and Mastercard announced the formation of a cross-industry payment security working group, which the payment system providers state will be focused on “enhancing payment system security to keep pace with the expectations of consumers, retailers and financial institutions.” The group’s initial focus will be on supporting the adoption of EMV chip technology in the United States. In addition, the group will promote tokenization and point-to-point encryption, and will develop “an actionable roadmap for securing the future across all segments of the payments industry.” The group will include representatives from banks of all sizes, credit unions, acquirers, retailers, point-of-sale device manufacturers and industry trade groups.

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State Banking Associations Object To Senators’ Request For Increased Bank Payment System Security Oversight

On March 5, 53 state bankers associations sent a letter to Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen defending banks’ efforts to secure consumer financial data and highlighting the responsibilities of other parties, in particular merchants, to do the same. The banking associations, representing bankers in every state and Puerto Rico, took issue with a  letter Democratic Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Al Franken (D-MN) sent last month to the Federal Reserve Board Chair seeking information about the Board’s oversight of card issuers’ fraud prevention policies and recommending that the Board do more to verify the effectiveness of such policies. The banking associations contend that the Senators’ letter is a “thinly veiled effort to once again advance the regulation of interchange under the guise of current concerns over data security,” and criticize the Senators for converting a discussion about security responsibilities into one about interchange fees.

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State Regulators Form Emerging Payments Task Force

On February 20, the CSBS announced the formation of an Emerging Payments Task Force to study changes in payment systems—including virtual currencies and other innovations—to determine the potential impact on consumer protection, state law, and banks and nonbank entities chartered or licensed by the states. The Task Force is comprised of nine state regulators, including New York State Department of Financial Services Superintendent Lawsky who has recently indicated New York will seek to become the first state to directly address virtual currency through new regulations. The Task Force will be chaired by David Cotney, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Division of Banks, who testified on these issues on behalf of the CSBS last fall before the Senate Banking Committee. The CSBS stated that the Task Force will “take a comprehensive approach to studying the changing payment systems” by engaging with a broad range of federal, state, and industry stakeholders to understand how new entrants and technologies affect the stability of payment systems and the broader financial marketplace and “to develop ideas for connecting the emerging payments landscape to the financial regulatory fabric.”

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Congressional Committees Review Data Breaches, Potential Federal Responses

This week, several congressional committees held hearings to review recent data security breaches and related consumer privacy issues, particularly those related to consumer financial data and payment systems. Generally, the hearings covered (i) potential enhancements to federal enforcement capabilities, (ii) card and payment system technologies and potential data security standards, and (iii) consumer protection enhancements. The hearings included two by the Senate Banking Committee—the first by a Subcommittee and a second held by the full Committee—as well as hearings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee and a Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. With regard to federal enforcement capabilities, the FTC reiterated its support for federal legislation that establishes a national breach notification requirement and a federal data security standard the FTC can enforce with civil penalties. The FTC also would like (i) its jurisdiction for data security enforcement to include nonprofit organizations, and (ii) APA rulemaking authority to address evolving risks. In support of the FTC’s request for additional authority, several members highlighted their view of the FTC’s limited ability to enforce data security under section 5 of the FTC Act. In particular, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) asserted that the FTC Act’s demanding standard and lack of strict liability unnecessarily limits the FTC’s authority to protect the public in data security matters. The FTC believes federal legislation should not preempt stronger state laws, and that state attorneys general should have concurrent enforcement authority. Significant debate centered on the possible benefits of implementing “Chip and PIN” technology in payment cards, with several legislators questioning why such technology is in widespread use in other major economies but has not yet been deployed in the U.S. Witnesses representing retailers repeatedly called on banks and payment network companies to move immediately to that technology, claiming that the outdated cards still being issued in the U.S. create unnecessary security risk. Banks outlined their plans to move to chip-based cards by October 2015 and stressed the role retailers must play in helping secure consumer data. As a corollary to technological solutions, committee members debated the role of government in setting data security standards, including for payments. Several members of Congress were critical of non-governmental standards bodies and called for a technologically neutral federal standard. Finally, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) expressed an interest in amending federal law to extend zero-liability protections currently applicable to credit card transactions to debit card transactions.

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New York DFS Hearing Considers Potential Regulation Of Virtual Currency

This week, New York State Department of Financial Services (NY DFS) Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky presided over a two-day hearing regarding emerging virtual currencies and the appropriate role of regulation. The hearing was the next step in an inquiry announced last August, and was held as the NY DFS considers developing a state license specific to virtual currency that would subject operators to state oversight. The panels featured the views of private investors, virtual currency firms, regulatory experts, and law enforcement officials. From our view inside the room, the most prominent, theme to emerge is that regulators will need to strike a balance between protecting the public interest—both from a consumer protection standpoint and with regard to the potential for criminal activity—while allowing emerging virtual currency technologies to develop, evolve, and thrive. Read more…

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Federal Reserve Board Seeks Comment On Designated Utilities’ Risk Management Standards, Payment System Risk Policy

On January 10, the Federal Reserve Board proposed revisions to the Regulation HH risk-management standards for certain financial market utilities that have been designated as systemically important by the Financial Stability Oversight Council, and for which the Federal Reserve Board is the Supervisory Agency pursuant to Title VIII of the Dodd-Frank Act. The Board also requested comment on related revisions to part I of the Federal Reserve Policy on Payment System Risk (PSR policy), which applies to financial market infrastructures more generally, including those operated by the Federal Reserve Banks. The Federal Reserve states that both sets of proposed changes are based on and generally are consistent with the April 2012 Principles for Financial Market Infrastructures developed jointly by the international standard-setting bodies, the Committee on Payment and Settlement Systems and the Technical Committee of the International Organization of Securities Commissions. Among other things, the revisions: (i) establish separate standards to address credit risk and liquidity risk, (ii) add a standard on general business risk, and (iii) heighten requirements on transparency and disclosure. Comments on both proposals must be submitted by March 31, 2014.

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Federal Reserve Board Seeks Additional Comment On Electronic Returned Checks Processing

On December 12, the Federal Reserve Board issued a revised proposed rule that would, among other things, encourage depositary banks to receive, and paying banks to send, returned checks electronically. The revised proposal is intended to address comments the Board received in response to a 2011 proposal to amend subparts C and D of Regulation CC. The Board is now seeking comment on two alternative frameworks for return requirements. Under the first, the expeditious-return requirement currently imposed on paying and returning banks for returned checks would be eliminated; a paying bank returning a check would be required to provide the depositary bank with a notice of nonpayment of the check—regardless of the amount of the check being returned—only if the paying bank sends the returned check in paper form. Under the second, the current expeditious-return requirement—using the current two-day test—would be retained for checks being returned to a depositary bank electronically via another bank, but the notice-of-nonpayment requirement would be eliminated. The Board is proposing to retain, without change, the current same-day settlement rule for paper checks. In addition, the Board is also requesting comment on applying Regulation CC’s existing check warranties to checks that are collected electronically and on new warranties and indemnities related to checks collected electronically and to electronically-created items. Comments are due by May 2, 2014.

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Federal Reserve Board Seeks Comments On Payment System Upgrades

On November 27, the Federal Reserve Board requested comments on proposed changes to its procedures for posting debit and credit entries to institutions’ Federal Reserve accounts for ACH debit and commercial check transactions. In a policy statement, the Board seeks comments on a proposal to change the posting time of ACH debit transactions processed by the Federal Reserve Banks’ FedACH service overnight to 8:30 a.m. ET from 11:00 a.m. ET to align with the posting of ACH credit transactions. For commercial check transactions, the Board seeks to move the posting time for receiving most credits for deposits and debits for presentments to 8:30 a.m. ET, and to set two other posting times at 1:00 p.m. ET and 5:30 p.m. ET. The Board is also proposing to establish a set of principles that would be applied to any new posting rules for the Reserve Banks’ same-day ACH service. In a related proposed rule, the Board offered for comment companion amendments to Regulation J to permit Reserve Banks to obtain settlement from paying banks by as early as 8:30 a.m. ET for checks that the Reserve Banks present, and to permit the Reserve Banks to require paying banks that receive presentment of checks from the Reserve Banks to make the proceeds of settlement for those checks available to the Reserve Banks as soon as 30 minutes after receiving the checks. Comments on both the policy statement and the proposed rule are due 60 days after the documents are published in the Federal Register.

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CFPB Director Delivers Remarks On Nonbank Supervision, Payment Systems

On November 21, CFPB Director Richard Cordray delivered remarks at The Clearing House Annual Conference, including a review of the CFPB’s efforts to resolve concerns raised by the mortgage market through adoption of new mortgage rules and the objective of evenhanded oversight that is not dependent on charter choice or regulator. Mr. Cordray placed particular emphasis on the CFPB’s ability and efforts to “level the playing field” through its nonbank supervision program.

Notably, Director Cordray raised questions about recent efforts by other regulators and law enforcement authorities to investigate and take action against nonbank entities, like online payday lenders, by focusing on how these nonbanks get paid through bank payment systems. Cordray cautioned that, “[t]he focus of these . . . actions may create burdens that fall disproportionately on individual banks that are participants in the payment systems” and that the referenced approach “may not be the most efficient or effective approach.” Rather, Director Cordray suggested that further attention should be given to “how [payment] systems are designed and how they function for all of the institutions that participate in them.” The Director also expressed interest in working with the Clearing House to improve the CFPB’s understanding of using enhanced computer analytics and communications to identify patterns in payment systems, which he stated would better enable the CFPB to “identify and enforce the law against illegitimate firms that are otherwise able to reduce their own costs by hitching a free ride on the payments system,” as well as to consider necessary changes in law or practice.

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