On September 29, Deputy Treasury Secretary Sarah Bloom Raskin delivered remarks on student loans and their macroeconomic consequences at the National Association for Business Economics. With over $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, the U.S. has the highest level of student loan debt when compared to any country in the world. Deputy Treasury Secretary Raskin indicated that student loans surpassed credit cards and auto loans as the largest source of unsecured consumer debt. Recognizing that student loan debt is not inherently bad, Deputy Treasury Secretary Raskin emphasized that its impact on the economy cannot be understood without considering both the economic and societal benefits of a more educated workforce. Deputy Treasury Secretary Raskin expressed concern that student loan debt has become a “serious burden for far too many borrowers,” noting that student loan delinquency and default could undermine the country’s economic growth by “crowding out other kinds of investment.” She commented on the number of complaints and testimonials reported by distressed borrowers and advocated for “accuracy and fairness in the loan servicing industry, and transparency and disclosure for borrowers in the loan process.”
On October 6, the GAO released a report recommending that the Treasury Department improve its analysis of data it collects on HAMP. As of June, Treasury has disbursed only about one-third of the $38.5 billion in TARP funds allocated to housing programs and fewer borrowers have received first-lien modifications under HAMP than Treasury originally estimated. Treasury does collect data on HAMP denial and redefault rates, but its evaluation of data to help explain differences in these rates between servicers is limited. For example, some variations may be caused by differences in servicer practices that would not necessarily be caught by Treasury’s compliance reviews or analyses of reporting errors. The GAO report recommends more sophisticated analysis of the data in order to identify the reasons for variations in denial rates and redefaults among servicers. The GAO hopes more robust data analysis will help Treasury increase oversight and transparency, improve its policies and guidance, and ensure that HAMP reaches the greatest number of eligible borrowers.
On July 24, the OFAC released a settlement agreement with a large bank to resolve apparent violations of narcotics sanctions regulations. The settlement agreement states that during separate periods from September 2005 through March 2009, the bank allowed transactions to be processed for certain individuals designated under the narcotics sanctions regulations, and failed to timely file blocked property reports regarding accounts owned by other designated individuals. The bank did not admit to any allegation made or implied by the apparent violations, but agreed to pay approximately $16.5 million to resolve the matter. The agreement explains that most of the apparent violations were disclosed by the bank to OFAC as a result of remedial action designed to correct a screening deficiency giving rise to the apparent violations, but that such disclosures do not qualify as voluntarily self-disclosed to OFAC within the meaning of OFAC’s Economic Sanctions Enforcement Guidelines because they were substantially similar to apparent violations of which OFAC already was aware.
On July 14, the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) concluded its review of a long-awaited FinCEN proposal to establish customer due diligence requirements for financial institutions, sending the rule back to FinCEN. In its spring 2014 rulemaking agenda, Treasury updated the timeline for the rule to indicate it could be proposed in July with a 60 day comment period. OIRA’s public records do not provide information about what, if any, changes OIRA sought or required prior to FinCEN finalizing the proposal. The public portion of the FinCEN rulemaking has been ongoing since February 2012 when FinCEN released an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to solicit comment on potential requirements for financial institutions to (i) conduct initial due diligence and verify customer identities at the time of account opening; (ii) understand the purpose and intended nature of the account; (iii) identify and verify all customers’ beneficial owners; and (iv) monitor the customer relationship and conduct additional due diligence as needed. FinCEN subsequently held a series of roundtable meetings, summaries of which it later published.
On June 26, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced (i) a new financing partnership between Treasury and HUD designed to support the FHA’s multifamily mortgage risk-sharing program; (ii) an extension of the Making Home Affordable (MHA) program for at least one year; and (iii) a new effort to help jumpstart the private label securities market. Under the Treasury-HUD partnership, the Federal Financing Bank (FFB) will finance FHA-insured mortgages that support the construction and preservation of rental housing. The extended MHA program is aimed at allowing the Administration to continue assisting borrowers facing foreclosure and with underwater homes. Finally, the Treasury Department will publish a Request for Comment and plans to host a series of meetings with investors and securitizers to explore ways to increase private lending.
On June 9, President Obama announced numerous initiatives related to federal student loans and signed a presidential memorandum directing the Education and Treasury Departments to execute certain of those initiatives. The central directive instructs the Education Department to initiate a rulemaking that will allow students who borrowed before October 2007 or who have not borrowed since October 2011 to cap their payments at 10 percent of their monthly incomes. The Education Department aims to finalize the program by December 2015. In addition, the President announced that, among other things, (i) the Education Department will renegotiate its contracts with federal loan servicers to alter financial incentives “to help borrowers repay their loans on time, lower payments for servicers when loans enter delinquency or default, and increase the value of borrowers’ customer satisfaction when allocating new loan volume”; (ii) the Education Department will proactively apply SCRA protections by reducing interest rates automatically for eligible servicemembers and will also provide additional guidance to Federal Family Education Loan program servicers to provide for a similar streamlined process; (iii) Treasury and the Education Department will work with tax preparation companies to communicate information about federal student loan repayment options; and (iv) the Education Department will expand other existing efforts to identify borrowers who may be struggling to repay and provide them with information about repayment options. The President also called on Congress to pass federal student loan refinance legislation championed by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). On June 11, the Senate failed to advance that bill, which was designed to allow federal loan borrowers to reat rates set last year by the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act, and allow private loan borrowers to refinance loans into the federal program at the same rates.
On June 5, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Controls (OFAC) announced a Dutch aerospace firm has agreed to pay $21 million to resolve allegations that the company violated U.S. sanctions on Iran and Sudan. OFAC alleged that from 2005 to 2010, the company indirectly exported or re-exported aircraft spare parts to Iranian or Sudanese customers, which the company either specifically procured from or had repaired in the United States, and required the issuance of a license by a federal agency at the time of shipment. The company self-reported 1,112 apparent violations of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations, and 41 apparent violations of the Sudanese Sanctions Regulations. The settlement includes the payment of a $10.5 million civil penalty to OFAC and the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security, a forfeiture of an additional $10.5 million pursuant to a deferred prosecution agreement reached with the DOJ, and the acceptance of responsibility for its alleged criminal conduct. OFAC stated that the base penalty for the alleged violations was over $145 million, however it agreed to a lower settlement after considering that the company self-disclosed the violations and the company: (i) had no OFAC sanctions history in the five years preceding the date of the earliest of the alleged violations; (ii) adopted new and more effective internal controls and procedures, and (iii) provided substantial cooperation during the investigation.
On May 19, the Senate Banking Committee’s chairman and ranking member, Senators Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Mike Crapo (R-ID), sent a letter to the leaders of the Treasury Department, the SEC, the CFTC, the OCC, the FDIC, and the Federal Reserve Board regarding recent developments in the use of virtual currencies and their interaction with the global payment system. The Senators ask the regulators a series of questions related to the role of virtual currencies in the U.S. banking system, payment system, and trading markets, and the current role of federal regulators in developing local, national, and international enforcement policies related to virtual currencies. The Senators also seek the agencies’ expectations on virtual currency firms’ BSA compliance, and ask whether an enhanced regulatory framework for virtual currencies is needed.
On April 28, the Treasury Department announced additional sanctions in response to developments in Ukraine by designating seven Russian government officials and 17 entities, including numerous financial institutions, pursuant to Executive Order 13661. That order authorizes sanctions on, among others, officials of the Russian Government and any individual or entity that is owned or controlled by, that has acted for or on behalf of, or that has provided material or other support to, a senior Russian government official. The designated individuals will be subject to an asset freeze and a U.S. visa ban, and the companies will be subject to an asset freeze. In addition, the Department of Commerce imposed additional restrictions on 13 of the companies by imposing a license requirement with a presumption of denial for the export, re-export or other foreign transfer of U.S.-origin items to the companies. Further, the Departments of Commerce and State tightened review of export license applications for any high-technology items that could contribute to Russia’s military capabilities, and plan to revoke any existing export licenses that meet the tightened conditions.
On April 11, the Treasury Department submitted to the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) FinCEN’s long-awaited proposed rule to establish customer due diligence requirements for financial institutions. Under executive order, each agency is required to submit for regulatory review rules resulting from “significant regulatory actions,” and OIRA has 90 days to complete or waive the review. The public portion of the FinCEN rulemaking has been ongoing since February 2012 when FinCEN released an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to solicit comment on potential requirements for financial institutions to (i) conduct initial due diligence and verify customer identities at the time of account opening; (ii) understand the purpose and intended nature of the account; (iii) identify and verify all customers’ beneficial owners; and (iv) monitor the customer relationship and conduct additional due diligence as needed. FinCEN subsequently held a series of roundtable meetings, summaries of which it later published.
This week, Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen and FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery outlined the Treasury Department’s approach to regulation of virtual currency. Mr. Cohen acknowledged that large scale adoption of virtual currency is possible, but asserted that the long term viability of virtual currency is dependent on establishing consumer and investor protections, and addressing the risk that virtual currency can be used to facilitate illicit finance. Although Treasury does not currently see widespread use of virtual currencies in terrorism financing or sanctions evasion, Mr. Cohen highlighted those risks in addition to money laundering risk posed by the anonymous nature of virtual currencies. Treasury’s basic policy approach is to seek a balance between allowing new technologies to flourish while ensuring systems are sufficiently transparent to protect the U.S. economy. Mr. Cohen made clear that Treasury will err on the side of transparency when necessary. Currently, Treasury and FinCEN are focused on “the moment ‘real’ money is exchanged into virtual currency, and when virtual currency is exchanged back into ‘real’ money.” Mr. Cohen believes that such an approach is sufficient given current adoption levels, but added that Treasury will need to consider whether to apply “cash-like” reporting requirements to virtual currency when it appears that “daily financial life can be conducted for long stretches fully ‘within’ a virtual currency universe.” Treasury is advancing its objectives and approach internationally through the Financial Action Task Force, which Treasury anticipates will publish an updated paper on virtual currency definitions and risks later this year. Finally, both officials announced that, for the first time, Treasury will include a member of the virtual currency community as part of the Bank Secrecy Act Advisory Group, which advises Treasury on anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing policy.
On January 22, Michael Stegman, Treasury Department Counselor for Housing Finance Policy stated in remarks to an industry conference that the Treasury Department opposes expansion of the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) to include loans originated after the current May 31, 2009 cut-off date. Treasury believes that few loans originated after that date are underwater, and that expanding the eligibility date would only prolong market and investor uncertainties. Treasury also does not support efforts by some local jurisdictions to employ eminent domain to seize and restructure underwater mortgages, stating that the administration instead supports legislation to increase refinancing opportunities. Dr. Stegman also discussed housing finance reform generally—he expressed support for the ongoing Senate efforts to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and indicated that the Treasury Department plans to facilitate reform of the private label securities sector by holding “a series of conversations with relevant regulators, market participants, and other stakeholders.”
On October 21, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed a $1.5 million civil penalty in an enforcement action against a UAE-based investment and advising company for violating the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations. OFAC determined that the firm recklessly or willfully concealed or omitted information pertaining to $103,283 in funds transfers processed through U.S.-based financial institutions for the benefit of persons in Iran. OFAC determined that the firm’s actions were egregious because (i) it did not voluntarily self-disclose the violations to OFAC, has no OFAC compliance program, and did not cooperate in the investigation, (ii) the firm’s management had actual knowledge or reason to know of the conduct, and (iii) the conduct resulted in potentially significant harm to the U.S. sanctions program against Iran.
On August 12, Senators Tom Carper (D-DE) and Tom Coburn (R-OK), the leaders of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano regarding federal virtual currency policy. The committee reportedly sent similar letters to the DOJ, the Federal Reserve Board, the Treasury Department, the SEC, the CFTC, and the OMB. Citing a federal court’s recent holding that virtual currency Bitcoin is money or currency for the purpose of determining jurisdiction under the Securities Act of 1933, as well as other recent developments related to virtual currencies, the lawmakers seek information about (i) the agencies’ existing policies on virtual currencies, (ii) coordination among federal or state entities related to the treatment of virtual currencies, and (iii) “any plans” “strategies” or “ongoing initiatives” regarding virtual currencies. This recent scrutiny of virtual currencies follows regulatory and enforcement actions taken earlier this year, including guidance issued by FinCEN and federal criminal charges against a digital currency issuer and money transfer system. For a review of those actions and other state and federal regulatory challenges facing emerging payment providers, please see a recent article by BuckleySandler attorneys Margo Tank and Ian Spear.
On August 12, New York Department of Financial Services (NY DFS) Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky issued a notice of inquiry about the “appropriate regulatory guidelines that [the NY DFS] should put in place for virtual currencies.” The NY DFS notes the emergence of Bitcoin and other virtual currency as the catalyst for its inquiry, and the notice states that the NY DFS already has “conducted significant preliminary work.” That preliminary work includes 22 subpoenas the NY DFS reportedly issued last week to companies associated with Bitcoin.
The NY DFS is concerned that virtual currency exchangers may be engaging in money transmission as defined in New York. Under existing New York law, and the laws of a majority of other states, companies engaged in money transmission must obtain a license, post collateral, submit to periodic examinations, and comply with anti-money laundering laws. However, the NY DFS also suggests that regulating virtual currency under existing money transmission rules may not be the most beneficial approach. Instead, it is considering “new guidelines that are tailored to the unique characteristics of virtual currencies.” The NY DFS notice does not provide any timeline for further action on these issues.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs is reviewing federal policy as it relates to virtual currencies. Read more…