On April 23, the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing during which CFPB Director Richard Cordray testified on the CFPB’s semiannual report to Congress. A substantial portion of the hearing focused on the CFPB’s collection and use of data. Republican committee members led by Ranking Member Mike Crapo (R-ID) criticized the CFPB’s data collection efforts and its developing ability to “watch” consumers, and questioned the CFPB’s legal authority to collect data that could be reverse engineered to connect with specific consumers. Mr. Cordray explained that “big data” is the cutting edge of research in every field and that the CFPB needs to keep pace with financial institutions. According to Mr. Cordray (i) the CFPB’s data are not connected to individuals (aside from complaint data) and are “anonymized”, (ii) much of the data come commercial resources already accessible to firms, (iii) the CFPB obtains certain data from the same sources other regulators have in the past, and (iv) all of the data are essential to the CFPB’s ability to carry out its congressionally mandated work, including rulewriting, reporting to Congress, and undertaking other studies. The hearing also covered numerous other topics including (i) the impact of CFPB’s mortgage rules on small institutions, (ii) the CFPB’s collection and assessment of consumer complaints, (iii) coordination of examinations and information requests among federal and state regulators, and (iv) the status of the CFPB’s arbitration study, portions of which the CFPB may release this year.
On May 14, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) sent a letter to Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke, Attorney General Eric Holder, and SEC Chairman Mary Jo White seeking additional information about the agencies’ respective approach to enforcement actions. Specifically, the letter asks whether the agencies have conducted any internal research or analysis on trade-offs to the public between settling an enforcement action without admission of guilt and going forward with litigation to obtain an admission. The letter notes that the OCC recently informed Ms. Warren that it does not have any such internal research or analysis and reiterates Ms. Warren’s concern that “if a regulator reveals itself to be unwilling to take large financial institutions all the way to trial . . . the regulator has a lot less leverage in settlement negotiations.
On April 10, the CSBS sent a letter to Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) – the chief sponsors in their respective chambers of Congress of legislation related to online payday lending – to express support for the bills. The letter focuses on the provisions of the SAFE Lending Act, S. 172 and H.R. 990, that seek to (i) ensure consistent application of state usury laws and (ii) enhance state authority over online lenders. Noting that state regulators have found “countless instances of unlicensed and unregulated online payday lending” in violation of state law, the CSBS contends that the bills should be considered a “framework for the proper state-federal regulatory balance” with respect to online, short-term, small-dollar loans.
On March 19, the Senate Banking Committee and the House Financial Services Committee each held a hearing to review issues related to housing finance post-federal conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The House committee heard from Acting FHFA Director Edward DeMarco, while the Senate committee heard from non-governmental groups with reform proposals. The hearings mark the beginning of a process expected to play out over the course of the coming months to develop consensus on legislation to reform the housing finance sector. Each of the hearings covered numerous topics, but in each the central issue for debate was the appropriate level of government involvement in the mortgage market. On that primary issue, there was broad consensus that the current conservatorship role of the government should end. However, some stakeholders argued the government should play no role in the reformed market, while others believe a limited, protected government backstop would be necessary to support an affordable, stable housing market. Mr. DeMarco did not take positions on the broad policy issues, but repeated his commitment to implementing the FHFA’s Strategic Plan while positioning Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to meet whatever requirements policymakers choose to impose.
On March 19, the Senate Banking Committee approved Mary Jo White to serve as SEC Commissioner/Chair through June 2014, and Richard Cordray to serve a five-year term as CFPB Director. The vote on Ms. White was 20-1. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) was the lone dissenter, citing his general concern with nominees who previously worked for the industry they are intended to regulate. Mr. Cordray was approved on party lines, 12-10. In an opening statement Ranking Member Michael Crapo (R-ID) reiterated Republican opposition to any nominee until structural changes are made to the CFPB.
On March 12, the Senate Banking Committee held a confirmation hearing for Richard Cordray to serve as CFPB Director, and for Mary Jo White to serve as SEC Commissioner/Chairman. While majority and minority committee members commended Mr. Cordray for his leadership of the CFPB to date, the basic disagreement over the structure of the agency itself remains. Democrats maintain that Mr. Cordray deserves a confirmation vote, citing the facts that Congress already approved the structure of the CFPB, that it is the only financial regulator subject to a funding cap and whose rules are subject to a veto. Republicans argue that the CFPB lacks transparency and accountability, and that it should be changed to a commission structure and subject to congressional appropriations. In his testimony, Mr. Cordray stressed his efforts to be transparent and accountable, and Chairman Johnson (D-ND) entered into the record a letter from Rep. Stivers (R-OH) to the Committee calling on members to confirm Mr. Cordray as someone who could help bridge the gap on policy differences. Committee members also generally supported Ms. White. In her testimony, Ms. White addressed concerns from Senators on both sides about potential conflicts of interest given her recent work as a defense attorney, and stated her primary focus will be to finalize rules required by the Dodd-Frank Act and the JOBS Act. Additional priorities identified by committee members that Ms. White agreed should be agency priorities included finalizing rules for (i) credit rating agency conflicts of interest, (ii) money market funds, (iii) CEO pay versus median employee pay disclosures, (iv) high frequency trading, and (vi) crowd funding. Ms. White also pledged to vigorously enforce existing laws. The committee is scheduled to vote on both nominees on March 19, 2013.
On March 8, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) released a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder advising the DOJ about claims made to the Senator’s office by a “long-time professional in the mortgage industry” that banks and mortgage servicers have engaged in a “systematic effort” to double bill borrowers for certain foreclosure-related fees. The letter identifies a major default service provider with whom other banks and servicers allegedly have been complicit in establishing a fraudulent fee structure that increased foreclosure rates and led directly to other servicing problems, including robosigning. Senator Wyden offers that in addition to being potentially fraudulent, the practices described may violate the False Claims Act. The letter explains that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which currently operate under government conservatorship, are improperly being asked to pay fees that the servicers also are passing on to borrowers. The letter, a copy of which also was sent to the federal housing and banking agencies, seeks a DOJ investigation into these allegations, or a report from the DOJ about any investigation conducted to date. The Senator also (i) seeks guidance from the DOJ about actions Congress can take with regard to foreclosure billing transparency, including a “RESPA-like policy,” (ii) asks whether Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s policies regarding certain of the fees at issue should be implemented industry-wide, and (iii) requests an investigation of competition in the title industry and alleged pricing and market manipulation practices.
On March 7, the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing entitled “Patterns of Abuse: Assessing Bank Secrecy Act Compliance and Enforcement,” which featured testimony from representatives of the Treasury Department, the Comptroller of the Currency; and the Federal Reserve Board. During the hearing, Senators challenged the regulators on what they view as insufficient civil and criminal enforcement of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and Anti-Money Laundering (AML) rules, and pressed them to act more aggressively in bringing criminal actions against banks. Senators also pressed lawmakers on comments made by Attorney General Holder at a hearing the day before where he expressed concern that some of the world’s biggest banks have become “too big to jail” because a potential punishment could negatively impact the broader economy. With regard to possible regulatory and legislative changes, Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry stated that the OCC is drafting guidance for banks on BSA/AML compliance, in part, to make it easier for the OCC to remove bank officers who violate federal anti-money laundering laws. Curry said the OCC also would support expanded safe harbors for banks submitting and sharing Suspicious Activity Reports. Comptroller Curry’s comments at the hearing follow remarks he made earlier in the week when he called on banks to devote more resources to BSA/AML compliance. Mr. Curry stressed that controls with regard to international activities – e.g., foreign correspondent banking and remote deposit capture – need to be commensurate with risk. He also directed banks to focus on third-party relationships and payment processors. Finally, the Comptroller cautioned banks to understand risks presented by deployment of new technologies and payment activities, including prepaid access cards, mobile banking, and mobile wallets.
On February 15, Senate Banking Committee members Mark Warner (D-VA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) sent a letter to the CFPB and the FTC following up on the agencies’ recent reports regarding the consumer reporting market. The Senators ask for the agencies’ help in “tak[ing] further action to improve consumer credit reporting,” and request that they prepare a separate report on whether the current legal framework for the regulation of credit reporting is sufficient or whether additional legislation may be needed.
On February 1, Republican Senators sent a letter to President Obama to reaffirm their position that the CFPB lacks transparency and accountability, and that until structural reforms are implemented, the 43 signatories will continue to block consideration of any nominee for CFPB director. Specifically, the letter states that (i) the CFPB director-led structure should be replaced by a bipartisan board of directors, (ii) the CFPB should be subject to the annual congressional appropriations process, and (iii) prudential regulators should be empowered to serve as a safety and soundness check to CFPB actions. Also on February 1, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), who opted not to sign the letter to President Obama, sent a separate letter to CFPB Director Cordray to highlight the “commonsense reforms” to the CFPB that the two previously have discussed, including a change in the CFPB’s governance structure. The letter states that Mr. Cordray “noted…leadership by a bipartisan board provides some stability and continuity in regulation over time.” On February 7, Senator Portman reportedly is aiming to serve as a liaison between the White House and congressional Republicans on Mr. Cordray’s pending nomination and potential CFPB reforms. The only other Republican Senator not to sign the letter to President Obama was Senator Bob Corker (R-TN).
On January 31, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD), House Oversight Committee Ranking Member, sent a letter to the Federal Reserve Board and the OCC seeking documents and information regarding the regulators’ decision to enter into settlements with certain mortgage servicers subject to consent orders issued in April 2011 to (i) resolve allegations that the firms engaged in improper mortgage servicing and foreclosure practices and (ii) end the Independent Foreclosure Review process established by the prior consent orders. The lawmakers are seeking (i) all documents regarding the performance of the independent consultants engaged by the servicers to conduct the foreclosure reviews, (ii) all documents created by the servicers or the consultants to update the regulators on the status of the foreclosure review process, (iii) all documents compiled by the regulators indicating the total amount of settlement funds paid to each consultant, (iv) the number of borrowers who requested review, by gender, race, zip code, and property value, (v) the total number of reviews initiated by each contractor, and (vi) the average time each contractor required to complete a review of a borrower’s file.
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On January 29, Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder complaining that settlements obtained by the DOJ from financial institutions alleged to have contributed to the financial crisis “involve penalties that are disproportionately low,” both in relation to the institutions’ profits and the amount of harm the institutions are alleged to have caused. The Senators charge that the DOJ’s “prosecutorial philosophy”, which includes giving consideration to the impact of a prosecution or large penalty against an institution on the broader financial system, erodes public confidence and undermines the department’s institutional standing. The Senators seek responses to a series of questions about the DOJ’s approach to post-financial crisis enforcement, including its use of outside experts in making decisions regarding prosecution of the largest financial institutions.
On January 22, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) sent a letter to federal regulators responsible for finalizing the Dodd-Frank Act mandated “qualified residential mortgage” (QRM) standard, urging that the final QRM definition mirror the “qualified mortgage” (QM) definition recently promulgated by the CFPB. The QRM rule will define those loans exempt from the Act’s risk retention requirements for mortgage securitizers, a requirement that also will be set by the rule though it cannot be less than the statutory floor of five percent of the credit risk for any asset that is not a QRM. The Act also prohibits the QRM standard from being broader than the QM definition. Senator Corker maintains that, because the QRM rule will exempt loans sold to federal government sponsored enterprises and government agencies, “if the QRM rule is written differently than the QM rule, most financial institutions will only originate loans intended for sale to” those entities and as a result the return of private capital to the secondary market will be limited.
On January 2, a group of Democratic Senators sent a letter to the Federal Reserve Board, the FDIC, and the OCC seeking action to stop banks from making payday loans. The letter cites the agencies’ “long history of appropriately prohibiting . . . banks from partnering with non-bank payday lenders,” but claims that several banks are currently making payday loans directly to their customers. The products at issue are actually deposit advance loans, which the Senators claim are structured the same as traditional payday loans and put customers in a cycle of debt. The Senators call on the regulators to take “meaningful regulatory action” in response to the problem as they present it, but stop short of identifying specific banks or outlining potential federal legislation.