Senate Banking Leaders Release Draft Housing Finance Reform Bill

On March 16, Senate Banking Chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Ranking Member Mike Crapo (R-ID) released long-awaited draft legislation to end the government’s conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and reform the housing finance system. The Senators also released a summary of the proposal and a section-by-section analysis. The bill adopts many of the principles originally outlined in bipartisan legislation introduced last year by Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Bob Corker (R-TN). Like the Warner-Corker bill, the leadership proposal would create a Federal Mortgage Insurance Corporation (FMIC), modeled in part after the FDIC and intended to provide an explicit government backstop for certain MBS. The government backstop would sit behind private investors required to hold at least 10% capital on FMIC-issued securities. FMIC losses in turn would be backed by a reinsurance fund. The FMIC also would (i) oversee a new mortgage securitization platform; (ii) supervise guarantors, aggregators, servicers, and private mortgage insurers; and (iii) collect fees dedicated to support affordable housing and allocated among the Housing Trust Fund, the Capital Magnet Fund, and a new Market Access Fund. Under the bill servicers, aggregators, and others would be subject to capital requirements now only applicable to banks. The bill would establish a 5% down payment requirement for borrowers, 3.5% for first time borrowers. The bill also would create a jointly owned small lender mutual intended to provide small lenders access to the secondary market. The leadership’s small lender mutual would be open to more banks—any depository institution with up to $500 billion in assets—than the Warner-Corker plan would allow. The Committee is expected to markup the legislation in the coming weeks.

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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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Democratic Lawmakers Express Support for DOJ Payment Processor Investigations

On February 26, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and other Democratic Senators, together with Representatives Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Maxine Waters (D-CA), and other Democratic House members, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder encouraging the DOJ to “continue a vigorous review of potential payment fraud, anti-money-laundering violations, and other illegal conduct involving payments by banks and third-party payment processors.” The lawmakers highlighted a number of specific issues on which the DOJ should focus: (i) know-your-customer obligations, which they believe should include a review of whether a lender holds all required state licenses and follows state lending laws; (ii) use of lead generators, including those that auction consumer data; (iii) high rates of returned, contested, or otherwise failed debits or the regular use of remotely created checks, which they state may indicate payment fraud; and (iv) lenders’ failure to incorporate or maintain a business presence in the U.S., which they assert can be indicative of fraud and other payment system violations, including money-laundering.

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Senate Report Urges DOJ Action Regarding Offshore Tax Evasion, Enforcement Against Swiss Banks

On February 27, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) issued a report and held a hearing related to its multi-year investigation of offshore tax evasion and the DOJ’s efforts to pursue Swiss banks who allegedly aid U.S. citizens in evading taxes. The hearing and report focused on one Swiss bank alleged to have facilitated tax evasion and criticized the DOJ for its supposedly “lax enforcement” approach towards numerous Swiss banks. The report states that U.S. law enforcement authorities have failed to prosecute more than a dozen Swiss banks the PSI staff believes facilitated U.S. tax evasion, and failed to take action against the thousands of U.S. citizens who have been revealed as tax evaders. The report also criticizes Swiss officials who the PSI alleges have worked to preserve Swiss bank secrecy by intervening in U.S. criminal investigations and hampering progress. The PSI report urges the DOJ to “use all available U.S. legal means” to obtain the names of alleged tax evaders, and to hold accountable “tax haven banks that aided and abetted” in the alleged evasion. The report also states that U.S. banking regulators should “institute a probationary period of increased reporting requirements for, or to limit the opening of new accounts by, tax haven banks that enter into deferred prosecution agreements, non-prosecution agreements, settlements, or other concluding actions with law enforcement for facilitating U.S. tax evasion, taking into consideration repetitive or cumulative misconduct.” Finally, the subcommittee recommended that the Senate promptly ratify a pending U.S.-Switzerland tax treaty that would allow for increased sharing of information by the Swiss.

 

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Democratic Lawmakers Urge Federal Reserve Board To Increase Direct Role In Supervision And Enforcement

On February 11, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) sent a letter to newly appointed Federal Reserve Board Chairman Janet Yellen, asking that she reconsider the Board’s policy of delegating supervisory and enforcement powers to staff. The lawmakers cite a recent letter from former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, in which he explained that in the last 10 years, the Board of Governors voted on only 11 of nearly 1,000 enforcement actions, and that under current application of the Federal Reserve’s enforcement delegation policy, the Federal Reserve can enter into consent orders without ever receiving formal approval of senior staff. The letter asks for a change in policy that would require the Board to retain greater authority over the Federal Reserve’s enforcement and supervisory activities. Specifically, the lawmakers recommend that (i) the Board vote on any consent order that involves $1 million or more or that requires a bank officer to be removed and/or new management installed; (ii) staff formally notify the Board before entering into a consent order under delegated authority; (iii) each Board member be provided with the necessary staffing capacity to review and analyze pending enforcement actions; and (iv) all Board members receive a copy of all letters sent to the Chairman or another Board member by a committee or member of Congress.

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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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Senate Commerce Committee Expands Data Broker Inquiry

On February 3, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) again expanded his investigation of data brokers when he asked six brokers for information on the compilation and sale of products that identify consumers based on their financial vulnerability or health status. The issue was raised recently in a majority staff report, which was released in connection with a December 2013 committee hearing. The Chairman cited “serious concerns regarding the sale and dissemination of lists identifying a consumer’s fragile health or financial circumstances without the consumer’s knowledge or permission,” which Mr. Rockefeller believes can be used by businesses seeking to target vulnerable customers for financially risky lending products or fraud schemes. The Chairman seeks a broad range of information about the companies’ data collection and sales practices conducted over a five year period. The letters are the latest in an ongoing review by the Committee, which previously expanded the scope of the review in September 2013.

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Senate Democrats Press FHFA On Housing Trust Fund

On January 24, Senators Warren (D-MA), Reed (D-RI), Boxer (D-CA), and 29 other Senate Democrats sent a letter to FHFA Director Mel Watt asking that he lift the suspension on funding for the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF) and the Capital Magnet Fund (CMF), in “a manner fully consistent with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations.” The Senators assert that the number of homes that are affordable to renters with incomes at or below 30 percent of area median income has decreased by more than one million units since passage of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act in 2008, resulting in a national shortage of nearly five million units affordable and available to extremely low-income renters, and that funding the NHTF and CMF cannot wait for Congress to agree on broader housing finance reform.

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CFPB Issues Advisory Regarding Recent Retailer Data Breaches; Congressional Activity Increases

On January 28, the CFPB issued a consumer advisory in response to recent reports of data breaches at several large retailers. In addition to providing tips for consumers in the wake of a retail breach, the advisory encourages card holders to submit complaints about debit and credit card issuers’ inadequate responses to consumer charge disputes related to data breaches.

The advisory is the first public response from the CFPB on data breach issues.  It follows a request last month from Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a member of the Senate Banking Committee, that the CFPB conduct an investigation of the data breach and issue a “full report on the findings of its investigation — informing the public of how this breach occurred, how consumers can protect themselves from similar attacks, and any further recommendations the CFPB may have for retailers to minimize the occurrence of similar breaches.”  Schumer also asked Director Cordray to “take a closer look at whether retailers systems should be required to transfer credit and debit card information as encrypted data. . . . The CFPB must ensure that necessary rules and standards for retailers are in place to validate consumers’ trust in the transaction process.”

Numerous congressional committees share jurisdiction over data breach issues. The Senate Banking Committee will be among the first to act with a hearing scheduled for February 3, 2014 that will feature governmental witnesses, as well as the views of the retailer and banking industries.

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Senators Introduce Prepaid Card Bills

On January 9, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), released the Prepaid Card Disclosure Act of 2014. The bill would amend the Electronic Fund Transfer Act to require any person that offers certain prepaid card accounts to offer with any application a table of fees that (i) can be “easily understood”; (ii) is “clearly and conspicuously” displayed; and (iii) includes, at a minimum, the amount and description of each fee that may be charged in connection with the account. In addition, a toll-free number and website at which the consumer can access the fee disclosure would have to be included on the card or other means of account access. The bill would require the CFPB to establish by rulemaking a format for the fee table and would allow the CFPB to require the placement of a QR code or similar technology on any packaging, card, or other object associated with the account to provide an electronic link to the disclosures. The bill follows the December 2013 introduction of the Prepaid Card Consumer Protection Act, sponsored by Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). The bill includes disclosure requirements similar to the Warner bill, plus a “wallet sized” fee disclosure requirement. In addition, Senator Menendez’s bill would, among other things, prohibit numerous fees and most credit features, and would require that financial institutions and account providers close accounts and refund the balance after 12 months of inactivity or other term of inactivity established by the CFPB, and upon request of the consumer.

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Senators Seek More Transparency In Federal Agency Settlements

On January 8, Senate Banking Committee members Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) released the “Truth in Settlements Act.” The legislation would mandate that for any criminal or civil settlement entered into by a federal agency that requires total payments of $1 million or more, the agency must post online in a searchable format a list of each covered settlement agreement. The list must include, among other things: (i) the total settlement amount and a description of the claims; (ii) the names of parties and the amount each settling party is required to pay; and (iii) for each settling party, the amount of the payment designated as a civil penalty or fine, or otherwise specified as not tax deductible. The bill also would require that public statements by an agency about a covered settlement describe: (i) which portion of any payments is a civil or criminal penalty or fine, or is expressly specified as non-tax deductible; and (ii) any actions the settling company is required to take under the agreement, in lieu of or in addition to any payment. The bill would exempt disclosure of information subject to a confidentiality provision, but would in cases where partial or full confidentiality is applied, require the agency to issue a public statement about why confidential treatment is required to protect the public interest of the U.S. The bill also would require public companies to describe in their annual and periodic SEC reports any claim filed for a tax deduction that relates to a payment required under a covered settlement. In announcing the legislation, Senator Warren stated that the bill is needed to “shut down backroom deal-making and ensure that Congress, citizens and watchdog groups can hold regulatory agencies accountable for strong and effective enforcement that benefits the public interest.”

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House, Senate Bills Seek To Ease Volcker Rule Impact On TruPS CDOs

On January 8, House Financial Services Committee chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) and committee member Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV) introduced a bill, H.R. 3819, that would clarify that the Volcker Rule will not require banking institutions to divest their ownership in Trust Preferred Securities (TruPS) collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that were issued before the date of the final Volcker Rule, December 10, 2013. A group of Republican Senators also announced a bill, the text of which was not immediately available. As recently reported, federal regulators are reviewing whether it is appropriate and consistent with the Dodd-Frank Act to fully exempt TruPS CDOs from the Volcker Rule prohibitions on ownership of covered funds. On January 7, a group of House Democrats sent a letter to the regulators urging them to exempt banks with less than $15 billion in assets from the Volcker TruPS CDO divestiture requirement.

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Senate Confirms Federal Reserve Board Chair

On January 6, the U.S. Senate voted 56-26 to confirm Janet Yellen to be Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. Ms. Yellen will begin her appointment after Chairman Bernanke steps down at the end of January.

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CFPB Submits Annual Report To Appropriations Committees

On December 30, the CFPB released an annual report reviewing consumer financial protection activities undertaken by the Bureau during the last fiscal year. The report was presented to the Committees on Appropriations of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives pursuant to section 1017(e)(4) of the Dodd-Frank Act and covers August 1, 2012 through September 30, 2013. While it does not identify any planned activities, the report reviews the Bureau’s enforcement and fair lending activities to date, and explains the Bureau’s risk-based prioritization process for addressing lending discrimination and allocating enforcement resources. The report also describes the Bureau’s supervisory process, including procedures for conducting examinations and investigations, as well as its complaint process.  Finally, the report reviews the proposed and final rules issued to date and provides, as well as administrative issues such as the agency’s spending and organization.

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Senate Confirms FHFA Director; FHFA Announces Senior Staff, Organizational Change

On December 10, the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Representative Mel Watt (D-NC) to serve as Director of the FHFA. Once sworn in, Mr. Watt will replace Edward DeMarco, who has led the agency on an “acting” basis for more than four years. Mr. DeMarco has faced criticism from federal and state Democratic policymakers and housing groups, in part based on his decision to not direct Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to engage in broad principal reduction programs.

On December 11, the FHFA announced that Jeffrey Spohn, FHFA’s Deputy Director of the Office of Conservatorship Operations, will retire in January, and that the FHFA will combine two offices managing conservatorship-related matters into a new Division of Conservatorship. That new division will be led by Wanda DeLeo, who currently serves as Deputy Director in the Office of Strategic Initiatives.

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