In light of Veterans Day, there are some recent notable developments regarding the Military Lending Act (MLA) worth discussing. Enacted in 2006, the MLA caps the annual interest rate for an extension of consumer credit to a servicemember and/or their dependents at thirty six percent, among other protections. The MLA initially applied to a narrow range of payday, auto title, and tax refund anticipation loans, but was expanded in 2015 to include credit cards, installment loans and overdraft lines of credit.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently announced it plans to end supervisory examinations for alleged violations of the MLA. Supervisory examinations are one of the agency’s key tools to ensure that supervised entities comply with federal consumer financial laws and allow the agency to proactively uncover abuses and patterns of illegal practices by companies suspected of wrongdoing.

According to the CFPB’s Acting Director Mick Mulvaney, neither the Dodd-Frank Act nor the MLA contain explicit provisions for it to conduct supervisory examinations related to alleged violations of the MLA. Under the Obama Administration, the agency conducted dozens of investigations into payday and other lenders pursuant to the MLA without any significant legal opposition or challenges.

According to Mulvaney, the CFPB plans to ask Congress to provide it with express authorization to conduct active monitoring of lenders’ MLA compliance. With the Democrats achieving a majority in the House, Congress may very well introduce legislative changes in January 2019.   However, until these changes are enacted, the CFPB plans to halt its use of supervisory examinations to investigate alleged MLA violations.

In response to this announcement, a coalition of thirty-three, bi-partisan state attorneys general sent a letter the CFPB, asking it to reverse course. The coalition argued that MLA permits the CFPB to conduct supervisory examinations and implored the agency to continue strong enforcement of the MLA. Consumer groups and groups representing servicemembers and their families also strongly oppose the CFPB’s change in position.

For financial institutions, the CFPB’s change in supervisory policy will mean reduced oversight through routine supervisory examinations based solely on the MLA. While the CFPB will continue to pursue cases against creditors for violations of the thirty-six percent interest rate cap and other MLA prohibitions, it will rely solely on complaints from servicemembers, rather than its own examinations to uncover violations.

A year ago, the CFPB reported that it had handled over 91,000 complaints from servicemembers, veterans, and their families since 2011. Its 50-state snapshot showed servicemembers are less likely to submit complaints than non-servicemembers about mortgages and credit reporting.

 

In its recently published Fall 2018 Rulemaking Agenda, the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection announced that it is considering future rulemaking activity regarding the requirements of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (“ECOA”) – specifically, “concerning the disparate impact doctrine in light of recent Supreme Court case law and the Congressional disapproval of a prior Bureau bulletin concerning indirect auto lender compliance with ECOA and its implementing regulations.”

In May, President Trump signed a joint resolution passed by Congress disapproving the Bureau’s March 21, 2013 Bulletin titled “Indirect Auto Lending and Compliance with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.” The Bulletin’s purpose was to “provide[] guidance for indirect auto lenders within the Bureau’s jurisdiction on ways to limit fair lending risk under the ECOA.” The Bulletin had been controversial from the start, suggesting that indirect auto lenders — who purchase and service loans made by auto dealers that fit criteria agreed to between the dealer and lender — consider imposing controls on dealer markup and eliminate the dealer’s discretion to markup buy rates.

Acting Bureau Director Mick Mulvaney praised the congressional resolution, continuing the Bureau’s move away from the fair lending enforcement priorities of the Bureau’s first Director, Richard Cordray (who, as an aside, was just defeated this past Election Day as the Democratic nominee for Governor of Ohio). Mulvaney thanked President Trump and Congress “for reaffirming that the Bureau lacks the power to act outside of federal statutes.” Mulvaney also referred to the Bulletin as an “instance of Bureau overreach,” and asserted that the initiative “seemed like a solution in search of a problem.” He indicated then that Bureau rulemaking on disparate impact would reflect another theme of his approach: a move toward formal rulemaking in lieu of bulletin issuance or “regulation by enforcement.”

Although the Bureau’s Rulemaking Agenda does not address the details of the contemplated rulemaking activity around ECOA, the Agenda’s reference to “recent Supreme Court case law” suggests that any rulemaking may be designed to address unanswered questions following the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Tex. Dep’t of Housing & Community Aff. v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 2507 (2015), in which the Court upheld the concept of disparate impact liability under the other principal federal lending discrimination law, the Fair Housing Act, but also emphasized that disparate impact litigants must prove causation – in other words, proof of a statistical disparity among racial groups alone is not sufficient. Inclusive Communities also imposed other restrictions on disparate impact liability.

Potential Bureau rulemaking might focus on application of the Court’s holdings to ECOA. Such a rule would be more durable than the Bureau’s earlier fair lending bulletin, remaining in effect unless altered by later rulemaking (and thus surviving any future leadership change at the Bureau). A rule would also be binding on other federal agencies and the courts, and thus could provide much-desired clarity for lenders.

On October 25, 2018, the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS) renewed its lawsuit against the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) seeking to prevent the OCC from issuing its long awaited special-purpose bank charters to fintech companies. The OCC recently announced that it would begin accepting applications for the special-purpose charter, a move that would allow the OCC to regulate fintech companies similar to their supervision of national banks.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, comes on the heels of a similar suit brought against the OCC in the Southern District of New York by the New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS) Superintendent Maria T. Vullo. Both complaints challenge the OCC’s authority in providing the special-purpose charter under the National Bank Act (NBA) arguing that fintech “nonbanks” do not fall within the “business of banking” or any other authorized special-purpose provision. The lawsuits place a significant emphasis on the role of the state regulator in the U.S. dual-banking system, arguing that states are uniquely qualified to regulate banking practices and enable financial innovation. In addition to lacking statutory authority, the lawsuits argue that the OCC’s actions were arbitrary, unconstitutional, and procedurally defective, as the OCC failed to adhere to notice provisions under the NBA.

Since the OCC’s first public announcement of the charter in 2016, the special-purpose charter has faced criticism from state regulators. Both the CSBS and DFS previously filed complaints questioning the OCC’s statutory authority, but the complaints were dismissed as speculative and unripe for judicial review.

On September 30, 2018, California enacted the nation’s first small business truth-in-lending law when Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 1235. The law aims to protect small businesses from predatory lending practices by requiring increased transparency of certain business-purpose loans marketed to small businesses.

SB 1235 draws comparisons to the federal Truth in Lending Act, which imposes disclosure requirements for consumer-purpose, but not business-purpose loans.  SB 1235 covers “commercial financing,” defined to include commercial loans, commercial open-end credit plans, factoring, and merchant cash advances, for transactions less than $500,000.  Of note, SB 1235 applies to nondepository institutions, such as an “online lending platform,” and exempts traditional depository institutions.

Disclosures required by the law include: (i) the total amount of funds provided, (ii) the total dollar cost of the financing, (iii) the term or estimated term, (iv) the method, frequency, and amount of payments, (v) the description of prepayment policies, and (vi) the annualized rate of the total cost of financing. The California Department of Business Oversight (DBO) is tasked with developing regulations to clarify the ambiguous scope of SB 1235.

The law has garnered broad industry support from signatories to the Small Business Borrowers’ Bill of Rights, which encompasses small business lenders, fintech companies, advocacy groups, and community organizations. Some business groups, including the Commercial Finance Association and Electronic Transactions Association, have chosen not to support the bill.

 

 

In the latest sign of regulatory scrutiny of asset-advance companies offering consumers what regulators believe are in fact regulated “credit” under federal law and “loans” under state law, the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (BCFP) filed its first new lawsuit under Acting Director Mulvaney last Thursday. The complaint, filed in the Central District of California, alleges that a so-called pension-advance company, Future Income Payments, LLC, its President and affiliates falsely marketed high-interest loans as mere purchases of consumers’ rights to future cash income streams on pensions and other assets.

This action continues the Bureau’s and state regulators’ focus on such asset-advance enterprises: see action against Pension Funding, LLC and others here; action against RD Legal Funding, a litigation settlement advance company, here; and the Bureau’s 2015 “Consumer advisory: 3 pension advance traps to avoid.” In its new complaint, the BCFP complaint alleges that the defendants failed to treat their products as “credit” and “loans,” and alleges violations of the Truth-in-Lending Act and the Consumer Financial Protection Act for (i) failure to follow federal credit disclosure requirements, (ii) engaging in deceptive marketing practices, and (iii) failure to follow various state laws governing “loans.”

In this case, the BCFP specifically alleged that Defendants, based in Irvine, CA, lured senior citizens, disabled veterans, and other vulnerable consumers into borrowing money at deceptively high interest rates. The company allegedly offered consumers lump-sum payments of up to $60,000 in exchange for their assigning to the company a larger amount of their future pension and other income streams. Marketing the product as a “purchase” and not a loan, the company allegedly claimed that the advance was interest-free and a useful way to pay off credit card debt. In fact, the Bureau alleges, the discount applied to consumers’ future income streams was a disguised form of interest, equivalent to rates of up to 183%.

Interestingly, though, the Complaint does not address exactly why the challenged transactions are, in fact, extensions of “credit” under the federal Truth-in-Lending Act’s definition of that term and “loans” under state law. We will continue to track the Bureau’s analysis of those issues, because they are arising repeatedly as Fintech and other new companies develop products that seek, in a wide variety of forms, to offer consumers advances in exchange for future cash streams.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued its “Nonbank Financials, Fintech, and Innovation” Report, the fourth in a series of reports outlining the Trump administration’s financial regulatory agenda.  In the report, Treasury presents a new approach to regulation designed to promote “critical” innovation in fintech. The report outlines four broad areas of focus: (1) adapting regulatory approaches to data sharing, (2) battling “regulatory fragmentation” and directly addressing new business models, (3) updating activity-specific regulations across a range of products and services, and (4) promoting “responsible experimentation.”

In addition to announcing a regulatory “sandbox” that would allow fintech firms to gain approval for new products, Treasury takes aim at several controversial issues that have dogged fintechs in recent years. The report argues that the CFPB’s payday lending rule should be revoked, for example, and urges Congress to pass legislation overturning Madden v. Midland Funding—the 2015 2d Circuit case that rejected the long-standing “valid-when-made” rule and applied state law usury laws to purchasers of debt from national banks—and takes aim at the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and other consumer protection laws the report deems outdated. The report also recommends that credit reporting agencies and credit repair organizations should be more effectively regulated and supervised with a view to protecting consumer credit information and educating consumers on improving credit scores.

At practically the same time as Treasury’s report was issued, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) announced that it will begin accepting applications for its long-awaited special-purpose national bank charter. Comptroller Joseph M. Otting announced the move, stating that the charter will “provide more choices to consumers and businesses,” while stressing that any fintech companies providing innovative banking services deserves “the opportunity to pursue that business on a national scale, as a federally chartered, regulated bank.”

The special-purpose charter was initially proposed by former Comptroller Thomas Curry in December 2016 and followed by a manual for charter applicants issued in March 2017. While the special-purpose charter comes with significant capital, liquidity, and risk management requirements, it is intended to provide regulatory certainty to marketplace lenders and platforms seeking the benefits of federal preemption over state licensing, usury and disclosure rules. When the charter was first announced, the OCC proposal sparked criticism from state regulators including the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) and community banking trade groups, and it is likely any charter application will reignite these debates.

 

Earlier this week, Acting Director Mulvaney announced the creation of a new “Office of Financial Innovation,” and appointed Paul Watkins, an official who led the Arizona Attorney General’s fintech initiatives, to lead the Office.  The new Office, which will now do the work formerly done under the Bureau’s Project Catalyst, “will focus on creating policies to facilitate innovation, engaging with entrepreneurs and regulators, and reviewing outdated or unnecessary regulations.”  The Bureau’s announcement also described the encouragement of “consumer-friendly innovation” as a “key priority” for the agency.

The announcement may be notable for its mention that Watkins had “managed the FinTech Regulatory Sandbox” for Arizona, the first state fintech sandbox in the country. This might possibly presage Bureau efforts to offer its own form of a “sandbox,” which in theory would allow a company limited access to the marketplace in exchange for relaxing some regulations.  Another point to watch for will be whether the Bureau follows this announcement with any proposal to revise its “No Action Letter” policy.  That policy, though aimed specifically at providing financial innovators with more regulatory certainty, is viewed by many as restrictive and has resulted, to date, in only one No Action Letter in the two years of the Policy’s existence.

Thursday’s Senate confirmation hearing for Kathy Kraninger, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”), produced a number of testy exchanges with Democrats but no obvious obstacles to the Senate confirming her ultimately. Kraninger, now an Associate Director of the Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”), would if confirmed replace the Bureau’s Acting Director, Mick Mulvaney.  In addition, as the law now stands, Kraninger would then be removable only “for cause” during a term for as long as five years, which would extend well into the next Presidential administration.

In her brief opening statement and throughout her testimony, Kraninger indicated that she would continue the pro-business shift at the agency started by Mulvaney more than six months ago.  She shared no views about specific policy issues facing the Bureau, such as whether the CFPB should repeal its final but not-yet-effective payday lending regulations.  She did in more vague terms, however, indicate that she would make data privacy a high priority, and that she approved of Mulvaney’s actions as director.

Senator Mike Crapo (R-Id.), Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee that held Thursday’s hearing, stated that Kraninger would have to respond to any follow-up written questions from Senators by July 31, 2018, and that a Committee vote would follow by the end of that week, August 3.

As has been widely reported, Kraninger would bring relatively little consumer financial experience to the Director position. Democratic Senators seized on that point and repeatedly charged that she was unqualified to lead the agency.  Indeed, no Democrats voiced support for Kraninger, with even some from “Red” states indicating they had concerns.  Other Democratic Senators posed questions about Kraninger’s role at OMB overseeing the agencies responsible for the controversial “zero-tolerance” border policy and disaster recovery in Puerto Rico, but Kraninger’s responses offered very little in terms of specifics, leaving exasperated some of the questioners, especially Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MS).

In line with expectations, the panel’s Republicans generally described the CFPB as an unaccountable agency that Kraninger has the management expertise to lead. Because Republicans maintain a narrow Senate majority and showed no obvious indication of concern, it would appear at the moment that they could push a confirmation through if determined to do so.

Importantly, even if Democrats are able to delay Kraninger’s confirmation, the delay would leave Acting Director Mulvaney in charge during the pendency of the nomination.

In a statement on Thursday, April 26, a key House Republican on CFPB issues effectively admitted that despite his own efforts and those of the Trump Administration including Acting CFPB Director, Mick Mulvaney, Congress will almost certainly make no changes to the structure of the CFPB this year.  As a result, there will probably be no change from a single-Director to a Commission, nor will changes be made to the way in which the CFPB is funded, or to the Director’s independent status.

In remarks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Jeb Hensarling, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, conceded that he is now willing to accept the bi-partisan banking deregulatory bill that passed the Senate recently as S. 2155, which makes no changes to the CFPB’s structure.  As we reported previously, several Senate Democrats who supported S. 2155 have made clear they would not accept amendments to it by the House that would weaken the CFPB.

Chairman Hensarling indicated that he would still like to pursue his CFPB reforms as separate bills, but most observers agree that if those reforms cannot be attached to the Senate bill, they will not become law this year.  White House statements indicate that President Trump would like to sign S. 2155 into law by Memorial Day.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate voted almost entirely along party lines to invalidate, under the Congressional Review Act, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) (in)famous 2013 Bulletin on lending discrimination in the indirect auto market via discretionary mark-ups and dealer compensation policies.  The 2013 Bulletin, construing the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and its implementing rule, Regulation B, had served as the basis for a number of substantial CFPB enforcement actions against indirect auto lenders, with large fines and loud protests from industry.

The U.S. House of Representatives has been poised to vote down the 2013 Bulletin for some time, and is very likely to follow the Senate’s lead and make the invalidation effective.  If as expected the House does act, this would mark the second time in the past year that Congress has voted to strike down a rule issued by the CFPB.  (Last December, the Government Accountability Office’s General Counsel issued a formal legal opinion concluding that the 2013 Bulletin was, in fact, a “rule” subject to the Congressional Review Act, paving the way for yesterday’s Senate vote.)  The first instance, of course, was Congress’ decision to invalidate the CFPB’s rule regarding arbitration.

Despite the Senate’s action Wednesday, efforts to weaken the CFPB by statute along the lines proposed by its Acting Director Mick Mulvaney and Republican congressmen continue to face challenges in Congress.  While such proposals have passed and would likely easily pass again in the House of Representatives, no such measure was included in the recent package of reforms that passed the Senate with bipartisan support.  Several of the Senate Democrats who voted for that package have indicated that they are not inclined to support measures that would weaken the CFPB structurally.