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.

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.

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.