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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

Six largest U.S. banks testify on pandemic responses and banking programs

Federal Issues House Financial Services Committee Covid-19 Diversity Fintech Consumer Finance

Federal Issues

On May 27, the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing entitled “Holding Megabanks Accountable: An Update on Banking Practices, Programs and Policies.” During the hearing, chief executive officers from the six largest U.S. banks testified on their banks’ activities during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as various issues related to safety and soundness, consumer protection, diversity and inclusion, risk management, compensation, climate risk, and the use of emerging technology. Several proposed bills containing provisions that would impact the banks if enacted were also discussed, including those that would (i) require the banks to publicly disclose and pay damages to harmed consumers within a short timeframe when more than 50,000 consumers are affected or potential remediation exceeds $10 million; and (ii) require federal regulators to design strategic plans to hold the banks accountable for compliance failures resulting in extensive consumer harm. The Committee’s memorandum focused on several areas discussed during the hearing including the following:

  • Pandemic response. The Committee expressed concerns over allegations that some of the banks prioritized Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans for wealthier clients over smaller borrowers, including small and minority-owned businesses, and that certain banks allegedly inappropriately charged overdraft fees.
  • Banking deserts. The Committee reported that the number of branches in the U.S. is down from ten years ago, noting that the existence of communities lacking adequate access to a bank branch makes it more difficult to reduce the number of unbanked and underbanked consumers.
  • Diversity and inclusion. The Committee suggested that lack of diversity within the banks continues to be an issue, pointing out that shareholder proposals at certain banks for racial equality audits were not supported by the banks. However, the Committee noted that all six banks made commitments in 2020 to invest millions into supporting minority depository institutions and community development financial institutions to support communities of color during the pandemic.
  • Fintech. The Committee discussed the increased use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to assist in digital banking, customer relations, fraud detection, and underwriting. Some of the banks, the Committee noted, have “acknowledged the competitive threat of fintech’s growth” and have asked regulators to “create a level playing field.” With respect to cryptocurrency custody services and the use of distributed ledger technology to perform payment activities, the Committee observed that while the banks do not yet provide these services, a few of them recently announced that they are considering the idea of offering funds to select investors allowing bitcoin ownership, while others may offer bitcoin investments in the near future. 

Earlier in the week, the same CEOs discussed pandemic responses during the Senate Banking Committee’s hearing on the “Annual Oversight of Wall Street Firms.” The CEOs addressed challenges with building out digital platforms to facilitate PPP loan applications and forgiveness programs, as well as challenges to distributing funds quickly and in a manner that would prevent fraud from entering the system. The CEOs also emphasized their continued commitment to helping borrowers still facing financial hardships as federal foreclosure and eviction moratoriums begin to expire. One CEO noted during the hearing that his bank intends to continue to assist borrowers find loan modifications “irrespective of the deadline passing.”

 

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