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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

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  • CFPB urged to regulate fee-based EWA products as credit subject to TILA

    Federal Issues

    On October 12, CFPB Director Rohit Chopra received a letter from “96 consumer, labor, civil rights, legal services, faith, community and financial organizations and academics,” which urged the Bureau to rescind its earned wage access (EWA) advisory opinion and sandbox approval, and requested that the Bureau regulate fee-based EWA products as credit subject to TILA. As previously covered by InfoBytes, last November the Bureau issued an advisory opinion on EWA products to address the uncertainty as to whether EWA providers that meet short-term liquidity needs that arise between paychecks “are offering or extending ‘credit’” under Regulation Z, which implements TILA. The advisory opinion stated that ““a Covered EWA Program does not involve the offering or extension of ‘credit,’” and noted that the “totality of circumstances of a Covered EWA Program supports that these programs differ in kind from products the Bureau would generally consider to be credit.” In December, the Bureau approved a compliance assistance sandbox application, which confirmed that a financial services company’s EWA program did not involve the offering or extension of “credit” as defined by section 1026.2(a)(14) of Regulation Z. The Bureau noted that various features often found in credit transactions were absent from the company’s program, and issued a two-year approval order, which provides the company a safe harbor from liability under TILA and Regulation Z, to the fullest extent permitted by section 130(f) as to any act done in good faith compliance with the order. (Covered by InfoBytes here).

    The letter asserted that “[r]egardless of how they are structured, the essence of virtually all of these programs is that a third party advances funds to the consumer before the consumer’s regular payday and is repaid later in some fashion out of the paycheck. That is a loan. Methods to verify that the consumer has earned wages coming to them are simply a form of underwriting or security. . . . Similarly, the involvement of the employer or the use of payroll deduction does not mean that an advance is not a loan.” The letter raised several concerns, including that the Bureau’s position which views EWA products “as something other than loans leads to evasions of federal credit laws, such as [TILA], and of state laws, in particular usury laws.” Moreover, the letter stressed that this reasoning could have an impact on fair lending laws and “could be used in an attempt to weaken the scope of ECOA and its protections against discrimination against communities of color and other protected classes.” The letter stressed that asking for EWA products to be treated as credit does not mean they should not exist, but rather that the Bureau should examine fee-based EWA providers under its payday lending supervisory authority.

    Federal Issues CFPB Earned Wage Access Regulatory Sandbox No Action Letter TILA Regulation Z

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  • FinCEN plans to undertake future no-action letter rulemaking

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance

    On June 30, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) announced the completion of a report on whether to establish a process for issuing no-action letters in response to inquiries concerning the application of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and other anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism laws to specific conduct, “including a request for a statement as to whether FinCEN or any relevant Federal functional regulator intends to take an enforcement action with respect to such conduct.” As required pursuant to Section 6305 the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (included as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 and covered by InfoBytes here), FinCEN submitted its no-action letter assessment to Congress. The assessment involved consultation with the Attorney General and other entities including the federal functional regulators, state bank and credit union supervisors, and other federal agencies.

    The agency analyzed various issues when conducting its assessment, including “whether a formal no-action process would help to mitigate or accentuate illicit finance risks in the United States.” Among other things, the report concluded that the majority of the consulting parties agreed that FinCEN should implement a no-action letter policy. “The primary benefits identified by those in favor of a no-action letter process are that it could promote a robust and productive dialogue with the public, spur innovation among financial institutions, and enhance the culture of compliance and transparency in the application and enforcement of the BSA,” FinCEN stated. According to FinCEN acting Director Michael Mosier, the agency concluded “that a no-action letter process would be a useful complement to its current forms of regulatory guidance and relief.” The agency stated it intends to undertake a future rulemaking “subject to resource limitations and competing priorities” to establish a process for issuing no-action letters that will supplement its current forms of regulatory guidance and relief. However, FinCEN noted that the no-action letter process would be most effective and workable if it were limited to the agency’s exercise of its own enforcement authority, instead of also addressing other regulators’ exercise of their own enforcement authorities.

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance FinCEN Of Interest to Non-US Persons Bank Secrecy Act Anti-Money Laundering Combating the Financing of Terrorism No Action Letter Financial Crimes

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  • CFPB issues two new CAS approval orders

    Federal Issues

    On December 30, the CFPB issued two compliance assistance sandbox (CAS) approval orders covering a dual-feature credit card and an earned wage access product. The first approval was issued to a federal savings bank regarding its proposal to develop a “dual-feature credit card,” which would be offered to consumers with limited or damaged credit history to help reestablish more favorable credit history. According to the approval order, the consumer would be required to provide a security deposit to be used with the secured credit card feature and after “at least one year” and meeting certain eligibility requirements, the consumer would be offered to “graduate” to unsecured use of the credit card. The three-year approval order, by operation of TILA section 130(f), provides the bank a safe harbor from liability under TILA and Regulation Z, to the fullest extent permitted by section 130(f), as to any act done in good faith compliance with the order.

    The second approval order covers certain aspects of an earned wage access (EWA) payment program, which allows employees access to their earned but unpaid wages prior to payday. According to the CAS application, an employee of a participating employer can download the company’s app and agree to the company’s terms prior to engaging in an EWA program. Among other things, the company notes that it will not engage in any debt collection activities related to the EWA program or submit reports to a consumer reporting agency regarding the transactions. The two-year approval order, by operation of TILA section 130(f), provides the company a safe harbor from liability under TILA and Regulation Z, to the fullest extent permitted by section 130(f) as to any act done in good faith compliance with the order.

    Federal Issues Fintech Regulatory Sandbox No Action Letter TILA Regulation Z

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  • CFPB issues automated underwriting NAL to Fintech

    Federal Issues

    On November 30, the Bureau issued a no action letter (NAL) to a Fintech covering its automated underwriting and pricing model that facilitates the origination of unsecured, closed-end loans made by third party lenders. The NAL states that the Bureau will not bring supervisory or enforcement actions against the lender concerning alleged discrimination on a prohibited basis from its use of the automated model for unsecured, closed-end loans under (i) Section 701(a) of ECOA and Sections 1002.4(a) and (b) of Regulation B; or (ii) its authority to prevent unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices. According to the lender’s application, after applicants meet initial eligibly requirements, the automated model, which uses artificial intelligence techniques and alternative data, is designed “to assess the individual risk profile of [eligible] applicants…and is responsible for assigning the maximum amount an applicant can borrow and the appropriate interest rate based on that risk assessment.” If the model’s assigned interest rate “falls within the parameters of a lending partner’s loan program,” the applicant will be approved. The NAL expires after 36 months.

    Federal Issues CFPB No Action Letter Fintech Artificial Intelligence Underwriting

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  • Bank gets NAL from CFPB using small-dollar template

    Federal Issues

    On November 5, under the CFPB’s revised no-action letter (NAL) policy, the Bureau issued a NAL to a national bank regarding certain small-dollar credit products offered by the bank. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in May, the Bureau approved a template in response to a request by a nonpartisan public policy, research and advocacy group for banks that would assist depository institutions in offering a standardized, small-dollar credit product under $2,500 with a repayment term between 45 days and one year. The bank submitted its application using this template.

    Among other things, the NAL notes that the bank’s application includes (i) each of the “13 Guardrail Certifications” described in the template; (ii) a copy of the small-dollar credit product’s terms and conditions the bank intends to provide to consumers; (iii) marketing materials intended to be used to market the product; and (iv) substantially similar consumer benefits and consumer risks as described in the advocacy groups’ template application. A copy of the bank’s application is available here.

    Additionally, the Bureau released a Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) notice, covering research efforts to “identify information that could be disclosed to consumers during the payday loan process to help them make better-informed decisions.”

    Federal Issues Small Dollar Lending CFPB No Action Letter

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  • CFPB approves new automatic savings program under CAS Policy

    Fintech

    On July 17, the CFPB announced a new Compliance Assistance Statement of Terms Template (CAST Template) under its Compliance Assistance Sandbox (CAS) Policy issued to a company’s program designed to help employees build emergency savings. Specifically, under the approved template, known as “Autosave,” interested employers could help employees build emergency savings by directing a portion of the employee’s pay to an employee-designated account at a financial institution; or if an employee does not designate an account, directing the funds to an “Autosave” account at an employer-designated institution. The Bureau notes that a CAST Template is necessary for this program due to the legal uncertainty around the application of the “compulsory use” prohibition in the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA), and Regulation E. However, the applicants assert the Autosave program embodies a “reasonable default enrollment method,” which, according to the Bureau, can be consistent with the consumer choice requirements of the EFTA and Regulation E.

    Fintech CFPB Regulatory Sandbox No Action Letter EFTA Regulation E

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  • CFPB seeking innovation in adverse action notices when using artificial intelligence

    Fintech

    On July 7, the CFPB released a blog post discussing the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), addressing the regulatory uncertainty that accompanies their use, and encouraging stakeholders to use the Bureau’s innovation programs to address these issues. The blog post notes that “AI has the potential to expand credit access by enabling lenders to evaluate the creditworthiness of some of the millions of consumers who are unscorable using traditional underwriting techniques,” but using AI may create or amplify risks, including unlawful discrimination, lack of transparency, privacy concerns, and inaccurate predictions.

    The blog post discusses how using AI/ML models in credit underwriting may raise compliance concerns with ECOA and FCRA provisions that require creditors to issue adverse action notices detailing the main reasons for the denial, particularly because AI/ML decisions can be “based on complex interrelationships.” Recognizing this, the Bureau explains that there is flexibility in the current regulatory framework “that can be compatible with AI algorithms.” As an example, citing to the Official Interpretation to Regulation B, the blog post notes that “a creditor may disclose a reason for a denial even if the relationship of that disclosed factor to predicting creditworthiness may be unclear to the applicant,” which would allow for a creditor to use AI/ML models where the variables and key reasons are known, but the relationship between them is not intuitive. Additionally, neither ECOA nor Regulation B require the use of a specific list of reasons, allowing creditors flexibility when providing reasons that reflect alternative data sources.

    In order to address the continued regulatory uncertainty, the blog post encourages stakeholders to use the Trial Disclosure, No-Action Letter, and Compliance Assistance Sandbox programs offered by the Bureau (covered by InfoBytes here) to take advantage of AI/ML’s potential benefits. The blog post mentions three specific areas in which the Bureau is particularly interested in exploring: (i) “the methodologies for determining the principal reasons for an adverse action”; (iii) “the accuracy of explainability methods, particularly as applied to deep learning and other complex ensemble models”; and (iii) the conveyance of principal reasons “in a manner that accurately reflects the factors used in the model and is understandable to consumers.”

    Fintech CFPB Alternative Data Underwriting Artificial Intelligence Machine Learning No Action Letter Regulatory Sandbox FCRA ECOA Regulation B Adverse Action

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  • CFPB approves mortgage servicing and small-dollar lending NAL templates

    Federal Issues

    On May 22, the CFPB announced it issued two no-action letter (NAL) templates. The two templates approved by the Bureau are intended to support financial institutions to better assist struggling consumers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Details of the two approved templates include:

    • Mortgage servicing. The Bureau approved a template submitted by a mortgage software company that would enable mortgage servicers to use the company’s online platform—which is an online version of Fannie Mae Form 710—to implement loss mitigation practices for borrowers. A copy of the company’s application is available here.
    • Small-dollar lending. The Bureau approved a template, in response to a request by a nonpartisan public policy, research and advocacy group for banks, that would assist depository institutions in offering a standardized, small-dollar credit product under $2,500 with a repayment term between 45 days and one year. The template covers, among other things, a product structured as either (i) a fixed-term, installment loan, which the customer would pay back in fixed minimum payment amounts over the term of the loan; or (ii) an open-end line of credit, linked to the consumer’s deposit account, where any amounts drawn would be repaid by consumers in fixed minimum amounts over a fixed repayment period. An institution would need to certify that their product offering meets the product features—labeled as “guardrails” in the template—but the Bureau notes that the inclusion of “any particular guardrail should not be interpreted as a statement by the Bureau that small-dollar credit products must contain such guardrails to avoid violating the law.” A copy of the group’s application is available here.

    Federal Issues Covid-19 Small Dollar Lending CFPB Mortgages Fannie Mae No Action Letter Installment Loans

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  • CFPB issues NAL on housing counselors

    Federal Issues

    On January 10, the CFPB issued its second no-action letter (NAL) under the agency’s revised NAL Policy that was issued last September. The new NAL Policy’s goal is to streamline the review process to “focus[ ] on the consumer benefits and risks of the product or service in question.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau issued its first NAL under the revised policy in response to a request by HUD on behalf of more than 1,600 housing counseling agencies (HCAs) that participate in HUD’s housing counseling program.

    A national bank is the recipient of the most recent NAL regarding the bank’s funding arrangements with HCAs certified by HUD. The NAL states that the Bureau will not take supervisory or enforcement actions against the bank under RESPA or UDAAP for entering into certain arrangements with HCAs for pre-purchase housing counseling services conditioned on the consumer applying for a loan from the bank, even if that activity could be construed as a referral, as long as the level of payment for the services is no more than a level that is commensurate with the services provided and is reasonable and customary for the area. The Bureau noted that the bank submitted its application to facilitate funding arrangements with HCAs through the HUD NAL application, which was made public last year.

    Federal Issues CFPB No Action Letter HUD RESPA UDAAP

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  • CFPB issues final No-Action Letter policy, sandbox policy, and trial disclosure policy

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance

    On September 10, the CFPB issued three final innovation policies, the No-Action Letter (NAL) Policy, Compliance Assistance Sandbox (CAS) Policy, and Trial Disclosure Program (TDP) Policy. Director Kraninger noted that the new policies will “improve how the Bureau exercises its authority to facilitate innovation and reduce regulatory uncertainty. . .contribut[ing] to an environment where innovation can flourish—giving consumers more options and better choices.” In September 2018, the Bureau published the proposed TDP policy (covered by InfoBytes here), and in December 2018, the Bureau published the proposed NAL and CAS policies (covered by InfoBytes here). Highlights of the final policies include:

    • NAL. The NAL policy provides a NAL recipient reassurance that the Bureau will not bring a supervisory or enforcement action against the company for providing a product or service under the covered facts and circumstances. After an application is considered complete, the Bureau will grant or deny the request within 60 days. The Bureau intends to publish NALs on its website and, in some cases, a version or summary of the application. The Bureau may also publish denials and an explanation of why the application was denied. The policy notes that disclosure of information is governed by the Dodd-Frank Act, FOIA and the Bureau’s rule on Disclosure of Records and Information, which generally would prohibit the Bureau from disclosing confidential information.
    • CAS. The CAS policy will evaluate a product or service for compliance with relevant laws and will offer approved applicants a “safe harbor” from liability for certain covered conduct during the testing period under TILA, ECOA, or the EFTA. The CAS was originally proposed as the “Proposed Sandbox Policy,” and included, in addition to the now listed carve-outs, exemptions by order from statutory provisions of ECOA, HOEPA, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Act (FDIA). The final CAS policy does not include the exemption program. The Bureau noted that, based on the comments received on the proposal, it will issue, at a later date, a new proposal to establish a program for exemptions by order through a separate notice-and comment rulemaking.
    • TDP. The TDP policy creates the “CFPB Disclosure Sandbox,” which carries out the requirements of Section 1032(e) of the Dodd-Frank Act. The Bureau’s first TPD policy was finalized in 2013, allowing for approved company disclosures to be deemed in compliance with, or exempted from, applicable federal disclosure requirements during the testing period. Under the previous policy, the Bureau did not approve a single company program for participation. The updated TDP policy streamlines the application process, including providing formal determinations within 60 days of deeming an application complete. The policy provides procedures for requesting extensions of successful testing programs, as the Bureau expects most testing periods will start at two-years.

    The Bureau also announced the first NAL issued under its new policy in response to a request by HUD on behalf of more than 1,600 housing counseling agencies (HCAs) that participate in HUD’s housing counseling program. The NAL states that the Bureau will not take supervisory or enforcement action under RESPA against HUD-certified HCAs that have entered into certain fee-for-service arrangements with lenders for pre-purchase housing counseling services. Specifically, the Bureau will not take such action against a HCA for including and adhering to a provision in such agreements conditioning the lender’s payment for the housing counseling services on the consumer making contact or closing a loan with the lender, even if that activity could be construed as a referral under RESPA, provided that the level of payment for the services is no more than a level that is commensurate with the services provided and is reasonable and customary for the area. The Bureau issued a template for lenders to seek a NAL for such arrangements, which includes certain anti-steering certifications that (i) the consumer will choose between comparable products from at least three different lenders; (ii) the funding is based on services rendered, not on the terms or conditions of any mortgage loan or related transaction; and (iii) no endorsement, sponsorship, or other preferential treatment will be conveyed to the lender for entering into the arrangement. According to the Bureau, the NAL, “is intended to facilitate HCAs entering into such agreements with lenders and will enhance the ability of housing counseling agencies to obtain funding from additional sources.” In addition to the template, the Bureau has made the HUD NAL application publicly available as well.

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance CFPB Disclosures No Action Letter Regulatory Sandbox Dodd-Frank Fintech

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