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Chopra testifies before Senate Banking Committee
On March 2, FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra testified before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs where he was asked about his plans should he be confirmed as the permanent CFPB director. Chopra released prepared remarks in which he discussed challenges stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, specifically those related to loan defaults, auto repossessions, credit reporting, debt collection, and foreclosures. Highlighting the need for “fair and effective oversight” in the mortgage market, Chopra also emphasized the importance of addressing systemic inequities faced by families of color. In opening remarks, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), in support of Chopra’s nomination, highlighted several of Chopra’s previous achievements at the Bureau as its first student loan ombudsman and emphasized his “strong record of protecting consumers and small businesses, promoting competitive markets, and holding bad actors accountable.”
Chopra fielded questions from Committee members on a range of topics, including credit reporting, student lending, servicemember protections, and mortgage lending. Chopra stressed his commitment to improving the “transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness” of the Bureau’s supervision and enforcement programs. He further emphasized the need to combat lending discrimination and that fair lending enforcement will be a priority for the Bureau, noting that the Bureau’s Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity office “is established by Congress and  should play a critical role in making sure the law is being followed.” With respect to credit reporting and debt collection, Chopra stated, “[I]f there are unlawful, egregious practices, it is important for enforcement to make sure that they stop. . . .[T]hat’s what’s best for consumers, that’s what’s best for the honest market participants and that’s the role Congress has asked the CFPB to play.”
With respect to fintech, Chopra said the Bureau needs to “take a hard look” at large technology companies’ expansion into financial services and their potential impact on consumer privacy and data security. He also raised concerns about the potential for bias in algorithm decision-making and underwriting. “[L]ooking at how big data, particularly by large platforms who have detailed behavioral data on all of us is something we must carefully look at. Because, it will change financial services fundamentally,” Chopra stressed. He also discussed the importance of providing restitution for consumers, reaffirming his commitment to ensuring that companies found to have committed violations of law are required to repay consumers for what was taken. “[W]hen victims of fraud and misconduct are not made whole, that doesn’t just hurt them. It also hurts every other business who is trying to follow the law and treat them  the right way,” Chopra stated.
If confirmed by the Senate Banking Committee, Chopra’s nomination will head to the full Senate for a vote.
House discusses lending discrimination, proposed fair lending legislation
On February 24, the House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing entitled “How Invidious Discrimination Works and Hurts: An Examination of Lending Discrimination and Its Long-term Economic Impacts on Borrowers of Color.” The subcommittee’s memorandum regarding the hearing discussed the importance of exploring “available tools and potential legislative solutions to detect hidden discrimination and deter discrimination in lending and housing,” and addressed topics such as modern-day redlining, racial wealth gaps, and matched-pair testing (a method for detecting impermissible differences in treatment based on protected classes).
Subcommittee members also discussed recently introduced H.R. 166, the “Fair Lending for All Act,” which would, among other things: (i) direct the CFPB to establish an Office of Fair Lending Testing charged with testing creditors’ ECOA compliance, and permit the Bureau to refer ECOA violations to the attorney general for appropriate action; (ii) extend the protected classes under the law to sexual orientation, gender identity, and an applicant’s location based on zip code or census tract; (iii) establish criminal penalties under ECOA for knowing and willful violations of prohibited credit discrimination, including personal liability for executive officers and directors; (iv) require the Bureau to review loan applications for compliance with ECOA and other federal consumer laws; and (v) amend HMDA Section 304(b)(4) to add the new prohibited credit discrimination categories.
New York regulator permits video hearings
October 9, the New York State Department of Financial Services amended its rules governing adjudication proceedings to permit hearings to be held by videoconference. Whether a hearing is conducted by videoconference is at the discretion of the official who issued the notice for the hearing, although the respondent or applicant may object. When a hearing is conducted by videoconference, none of the parties nor the hearing officer need by physically present at the same location. The amendments, which were adopted on an emergency basis, will remain effective for 90 days from the date of filing. The regulator intends to submit a similar notice of proposed rulemaking in the future.
Senate committee revisits the need for federal data privacy legislation
On September 16, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation announced it will convene a hearing on September 23 to “examine the current state of consumer data privacy and legislative efforts to provide baseline data protections for all Americans.” The hearing will also examine the lessons learned from the EU’s Global Data Protection Regulation and recently enacted state privacy laws, along with the data privacy impacts from Covid-19.
The current slate of key witnesses include a number of former chairmen and commissioners of the FTC.
House hearing addresses diversity and inclusion accountability
On September 8, the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Diversity and Inclusion held a hearing entitled “Holding Financial Regulators Accountable for Diversity and Inclusion: Perspectives from the Offices of Minority and Women Inclusion.” Two panels consisting of Office of Minority and Women Inclusion directors and acting directors from the OCC, Federal Reserve Board, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, FDIC, NCUA, Treasury Department, SEC, FHFA, and CFPB answered questions posed by subcommittee members on strategies taken to promote diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the industries they regulate as well as within the agencies themselves. Panelists discussed in-house D&I areas of focus, such as improving minority recruitment and retention in the workforce and increasing diversity in leadership teams, vendor and contractor relationships, and hiring panels. Panelists also discussed efforts for mitigating unconscious bias. While the majority of the hearing focused on in-house strategies, some panelists also touched upon key steps their agencies are taking to promote D&I at regulated entities. For example, NCUA’s representative stated that it is committed to improving workforce diversity in the broader financial services sector and ensuring credit unions are offering products and services that reflect the communities they serve. FDIC’s representative noted that the agency is trying to get capital into the hands of minority small businesses, while Treasury’s representative discussed efforts taken during the Covid-19 pandemic to ensure minority depository institutions’ participation in the Paycheck Protection Program. Some of the panelists raised concerns about the low number of diversity self-assessments that lenders voluntarily provide to regulators, however they noted that there has been an increase in submissions over the past few years and that providing more information to the institutions has been beneficial. Subcommittee members also discussed proposed legislation to address D&I problems—including H.R 8160, the “Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in Banking Act,” which would require regulators to examine D&I at regulated entities to promote equality under the law.
Kraninger discusses semi-annual report and pandemic response at congressional hearings
On July 29, CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger testified at a hearing held by the Senate Banking Committee on the CFPB’s Semi-Annual Report to Congress, which covers the Bureau’s work from October 1, 2019, through March 31, 2020. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Kraninger’s testimony identified four key areas of focus for the Bureau: (i) providing financial education resources to prevent consumer harm; (ii) implementing “clear rules of the road” to encourage “competition, increase transparency, and preserve fair markets for financial products and services”; (iii) ensuring a “culture of compliance” through supervision; and (iv) following a consistent, purposeful enforcement regime. Kraninger also highlighted Bureau efforts to address discrimination, consumer confusion regarding forbearance options under the CARES Act, and a legislative proposal that would authorize the Bureau to award whistleblowers who report federal consumer financial law violations.
During the hearing, committee members focused on, among other things, the Bureau’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the agency’s recent repeal of certain underwriting provisions of its 2017 final rule covering “Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans” (covered by InfoBytes here). In response to Democratic criticism regarding the repeal of the underwriting provisions, Kraninger reiterated that a Bureau analysis of the provisions in the 2017 final rule revealed it would reduce the availability of small-dollar credit “by at least 70 percent,” and denied claims that the rulemaking process had been impacted by political appointees at the agency. Additionally, Kraninger said she intends to move ahead with putting the payment provisions of the payday rule into effect and is currently “working through” a pending legal challenge to the provisions.
Democratic committee members also questioned Kraninger regarding temporary regulatory relief to mortgage servicers and other financial services companies (covered by InfoBytes here) and the Bureau’s policy statement providing Fair Credit Reporting Act and Regulation V compliance flexibility for consumer reporting agencies and furnishers during the pandemic (covered by InfoBytes here). With regard to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling in Seila Law v. CFPB (covered by a Buckley Special Alert), Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) noted he is still advocating for “a bipartisan board of directors to oversee the CFPB” and for subjecting the Bureau to the annual appropriations process.
The next day, Kraninger appeared before the House Financial Services Committee’s hearing to discuss the semi-annual report. Similar to the Senate hearing, committee members questioned Kraninger on the payday rule, the revision to the HMDA rule, the Bureau’s pandemic-related initiatives for consumers, and on ways the Bureau is protecting struggling consumers during the pandemic, particularly with respect to the agency’s supervisory and enforcement work.
House hearing on mortgage servicers’ implementation of CARES Act
On July 16, the House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing entitled “Protecting Homeowners During the Pandemic: Oversight of Mortgage Servicers’ Implementation of the CARES Act.” The subcommittee’s memorandum regarding the hearing discussed, among other things, the HUD Office of Inspector General’s report of its review of the type of forbearance information accessible to borrowers on the top 30 mortgage servicers’ websites. The report highlighted concerns that 10 of the servicers failed to have forbearance information “‘readily available’ on their websites,” 14 servicers’ websites did not provide information about the length of the forbearance period to which borrowers are entitled under the CARES Act, and certain servicers “included information giving the impression that lump sum payments were required at the end of the forbearance period.”
Witnesses discussed widespread issues in CARES Act-related mortgage servicing, with several witnesses and lawmakers highlighting how preexisting inequalities have especially imperiled black and Latinx home ownership during the Covid-19 pandemic. One witness suggested that servicers should be required to provide written notice to borrowers of their options and rights under the CARES Act and should be held accountable for failing to provide consistent, accurate forbearance information to borrowers in a timely manner. Another witness noted that housing counselors have reported servicers providing misinformation on payment and deferral options, and stressed the need for coordinated efforts between the CFPB, FHFA, and HUD, in addition to strong supervisory and enforcement activity.
Other topics discussed during the hearing included (i) the importance of providing clear guidance for borrowers, as well as the importance of loan modifications, loss mitigation options, and long term solutions once forbearance has ended; (ii) understanding what servicers of non-federally backed mortgages not covered by the CARES Act are doing to assist borrowers, and whether there should be a safe harbor for these mortgage servicers from investor liability; and (iii) the CFPB’s responsibility for overseeing servicers. One of the witnesses noted during the hearing, however, that many mortgage servicers offered homeowners forbearance options before the CARES Act, provided forbearance to homeowners with non-federally backed mortgages, and have responded to “an evolving series of program and regulatory announcements from various programs and agencies.”
Senate holds hearing on privacy law proposals
On December 4, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing titled “Examining Legislative Proposals to Protect Consumer Data Privacy” to discuss how to “provide consumers with more security, transparency, choice, and control over personal information both online and offline.” Among the issues discussed at the hearing was how consumer privacy rights should be enforced. As previously covered by InfoBytes, some FTC commissioners, at a hearing earlier this year, expressed that authorization to enforce federal privacy laws should vest not only in the FTC, but also in the states’ attorneys general. At the Senate hearing, there was testimony suggesting that the FTC is spread too thin to be in charge of enforcing new privacy laws. At least one witness championed state privacy regulation, while other witnesses endorsed preemption of the state laws by the envisioned federal privacy law. Although different views were expressed regarding what the law should look like, the hearing participants generally seemed to agree that a federal privacy law may be needed now in light of recent state legislative agendas and, as one Senator raised, the growing use of artificial intelligence.
Agency officials urge Congress to create central repository to combat money laundering
On May 21, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a hearing entitled “Combating Illicit Financing By Anonymous Shell Companies Through the Collection of Beneficial Ownership Information.” The Committee heard from the same panel of witnesses who testified in November on the need for modernization of the Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering regime. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Committee Chairman Mike Crapo opened the hearing by stressing the need to discuss ways in which beneficial ownership information collected in an effort to deter money laundering and terrorist financing through anonymous shell companies can be made more useful. Panelists from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, the FBI, and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency all emphasized the importance of creating a regime in which beneficial ownership is collected at the corporate formation stage and, for foreign entities, upon the time of registration with U.S. states to conduct business or upon establishing an account with a U.S. financial institution.
FTC Commissioners discuss state privacy preemption
On May 8, the FTC Commissioners participated in a subcommittee hearing before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce entitled, “Oversight of the Federal Trade Commission: Strengthening Protections for Americans’ Privacy and Data Security.” During the hearing, the Commissioners were questioned about the agency’s privacy and data security enforcement and regulatory activities, including whether they would support preemption of state privacy laws by a federal privacy statute. Using the California Consumer Privacy Act (covered by InfoBytes here) as an example, some Congressmen worried about the prospect of conflicting privacy legislation in other states, creating “confusion and uncertainty in the business community.”
Split along party lines, Democratic Commissioners expressed caution with federal preemption of state privacy laws; Commissioner Chopra, citing to federal preemption laws leading up to the mortgage crisis, warned of “unintended consequences.” Democratic Commissioner Slaughter recognized the “desire for uniformity, consistency, clarity, and predictability” that a federal law would provide, but noted that the appropriateness of preemption should be based on “whether a federal law meets or exceeds…the level of protections that states can provide and whether it allows them the opportunity to fill any gaps that may remain after a federal law is developed.” Republican Commissioners stressed the importance of having a federal law that would preempt the current “patchwork” of state laws, which Commissioner Phillips argued is “essential” in order to provide businesses clarity and reduced compliance costs, while also providing consumers with more power to understand expectations. FTC Chairman Simons noted that even if federal law preempts state privacy laws, Congress should grant concurrent enforcement authority to the states’ attorneys general.
The hearing also discussed, among other things, (i) the need for additional resources to increase agency staff focused on privacy issues; (ii) giving the FTC authority to levy civil money penalties, as Section 5 of the FTC act does not allow the Commission to seek civil penalties for first-time privacy violations; and (iii) the need for targeted rule-making authority.