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On December 19, the U.S. Senate confirmed Martin J. Gruenberg to be a board member and chairman of the FDIC. Gruenberg has served as acting chairman since former chair, Jelena McWilliams, resigned a year ago. Since joining the FDIC Board of Directors in 2005, Gruenberg has served as vice chairman, chairman, and acting chairman. Prior to joining the FDIC, Gruenberg served on the staff of the Senate Banking Committee as senior counsel of the full committee, and as staff director of the Subcommittee on International Finance and Monetary Policy. (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
The senators also voted to confirm Travis Hill as vice chairman and Jonathan McKernan as an FDIC board member. As previously covered by InfoBytes, during his tenure at the FDIC, Hill previously served as senior advisor to the chairman and deputy to the chairman for policy. Prior to that, Hill served as senior counsel at the Senate Banking Committee. Jonathan McKernan is a senior counsel at the FHFA and currently is on detail from the agency to the Senate Banking Committee where he is counsel on the minority staff. Previously, McKernan served as a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Treasury Department.
On January 5, Gruenberg was sworn in as the 22nd FDIC chairman. The same day, Hill was sworn in as vice chairman and McKernan as a board member.
On November 29, the Conference of State Bank Supervisors sent a letter to Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and Rep. Pat Toomey (R-PA), Ranking Member of the House Financial Services Committee, to express their disappointment that none of the nominees to the FDIC Board of Directors have state bank supervisory experience. Last month, President Biden nominated Martin Gruenberg, who has been serving as acting chairman, to serve as chair and member of the board, and in September, Travis Hill and Jonathan McKernan were nominated to fill the board’s two vacant seats (covered by InfoBytes here and here). At the time of the announcement, CSBS President and CEO James M. Cooper issued a statement encouraging the U.S. Senate to ask nominees how they intend to work with state bank regulators. Cooper reiterated in his follow-up letter that the FDI Act requires that at least one board member have state bank supervisory experience, especially since having the Comptroller of the Currency seated on the board represents the interest of national banks. According to Cooper, fulfilling this statutory requirement “can only be met by a person who has worked in state government as a supervisor of state-chartered banks, and as the legislative history notes, [is] someone with ‘state bank regulatory expertise and sensitivity to the issues confronting the dual banking system.’” Cooper asked that the slate of nominees confirmed by the Senate includes at least one individual who fulfills this requirement.
The following day, during the Senate Banking Committee’s nomination hearing, Republican senators questioned Gruenberg’s role in a dispute between Democratic board members and former Chairwoman Jelena McWilliams related to a joint request for information seeking public comment on revisions to the FDIC’s framework for vetting proposed bank mergers. McWilliams eventually announced her resignation at the end of last year (covered by InfoBytes here). Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) called Gruenberg’s participation in the dispute “very disturbing,” and expressed concerns that his actions, along with some of his colleagues, “really undermines the  FDIC and could have lasting implications.” Gruenberg countered that under the FDI Act, “the authority of the agency explicitly is vested in the board of directors, and the majority of the board has the authority to place items before the board.”
Some Republican senators also raised concerns with Gruenberg’s past involvement in Operation Choke Point, with Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) requesting that Gruenberg commit to actively preventing FDIC employees from “criticizing, discouraging or prohibiting banks from lending or doing business with any industries or customers that are operating in accordance with the law.” Gruenberg agreed to do so, saying this has been the FDIC’s policy. The FDIC’s current approach to cryptocurrency was also addressed, while Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) took issue with the fact that none of the board nominees fulfill the Biden administration’s push for diversity and inclusion.
On December 1, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the Biden administration’s appeal of an injunction entered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that temporarily prohibits the Secretary of Education from discharging any federal loans under the agency’s student debt relief plan (announced in August and covered by InfoBytes here). In a brief unsigned order, the Supreme Court deferred the Biden administration’s application to vacate, pending oral argument. The Supreme Court said it will treat the Biden administration’s application as a “petition for a writ of certiorari before judgment,” and announced a briefing schedule will be established to allow the case to be argued in the February 2023 argument session to resolve the legality of the program.
The Biden administration filed its application last month asking the Supreme Court to vacate, or at minimum narrow, the 8th Circuit’s injunction. Among other things, the Biden administration claimed that the 8th Circuit failed to “analyze the merits of the respondents’ claims, much less determine they are likely to succeed” when it granted an emergency motion for injunction pending appeal filed by state attorney generals from Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, and South Carolina. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the 8th Circuit determined that “the equities strongly favor an injunction considering the irreversible impact the Secretary’s debt forgiveness action would have as compared to the lack of harm an injunction would presently impose,” and pointed to the fact that the collection of student loan payments and the accrual of interest have both been suspended.
The appellate court’s “erroneous injunction leaves millions of economically vulnerable borrowers in limbo, uncertain about the size of their debt and unable to make financial decisions with an accurate understanding of their future repayment obligations,” the Biden administration said, adding that if the Supreme Court “declines to vacate the injunction, it may wish to construe this application as a petition for a writ of certiorari before judgment, grant the petition, and set the case for expedited briefing and argument this Term to avoid prolonging this uncertainty for the millions of affected borrowers.”
In its application, the Biden administration argued that the universal injunction was overbroad. The application further argued that the states lack standing because the debt relief plan “does not require respondents to do anything, forbid them from doing anything, or harm them in any other way.” Moreover, the Secretary of Education was acting within the bounds of the HEROES Act when he put together the debt relief plan, the application contended. “The COVID-19 pandemic is a ‘national emergency declared by the President of the United States,’” the application said. “Both the Trump and Biden Administrations previously invoked the HEROES Act to categorically suspend payments and interest accrual on all Department-held loans in light of the pandemic.” The application further argued that the states “have not disputed that those actions were lawful,” and that the Secretary of Education “reasonably ‘deem[ed]’ relief ‘necessary to ensure’ that a subset of these affected individuals—namely, those with lower incomes—‘are not placed in a worse position’ in relation to their student-loan obligations ‘because of their status as affected individuals.’”
Meanwhile, on December 1, the 5th Circuit denied the Department of Education’s (DOE) opposed motion for stay pending appeal, following a ruling issued by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas related to whether the agency’s student debt relief plan violated the Administrative Procedure Act’s (APA) notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the district court determined that while the HEROES Act expressly exempts the APA’s notice-and-comment obligations, the court stressed that the HEROES Act “does not provide the executive branch clear congressional authorization to create a $400 billion student loan forgiveness program,” and, moreover, does not mention loan forgiveness.
Earlier, on November 22, the Department of Education (DOE) extended the pause on student loan repayments, interest, and collections in an effort to alleviate uncertainty for borrowers. Saying “it would be deeply unfair to ask borrowers to pay a debt that they wouldn’t have to pay,” the DOE stated that payments will resume 60 days after it is allowed to implement the debt relief plan or the litigation is resolved, explaining that this will give the Supreme Court time to resolve the case during its current term. However, if the debt relief plan has not been implemented and litigation has not been resolved by June 30, 2023, borrowers’ payments will resume 60 days after that, the DOE explained.
On November 16, the U.S. Treasury Department, in consultation with the White House Competition Council, released a report entitled Assessing Impacts of New Entrant Non-bank Firms on Competition in Consumer Finance Markets. The report is a product of President Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order, Promoting Competition in the American Economy, (covered by InfoBytes here), which, among other things, ordered Treasury to submit a report within 270 days on the effects on competition of large technology and other non-bank companies’ entry into the financial services space. Assessing Impacts of New Entrant Non-bank Firms on Competition in Consumer Finance Markets is the final report in a series of reports that assesses competition in various aspects of the economy. Among other things, the report found that while concentration among federally insured banks is increasing, new entrant non-bank firms, specifically “fintech” firms, are adding significantly to the number of firms and business models competing in consumer finance markets and appear to be contributing to competitive pressure. In addition to enabling new capabilities, fintech firms are also creating new risks to consumer protection and market integrity, according to the report. The report noted that non-bank firms could “pose risks by engaging in harmful regulatory arbitrage, conducting activities in a manner that inappropriately sidesteps safety and soundness and consumer protection law requirements applicable to an [insured depository institution].”
The report also noted that new entrant non-bank firms or their offerings may pose risks of reliability or fraud issues, in addition to data privacy risks and the potential for new forms of surveillance and discrimination. The report provided recommendations for regulators to encourage fair and responsible competition that benefits consumers and their financial well-being, including: (i) addressing market integrity and safety and soundness concerns by providing a clear and consistently applied supervisory framework for bank-fintech relationships; (ii) protecting consumers by robustly supervising bank-fintech lending relationships for compliance with consumer protection laws and their impact on consumers’ financial well-being; and (iii) encouraging consumer-beneficial innovation by supporting innovations in consumer credit underwriting designed to increase credit visibility, reduce bias, and prudently expand credit to underserved consumers.
On November 14, President Biden announced his intention to nominate Martin Gruenberg to serve as chair and member of the FDIC Board of Directors. Following the resignation of the FDIC’s former chair, Jelena McWilliams (covered by InfoBytes here), Gruenberg has been acting chairman. Since joining the FDIC Board of Directors in 2005, Gruenberg has served as vice chairman, chairman, and acting chairman. Prior to joining the FDIC, Gruenberg served on the staff of the Senate Banking Housing and Urban Affairs Committee as Senior Counsel of the full Committee, and as staff director of the Subcommittee on International Finance and Monetary Policy.
CSBS President and CEO James M. Cooper issued a statement following the announcement: “Today’s announcement from the White House means that none of the nominees to the FDIC Board will meet the requirement for state bank supervisory experience. This requirement is not only the law but also a great benefit for consumers and the banking sector when the dual-banking system is fully represented on the FDIC Board. We encourage Senators, in their role in the confirmation process, to ask nominees how they will work with state bank regulators to benefit from their experience sitting closer to citizens and local economies.”
Recently, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) released a new report outlining baseline cross-sector cybersecurity performance goals (CPGs) for all critical infrastructure sectors. The report follows a July 2021 national security memorandum issued by President Biden, which required CISA to coordinate with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the interagency community to create fundamental cybersecurity practices for critical infrastructure, primarily to help small- and medium-sized organizations improve their cybersecurity efforts. The CPGs were informed by existing cybersecurity frameworks and guidance, as well as real-world threats and adversary tactics, techniques, and procedures observed by the agency and its partners. CISA noted in the report that the CPGs are not comprehensive but instead “represent a minimum baseline of cybersecurity practices with known risk-reduction value broadly applicable across all sectors, and will be followed by sector-specific goals that dive deeper into the unique constraints, threats, and maturity of each sector where applicable.” Organizations may choose to voluntarily adopt the CPGs in conjunction with broader frameworks like the NIST Cybersecurity Framework. “The CPGs are a prioritized subset of IT and operational technology (OT) cybersecurity practices that critical infrastructure owners and operators can implement to meaningfully reduce the likelihood and impact of known risks and adversary techniques,” CISA said in its announcement.
On October 26, President Biden discussed guidance issued by the CFPB to help banks avoid charging illegal “junk fees” on deposit accounts. The Bureau’s Circular 2022-06 noted that overdraft fees can be considered an “unfair” practice and violate the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) even if such fees are in compliance with other laws and regulations. Specifically, the Circular noted that “overdraft fees assessed by financial institutions on transactions that a consumer would not reasonably anticipate are likely unfair.” The guidance further stated that unanticipated overdraft fees are likely to impose substantial injury on consumers that they cannot reasonably avoid and that are not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition. The Bureau’s compliance bulletin on surprise depositor fees explained that a returned deposited item is a check that a consumer deposits into their checking account that is returned to the consumer because the check could not be processed against the check originator’s account. The bulletin stated that “blanket policies of charging returned deposited item fees to consumers for all returned transactions irrespective of the circumstances or patterns of behavior on the account are likely unfair under the [CFPA].” The Bureau further explained that indiscriminately charging depositor fees, regardless of circumstances, are likely illegal and noted that the bulletin is intended to put regulated entities on notice regarding how the agency plans to exercise its enforcement and supervisory authorities in the context of deposit fees. The bulletin urged financial institutions to charge depositor fees only in situations where a depositor could have avoided the fee, such as when a depositor repeatedly deposits bad checks from the same originator. The Bureau emphasized the guidance as part of its Junk Fee Initiative, noting that since it launched the initiative in January 2022, the CFPB has taken action to constrain “pay-to-pay” fees (covered by InfoBytes here), and has announced an advance notice of proposed rulemaking soliciting information from credit card issuers, consumer groups, and the public regarding late payments, credit card late fees, and card issuers’ revenue and expenses (covered by InfoBytes here).
On October 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued an order granting an emergency motion filed by state attorneys general from Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, and South Carolina to temporarily prohibit the Biden administration from discharging any federal loans under its student debt relief plan (announced in August and covered by InfoBytes here). The states’ motion requested an administrative stay prohibiting President Biden from discharging any student loan debt under the cancellation plan until the appellate court issues a decision on the states’ motion for an injunction pending an appeal. The order follows an October 20 ruling issued by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, which dismissed the states’ action for lack of Article III standing after concluding that the states—which attempted “to assert a threat of imminent harm in the form of lost tax revenue in the future”— failed to establish imminent and non-speculative harm sufficient to confer standing. “It should be emphasized that ‘standing in no way depends upon the merits of the Plaintiff[s’] contention that the particular conduct is illegal,’” the district court said. “While Plaintiffs present important and significant challenges to the debt relief plan, the current Plaintiffs are unable to proceed to the resolution of these challenges.” The 8th Circuit ordered an expedited briefing schedule on the states’ motion for an injunction pending appeal, which required both parties to file responses the same week the order was issued.
OFAC sanctions Nicaraguan mining authority; Biden issues new E.O. expanding Treasury’s authority to hold Nicaraguan regime accountable
On October 24, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13851 against the Nicaraguan mining authority General Directorate of Mines and a Government of Nicaragua official. OFAC stated that the mining authority is “being designated for being owned or controlled by, or having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly,” the Nicaraguan Minister of Energy and Mines whose property and interests in property were blocked in 2021. As a result of the sanctions, all property and interests in property belonging to the sanctioned persons in the U.S. are blocked and must be reported to OFAC. Additionally, “any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more in the aggregate by one or more of such persons are also blocked.” U.S. persons are prohibited from engaging in any dealings involving the property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons, unless exempt or authorized by a general or specific OFAC license.
The same day, President Biden signed a new E.O., Taking Additional Steps to Address the National Emergency With Respect to the Situation in Nicaragua, to amend E.O. 13851 and, according to the announcement, expand Treasury’s “authority to hold the Ortega-Murillo regime accountable for its continued attacks on Nicaraguans’ freedom of expression and assembly.” The new E.O. grants Treasury authority to target certain persons operating or that have operated in Nicaragua’s gold sector, as well as other sectors identified by Treasury in consultation with the State Department. According to OFAC’s announcement, the E.O. “provides expanded sanctions authorities that could be used to prohibit new U.S. investment in certain identified sectors in Nicaragua, the importation of certain products of Nicaraguan origin into the United States, or the exportation, from the United States, or by a United States person, wherever located, of certain items to Nicaragua.” In conjunction with the E.O., OFAC issued Nicaragua-related General License 4, which authorizes the wind down of transactions involving the Directorate General of Mines of the Nicaraguan Ministry of Energy and Mines that are otherwise normally prohibited by the Nicaragua Sanctions Regulations, and issued one related frequently asked question regarding that General License.
On October 11, President Biden signed S. 1098, which amends the Higher Education Act of 1965 to authorize borrowers to separate joint consolidation loans. According to the bill, borrowers are permitted to split up federally guaranteed student loans held by private lenders into two new federal direct loans. The bill is effective immediately.