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Senators ask FTC, CFPB to investigate deceptive listing agreements
In December, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH), along with Senators Tina Smith (D-MN) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) sent a letter to the FTC and the CFPB requesting a review of a Florida-based real estate brokerage firm’s use of exclusive 40-year listing agreements marketed as a “loan alternative.” The request follows a November press release by the Florida attorney general announcing legal action against the firm for engaging in allegedly deceptive, unfair, and unconscionable business practices. According to the AG’s complaint, the firm offered homeowners $300 to $5,000 as a cash loan alternative in exchange for an agreement to use the firm as an exclusive real estate listing broker for a 40-year period. The complaint claimed the firm informs homeowners that there is no obligation to return the cash, stressing the homeowner will owe the firm nothing unless and until the home is sold. The AG asserted, however, that what is not clearly disclosed is that after accepting the payment, the firm files a 40-year lien on the property so that if at any time within 40 years the home is foreclosed upon or transferred to heirs upon the homeowner’s death, or if homeowners simply wish to cancel the deal, the firm will attempt to take three percent of the home’s value. Further, the AG claimed that the firm also failed to inform customers that the liens are filed in the public record, which can make it difficult for homeowners to refinance or access their home’s equity. The complaint seeks injunctive relief, restitution, and civil penalties.
Senate Banking holds hearing on crypto
On December 14, the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing to hear from witnesses about how customer and investor protections should apply to cryptocurrencies, among other topics. Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) opened the hearing by emphasizing that it is the committee’s job “to keep learning more about the collapses” of crypto firms, and that there should be collaboration with regulators to put consumers—not the crypto industry—first. Brown warned that crypto has “ushered in a whole new dimension of fraud and threats to national security.” Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) expressed similar concerns, stating that the “dark underbelly of crypto is its critical link to financing terrorism and human trafficking and drug dealing and helping rogue nations like North Korea and Iran.” Warren went on to describe her bipartisan bill, the Digital Asset Anti-Money Laundering Act, noting that it “requires crypto to follow the same money laundering rules” that every bank and every broker are subjected to. Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) also advocated for the regulation of digital asset trading, and providing consumers with adequate bankruptcy protection, disclosures, and stable coin regulation. Ranking Member Pat Toomey (R-PA) expressed openness to the possibility of regulations tailored to crypto, including more disclosure from issuers and oversight of secondary market trading. Toomey argued against pausing cryptocurrency before legislation. Additionally, some witnesses discussed drafting potential cryptocurrency legislation. One witness told the committee that when crypto assets are made from thin air, they can be “used to obscure financial realities.” Another witness said cryptocurrencies are “at best a vehicle for speculation, an exercise in a zero-sum game of chance, much like online poker,” but, “at worst, they are an instrument of crime.”
Chopra testifies at congressional hearings
On December 14, CFPB Director Rohit Chopra testified at a hearing titled Consumers First: Semi-Annual Report of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau held by the House Financial Services Committee on the CFPB’s most recent semi-annual report to Congress (covered by InfoBytes here). Chopra’s prepared statement focused on: (i) the current state of the economy and household finance; (ii) promoting an open, competitive, and a decentralized market; and (iii) actions by Congress where bipartisan support is expected. Chopra also cited concerns regarding the accuracy of medical debt credit reporting and noted that the CFPB is continuing “to examine how medical debt burdens are impacting household balance sheets.”
House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) praised Chopra’s leadership in her opening statement, stating that the Bureau has combated “redlining, housing discrimination, illegal evictions, and foreclosures, and has worked tirelessly to root out appraisal bias.” However, Ranking Member Patrick McHenry (R-PA) argued that the Bureau’s “lack of transparency is of grave concern.” McHenry discussed the CFPB’s six compliance bulletins, five advisory opinions, five interpretive rules, and seven circulars published this year, which he considers to have fostered “uncertainty” within the financial services industry. McHenry also warned Chopra that he can expect “much more thorough” oversight next year when Republicans take control of the House and when McHenry becomes the chair of the House Financial Services Committee.
During the hearing, Chopra acknowledged that the Bureau's Section 1071 Rulemaking “is on track to issue a final rule by March 31, 2023”—a deadline established by court order in July as a result of a stipulated settlement reached in February 2020 with a group of plaintiffs, including the California Reinvestment Coalition, related to the collection of small business lending data (covered by InfoBytes here). Chopra added that the Bureau wants to ensure it has “an implementation period that gives the smaller firms more time, and the ability to make sure it’s not duplicative with existing requirements under the Community Reinvestment Act.”
During the hearing, Republican committee members inquired about the agency’s creation and use of the term “junk fees” to describe, among other things, legal fees that banks charge for financial products and services. According to Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) “there is no such word in financial services lexicon,” and the Bureau is “making up a word and then using it to go out and enforce something that doesn’t exist.” Republican committee members also inquired about the Bureau’s recent updates to its UDAAP exam manual. As previously covered by a Buckley Special Alert, in March, the CFPB announced significant revisions to its UDAAP exam manual, in particular highlighting the CFPB’s view that its broad authority under UDAAP allows it to address discriminatory conduct in the offering of any financial product or service. Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) commented that “this is not interpretive guidance,” and said Chopra is “trying to change the law.”
Chopra reiterated the Bureau’s priorities in his December 15 testimony before the Senate Banking Committee. During the hearing, Ranking Member Sherrod Brown (D-OH) noted that Republican lawmakers proposed legislation to subject the CFPB to appropriations and to change the CFPB's single-director structure to a commission. Chopra was also questioned by Ranking Member Patrick Toomey (R-PA) who raised concerns regarding the Bureau’s “overreach and pursuit of a politicized agenda.” He further argued that “the Dodd-Frank Act exempted the CFPB from appropriations,” and “empowers the CFPB to simply take funds from the Fed, which is itself also not subject to appropriation, thereby doubly insulating the CFPB from any congressional control.” Other topics discussed during the hearing included, among other things, military lending, credit cards, and overdraft fees.
CSBS says FDIC board nominees lack state bank regulatory expertise
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.
Senate Banking grills regulators on crypto
On November 15, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a hearing entitled “Oversight of Financial Regulators: A Strong Banking and Credit Union System for Main Street” to hear from federal financial regulators about growing risks related to bank mergers, bailouts, climate change, crypto assets, and cyberattacks, among other topics. Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) opened the hearing by emphasizing that Congress “must stay vigilant and empower regulators with the tools to combat these growing risks,” and said that banks and credit unions must be able to partner with third parties in a manner that enables competition but without risking consumer money. He also warned that big tech companies and shadow banks should not be allowed to “play by different rules because of special loopholes.” In his opening statement, Ranking Member Patrick J. Toomey (R-PA) challenged the regulators to “not stray beyond their mandates into politically contentious issues or establish unnecessary new regulatory burdens,” pointing to the participation of the Federal Reserve Board, FDIC, and OCC in the Network for the Greening the Financial System as an example of politicizing financial regulation.
Testifying at the hearing were the Fed’s Vice Chair for Supervision Michael S. Barr, NCUA Chair Todd M. Harper, acting FDIC Chairman Martin J. Gruenberg, and acting Comptroller of the Currency Michael J. Hsu. Cryptocurrency concerns were a primary focus during the hearing, where Toomey asked the regulators why they still have not provided public clarity on banks’ involvement in crypto activities, such as providing custody services or issuing stablecoins.
Pointing to a major cryptocurrency exchange’s recent major collapse, Toomey pressed Hsu on whether the OCC “discourages banks from providing custody services” for crypto assets. Toomey speculated, “it seems to me if people had access to custody services provided by a wide range of institutions, including regulated financial institutions, they might be able to sleep more comfortably knowing that those assets are unlikely to be used for some completely inappropriate purpose.” Answering that the OCC discourages banks from engaging in activities that are not safe, sound, and fair, Hsu acknowledged that there are underlying fundamental issues and questions about what it means to control crypto through a custody “which have not been fully worked out.” Toomey emphasized that part of the obligation rests on the OCC to provide clarity on how banks could provide these services in a safe, sound, and fair manner, and stressed that currently these activities are operating in a space outside the regulatory perimeter. Barr agreed that it would be useful for the Fed to provide guidance to banks on how to safely custody crypto assets and said it is something he plans to work on with his colleagues.
Toomy further noted that Congress’s failure “to pass legislation in this space and the failure of regulators to provide clear guidance has created ambiguity that has driven developers and entrepreneurs overseas where regulations are often lax at best.” Senator Bill Haggerty (R-TN) cautioned that lawmakers should not resort to a “heavy-handed” regulatory response to the cryptocurrency exchange’s collapse. “No amount of poorly considered, knee-jerk over-regulation here in the U.S. would have prevented a foreign-domiciled company like [the collapsed cryptocurrency exchange] from doing what it did,” Haggerty said. “The fact of the matter is that crypto, much like all of finance, isn’t beholden to a specific country or a specific legal system, and by not acting and by failing to provide legal clarity here in the United States, Congress only incentivizes activity to migrate outside of our country’s borders,” Haggerty stated, adding that it is “important to recognize that whatever happened with a bad actor running a centralized exchange and defrauding customers” has “nothing to do with the technology underpinning crypto itself.” When asked by Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) which regulator was responsible for watching the collapsed cryptocurrency exchange, Gruenberg said “I think in the first instance, you’d probably want to engage with the market regulators, the SEC and the CFTC, to talk about the activities and the authorities in this area.”
The regulators also discussed efforts to mitigate cybersecurity risks and strengthen information security within the banking industry. Hsu stressed during the hearing that “the greatest risk is the risk of complacency,” while noting in his prepared remarks that the OCC is aware of the risks associated with cybersecurity and has “encouraged banks to stay abreast of new technology and threats.” Barr pointed to the importance of operational resilience in his prepared remarks, noting that “technology-based failures, cyber incidents, pandemics, and natural disasters,” combined with the growing reliance on third-party service providers, expose banks to a range of operational risks that are often challenging to anticipate. Harper commented in his prepared remarks that the NCUA continues to provide guidance for credit unions to reinforce their ability to withstand potential cyberattacks, and recommends that credit unions report cyber incidents to the NCUA, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. In his prepared remarks, Gruenberg pointed to recent examination findings revealing that banks that have dedicated resources for implementing appropriate controls are better at defending against cyberattacks, and said the FDIC is “piloting technical examination aids that will help  examiners focus on the controls  found to be most effective in defending against these attacks.”
The House Financial Services Committee also held a hearing later in the week that focused on similar topics with the regulators. Chair Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) also announced that the committee will hold a hearing in December to investigate the aforementioned cryptocurrency exchange’s collapse and understand the broader consequences the collapse may have on the digital asset ecosystem.
West Virginia AG pings CFPB on "unconstitutionally appropriated" funds
On October 24, the West Virginia attorney general sent a letter to CFPB Director Rohit Chopra, and to the leadership of both the House Financial Services Committee and the Senate Banking Committee, regarding the constitutionality of the Bureau’s continuing operation. As previously covered by a Buckley Special Alert, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the CFPB funding structure created by Congress violated the Appropriations Clause of the Constitution, which provides that “no money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” The 5th Circuit ruled that, although the CFPB spends money pursuant to a validly enacted statute, the structure violates the Appropriations Clause because the CFPB obtains its funds from the Federal Reserve (not the Treasury), the CFPB maintains funds in a separate account, the Appropriations Committees do not have authority to review the agency’s expenditures, and the Bureau exercises broad authority over the economy. In the letter, the AG argued that the Bureau cannot discharge its duties in a constitutionally permissible way. He further noted that the Bureau “plainly cannot do that with a funding scheme that ‘sever[s] any line of accountability between [Congress] and the CFPB.’” The AG urged the Bureau to reassess its future plans and to reevaluate whether its present regulations have any effect. The letter also requested answers to a series of questions, no later than November 1: (i) “Does the agency believe that any of the regulations that it promulgated under the unconstitutional funding scheme remain in effect? If so, which ones—and why? Similarly, how does the decision affect past enforcement actions?”; and (ii) “What plans does the Bureau plan to undertake to comply with the ruling? How will its ongoing enforcement efforts be effected? How will this change affect any promulgation of regulations? How will bank supervision continue, if at all?”
Seven largest U.S. banks answer committee questions on overdraft fees and P2P fraud
On September 22, the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing entitled “Annual Oversight of the Nation’s Largest Banks” where chief executive officers from the seven largest U.S. retail banks testified on bank activities related to topics including peer-to-peer (P2P) payment networks; mortgage practices; overdraft fees; forced arbitration; and environmental, social, and governance agendas. Among other things, senators pushed the CEOs to take more aggressive action to eliminate overdraft fees and compensate P2P payment fraud victims.
- Overdraft fees. Democratic senators stressed that charges still fall too heavily on low-income and minority customers, with Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) saying that there is “no reasonable explanation to continue to charge overdraft fees on working families.” The CEOs discussed their respective efforts to relax overdraft policies to reduce fees, with one CEO noting that “there are a lot of occasions where if [overdraft protection] is not used, [customers] would be charged a higher fee on the other side.” These fees, he noted, “can often reduce the cost on the other side and stop them from going to payday lenders.” Another CEO added that he believes “giving people a choice and letting them opt in or out is the proper thing to do.” One bank CEO noted that his bank offers two accounts with no fees and provides customers the opportunity to choose in the moment if they want to return or pay for an item.
- P2P platforms. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) asked the CEOs if they would give customers their money back if they are defrauded on a certain P2P platform and complain to the bank. The CEOs emphasized that their banks currently reimburse customers for fraud and “unauthorized transactions” and are taking measures to reduce the incidence of fraud, including educating consumers on how to detect scams. “There’s a tremendous amount that we can do as owners of the network to drive down the ability for thieves to take advantage of the network,” one CEO said when asked if banks believe it is their responsibility to make a consumer whole again. “That is what we're working on. That’s what we have to do.” Another CEO pointed out that other P2P platforms have “15 times the number of disputes” coming into the bank than the highlighted platform. One CEO also stressed that banks need to work through partnerships with law enforcement and regulatory agencies “to actually catch the criminals who are perpetuating this fraud against our customers.”
The previous day, the same CEOs discussed similar topics during the House Financial Services Committee’s hearing entitled “Holding Megabanks Accountable: Oversight of America’s Largest Consumer Facing Banks.” Several proposed bills containing provisions that would impact the banks if enacted were also discussed, including those that would (i) improve dispute procedures and disclosures related to reinvestigations of consumer reports (see H.R. 4120); (ii) amend and modernize bank merger laws (see H.R. 5419); and (iii) amend Community Reinvestment Act provisions to improve the assessment process for financial institutions (see H.R. 8833).
During the hearing (see committee memorandum here), committee members questioned the CEOs on a broad range of topics related to consumer protection compliance, enforcement, diversity initiatives, capital standards, emerging technologies and cybersecurity, merchant category codes for firearm purchases, and banking deserts. The CEOs addressed ways their banks have engaged in “responsible growth” and spoke on measures they have taken to bolster customer relations, including modifying overdraft practices. They also noted they are working on improving data protection and cybersecurity. In discussing P2P digital payment services, one CEO emphasized that “scams are growing daily” and regulators and legislators need to respond. He added that “[i]t’s not enough that we apportion blame after the fact. We need to stop fraud and scams before they occur. Secure [P2P] networks, real-time payments, and potentially FedNow allow for direct authentication with a host bank. They also allow members of the network to identify  and police against scam accounts. This is not the case with nonbank networks. These networks are not held to the same security standards as banks.” He stated that banks “have zero visibility into where the money went, zero capability to recover the money, and zero capability to close the bad account.”
Treasury official discusses U.S. efforts in response to Russian invasion of Ukraine
On September 20, Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes Elizabeth Rosenberg delivered prepared remarks before a Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs hearing, in which she provided an overview of recent efforts taken by the U.S. Treasury Department to hold Russia accountable for its invasion of Ukraine. Rosenberg explained that these measures are intended to “squeeze Russia’s access to finance and technology for strategic sectors of its economy and degrade its industrial capacity for years to come” and highlighted sanctions imposed against hundreds of Russian individuals and entities, including Russia’s largest financial institutions and key nodes in the country’s military-industrial supply chains, to cut them off from the U.S. financial system. She noted that Treasury has also implemented restrictions on dealings in Russian sovereign debt and has “prohibited economic dealings with the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic regions of Ukraine” as well as new investments in the Russian Federation. Rosenberg added that Treasury has “also imposed prohibitions on importing certain commodities from Russia into the United States, including oil and natural gas, and similarly imposed prohibitions on exporting certain items like luxury goods and dollar-denominated banknotes.” Additionally, Rosenberg discussed international efforts, including “implementing the largest sanctions regime in modern history[,]” and working with allies to facilitate information sharing, law enforcement data, and relevant financial records. She emphasized that “Treasury has mounted an aggressive campaign to close the global financial policy and regulatory loopholes across jurisdictions that Russian aiders and abettors of this war, and other criminals, use to perpetuate their illicit activity[,]” and stated that Treasury remains focused on denying funds to Russia through its oil exports.
Find continuing InfoBytes coverage on the U.S. sanctions response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine here.
Toomey seeks "greater transparency" on CRA agreements
On September 7, Senate Banking Committee Ranking Member Pat Toomey (R-PA) wrote a letter to the Federal Reserve Board, OCC, and FDIC (together, the “Agencies”) expressing his concern for “the lack of transparency associated with community benefits plans (CBPs) developed by banks and community groups in connection with the Community Reinvestment Act,” which often remain undisclosed by banks despite the requirements of the CRA. He noted that greater transparency is “critically necessary” for Congress and the public to judge the efficacy of the CRA and its implementing regulations. Toomey described that the growth and prevalence of the dollar value of CBPs in recent years underscores the need to update the regulations implementing the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act’s CRA sunshine provision. Toomey requested that the Agencies establish a public, searchable database on their websites containing all CRA-related agreements, including CBPs, and to provide comprehensive data on those agreements. Additionally, Toomey urged the Agencies to broaden the definition of “covered agreement” under the regulations to align with congressional intent and mitigate the potential for evasion by banks and community groups.
Senate Banking Committee sends letter to Yellen on consumer data activities
On June 7, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, Senator Sherrod Brown sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen requesting that the Financial Stability Oversight Council conduct a review on the effect of the collection and sale of consumer data by financial institutions to determine whether such activities pose a systemic threat to U.S. financial stability and security. The letter raised concerns that such data could be used for nefarious purposes including "glean[ing] consumers’ tolerance for price hikes, or using certain people’s spending patterns to target them for blackmail or ransomware.”