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On May 25, Senators Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), along with several other bipartisan Senators, announced the creation of the U.S. Senate Financial Innovation Caucus to highlight “responsible innovation in the United States financial system, and how financial technologies can improve markets to be more inclusive, safe and prosperous for all Americans.” The Senate will use the caucus “to discuss domestic and global financial technology issues, and to launch legislation to empower innovators, protect consumers and guide regulators, while driving U.S. financial leadership on the international stage.” The press release notes that the caucus is timely because of the “growing regulatory focus on digital assets,” which includes efforts by the Federal Reserve Board, SEC, and other foreign governments to create digital currencies. The caucus will focus on critical issues pertaining to the future of banking and U.S. competitiveness on the global stage, including: (i) distributed ledger technology (blockchain); (ii) artificial intelligence and machine learning; (iii) data management; (iv) consumer protection; (v) anti-money laundering; (vi) faster payments; (vii) central bank digital currencies; and (viii) financial inclusion and opportunity for all.
On May 24, the Federal Reserve Board announced its approval of the application of a Dutch- based payment company to establish a federally-licensed branch in San Francisco. According to the order, since the company currently does not have a U.S. banking presence, its U.S. payment processing business will rely on third-party banks. Upon establishment of the San Francisco branch, the company’s operations would be transferred to the branch, and it would be eligible to engage in a wide range of payments processing and related banking activities in the U.S., thus reducing its dependence on third-party banks. Through the establishment of the branch, “the company proposes to bring its U.S. activities and operations in line with those conducted under its European Central Bank (ECB) license,” the Fed noted. The order also pointed out that “managerial and other financial resources of the company are considered consistent with approval, and the company appears to have the experience and capacity to support the proposed branch.” In addition, the company has initiated controls and procedures for its proposed branch to guarantee compliance with U.S. law and for its operations in general.
On May 27, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis sent letters to two banks and two fintech companies seeking information on the companies’ handling of loan applications under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). According to a press release announcing the launch of the subcommittee’s investigation, the letters (available here, here, here, and here) were sent to four companies that facilitated PPP loans but may have allegedly failed to adequately screen PPP loan applications for fraud. The subcommittee notes that recent reports lend “credence to reports that criminal actors sought out [fintechs] for fraudulent PPP loans because of the speed with which the [fintech] companies processed the loans—which in some cases could be approved in ‘as little as an hour’—and the fact that the [fintech] loan application process appeared to include very little scrutiny of its applicants.” The letters request documents and information to assist the Subcommittee in understanding the fraud controls and compliance systems that the companies applied to their PPP loan programs.
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.”
On May 26, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) announced it will host a special Innovations Hours Program in September “focusing on the important role of privacy-preserving principles in developing technical solutions that enhance financial services innovation while countering illicit activity and national security risks that undermine the integrity and opportunity of the U.S. financial system.” Fintech and regulatory technology (regtech) companies, venture capital firms, and financial institutions interested in providing a demonstration should highlight how their innovative solutions work and how these solutions “may support private- and public-sector efforts to enhance financial integrity, while protecting national security and personal privacy.” Interested companies should submit requests here no later than July 23. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Innovation Hours Program was announced in 2019 to provide opportunities for fintech/regtech companies and financial institutions to showcase new and emerging approaches to combating money laundering and terrorist financing and to demonstrate how financial institutions could use such technologies.
On May 24, Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard spoke at the Consensus by CoinDesk 2021 Conference about the Fed’s exploration of central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) and cross-border payments. Brainard noted that a CBDC may address concerns regarding the lack of federal deposit insurance and banking supervision for nonbank issuers of digital assets, and that “new forms of private money may introduce counterparty risk into the payments system in new ways that could lead to consumer protection threats or, at large scale, broader financial stability risks.” She highlighted that “introducing a safe and accessible central bank money to households and businesses in digital payments systems. . .would reduce counterparty risk and the associated consumer protection and financial stability risks.” Brainard noted that a Fed-backed digital currency could cause payment transactions to be cheaper, faster, and more efficient by improving processes for sending and receiving money internationally, encouraging private-sector competition in retail payments, and increasing financial inclusion.
Brainard discussed how CBDCs could affect central banks’ ability to manage the economy, saying a digital dollar would need to be designed with safeguards to “protect against disintermediation of banks and to preserve monetary policy transmission more broadly.” She cautioned that the design should complement, not replace, existing currency and bank deposits and emphasized the need for regulators to work together “to ensure that banks are appropriately identifying, monitoring, and managing risks associated with digital assets.”
As previously covered by InfoBytes, last week Chairman Jerome Powell stated that an important step in engaging the public about CBDCs involves “publishing [a] paper this summer to lay out the Fed’s current thinking on digital payments, with a particular focus on the benefits and risks associated with CBDC in the U.S. context.”
On May 20, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell released a video message outlining the potential use of central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) in the U.S. payment system. Powell discussed how “the rise of distributed ledger technology, which offers a new approach to recording ownership of assets, has allowed for the creation of a range of new financial products and services—including cryptocurrencies,” which may carry potential risks to those users and to the broader financial system. Powell highlighted that the Fed is contemplating whether and how a U.S. CBDC would impact the domestic payments system, emphasizing that CBDCs “could serve as a complement to, and not a replacement of, cash and current private-sector digital forms of the dollar.” Powell also noted that, as part of the Fed’s ongoing efforts in exploring the potential benefits and risks of CBDCs from a variety of angles, the Fed will begin broader consideration of the creation of a U.S. CBDC by issuing a discussion paper and requesting public comment on benefits and risks. Powell stated he expects the Fed to play a leading role in developing international standards for CBDCs by “engaging actively with central banks in other jurisdictions as well as regulators and supervisors here in the United States throughout that process.”
On May 18, the OCC released its Semiannual Risk Perspective for Spring 2021, which reports on key risk areas posing a threat to the safety and soundness of national banks and federal savings associations. While, overall, banks maintained sound capital and liquidity levels throughout 2020, the OCC noted that bank profitability remains stressed as a result of low interest rates and low loan demand.
Key risk themes identified in the report include:
- Credit risk. The OCC reported that credit risk is evolving a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, specifically as the economic downturn continues to affect some borrowers’ ability to service debts and government assistance programs start to expire.
- Strategic risk. Strategic risk associated with how bank manage net interest margin compressions and earnings is elevated. The OCC suggested that banks attempting to improve earnings could implement various measures, including cost cutting and increasing credit risk.
- Operational risk. Elevated operational risk can be attributed to complex operating environments and increased cybersecurity threats. A flexible, risk-based approach, including surveillance, reporting, and managing third-party risk, is important for banks to be operationally resilient, the OCC stated.
- Compliance risk. Compliance risk is also elevated due to the expedited implementation of a number of Covid-19-related assistance programs, including the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program and federal, state, and bank-initiated forbearance and deferred payment programs. These programs, the OCC noted, require “increased compliance responsibilities, high transaction volumes, and new fraud typologies, at a time when banks continue to respond to a changing operating environment.”
On May 17, the FDIC issued a notice and request for comments regarding information on insured depository institutions’ (IDIs) current and potential digital asset activities. The Request for Information (RFI) solicits input on digital asset use cases involving IDIs and their affiliates to help the agency “inform its understanding of the industry’s and consumers’ interests in this area.” According to the agency, there are “novel and unique considerations” connected to digital assets and “banks are increasingly exploring several roles in the emerging digital asset ecosystem, such as being custodians, reserve holders, issuers, and exchange or redemption agents; performing node functions; and holding digital asset issuers’ money deposits.” FDIC Chairman Jelena McWilliams states that digital asset areas have “seen rapid expansion and innovation in recent years” and that “[t]his RFI gives us an opportunity to gain additional insight into the market, and what role banks might play in the future.” The deadline for submitting comments for the RFI is July 16.
On May 19, the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing entitled “Oversight of Prudential Regulators: Ensuring the Safety, Soundness, Diversity, and Accountability of Depository Institutions.” Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) opened the hearing by expressing her concerns about the “harmful deregulatory actions” taken by the previous administration’s appointees to “roll back key Dodd-Frank reforms and other consumer protections.” She noted, however, that she was pleased that the Senate is moving forward to reverse the OCC’s true lender rule and commented that she has asked House leadership to address the related Congressional Review Act resolution as soon as possible.
Fed Vice Chair for Supervision Randal K. Quarles provided an update on the Fed’s Covid-19 regulatory and supervisory efforts, noting that the Fed has “worked to align [the Fed’s] emergency actions with other relief efforts as the economic situation improves” and is maintaining or extending some measures to promote continued access to credit. When Congresswoman Velazquez inquired how government programs like the Paycheck Protection Program helped to stabilize businesses and improve the overall economy, Quarles answered, “We would have experienced a much deeper and more durable economic contraction, and would have had more lasting economic scarring with closed businesses and defaulting obligations  had those programs not been put in place.”
OCC Comptroller Michael Hsu discussed the agency’s increasing coordination with other federal and state regulators on fintech policy, in addition to OCC efforts to strengthen Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) regulations and address climate change. The OCC has been encouraging innovation, Hsu said, but added that his “broader concern is that these initiatives were not done in full coordination with all stakeholders. Nor do they appear to have been part of a broader strategy related to the regulatory perimeter.” In his written testimony, Hsu emphasized his concerns with providing charters to fintechs, noting that in doing so, it would “convey the benefits of banking without its responsibilities,” but also “that refusing to charter fintechs will encourage growth of another shadow banking system outside the reach of regulators.” Hsu expressed in his oral statement the importance of finding “a way to consider how fintechs and payment platforms fit into the banking system” and emphasized that it must be done in coordination with the FDIC, Fed, and the states. He also explained that “the regulatory community is taking a fragmented agency-by-agency approach to the technology-driven changes taking place today. At the OCC, the focus has been on encouraging responsible innovation. For instance, we updated the framework for chartering national banks and trust companies and interpreted crypto custody services as part of the business of banking.” When Congressman Bill Huizenga (R-MI) asked how the OCC planned to address the “true lender” rule, which would soften the regulations for national banks to sell loans to third parties, Hsu stated that the OCC originally intended to review the rule, but that after the Senate passed S.J.Res. 15 to invoke the Congressional Review Act and provide for congressional disapproval and invalidation of the rule (covered by InfoBytes here), the agency decided to leave it up to congressional deliberation and will monitor it instead.
FDIC Chairman Jelena McWilliams discussed, among other things, the FDIC’s policy of granting industrial loan company charters. As previously covered by Infobytes, the agency approved a final rule in December 2020 establishing certain conditions and supervisory standards for the parent companies of industrial banks and ILCs. McWilliams defended the FDIC’s new rule during the hearing, stating it “ensures that the parent company serves as a source of financial strength for the ILC while providing clarity about the FDIC's supervisory expectations of both the ILC and its parent company.”
NCUA Chairman Todd Harper also outlined agency measures taken in response to the pandemic. Among other things, Harper noted that the NCUA is supporting low-income credit unions through the Community Development Revolving Loan Fund and that the agency is working to strengthen its Consumer Financial Protection Program (CFPP) to ensure fair and equitable access to credit. During the hearing, Harper stated, “there is an increased emphasis on fair lending compliance, and agency staff are studying methods for improving consumer financial protection supervision for the largest credit unions not primarily supervised by the CFPP.”