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On February 6, SEC Commissioner Hester M. Pierce announced her proposal for a three-year safe harbor rule applicable to companies developing digital assets and networks. Pierce suggested that not only would the rule provide regulatory flexibility “that allows innovation to flourish,” but it would also protect investors by “requiring disclosures tailored to their needs” while still maintaining anti-fraud safeguards, allowing investors to participate in token networks of their choice. Proposed Securities Act Rule 195 would allow companies to sell or offer tokens without being subject to the Securities Act of 1933, and without the tokens being subject to the registration requirements of the Securities Act of 1934. In order to qualify for these exemptions, the proposed rule requires that a company developing a network must, among other things, (i) “intend for the network on which the token functions to reach network maturity…within three years of the date of the first token sale”; (ii) disclose key information on a freely accessible public website,” including applicable source code and descriptions of how to search and verify transactions on the network; (iii) offer and sell its tokens in order to allow access to or development of its network; (iv) make “good faith and reasonable efforts to create liquidity for users”; and (v) “file a notice of reliance” with the SEC’s EDGAR system within 15 days of the company’s first token sale made in reliance on the safe harbor. Pierce suggested that the three-year grace period for qualifying companies would allow time for the development of decentralized or functional networks, and, at the end of the three years, a successful network’s tokens would not be regulated as securities.
On February 6, CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger testified at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on the CFPB’s Semi-Annual Report to Congress. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The hearing covered the semi-annual report to Congress on the Bureau’s work from April 1, 2019, through September 30, 2019. In her opening remarks, Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters argued, among other things, that the Bureau’s recent policy statement on the “abusiveness” standard in supervision and enforcement matters “undercuts” Dodd-Frank’s prohibition on unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices. Waters also challenged Kraninger on her support for the joint notice of proposed rulemaking issued by the OCC and FDIC to strengthen and modernize Community Reinvestment Act regulations (covered by a Buckley Special Alert), arguing that the proposal would lead to disinvestment in communities, while emphasizing that Kraninger’s actions have not demonstrated the Bureau’s responsibility to meaningfully protect consumers. However, in her opening statement and written testimony, Kraninger highlighted several actions recently taken by the Bureau to protect consumers, and emphasized the Bureau’s commitment to preventing harm by “building a culture of compliance throughout the financial system while supporting free and competitive markets that provide for informed consumer choice.”
Additional highlights of Kraninger’s testimony include:
- Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) with the Department of Education (Department). Kraninger discussed the recently announced information sharing agreement (covered by InfoBytes here) between the Bureau and the Department, intended to protect student borrowers by clarifying the roles and responsibilities for each agency and permitting the sharing of student loan complaint data analysis, recommendations, and data analytic tools. Kraninger stated that the MOU will give the Department the same near real-time access to the Bureau’s complaint database enjoyed by other government partners, and also told the Committee that the Bureau and Department are currently discussing a second supervisory MOU.
- Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans. Kraninger told the Committee that a rewrite of the payday lending rule—which will eliminate requirements for lenders to assess a borrower’s ability to repay loans—is expected in April. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Kraninger noted that the Bureau is currently reviewing an “extensive number of comments” and plans to address a petition on the rule’s payments provision. “[F]inancial institutions have argued that there were some products pulled into that that were, you know, unintended,” she stated. “[W]orking through all of that and. . .moving forward in a way that is transparent in. . .April is what I am planning to do.”
- Ability-to-Repay and Qualified Mortgages (QM). Kraninger discussed the Bureau’s advanced notice of proposed rulemaking that would modify the QM Rule by moving away from the 43 percent debt to income ratio requirement and adopt an alternative such as a pricing threshold to ensure responsible, affordable mortgage credit is available to consumers. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) She stated that the Bureau would welcome legislation from Congress in this area.
- Supervision and Enforcement. Kraninger repeatedly emphasized that supervision is an important tool for the Bureau, and stated in her written testimony that during the reporting period discussed, “the Bureau’s Fair Lending Supervision program initiated 16 supervisory events at financial services institutions under the Bureau’s jurisdiction to determine compliance with federal laws intended to ensure the fair, equitable, and nondiscriminatory access to credit for both individuals and communities, including the Equal Credit Opportunity Act  and HMDA.” In addition to discussing recent enforcement actions, Kraninger also highlighted three innovation policies: the Trial Disclosure Program Policy, No-Action Letter Policy, and the Compliance Assistance Sandbox Policy. (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
- Military Lending Act (MLA). Kraninger reiterated her position that she does not believe Dodd-Frank gives the Bureau the authority to supervise financial institutions for military lending compliance, and repeated her request for Congress to grant the Bureau clear authority to do so. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Congressman Barr (R-KY) noted that while he introduced H.R. 442 last month in response to Kraninger’s request, the majority has denied the mark up.
- UDAAP. Kraninger fielded a number of questions on the Bureau’s recent abusiveness policy statement. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Several Democrats told Kraninger the new policy will put unnecessary constraints on the Bureau’s enforcement powers, while some Republicans said the policy fails to define what constitutes an abusive act or practice. Kraninger informed the Committee that the policy statement is intended to “clarify abusiveness and separate it from deceptive and unfairness because Congress explicitly gave us those three authorities.” Kraninger reiterated that the Bureau will seek monetary relief only when the entity has failed to make a good faith effort to comply, and that “[r]estitution for consumers will be the priority in these cases.” She further emphasized that “in no way should that policy be read to say that we would not bring abusiveness claims.” Congresswoman Maloney (D-NY) argued, however, that a 2016 fine issued against a national bank for allegedly unfair and abusive conduct tied to the bank’s incentive compensation sales practices “would have been substantially lower if the [B]ureau hadn’t charged [the bank] with abus[ive] conduct also.” Kraninger replied that the Bureau could have gotten “the same amount of restitution and other penalties associated with unfairness alone.”
- Constitutionality Challenge. Kraninger reiterated that while she agrees with Seila Law on the Bureau’s single-director leadership structure, she differs on how the matter should be resolved. “Congress obviously provided a clear mission for this agency but there are some questions around. . .this and I want the uncertainty to be resolved,” Kraninger testified. “Congress will have the opportunity to make any changes or respond to that and I think that’s appropriate,” she continued. “I would very much like to see a resolution on this question because it has hampered the CFPB’s ability to carry out its mission, virtually since its inception.” (Continuing InfoBytes coverage on Seila Law LLC v. CFPB here.)
On February 6, the Federal Reserve Board (Fed) announced an enforcement action against a Virginia-based bank for alleged violations of the National Flood Insurance Act (NFIA) and Regulation H, which implements the NFIA. The consent order assesses a $9,500 penalty against the bank for an alleged pattern or practice of violations of Regulation H, but does not specify the number or the precise nature of the alleged violations. The maximum civil money penalty under the NFIA for a pattern or practice of violations is $2,000 per violation.
On February 5, Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard spoke at the “Symposium on the Future of Payments” to discuss benefits and risks associated with the digitalization of payments and currency. Noting that some of the new players in this space are outside financial regulatory guardrails and offer new currencies that “could pose challenges in areas such as illicit finance, privacy, financial stability, and monetary policy transmission,” Brainard stressed the importance of assessing new approaches and redrawing existing parameters. Emphasizing, however, that no federal agency has broad authority over the payments systems, Brainard stated that Congress should review how retail payments are regulated in the U.S., given the growth in ways that money is able to move around without the need for a financial intermediary. Banking agencies may oversee nonbank payments “to the extent there is a bank nexus” or bank affiliation, Brainard noted, however, she cautioned that “this oversight will be quite limited to the extent that nonbank players reduce or eliminate the nexus to banks, such as when technology firms develop payments services connected to digital wallets rather than bank accounts and rely on digital currencies rather than sovereign currencies as the means of exchange.” According to Brainard, “a review of the nation’s oversight framework for retail payment systems could be helpful to identify important gaps.”
Among other topics, Brainard stated that the Fed is currently reviewing nearly 200 comment letters concerning the proposed FedNow Service announced last summer, which would “facilitate end-to-end faster payment services, increase competition, and ensure equitable and ubiquitous access to banks of all sizes nationwide.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Brainard also discussed the possibility of creating a central bank digital currency (CBDC). While noting that the “prospect for rapid adoption of global stablecoin payment systems has intensified calls for central banks to issue digital currencies in order to maintain the sovereign currency as the anchor of the nation’s payment systems,” Brainard stressed the importance of taking into account private sector innovations and considering whether adding a new form of central bank liability would improve the payment system and reduce operational vulnerabilities from a safety and resilience perspective. She noted that the Fed is “conducting research and experimentation related to distributed ledger technologies and their potential use case for digital currencies, including the potential for a CBDC.”
On February 5, the CFPB announced a settlement with a Texas-based payday lender and six subsidiaries (defendants) for allegedly assisting in the collection of online installment loans and online lines of credit that consumers were not legally obligated to pay based on certain states’ usury laws or licensing requirements. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau filed a complaint in 2017—amended in 2018—against the defendants for allegedly violating the CFPA’s prohibitions on unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices by, among other things, making deceptive demands and originating debit entries from consumers’ bank accounts for loans that the defendants knew were either partially or completely void because the loans were void under state licensing or usury laws. The defendants—who operated in conjunction with three tribal lenders engaged in the business of extending and collecting the online installment loans and lines of credit—also allegedly provided material services and substantial assistance to two debt collection companies that were also involved in the collection of these loans.
Under the stipulated final consent order, the defendants are prohibited from (i) extending, servicing, or collecting on loans made to consumers in any of the identified 17 states if the loans violate state usury limits or licensing requirements; and (ii) assisting others engaged in this type of conduct. Additionally, the settlement imposes a $1 civil money penalty against each of the seven defendants. The Bureau’s press release notes that the order “is a component of the global resolution of the [defendants’] bankruptcy proceeding in the Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Texas, which includes settlements with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office and private litigants in a nationwide consumer class action.” The press release also states that “[c]onsumer redress will be disbursed from a fund created as part of the global resolution, which is anticipated to have over $39 million for distribution to consumers and may increase over time as a result of ongoing, related litigation and settlements.”
On February 5, the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing titled “Rent-A-Bank Schemes and New Debt Traps: Assessing Efforts to Evade State Consumer Protections and Interest Rate Caps” to discuss policies relating to state interest rate caps and permissible interest rates on small dollar loans such as payday and car-title loans. As previously covered by a Buckley Special Alert, in November, the OCC and the FDIC proposed rules meant to override the 2015 Madden v. Midland funding decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and reinforce that when a national bank or savings association, or state chartered bank, transfers a loan, the permissible interest rate after the transfer is the same as it was prior to the transfer. In January, however, a group of attorneys general from 21 states and the District of Columbia submitted a comment letter to the OCC claiming the proposed rule would encourage predatory lending through “rent-a-bank schemes.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.) During the hearing, Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), expressed concern that the two agency proposals would harm consumers by allowing non-banks to partner with banks and enable non-bank lenders to “peddle harmful short-term, triple-digit interest rate loans.” Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) echoed that concern when she suggested that “rent-a-bank” schemes allow non-banks to dodge state interest rate laws. Many Republicans had views differing from those expressed by Tlaib and Waters. North Carolina Representative Patrick McHenry remarked that the proposals from the OCC and the FDIC merely formalized the “valid when made” rule that had been in use for over a century. At the hearing, HR 5050, which would cap federal interest rates on certain small loans at 36 percent, was also discussed, with several Democrats stressing that the cap may negatively affect credit availability to some consumers.
On February 3, the CFPB issued its semi-annual report to Congress covering the Bureau’s work from April 1, 2019, through September 30, 2019. The report, which is required by the Dodd-Frank Act, addresses, among other things, problems faced by consumers with regard to consumer financial products or services; significant rules and orders adopted by the Bureau; and various supervisory and enforcement actions taken by the Bureau. In her opening letter, Director Kathy Kraninger reported that she has focused, “whenever appropriate and possible” on two areas: (i) encouraging saving, by establishing a program called “Start Small, Save Up”; and (ii) unleashing innovation by reducing regulatory constraints and revising innovation policies and promoting cooperation between state and federal regulators, as demonstrated with the launch of the American Consumer Financial Innovation Network last year.
Among other things, the report highlights credit scores, credit reporting, and the consumer credit card market as areas in which consumers face significant problems. The report notes that credit reports and credit scores greatly affect credit available to consumers. With respect to the availability of general purpose credit cards the report cites Bureau findings that in 2018, consumers with high credit scores had an 83 percent approval rate, whereas consumers with subprime credit scores had only a 17 percent approval rate. In addition to these areas of focus, the report notes the issuance of one significant final rule—Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans; Delay of Compliance Date; Correction Amendments—last year. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Several less significant rules were also finalized, including (i) Technical Specifications for Submissions to the Prepaid Account Agreements Database; (ii) Availability of Funds and Collection of Checks (Regulation CC); and (iii) Home Mortgage Disclosure (Regulation C)–2019 Final Rule.
On February 3, the FTC announced a settlement with operators of a lead generator website (respondents) that compares and ranks consumer financial products such as student loans, personal loans, and credit cards. According to the FTC’s complaint, the respondents violated the FTC Act by allegedly making false representations to consumers that their rankings were objective, honest, accurate, and unbiased, when in fact, the defendants allegedly offered higher rankings to companies that paid for placement. In addition, the complaint alleges that certain highly ranked companies dropped placement spots after refusing to pay for their positions. The complaint further contends that the respondents allegedly claimed that customer reviews were impartial, but in reality most reviews were written by company employees or their family friends, or others associated with the company, or by fabricated consumers. Without admitting or denying the allegations, the respondents have agreed to pay $350,000 under the terms of the proposed settlement, and are prohibited from making future misrepresentations connected with the “advertising, promotion, offering for sale, or sale of any product or service.”
On January 30, the Federal Reserve Board (Fed) announced an enforcement action against a New York-based bank for allegedly violating the National Flood Insurance Act (NFIA) and Regulation H, which implements the NFIA. The consent order assesses a $36,500 civil money penalty against the bank for an alleged pattern or practice of violations of Regulation H, but does not specify the number or the precise nature of the alleged violations. The maximum civil money penalty under the NFIA for a pattern or practice of violations is $2,000 for each violation. The consent order was signed by both the bank and the Fed on January 24.
On January 30, the CFPB announced that it filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island against a national bank (defendant) based upon alleged violations of the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) and its implementing Regulation Z, the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA), and the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act (CARD Act). The CFPB claims that among other things, when servicing credit card accounts, the defendant did not properly manage consumer billing disputes for unauthorized card use and billing errors, and did not properly credit refunds to consumer accounts resulting from such disputes. Specifically, the complaint alleges that violations included the defendant’s (i) “practice of automatically denying billing error claims or claims of unauthorized use for failure of the consumers to provide Fraud Affidavits, including agreeing to testify as witnesses”; (ii) “failure to refund related finance charges and fees when it resolved billing error notices or claims of unauthorized use in consumers’ favor”; (iii) failure “to provide written notices of acknowledgement or denial in response to billing error notices”; and (iv) failure “to provide credit counseling referrals.” The CFPB is seeking injunctive relief, monetary relief, disgorgement of defendant’s ill-gotten gains, civil money penalties, and costs of the action.
The defendant issued a response to the suit on January 31, stating that it self-identified the issues to the Bureau five years ago while simultaneously correcting any flawed processes. According to the defendant’s statement, “the CFPB’s action is misguided” and “well beyond the expiration of the statute of limitations. The defendant vows to “vigorously challenge” the suit.
- Daniel P. Stipano to moderate "Washington update" at the Puerto Rican Symposium of Anti Money Laundering
- Melissa Klimkiewicz to discuss "Private flood insurance updates" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Servicing Solutions Conference & Expo
- Jonice Gray Tucker and H Joshua Kotin to discuss regulatory compliance issues in the fintech industry at Protiviti's Risk & Compliance Innovation Roundtable
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- Amanda R. Lawrence and Sherry-Maria Safchuk to discuss "California privacy rule" on an NAFCU webinar
- Sasha Leonhardt to discuss "MLA & SCRA" on a NAFCU webinar
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Pathway of the SARs: Tracking trajectories of suspicious activity reports from alerts to prosecution" at the ACAMS International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Which bud’s for you? A deep-dive into evolving marijuana laws" at the ACAMS International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "RESPA 8 (TRID applied compliance)" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Major litigation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- John P. Kromer to discuss "Navigating the multi-state fintech regulatory regime" at the American Conference Institute Legal, Regulatory and Compliance Forum on Fintech & Emerging Payment Systems
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Leveraging big data responsibly" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Critique of direct examination; Questions and answers" at the American Bar Association Section of Litigation Anatomy of a Trial: Murder Trial of Ziang Sung Wan
- Hank Asbill to discuss "What judges want from trial lawyers" at the American Bar Association Section of Litigation Anatomy of a Trial: Murder Trial of Ziang Sung Wan
- Steven R. vonBerg to speak at the "Conference super session" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference