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On February 28, the Heritage Foundation released Prosperity Unleashed:  Smarter Financial Regulation, a Report that lays bare the heavy and unnecessary burdens imposed on our economy by defective financial regulations, and proposed market-oriented regulatory reforms that would benefit American producers, consumers, and the overall economy.  In a recent Truth on the Market blog commentary, I summarized the key findings and recommendations set forth in the Report’s 23 chapters.  In this commentary, I explore in greater detail chapter 19 of the Report, “How Congress Should Protect Consumers’ Finances,” co-authored by George Mason University Foundation Professor of Law Todd J. Zywicki and me.

Chapter 19 makes the case for legislative reform that would eliminate the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s oversight of consumer protection in financial markets and transfer such authority to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (key excerpts with footnote references omitted follow):

Free-market competition is key to the efficient provision of the goods and services that consumers desire. More generally, the free market promotes innovation and overall economic welfare. Imperfect information can, however, limit the ability of competition to be effective in benefiting consumers and the economy. In particular, inaccurate information about the quality and attributes of market offerings may lead consumers to make mistaken purchase decisions—in other words, consumers may not get what they think they bargained for. This will lead to the distrust of market processes, as sellers find it harder to differentiate themselves from their competition. The end result is less-effective competition, less consumer satisfaction, and lower economic welfare.

Fraudulent or deceptive statements regarding product or service attributes, and negative features of products or services that become evident only after sale, are prime examples of inaccurate information that undermines trust in competitive firms. Accordingly, the government has a legitimate role in seeking to curb fraud, deception, and related informational problems. Historically, the federal government’s primary consumer protection agency, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has taken the lead in bringing enforcement actions against businesses that distort markets by engaging in “deceptive” or “unfair” practices when marketing their offerings to consumers. In recent decades, the FTC has taken an economics-focused approach in these areas. Specifically, it has limited “deception prosecutions” to cases where consumers acting reasonably were misled and tangibly harmed, and “unfairness prosecutions” to situations involving consumer injury not outweighed by countervailing benefits (a cost-benefit approach). In other words, although the FTC may have erred from time to time in specific cases, its general approach has avoided government overreach and has been conducive to enhancing marketplace efficiency and consumer welfare.

However, Congress has not allowed the FTC to exercise economy-wide oversight over consumer protection, in general, and fraud and deception, in particular. For many years, a hodgepodge of different federal financial service regulators were empowered to regulate the practices of a wide variety of financial industry entities, with the FTC only empowered to oversee consumer financial protection with respect to the narrow category of “non-bank financial institutions.” As part of the 2010 Dodd–Frank financial reform legislation, Congress created a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), loosely tied to the Federal Reserve Board. While Dodd–Frank mandated shared CFPB–FTC consumer protection jurisdiction over non-bank financial institutions, it transferred all other authority over the many separate consumer financial protection laws to the CFPB alone. The CFPB is simultaneously one of the most powerful and least-accountable regulatory bodies in United States history. In marked contrast to the FTC’s economics-based approach, the CFPB intervenes in financial market consumer-related practices in a heavy-handed arbitrary fashion that ignores sound economics. The upshot is that far from improving market efficiency, the CFPB reduces market efficiency, to the detriment of consumers, producers, and the overall economy. In short, the CFPB’s actions are a prime example of government failure.

The substantive powers of the CFPB are vast and ill-defined. The CFPB has power to regulate the terms and marketing of every consumer credit product in the economy. And, because many small businesses use personal credit to start and grow their businesses (such as personal credit cards, home equity lines of credit, and even products like auto title loans), the CFPB possesses substantial control over much of the allocation of small-business credit as well. The CFPB has the power to take enforcement and regulatory action against “unfair, deceptive, and abusive” consumer credit terms, an authority that the CFPB has exercised with gusto. Moreover, the CFPB has deliberately eschewed regulatory rule-making that would clarify these terms, preferring to engage in case-by-case enforcement actions that undermine predictability and chill vigorous competition and innovation. Yet despite the broad authority granted to the CFPB, its appetite is broader still: The CFPB has taken action to regulate products such as cellphone billing, for-profit career colleges, and even loans made by auto dealers (despite express jurisdictional limits in Dodd–Frank regarding the latter).

The consequences of this unchecked authority have been disastrous for consumers and the economy. Complicated rules with high compliance costs have choked off access to mortgages, credit cards, and other financial products. Overwhelmed by the costs and uncertainty of regulatory compliance, small banks have exited traditional lines of business, such as home mortgages, and feared entering new lines, such as small-dollar loans. Consistent with the general effects of Dodd–Frank, the CFPB has contributed to the consolidation of the American financial sector, making big banks bigger, and forcing consolidation of small banks. By imposing one-size-fits-all bureaucratic underwriting standards on community banks and credit unions, the CFPB has deprived these actors of their traditional model of relationship lending and intimate knowledge of their customers—their lone competitive advantage over megabanks.

Perhaps the most tragic element of the CFPB train wreck is the missed opportunity for reform that it represents. At the time of Dodd–Frank, the system of consumer financial protection was badly in need of modernization: The existing system was cumbersome, incoherent, and ineffective. Fragmented among multiple federal agencies with authority over different providers of financial services, the federal system lacked the ability to lay down a coherent regulatory regime that would promote competition, consumer choice, and consumer protection consistent with the realities of a 21st-century economy and technology. While there is little evidence that the financial crisis resulted from a breakdown of consumer financial protection (as opposed to safety and soundness issues), reform was timely. But Dodd–Frank squandered a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring about real reform.

In this chapter, we briefly make the case that some degree of reform of the consumer financial protection system was appropriate, in particular, the consolidation of consumer financial protection in one federal agency. However, we challenge the apparatus constructed by Dodd–Frank that created a new unaccountable super-regulator with a tunnel vision focus on a narrow definition of “consumer protection.” Instead, we argue that existing substantive powers were largely sufficient to the task of consumer protection, and that Congress could have achieved better results by acting within the existing institutional framework by simply consolidating authority in the FTC. By working within the existing framework of long-standing substantive authorities and institutional arrangements, Congress could have provided the needed modernization of the federal consumer financial protection system without the unintended consequences that have resulted from the creation of the CFPB. . . .

Consolidating the powers granted to the CFPB in the FTC, which still retains certain regulatory responsibilities with respect to consumer finance, would have a number of advantages over the course chosen in Dodd–Frank.

First, the FTC is a multimember, bipartisan commission. This is an important improvement over the structure of the CFPB, which [is led by a single unaccountable director and] is neither an independent commission nor an executive agency. . . . 

[Second,] [t]he FTC [,unlike the CFPB,] is . . . subject to Congress’s appropriations process, an important check on the agency’s actions. . . .

Finally, the FTC has a large Bureau of Economics, staffed with academically trained economists who would be ideally suited to take into account the regulatory economic policy issues, discussed herein, to which the CFPB has paid no heed. This would make it far more likely that agency regulatory decisions affecting consumer credit markets would be taken in light of the effects of agency actions on consumer welfare and the broader economy. . . .

[In conclusion,] [e]liminating the CFPB’s authority over consumer protection in financial services, and transferring such authority to the FTC, would greatly improve the current sorry state of affairs. Admittedly, the FTC is a less-than-perfect agency, and even a multimember-commission structure does not prevent institutional mistakes from being made and repeated by the majority. All in all, however, as an accountable institution, the FTC is far superior to the CFPB. Consolidating this authority with the FTC—where it should have been in the first place—will better allow free markets to promote innovation and overall economic welfare. Strengthening this legal framework to provide a single, clearly defined, properly limited set of rules will facilitate competition among financial firms, thus protecting consumers and providing them with better choices.

Josh has recently discussed his thoughts about the intellectual trajectory of the newly-minted CFPB and how that intellectual trajectory might influence the selection of the Bureau’s first director–presumed to be either Michale Barr or Elizabeth Warren.  His is a brief, dispassionate and intellectually-honest assessment.  But given Simon Johnson’s brief, intemperate and intellectually-devoid assessment of the issue, I’m afraid Josh may be a bit naive.

Johnson’s concerns are, as he presents them, just political.  After pointing out his own bottom line (“it would be a complete travesty not to put the strongest possible regulator in change of protecting consumers” [that means Elizabeth Warren, by the way]), he assesses the implications of the decision:

This can now go only one of two ways.

  1. Elizabeth Warren gets the job.  Bridges are mended and the White House regains some political capital.  Secretary Geithner is weakened slightly but he’ll recover.
  2. Someone else gets the job, despite Treasury’s claims that Elizabeth Warren was not blocked.  The deception in this scenario would be nauseating – and completely blatant.  “Everyone was considered on their merits” and “the best candidate won” will convince who [sic] exactly?

Despite the growing public reaction, outcome #2 is the most likely and the White House needs to understand this, plain and clear – there will be complete and utter revulsion at its handling of financial regulatory reform both on this specific issue and much more broadly.  The administration’s position in this area is already weak, its achievements remain minimal, its speaking points are lame, and the patience of even well-inclined people is wearing thin.

Failing to appoint Elizabeth Warren would be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  It will go down in the history books as a turning point – downwards – for this administration.

What galls me about this kind of assessment is that it is, well, “nauseating – and completely blatant.”  It’s not an assessment, really.  It’s a threat.  It’s an effort to paint the politics of the situation in a way that makes the speaker’s preferred outcome (admittedly possibly arrived at in an intellectually-honest and sincere fashion) the only politically-viable outcome, in the process stripping all of the intellectual content out of the discussion and forcing intellectually-honest opponents of the speaker’s view to choose between intellectual honesty and, for example, the willful destruction of the entire Democratic agenda.  Hardly an environment for honest debate, but then I suppose that’s not really the goal.