411 posts categorized "Financial Institutions"

How to Tie CFPB Enforcement Up in Knots

posted by Patricia A. McCoy

While Acting Director Mick Mulvaney is apparently on a tear to defang the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, some of his actions have flown under the radar. In this and future guest blog posts, I will shine light on one key initiative that largely has gone unnoticed:  namely, the twelve Requests for Information that Mr. Mulvaney launched on January 26. These notices, dubbed "RFIs," seek public comment on scaling back every core function of the CFPB, from enforcement and supervision to rulemaking and consumer complaints. 

Although the RFIs provide the veneer of public participation, in reality they are slanted toward industry. Many are couched in such vague language that consumers and consumer advocates cannot tell which rollbacks are gaining traction behind closed doors. Just last week, Mr. Mulvaney raised new concerns that the RFI process is infected with bias when he personally pressed bankers attending a meeting of the National Association of Realtors to file responses to the RFIs. 

Continue reading "How to Tie CFPB Enforcement Up in Knots" »

Trump’s Bank Regulators

posted by Alan White

ProPublica’s new web site “Trump Town” tracks political appointees across federal agencies. In light of the president’s promises to “drain the swamp”, it is interesting to peruse some of the Treasury Department appointees responsible for bank regulation. I previously wrote about Secretary Mnuchin and Comptroller Joseph Otting and their connections to subprime mortgage foreclosure profiteers. Lower-level political appointees at Treasury seem to come mostly from one of three backgrounds – lawyers and lobbyists for banks, real estate investors (and sometimes Trump campaign officials), or former staffers for Republican members of Congress. Here are some examples:

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The Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act

posted by Stephen Lubben

Or EGRRCPA, for short. That is the official name of S. 2155, a bill which seems to be tearing Senate Democrats apart. Republicans are uniformly in favor of the bill, which Bloomberg describes as "another faulty bank-reform bill." Some Democrats see it as needed regulatory relief for small banks, while others, including the one who used to blog here, see S. 2155 as a rollback of keys parts of Dodd-Frank for big banks that remain too big to fail.

It is both. Indeed, if the bill were stripped of its title IV, I think most people could live with it. But title IV is a doozy.  

Most notably, it raises the threshold for additional regulation under Dodd-Frank from $50 billion in assets to $250 billion. Banks with more than $50 billion in assets are not community banks.

The banks in the zone of deregulation include State Street, SunTrust, Fifth Third, Citizens, and other banks of this ilk. In short, with the possible exception of State Street, this is not a deregulatory gift to "Wall Street," but rather to the next rung of banks, all of which experienced extreme troubles in 2008-2009, and all of which participated in TARP.

My prime concern – given my area of study – is that these banks will no longer be required to prepare "living wills." That is, they will not have to work with regulators on resolution plans.

How then do we expect to use Dodd-Frank's orderly liquidation authority if they fail? It would be impossible without advanced planning. Same for the misguided attempts at "chapter 14." I have real doubts about the wisdom of "bankruptcy for banks," but if it is ever to work, it will require lots of advanced planning (and luck).

And we can't use the normal FDIC approach of finding another, bigger bank to take them over, because that would simply create another colossus, like Wells Fargo. Certainly we don't want that.

Maybe a bailout then? Is that the "new" plan?

How S.2155 (the Bank Lobbyist Act) Facilitates Discriminatory Lending

posted by Adam Levitin

If you think it's ridiculous that the CDC can't gather data on gun violence, consider the financial regulatory world's equivalent:  S.2155, formally known as the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, but better (and properly) known as the Bank Lobbyist Act.  S.2155 is going to facilitate discriminatory lending. Let me say that again.  S.2155 is legislation that will facilitate discriminatory lending. This bill functionally exempts 85% of US banks and credit unions from fair lending laws in the mortgage market.  Support for this bill should be a real mark of shame for its sponsors. 

Continue reading "How S.2155 (the Bank Lobbyist Act) Facilitates Discriminatory Lending" »

Trump’s “Draining the Swamp” Scorecard: One Year In

posted by Mitu Gulati

Donald Trump came into office promising, among other things, to “drain the swamp” and get rid of all that corruption.  One year in, how are things looking in terms of swamp draining? 

The following is based on work with my super co author, Stephen Choi, of NYU Law School.

To answer (at least partially) the question posed at the start, we have analyzed data on Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) enforcement actions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act – the primary U.S. statute that gets at, among other things, bribes to influence foreign officials with payments or rewards. 

We report data that compares SEC enforcement actions against public companies and subsidiaries of public companies under the FCPA from both the final year of the Obama administration and the first year of the Trump administration. We focus on public companies and subsidiaries of public companies because these are the larger economic actors that affect the economy. The Department of Justice also has authority to bring actions, but there were 0 actions brought by the DOJ against public companies and subsidiaries of public companies during the period we examined (although the DOJ has brought several actions against non-U.S. reporting issuers including a number of prominent foreign companies).

Image1

Figure I, we think, speaks for itself. On the graph, actions brought during the Trump months (from January 20, 2017 to January 31, 2018—roughly Trump’s first year) are in red, those during the Obama months (January 1, 2016 to January 19, 2017) are in blue. As compared to SEC enforcement activity under the Obama administration, the SEC under the Trump administration, appears to have taken a pause from FCPA swamp cleaning activities. For those who saw our report on partial year information (up to the end of September 2017) here, some months ago – the story has only become clearer with the passage of more time).  

The data is from the Securities Enforcement Empirical Database (SEED),a collaboration between NYU and Cornerstone Research.  It tracks SEC FCPA actions from January 1, 2016 to January 31, 2018. SEED defines a public company as a company with stock that trades on the NYSE, NYSE MKT LLC, NASDAQ, or NYSE Arca stock exchanges at the start date of the SEC enforcement action (note that this includes both U.S. incorporated and foreign incorporated companies). 

There, of course, are caveats as to what else might be going on.

Continue reading "Trump’s “Draining the Swamp” Scorecard: One Year In" »

Bankruptcy's Lorelei: The Dangerous Allure of Financial Institution Bankruptcy

posted by Adam Levitin

I have a new (short!) paper out, Bankruptcy's Lorelei:  The Dangerous Allure of Financial Institution BankruptcyThe paper, which builds off of some Congressional testimony from 2015, makes the case that proposals for resolving large, systemically important financial institutions in bankruptcy are wrongheaded and ultimately dangerous. At best they will undermine the legitimacy of the bankruptcy process, and at worst they will result in crash-and-burn bankruptcies that exacerbate financial crises, rather than containing them.  The abstract is below.

The idea of a bankruptcy procedure for large, systemically important financial institutions exercises an irresistible draw for some policymakers and academics. Financial institution bankruptcy promises to be a transparent, law- based process in which resolution of failed financial institutions is navigated in the courts. Financial institutions bankruptcy presents itself as the antithesis of an arbitrary and discretionary bailout regime. It promises to eliminate the moral hazard of too-big-to-fail by ensuring that creditors will incur losses, rather than being bailed out. Financial institutions bankruptcy holds out the possibility of market discipline instead of an extensive bureaucratic regulatory system.

This Essay argues that financial institution bankruptcy is a dangerous siren song that lures with false promises. Instead of instilling market discipline and avoiding the favoritism of bailouts, financial institution bankruptcy is likely to simply result in bailouts in bankruptcy garb. It would encourage bank deregulation without the elimination of moral hazard that produces financial crises. A successful bankruptcy is not possible for a large financial institution absent massive financing for operations while in bankruptcy, and that financing can only reliably be obtained on short notice and in distressed credit markets from one source: the United States government. Government financing of a bankruptcy will inevitably come with strings attached, including favorable treatment for certain creditor groups, resulting in bankruptcies that resemble those of Chrysler and General Motors, which are much decried by proponents of financial institution bankruptcy as having been disguised bailouts.

The central flaw with the idea of financial institutions bankruptcy is that it fails to address the political nature of systemic risk. What makes a financial crisis systemically important is whether its social costs are politically acceptable. When they are not, bailouts will occur in some form; crisis containment inevitably trumps rule of law. Resolution of systemic risk is a political question, and its weight will warp the judicial process. Financial institutions bankruptcy will merely produce bailouts in the guise of bankruptcy while undermining judicial legitimacy and the rule of law.

House Financial Services Fintech Hearing

posted by Adam Levitin

This Tuesday I'm going to be testifying about "fintechs" before the House Financial Services Committee's Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit.  My written testimony on this impossibly broad topic is here.  It contains lots of good stuff on the so-called Madden Fix bill, "true lender" legislation, data portability, federal money transmitter licensing, small business data collection, and the need for a general federal ability-to-repay rule.    

(More on) Sticky Shipping Contracts

posted by Mitu Gulati

A few days ago, I put up a post about a very interesting recent article by Richard Kilpatrick on highly sticky (and inefficiently so) shipping contracts. The focus of Richard's article was on the failure of these standard-form ship contracts to pre-specify the allocation of financial responsibility among the various parties (ship owner, chartering party, etc.) when refugees need to be picked up and the ship's pre-planned journey gets diverted. Refugees needing to be rescued at sea has, as we know, become a huge international issue over the last couple of years.  In that post, I wondered aloud about what the explanation for the stickiness in the ship contracts might be. Theory, after all, would suggest that in a market with highly sophisticated repeat players, inefficient contract clauses would get reformed quickly -- yet they do not. Richard, whom I had never corresponded with before this, was kind enough to send me his thoughts on the question. With his permission, since his thoughts on this are fascinating -- especially the bit at the bottom about how these same parties are simultaneously highly innovative (with ship technology) and highly conservative (with contracts) -- I'm reproducing them below.

From Richard:

I’ve thought about these same questions over the past months and certainly agree that there is a more work to be done in understanding and exposing why there is continued reliance on these antiquated contract forms. In the charterparty context, this is especially surprising given that new iterations of similar forms have been promulgated by the same organization (BIMCO) that drafted the ‘46 form. One answer that invariably comes up is that the shipping industry is deeply conservative and resistant to change. At a recent Singapore Shipping Law Forum, a bunch of us legal and industry people discussed this phenomenon in the context of international conventions on carriage of goods. The Hague Rules governing bills of lading were drafted in the 1920’s (and revised very minimally in the 1960’s via the Visby amendments). These rules desperately need updating because containerization and multimodalism has completely changed the shipping landscape. The subsequent "Hamburg Rules" largely failed. And while the recently drafted "Rotterdam Rules" attempt to rectify some of these problems, they are already viewed by some observers as unlikely to catch-on. Only 4 countries have ratified them so far (including Cameroon in Oct 2017): http://www.uncitral.org/uncitral/en/uncitral_texts/transport_goods/rotterdam_status.html .

At least in part, this appears to be because the industry folks, including their fancy shipping lawyers, don't like change. Note also that the shipping industry is constantly evolving in other ways, particularly in its reliance on technology. Larger and more sophisticated vessels are constantly entering the market, and ports (as well as the vessels themselves) are increasingly being operated by computers rather than traditional labor. So I think it is fair to say there is a very traditional view towards regulation and liability allocation, but a relatively innovative approach towards operations. This creates an increasingly widening gap between the legal framework and the realities of business practice.

Why is Netflix Listing its European Bonds on the Isle of Guernsey?

posted by Mitu Gulati

Netflix has long interested me as a company, not only because of shows like "Master of None" (Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang have delivered brilliantly), its darwinian management philosophy (very cool podcast on Planet Money), but because of its uncertain future. It is competing against rich giants like Amazon and Apple to deliver original content in a field that is getting increasingly crowded.  My guess is that it is having to spend more and more on content, but is unable to increase its prices very much. One solution for Netflix: borrow at a high interest rate from investors who are willing to bet on your future.  And that it has done, in spades. Most recently -- a few days ago -- it borrowed $1.6 billion (yes, billion). I was intrigued and trying to avoid doing my real work, so I went looking for its offering documents and while I didn't immediately find the current docs, I found the offering circular for the bond issue Netflix did a few months prior in Europe (Euro 1.3 billion) in an offering listed on the International Stock Exchange, which is an exchange licensed by the Bailiwick of Guernsey.  Yes, really. So, surely, at least some of you are asking the same questions I am. What? Where? Who?

Guernsey, for those of you who are clueless like I am, is a British Crown "dependency" (not sovereign, but not independent, and not quite like a former colony like the British Virgin Islands or Bermuda (they are "British Overseas Territories")). Basically, a cynic might say: Perfect for a tax haven. But it is the stock exchange that interested me, especially since it seems to have been quickly rising in popularity for US and EU companies over the last couple of years.

If I remember my basic corporate finance class (I don't), we were told that exchanges performed a monitoring and disciplinary role; they were "gatekeepers", as the fancy corporate types liked to say. So, is Netflix going all the way to the Isle of Guernsey to get extra special monitoring from the Channel Islanders? Curious, I went to the website for the Guernsey exchange, to see what it said. And it does say that it has wonderfully rigorous regulatory standards ("some of the highest regulatory standards globally"). But does it really?

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Visa's Maginot Line: Chip Cards and the Equifax Breach

posted by Adam Levitin

The media attention on the Equifax breach has been primarily on consumer harm.  There's real consumer harm, but it's generally not direct pecuniary harm.  Instead, the direct pecuniary harm from the breach will be borne by banks and merchants, and it's going to expose the move to Chip (EMV) cards in the United States without an accompanying move to PIN (as in Chip-and-PIN) to be an incredibly costly blunder by US banks.  Basically, Visa, Mastercard, and Amex have built the commercial equivalent of the Maginot Line. A great line of defense against a frontal assault, and totally worthless against a flanking assault, which is what the Equifax breach will produce.  

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Equifax: A Call for Public Utility Regulation of Consumer Reporting Agencies

posted by Adam Levitin

This post diagnoses what went wrong with Equifax and proposes a solution:  a public utility regulation regime for consumer reporting agencies in which the CRAs would be restricted in their ability to pay dividends and executive compensation unless they meet certain performance metrics in terms of reporting accuracy, dispute resolution, and data security.  Here goes: 

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More on Madden

posted by Adam Levitin

I have a more refined piece on the problems with the Madden fix bills in the American Banker.  See here for my previous thoughts. 

Guess Who's Supporting Predatory Lending?

posted by Adam Levitin

Guess who’s sponsoring legislation to facilitate predatory lending? It’s not just the usual suspects from the GOP, but it looks like a number of centrist “New Democrats” are signing up to help predatory financial institutions evade consumer protections. 

Yup, you heard me right: Democrats. Ten years after the financial crisis, it seems like we’ve gone back to the mistakes of the Clinton years when centrist Democrats rode the financial deregulatory bandwagon. What I’m talking about is the McHenry-Meeks Madden “fix” bill, the “Protecting Consumers’ Access to Credit Act of 2017”. The bill effectively preempts state usury laws for non-bank finance companies like payday lenders in the name of ensuring access to credit, even if on extremely onerous terms.

Right now there's only one Democratic co-sponsor, but others seem to be preparing to join in. They shouldn't, and if they do sign onto this bill, it should only be in exchange for some solid consumer protections to substitute for the preempted state usury laws. This bill should be seen as a test of whether New Democrats "get it" about financial regulation. I'm hoping that they do. If not, perhaps its time to find some new Democrats.   

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Trump's Bank Regulators: More Swamp Creatures

posted by Alan White

Following his appointment of Steven Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary, the President has nominated Joseph Otting, former CEO of OneWest Bank, to be the chief federal bank regulator as head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The OCC is theMnuchinprotest bank cop for the nation's largest banks. The OCC determines whether banks are taking too many risks with depositor and taxpayer money, and is charged with preventing failures of banks that are too big too fail, in other words, with preventing the next financial crisis.

OneWest Bank was founded by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin in 2009  primarily to acquire, and foreclose, thousands of troubled mortgage loans made by the failed subprime lender IndyMac. Otting served as CEO of OneWest from 2010 until 2015. The President's two leading bank regulators made considerable fortunes by running this very unusual bank, relying on some big-time government funding.

IndyMac had specialized in "nonprime" mortgages, including no-doc interest-only loans and other toxic products, that failed massively in the foreclosure crisis. IndyMac was the first large federally-regulated bank to fail and be bailed out by the FDIC in 2008.

The California Reinvestment Coalition determined from several Freedom of Information Act requests that the FDIC will pay OneWest $2.4 billion for foreclosure losses on the IndyMac loans. Housing counselors in California identified OneWest as one of the most ruthless and difficult banks to deal with in trying to negotiate foreclosure alternatives on behalf of homeowners. In 2011 OneWest signed a consent decree with the federal banking agencies, neither admitting nor denying the agency's findings that OneWest had routinely falsified court documents in foreclosure cases, the practice known as robosigning. In his Senate confirmation hearing last week, Otting insisted that the regulators' findings of OneWest misconduct were a "false narrative." False or not, OneWest foreclosures, and its deal with the FDIC, do seem to have proven very profitable. Bloomberg estimates that Mnuchin made $200 million from the sale of OneWest in 2015, and Otting earned about $25 million in compensation and severance in his final year at OneWest.

OneWest was acquired by CIT group, one of the few banks that did not repay the taxpayers for their 2008 TARP bailout--the bank filed bankruptcy in 2009, stiffing the taxpayers for $2.3 billion. The bankruptcy reorganization and the shedding of CIT's debt allowed CIT to return to profitability and eventually fund its purchase of OneWest from Mnuchin and his partners.

photo credit Walt Mancin Pasadena Star-News

Some Further Thoughts on the "CHOICE Act"

posted by Stephen Lubben

Over at Dealb%k.

The Choice Act and Bailouts

posted by Stephen Lubben

Over at Dealb%k.

Clearinghouses in OLA?

posted by Stephen Lubben

In this short paper, I question whether derivatives clearinghouses can be "resolved" under Dodd-Frank's title II "Orderly Liquidation Authority." That, of course, presupposes that OLA is still around when and if a clearinghouse failed.

If not, we'd better think about what a chapter 7 filing of a clearinghouse would look like. As discussed in the paper, most clearinghouses are "commodities brokers" for purposes of the Code, and thus can't file under chapter 11.

Jeb Hensarling's Alternative Facts

posted by Adam Levitin
House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas 5th) has an alternative fact problem. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed Hensarling alleged that "Since the CFPB’s advent, the number of banks offering free checking has drastically declined, while many bank fees have increased. Mortgage originations and auto loans have become more expensive for many Americans.
 
The problem with these claims?  They are verifiably false.  Free checking has become more common, bank fees have plateaued after decades of steep increases, and both mortgage rates and auto loan rates have fallen. One can question how much any of these things are causally related to the CFPB, but using Hensarling's logic, the CFPB should be commended for expanding free checking and bringing down mortgage and auto loan rates. Hmmm.  
 
Below the break I go through each of Chairman Hensarling's claims and demonstrate that each one is not only unsupported, but in fact outright contradicted by the best evidence available, general FDIC and Federal Reserve Board data. 

Continue reading "Jeb Hensarling's Alternative Facts" »

More Evidence that a For-Cause Removal of CFPB Director Corday Would Be Pretextual

posted by Adam Levitin

If Trump is planning on attempting to remove CFPB Director Richard Cordray "for cause" he's hardly going about it in a smart way.  The Trump administration keeps generating more and more evidence that any for-cause removal would be purely pretextual, which strengthens Corday's hand were he to litigate the removal order (as he surely would).  

Continue reading "More Evidence that a For-Cause Removal of CFPB Director Corday Would Be Pretextual " »

Dodd-Frank and the New Order

posted by Stephen Lubben

Apparently just in time for another missive from the White House – and a bit of a tantrum from the House – I've got a new Dealbook up where I suggest that Orderly Liquidation Authority and title II might be a first target. I also argue that there is no real plan for what to do after OLA is gone.

CFPB Commission Structure Proposals

posted by Adam Levitin

I have an op-ed in American Banker about proposals to convert the CFPB into a commission structure.  Basically, the idea that a commission structure increases accountability and policy stability and reduces arbitrary or abusive actions by an agency just doesn't hold water upon examination.  

Not included in the piece is a brief history of independent agency structure. The reason that so many independent agencies are structured as commissions has absolutely nothing to do with a perceived superiority of the commission structure from any sort of good governance perspective. You'll be hard pressed to find any Congressional debate about single director versus multi-member commission structures. The prevalence of multi-member commissions is a matter of path dependency and Congressional desire to maximize patronage opportunities, not any considered debate.

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Recommended Reading: Empire of the Fund

posted by Jason Kilborn

EmpireofthefundimageIt's that time of year again! Time to revisit and perhaps rebalance the investments in your retirement portfolio. While it is a sad fact that many people lack significant retirement savings, it is nonetheless useful for those interested in consumer finance (and investment companies, pensions, etc.) to think about how retirement savings plans work and to be able to offer some advice, for example, to debtors emerging from bankruptcy with their clean slate. William Birdthistle, of Chicago-Kent law school, has recently released Empire of the Fund, a magnificent new work on the most common vehicle that carries individuals' retirement savings in the US: mutual funds.

I have heard that Birdthistle, who teaches across town from me, is legendary in the classroom. Having read his new book, I'm not at all surprised. While his fairly esoteric subject matter made me hesitate to nominate his book in response to Katie's post, Birdthistle has really pulled one off here by managing to make a book about the structure and pitfalls of mutual funds and retirement savings ... extremely entertaining! It is masterfully written, with both erudite references to relevant comments by literary and historical figures, along with laugh-out-loud allusions to modern culture ("OMG! Friends, right! Mutual funds are lame!"). This book is an absolutely brilliant example of how to make a work on an otherwise dry financial subject not only accessible to the general public, but a real pleasure to read. It is no wonder the New York Times calls this "a lively new book."

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The CFPB and Behavioral Economics

posted by Adam Levitin
This post is an extended aside from my previous post about David Evans' argument about the CFPB's mindset and institutional incentives.  The point isn't critical to Evans' argument, but I'm writing because it really irks me because it shows such a lack of understanding about the CFPB.  Specifically, Evans suggests that the CFPB's supposed emphasis on preventing consumer harms rather than maximizing consumer welfare stems from the CFPB’s “intellectual foundation in behavioral economics.” This just wrong.  The CFPB really doesn’t have a behavioral economics DNA. (Heck, behavioral economics hasn't made much of a mark on government in general).  

Continue reading "The CFPB and Behavioral Economics" »

The CFPB and Consumer Welfare

posted by Adam Levitin
David Evans has an interesting article on PYMNTS that argues that "The fundamental problem with the CFPB ... isn’t who’s on top. It is that the CFPB does not have an institutional desire, or incentives, to make sure that the financial services industry supplies consumers with products that consumers need, including loans.” It’s refreshing to hear a CFPB critic argue that the issue isn’t really with the CFPB’s structure, but with its worldview. But Evans is still wrong.  

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Do Financial Institutions Care About Bigotry?

posted by Adam Levitin

Do financial institutions care about bigotry?  I don't ask that facetiously.  I want to be clear that I am not raising the question of whether financial institutions themselves want to discriminate based on race, gender, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, etc. (or "have a taste for discrimination" in Gary Becker's terminology).  Instead, what I am asking is whether they care about bigotry and discrimination in society writ large?  That is, do financial institutions believe they have some sort of social responsibility?  Do they, as corporate entities believe in diversity and inclusion, and human rights?  Or even if they don't, do they believe that bigotry and discrimination in society are bad for their bottom line?  

Certainly that's what they have told us in the past.  Large banks have repeatedly made statements about how diversity and inclusion help them to be better businesses and to better serve their customers.  Indeed, many large financial institutions have statements of corporate values that typically include things like diversity and inclusion and human rights.  These institutions also sponsor charity events that advocate for these values.  But how much of this is just lip service and token payments to improve community relations?  We're about to find out. The major financial services trade associations just got a letter from the Ranking Democratic Members of the Senate Banking and House Financial Services Committee, as well as from Senator Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Keith Ellison.  The letter outlines concerns about Stephen Bannon's appointment to a senior White House position and asks the trade associations to publicly oppose Bannon's appointment.  Will the trade associations (and the banks that fund them) take a stand against bigotry, even if it costs them political capital with the incoming administration?  If they don't, what sort of message are they sending about their commitment to comply with fair lending laws?  About equal opportunity employment?  About hostile workplace environments?  It'll be interesting to see what happens.  Obviously the trade associations aren't quite the same as their members, and cannot be seen as speaking for any particular member institution, but this is a case in which silence counts as action, and if the trade associations are silent, then it's on the members to speak up if that silence does not represent them. As the letter says, "This moment is a test of the moral leadership of the banking and finance community."  

Preliminary Thoughts

posted by Stephen Lubben

On the new reality. Over at Dealb%k.

How to think about banks

posted by Alan White

Banking is not an industry; banking is not the real economy. The big banks especially are economic and political behemoths that remain unpopular and poorly understood in the popular imagination. Opinion polls show voters favor breaking them up, and some shareholders do too. While Wall Streeters may bemoan the fact that banks are no longer hot growth stocks, I suspect most voters who chose either candidate would not be saddened to see banks become public utilities. The Republican agenda to roll back Dodd-Frank, if this means unshackling the megabanks from speculating with public and taxpayer funds, will be the first betrayal by the incoming administration of its voter base.

Banks are now basically franchisees of the government's, i.e. the taxpayers', full faith and credit, as recently and eloquently explained by Professors Saule Omarova and Robert Hockett  Banks create and allocate capital because the government recognizes bank loans as money and puts taxpayers' full faith and credit behind bank IOUs. The conventional story that banks convert privately-accumulated savings into loans to borrowers is a myth. Because banks are public-private partnerships to create and allocate capital, the public can and should play a central role in insuring that the financial system serves the needs of the real economy, not just the financial economy.

So here is the first test for our new federal leaders. Are you tools of Wall Street, doing its bidding by undoing financial reform, or will you turn banks into the public utilities they ought to be?  

Tinder for CDS?

posted by Adam Levitin

Dealers occupy an important position in financial markets, essentially serving as central nodes that match buyers and sellers of all types of instruments.  Sometimes the dealer itself will serve as the ultimate buyer or seller, but frequently they are running (or attempting to run) matched books of buyers and sellers.  In short, dealers are really just matchmakers.  So here's the thing:  we've seen how human matchmaking can be entirely replaced by (1) algorithms and (2) apps.  For algorithms, that's just stuff like Match.com or eHarmony.  And for apps, well, there's Tinder, etc.  I assume that someone has even combined algorithms with an app, so users don't have to browse for dates, but just log on and are automatically matched.  This model seems entirely applicable to many types of financial contracts.  If I'm a hedge fund looking to go short on some debt obligation, I need to find someone who will sell me CDS.  I could go to a dealer (and pay a nice bit for this), but why not just use an app that will match me with all of the funds that are looking to go long?  We could have Tinder for CDS--let's call it CinDerS.  If there are apps that can match dominants and submissives, why not protection buyers and protection sellers?  And nothing limits this to CDS.  It really works for any type of financial instrument.  I'm sure there are a bunch of regulatory and business issues lurking here, but it strikes me that the old dealer model is facing an imminent technological challenge.  

Is It Time for the CFPB to Regulate Retail Bank Employee Compensation?

posted by Adam Levitin

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that incentive-based compensation like the type featured in Wells Fargo's current and previous consent orders has the potential to encourage fraud and steering of consumers into inappropriate products in order to make sales numbers. Here's the thing:  there's little regulation of retail banking employee compensation. Instead, banks are relied upon to self-regulate, to have the good sense not to have unduly coercive incentive compensation and to have internal controls to catch the problems incentive compensation can create. But when a leading bank like Wells Fargo repeatedly fails to have good sense and to have sufficient internal controls, it suggests that it might be time for more directed regulation that will create clearer lines that facilitate compliance.  

The CFPB already regulates the compensation of mortgage originators (loan officers and brokers), limiting compensation based on loan terms to 10% of total compensation. But this regulation applies only to mortgage loans. There's no regulation of retail banking employee compensation generally.  And there are some big wholes in the CFPB mortgage loan officer compensation regulation. In particular, the CFPB's regulation does not cover compensation based on the number of loans made or the size of the loans, only on the terms of the loans. That leaves the door open for banks to set up compensation schemes that pressure employees to engage in fraud to meet quotas and get bonuses. 

So what can be done going forward?  

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What is the point of that?

posted by Stephen Lubben

Perhaps as a result of GM, I've been thinking about notice issues in connection with insolvency. Thus, I was a bit surprised to see these three notices, all related to Lehman cases pending in Hong Kong (and schemes of arrangement in those cases), which appeared in this morning's Financial Times.


Credit Slips ImageNote that in the title the notice is addressed to the "Scheme Creditors," as "defined below." Yet below, we are told that Scheme Creditors are "as defined in the Scheme."  So unless you are an insolvency fanatic – I plead guilty – and going to run down the documents and read them, this published notice has told you absolutely nothing.

They might as well run an add that says "A company is insolvent. You might be a creditor. Or maybe not.  Good luck."

The Bad CHOICE Act

posted by Adam Levitin

I'm testifying before House Financial Services tomorrow regarding the "CHOICE Act," the Republican Dodd-Frank alternative.  My testimony is here.  It's lengthy, but it doesn't even cover everything in the CHOICE Act--there are just too many bad provisions, starting with the idea of letting megabanks out of Dodd-Frank's heightened prudential standards in exchange for more capital, then moving on to a total gutting of consumer financial protection, and ending with a very poorly conceived good bank/bad bank resolution system executed through a new bankruptcy subchapter.  The only good thing about the Bad CHOICE Act is that it has little chance of becoming law any time soon. 

Payday Rulemaking: Is Too Much Competition a Bad Thing?

posted by Adam Levitin

The CFPB's proposed payday rule making is out.  There's a nice summary here.  

I'm going to reserve comment other than to note a critical implication of a rare area of agreement between the supporters and opponents of the payday rule:  it will result in a lot of payday lenders closing up shop.  That might be just what the industry needs.

Payday lending differs materially from bank lending in (among things) that there are very low barriers to entry.  Bank regulators restrict the number of bank charters in order to reduce interbank competition. (What was that about free markets, Jamie Dimon?) That mode of regulation does not exist in payday, and it results in a self-cannibalization of the industry. Most storefront lenders have very few actual customers--a few hundred per store per year. Often stores average less than one customer per day (offset only partially by the fact that these customers tend to take out multiple loans). That means that payday lenders have to amortize their fixed and semi-fixed costs over a small borrower base, which in turn results in very high priced loans even without outsized profit margins. (This also suggests that bank payday lending, like Postal payday proposals, is economically more feasible because of a broader base over which to spread fixed costs.) In other words, too much competition is actually pushing up prices.  

The situation is somewhat analogous to a population of deer (or wolves) that grows too large for the sustenance base.  The resulting overgrazing (or overpredation) can ultimately result in a catastrophic collapse.  The typical wildlife husbandry solution is to cull the herd in order to ensure that the survivors are stronger and healthier.  Regulations that have the effect of reducing the number of lenders can be thought of as functioning in a similar way. In banking, this is done through control over chartering. Insurance does this through rate regulation (preventing destructive rate races). The CFPB's rulemaking is likely to achieve something similar in payday lending. 

We've seen this happen before. In 2010 Colorado undertook a major regulation of its in-state payday industry (this after an unsuccessful round of regulation in 2007). Pew has nicely analyzed the results.  The result of the regulation was that the number of in-state payday lenders fell by half (-53%).  Demand slackened only a little (-7%; why would it disappear?), however, so the number of customers per storefront almost doubled (up 99%).  The terms borrowers received were much better under the Colorado reform, and the revenue per store increased (+26%).  

What the Colorado experience suggests is that it's possible to have both better loan terms for consumers, and a healthier payday lending industry, but only if there is a contraction in the number of lenders. Put another way, some lenders have to go out of business in order for others to do better and for consumers to get better terms. It's rather counterintuitive--normally we think of competition as an important force for consumer protection, but at a certain point, it seems, too much competition actually results in price increases.  But it goes to show that the free market may not always produce the socially efficient result. (Obviously this isn't Pareto efficient, but it could well be Kaldor-Hicks efficient.) Curious to hear thoughts. 

 

Does the White House Stand for Consumer Protection or for Predatory Lending?

posted by Adam Levitin

Does the Obama White House truly stand for consumer financial protection, or will it support Wall Street when it thinks no one is looking?  That's the question that the Supreme Court served up today.  The Supreme Court is considering whether to hear an appeal in a critical consumer protection case called Midland Funding v. Madden. This is one of the most important consumer financial protection case the Supreme Court has considered in years. (See here for my previous post about it.)

The Court will only take the appeal if at least four Justices are in favor of hearing it.  Today the Supreme Court requested the opinion of the Solicitor General about whether to take the case.  That's a good indication that there's currently no more than three Justices who want to hear the appeal and another one or more who are unsure (it will take five to overturn the lower court decision in the case).  If four Justices wanted to hear the case, there'd be no reason to ping the Solicitor General. 

The request for the Solicitor General to weigh in on the case puts the White House in the position of having to decide whether it wants to stand up for consumer financial protection or to fight for Wall Street.

Continue reading "Does the White House Stand for Consumer Protection or for Predatory Lending?" »

Why the 9th Circuit Fannie Mae "Federal Instrumentality" Ruling Doesn't Matter for the Net Worth Sweep Litigation

posted by Adam Levitin

Now for a break from Puerto Rico. 

Some housing finance commentators (here and here, e.g.) have been very excited by a 9th Circuit ruling that Fannie Mae is not a governmental entity for purposes of the federal False Claim Act (FCA) because they believe that basically decides the issue of whether Delaware law applies to the controversial Net Worth Sweep undertaken by Treasury as part of its support of Fannie and Freddie. Unfortunately, this excitement reflects a misunderstanding of some legal concepts and issues. The 9th Circuit opinion is a big nothing for the Delaware Net Worth Sweep litigation. It does matter for those who try to bring FCA claims against sellers to Fannie and Freddie, but that's a different kettle of fish. 

Continue reading "Why the 9th Circuit Fannie Mae "Federal Instrumentality" Ruling Doesn't Matter for the Net Worth Sweep Litigation" »

I Can't Give Everything Away

posted by Stephen Lubben

Some thoughts on the new rules for broker-dealer OLA cases, over at Dealb%k.

The Trust Indenture Act Rider Is Not a "Clarifying Amendment"

posted by Adam Levitin

Ken Klee has argued that the Trust Indenture Act rider to the omnibus appropriations bill is just a "clarifying amendment":

The primary objection being made by those opposed to this amendment is that Congress needs to hold extensive hearings. But this is just a correction to a recent misinterpretation of the statute – not a wholesale revision of the Trust Indenture Act.

That's just not right. This isn't just a "clarifying amendment". The proposed amendment neuters the Trust Indenture Act as a protection for bondholders. 

Continue reading "The Trust Indenture Act Rider Is Not a "Clarifying Amendment"" »

No Way to Run a Railroad: Scholars' Letter on the Trust Indenture Act Amendment

posted by Adam Levitin

A large number of bankruptcy and corporate finance scholars, including several Slipsters, signed on to a letter to Congressional leadership regarding the proposed omnibus appropriations bill rider to amend the Trust Indenture Act. We don't all agree on how to interpret the Trust Indenture Act, on whether it should be amended, or on what amendments should look like, but we are all agreed that it shouldn't be done through this sort of backroom process. As Professor Douglas Baird of Chicago put it, "This is no way to run a railroad." Any amendment of the Trust Indenture Act should proceed with the customary procedural checks of legislative hearings and opportunity for public comment.  The Trust Indenture Act is simply too important a statute to amend on the fly. 

Private Equity's Private Bill to Amend the Trust Indenture Act

posted by Adam Levitin

One of the many creatures attempting to crawl its way onto the back of the omnibus appropriations bill is an amendment to the Trust Indenture Act.  The Trust Indenture Act is the 1939 securities law that is the major protection for bondholders. Among other things, the Trust Indenture Act prohibits any action to "impair or affect" the right of bondholders to payment or to institute suit for nonpayment absent the individual bondholder's consent. This legislation was passed in the wake of extensive study by the SEC of the unfair and abusive practices in bond restructurings in the 1920s and '30s, when ma and pa retail bondholders were regularly fleeced in corporate reorganizations.

The amendment in question is being pushed by the private equity firms that own Caesar's Entertainment Corporation (CEC), which is attempting to unburden itself from the guaranty of $7 billion of bond debt issued by its (now bankrupt) subsidiary, Caesar's Entertainment Operating Company (CEOC)

There are several problems with the proposed Trust Indenture Act Amendment, ranging from political unseemliness to ineffective drafting to unintended consequences on capital markets. There might be good reason to amend the Trust Indenture Act, but not through a slapdash job intended to bail out some private equity firms from their own sharp dealings.  

Continue reading "Private Equity's Private Bill to Amend the Trust Indenture Act" »

HARA$$ the CFPB: Omnibus Edition

posted by Adam Levitin

It's appropriations season and efforts to harass the CFPB seem to be going into overdrive. The latest scheme:  hit the CFPB with financial reporting requirements unparalleled for any government agency.  This little nugget of petty harassment is found in section 504 of the House Financial Services Appropriations bill being considered for inclusion in the final budget package. 

The bill would require the CFPB to submit quarterly reports to Congress that detail its obligations by object class, office and activity; an estimate of the same information for the coming quarter; the number of full-time equivalents in each office the previous quarter and an estimate for the coming quarter; and actions taken to achieve the goals, objectives and performance measures of each office. This level of reporting detail required is unprecedented for other agencies, as is the reporting timeline: two weeks after the close of each quarter. 

It's hard to see what the point of section 504 is other than to harass the CFPB, tie up the agency in bureaucratic redtape, and distract from its mission.  

Now you might note that the CFPB IS required under section 1017(a)(4)(A) of the Dodd-Frank Act to make quarterly budget reports to OMB and under section 1017(e)(4) to submit annual reports to the appropriations committee. But these reports do not require the level of detail mandated by section 504 and do not have a specific deadline, much less a two-week turnaround. There's also an annual Comptroller General audit and report to Congress.  All of which is to say, the CFPB is subject to standard financial controls and oversight. There haven't been any budget scandals, etc. that merit closer scrutiny. It's hard to see any reason for the additional level of scrutiny in section 504 other than animus toward the CFPB's mission. 

How Backpage Is Different from Choke Point

posted by Adam Levitin

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently slammed Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart for his actions trying to get Mastercard and Visa to stop processing payments for Backpage, an advertising website whose ads include various adult services (some legal, some not). The Backpage decisions has been taken as an indication of the strength of the legal case by some payday lenders against the FDIC, OCC, and Fed over Operation Choke Point

Unfortunately, Judge Posner got it wrong in Backpage because he incorrectly assumed facts not in the record. But even if he got it right, there's a lot that differentiates Operation Choke Point (whose name does, unfortunately, sound like it might be from an adult ad on Backpage). 

Continue reading "How Backpage Is Different from Choke Point" »

Glass-Steagall Is Campaign Finance Reform

posted by Adam Levitin

The financial wonkosphere just doesn't get it about Glass-Steagall.  Pieces like this one by Matt O'Brien concentrate on the questions of whether Glass-Steagall would have prevented the last crisis or whether it is better than other approaches to reducing systemic risk.  That misses the point entirely about why a return to Glass-Steagall is so important. No one argues that Glass-Steagall is, in itself, a cure-all.  Instead, the importance of a return to Glass-Steagall is political. But totally absent in much of the wonkospheric discussion is any awareness of the political impact of busting up the big banks.  

Let's be clear about why Glass-Steagall matters:  the route to campaign finance reform runs through Glass-Steagall.

Continue reading "Glass-Steagall Is Campaign Finance Reform" »

The Ibanez Property Ring

posted by Adam Levitin

There’s an interesting new article out on the celebrated Massachusetts U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case that suggests that the defendant, Antonio Ibanez, was at the center of a property fraud ring. It's not clear to me that there was anything illegal about Ibanez's activities, but even if there were, I don't think it much matters.  

Continue reading "The Ibanez Property Ring" »

The Promise and Limits of Postal Banking

posted by Adam Levitin

It’s easy for Progressives to get excited about the idea of postal banking: a public option for banking! What’s not to love?

I’m glad to see the idea of public options in financial services getting some play of late; it’s something I’ve championed for a while in payments and housing finance. But I think it’s necessary to recognize some of the limits to postal banking. In particular, it's not at all clear to me why we would want to involve the Post Office in the public provision of financial services. What the Post Office offers is a way to recreate a brick-and-mortar branch bank network. This really doesn't make a lot of sense for 21st century banking. Additionally, postal banking is often pitched as an alternative to payday and title lenders. Before we go running down that path, we should think about what it means to have the government in the payday lending business.

Continue reading "The Promise and Limits of Postal Banking" »

Recycling News

posted by Stephen Lubben

2015-10-16 09.07.31    Catching up on some posting in other places:

  • The Columbia Blue Sky Blog recently featured a summary of my article on the treatment of failed clearinghouses under Dodd-Frank. Interestingly, the EU recently opened the door to something similar to what I've been suggesting. Thanks to Colleen Baker for pointing that out.
  • And over at Dealb%k, I look at LSTA's recent rejection of the ABI's chapter 11 reform proposals in light of two recent retail bankruptcy cases.

Glass-Steagall: It's the Politics, Stupid!

posted by Adam Levitin

It was like eight nights of Chanukkah in one for me watching the Democratic debate last night. There was a Glass-Steagall lovefest going on. But here's the thing:  no one seems to get why Glass-Steagall was important or the connection between Glass-Steagal and the financial crisis. The importance of Glass-Steagall was not as a financial firewall between speculative investment activities and safe deposits. It was as a political Berlin Wall keeping the different sectors of the financial industry from uniting in their lobbying efforts and disturbing the peace of the nation.

Until and unless we realize that the importance of Glass-Steagall was political, we're going to continue wasting our time debating insufficient half-measures of financial regulation like the Volcker Rule, which has the financial, but not the political benefits of Glass-Steagall. More critically, we're going to pass regulations like the Volcker Rule and then wonder slack-jawed why they don't work, as the financial industry undermines them through the regulatory implementation and legislative amendments. Financial regulation is just not that complex technically, even if if has a lot of technical rules (it's the capital, stupid!). The problem we face is not technical, but political.

Continue reading "Glass-Steagall: It's the Politics, Stupid!" »

Covenant Banking

posted by Adam Levitin

A new book out by University of Minnesota Law Professors Claire Hill and Richard Painter proposes a really intriguing proposal for disciplining wayward financial services firms: "covenant banking." The problem, as Hill and Painter observe, is that when things go badly at a financial institution, the burden is borne by shareholders, not by the managers, who have portable human capital and whose compensation is not typically subject to clawback. In essence the problem, as Hill and Painter see it, is that bankers lack "skin in the game." And Hill and Painter have a plan to fix it. 

Continue reading "Covenant Banking" »

Interchange Evidence?

posted by Adam Levitin

Both sides in the interchange fee debate have pointed to a recent Richmond Fed study as evidence supporting their position (here and here). Frankly, it's hard to tell without agreeing on a baseline for analysis: pre-Durbin interchange fees or what the fees would have been but for Durbin or the anticipated post-Durbin drop in fees? The finding that most merchants didn't notice a change in their merchant fees (which, of course, aren't the same as interchange fees) means very different things depending on the baseline used: that Durbin is pointless, that Durbin saves merchants money, or that Durbin isn't working as intended because of a defective rulemaking by the Fed.

In the midst of the race to claim vindication based on the study, however, no one seems to have noticed that a least some of the data used in the study—which comes from a merchant survey conducted by Javelin Strategy and Research—seems a little screwy.

Continue reading "Interchange Evidence? " »

Pie and Mash

posted by Stephen Lubben

Or a bit of this this and that. I've totally neglected cross-posting my writings on Dealbook here on IMG_8988Slips, so I give you two recent columns:

  • The first, on Chase's living will, version 3.0 or thereabouts.
  • The second, on the confusing Baha Mar bankruptcy case. Since I wrote that one, the Bahamian court has rejected a petition to recognize the Delaware chapter 11 case under the Bahamian equivalent of chapter 15.

Dodd-Frank's Constitutionality

posted by Adam Levitin

I'm testifying tomorrow before Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on The Constitution (yes, that's the official capitalization), about the constitutionality of the Dodd-Frank Act.  

Short version: nothing to see here folks.

Slightly longer version: really nothing to see here.

Even longer version:  the plaintiffs in State National Bank of Big Spring v. Lew have a totally non-Originalist interpretation of the Bankruptcy Clause, namely that "uniform laws" apparently requires equal treatment of all similar creditors, so title II Orderly Liquidation Authority is unconstitutional.  Yes, that's the sound of me shaking my head.

My written testimony is available  here.  

More on AIG: Between Hysteria and Complacency

posted by Anna Gelpern

I agree with Adam about all that post-Starr hyperventilation. No, it does not mean that bailouts are over, that the Fed has been slapped down, or any of that lurid stuff. (Though tabloidness does feel strangely gratifying in financial journalism.) Nevertheless, we should be careful not to dismiss the AIG decision as a realist vignette. Its implications for crisis management will become clearer over time, and may well turn out to be important.

At first blush, Starr feels like a stock crisis move by the Court of Claims, evoking the Gold Clause cases in 1935, where the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Congress violated the 14th amendment when it stripped gold clauses from U.S. Government debt, but denied Court of Claims jurisdiction because the creditors suffered no damages. Had they gotten the gold, they would have had to hand it right over to the Feds. And if you measured the creditors' suffering in purchasing power terms, getting their nominal dollars back still put them way ahead of where they had been in 1918 thanks to all the deflation.

Putting this history together with Starr, I wonder about two implications. First, it would have to be awfully hard for a firm getting federal rescue funds in a systemic crisis to prove damages. See also the car bailout stuff. By definition, the firm's best case is the gray zone between illiquidity and insolvency (I called it "illiquency" back then). If you accept that a court is unlikely to enjoin a caper like AIG in the middle of a crisis, this gives the government a fair amount of scope to act, even if it turns out to be off on authority after the fact.

Second, the Greek mess makes me think that the real concern in crisis is not with ex ante constraints on bailouts working as planned, but rather with accidental institutional malfunction. At some point (not yet), all the sand in the wheels will create enough friction that policy makers will not be able to respond to a tail event in a sensible way. No institution would have the authority to do "whatever it takes," and no decision-maker would be willing to take the risk. Maybe this is as it should be, but it does give me pause. 

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