postings by Chris Odinet

A Campaign to Opt-Out

posted by Chris Odinet

Following-up on my prior post, let’s talk more about what’s at stake in this little legislative kerfuffle in the Hawkeye state, as well as how consumer advocates should seize on this moment in a different way.  

First, repealing this 521 provision in Iowa law is really all about whether states should have, to a large degree, the ability to control the interest rates charged on products and services that are offered to consumers by nonbank firms. 

Many readers of this blog may already know this history backwards and forwards – but for those who don’t, here’s the backstory. In Marquette Nat’l Bank of Minneapolis v. First of Omaha Serv. Corp., the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the National Bank Act as giving nationally-chartered banks the ability to charge the highest interest rate allowed in the state where the bank is located to borrowers located not only in that state, but also to borrowers located in any other state.  This means, for instance, that a national bank located in Iowa can not only charge the highest interest rate allowable in Iowa to anyone located in Iowa, but it can also charge that same rate to a borrower located in Oklahoma, Louisiana, or any other state.  Even if Louisiana, Oklahoma, or another state’s laws prohibit interest at such a rate, the loan is nevertheless free from being usurious. This concept is known as “interest rate exportation.”  

After the 1978 decision in Marquette, there was a concern about the ability of state-chartered banks to compete with national banks. So, state legislatures started enacting “parity laws” that allowed their state banks to charge the maximum rates of interest allowable by any national bank “doing business” in that particular state. These parity laws were often even broader, granting to state chartered banks all of the incidental powers granted to national banks. In sum, the goal of these parity laws was to put state banks on equal footing with national banks, particularly when it came to usury.  Good so far?

Ok here comes the part dealing with this shady Iowa house bill…

In a final effort to give state-chartered banks a competitive edge, in 1980 Congress passed the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act (DIDMCA).  A portion of DIDMCA, specifically section 521 (see where this is going...) granted interest rate exportation to any state-chartered bank that was federally insured (in other words, to all FDIC-insured state-chartered banks). 12 U.S.C. 1831d. This allowed a state-chartered bank to charge out-of-state borrowers the same interest rate allowable for in-state borrowers.  Thus, a state-chartered bank located in Iowa could charge an Oklahoma borrower the Iowa-allowable interest rate, even if that rate was higher than what would otherwise be legal under Oklahoma law. 

But here’s the catch. In Section 525 of DIDMCA, Congress gave states the ability to opt-out of section 521 by enacting legislation stating the state did not want section 521 to apply. Only two jurisdictions opted out: Puerto Rico and…you guessed it…Iowa. In 1980, right after DIDMCA was passed, Iowa opted out per 1980 Iowa Acts, ch. 1156, sec. 32. To add one more bit of background, Iowa also did not enact any parity laws. In fact, a former general counsel to the Iowa Division of Banking stated in a 2002 interview that enacting such a law that delegated control over Iowa state banks to the feds would be seen as “a slap in the face” to the Iowa legislature. 

So, there you have it. This little provision in an otherwise unrelated tax bill is to OPT INTO section 521 and thereby reverse the decision Iowa’s legislature made in 1980.

Now you may say to yourself, why is this so bad? The bad part requires you know something about the rent-a-bank partnership model between certain state-chartered banks and a number of online “fintech” lenders. Since the 2008 financial crisis, a growing number of nonbank fintech firms that make loans over the internet have partnered with a handful of state-chartered banks (mostly chartered in Utah, Kentucky, and New Jersey) in order to make and market unsecured installment consumer loans. By and large the way the business model works is that although the loan application is submitted through the nonbank’s website or smartphone app, it is the partner bank that actually advances the funds. The marketing and underwriting process are both performed by the nonbank. Then, very shortly after, the bank sells the loan along with others (or some interest in those loans) to the nonbank fintech company or an affiliate. The fintech or another firm then sells the interest to a pre-arranged wholesale buyer or sponsors a securitization of a large pool of loans for sale as securities in the capital markets. 

The bank’s role is merely passing, and it typically retains no material economic interest in the loans. However, so the argument goes, because the loan is originated by an insured state-chartered bank, it can export the interest rate of its home state to borrowers located in ANY state (with state usury laws preempted by DIDMCA section 521). And sometimes these loans can be quite expensive (rates of 160% APR or more e.g., CashNet USA, Speedy Cash, Rapid Cash, Check n' Go, Check Into Cash). You can get more info on these partnerships and check out some nifty maps provided by the folks at the National Consumer Law Center here. 

So, here’s how I think consumer advocates can turn the tables. There are a number of states that have aggressively gone after these rent-a-bank schemes (adding a lawsuit by AG of DC to the mix here) and a group of state AGs are currently suing the OCC on account of its true lender rule. In other words, a number of states do not want this kind of high cost, fintech-bank lending happening in their jurisdiction. 

Here’s my suggestion to those states: why not just pass your own opt out of DIDMCA Section 521? 

As mentioned above, many of these online lenders in high-cost rent-a-bank schemes favor partnering with FDIC-insured, state-chartered banks rather than national banks. Opting out of DIDMCA would deprive these schemes of their regulatory arbitrage. Without the ability to import the interest rate law of another state into a given jurisdiction, it would force these online firms to apply for a lending license and otherwise abide by the jurisdiction’s usury limit. DIDMCA allowed states to opt out of Section 521, and the statute didn’t give a deadline to do it. So, here’s a call to states like Colorado and others who are going after these usury and regulatory evasive business models…take away the linchpin of the business model. Opt-out of section 521!

And as for those of us back here in the Hawkeye state, here’s to hoping that the Iowa legislature doesn’t (pardon the Peloton pun) get so easily taken for a ride.

Of Usury, Preemption, and Fancy Stationary Bikes

posted by Chris Odinet

Greetings, Slipsters! I’m thrilled to be here guest blogging, and I thank the editors for having me. So with that, let me get started…

Usury, preemption, and pandemic fitness are all colliding here in Iowa. 

About two weeks ago, I was alerted to a single strike-through amendment buried in a tax bill currently being considered by the Iowa legislature. This simple little change that eliminates three numbers (“521”) would likely go unnoticed by most lawmakers (or, more realistically—all lawmakers). However, this little change could have a profound impact on Iowa’s ability to prevent high cost, predatory lending from spilling into its borders through website portals and smart phone apps. And, if you stay with me for this bit of guest blogging, you’ll never believe what’s supposedly (so I’m told) behind it all! 

The bill is HSB 272. Most of the bill contains routine tax code clean-ups and modifications. Indeed, the bill itself is sponsored by the Iowa Department of Revenue. But, take a look at the relevant part of Section 5:

1980 Iowa Acts, chapter 1156, section 32, is amended to read as follows: SEC. 32.  The general assembly of the state of Iowa hereby declares and states . . . that it does not want any of the provisions of any of the amendments contained in Public Law No. 96-221 (94 stat. 132), sections 521, 522 and 523 to apply with respect to loans made in this state . . .

If you clicked on the link above and read the entirely of Section 5, you’d probably have to go through the text quite a few times before you’d see what’s being stricken out. The singular change is just the reference to section 521 of Public Law No. 96-221 (94 stat. 132). Otherwise, everything else in this existing statute stays the same. 

So what’s this about? 

The only clue as to what this stricken language actually deals with is the reference to “loans made in this state.” In truth, this single little strikethrough will allow FDIC-insured state-chartered banks located in other states to make loans under the usury laws of their home states to the residents of Iowa. This kind of lending usually comes in the way of partnerships between a handful of state-chartered banks and so-called “fintech” nonbank lenders making triple digit loans, hardly any different from payday financing. This partnership lending practice has also been the subject of recent lawsuits, including a summer 2020 settlement by the Colorado AG. If you’re interested in a deep dive on the rent-a-bank model and the unique legal and policy problems it creates, check out forthcoming articles here (by Adam Levitin) and here (by me!).

The icing on the cake, however, is that the rationale (again, as I’ve been told) advanced by proponents of the bill is that without this amendment, Iowans will not be able to finance the purchase of Pelotons. That’s right. Pelotons!

Here’s the connection: Peloton currently partners with Affirm, a fintech online lender, in order to help consumers finance the purchase of these roughly $3,000 stationary bikes (bike + membership). Interestingly, both firms generally promote 0% down, 0% APR, 0% hidden fees in their financing package. Of course, if you scroll down to the bottom of the promotional website and read the tiny 10.5 point, gray font print, you’ll notice: 

Your rate will be 0–30% APR based on credit, and is subject to an eligibility check. Options depend on your purchase amount, and a down payment may be required. Affirm savings accounts are held with Cross River Bank, Member FDIC. Savings account is limited to six ACH withdrawals per month. Affirm Plus financing is provided by Celtic Bank, Member FDIC. Affirm, Inc., NMLS ID 1883087. Affirm Loan Services, LLC, NMLS ID 1479506. California residents: Affirm Loan Services, LLC is licensed by the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation. Loans are made or arranged pursuant to California Financing Law license 60DBO-111681 (emphasis added).

As you can see, Affirm also plays the rent-a-bank game by partnering with FDIC-insured Utah state bank, Celtic Bank. While 30% APR may not seem like the most expensive loan term in the world, it opens the door to much higher cost lending by firms like Elevate Credit, Opportunity Financial, and more--all of whom use the rent-a-bank model. 

This is about much more than Pelotons…stay tuned for more (including how I think consumer advocates can turn the tables on this strategy!).

UPDATE: It appears that HSB 272 isn't going anywhere: no legislative movement since a canceled House subcommittee hearing on April 6. Meanwhile, a duplicate tax bill has been filed in the Senate, but it does not contain the DIDMCA opt-out (SSB 1268).

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