Few pieces of legislation in recent years have riled up the financial services industry as thoroughly as the Dodd-Frank Act. And the white hot center of that controversial law is probably the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which the Act created to police the marketplace for personal financial services. If you’ve been reading the news lately, you know that the CFPB has a new director—former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray—who received a sharply-criticized recess appointment recently from President Obama. Senate Republicans had refused to hold confirmation hearings on Cordray until certain changes were made to the agency’s organizational structure, and Obama finally lost his patience and made Cordray’s appointment official while Congress was in recess.
If you have been paying attention, you also know there’s a difference of opinion between Senate Republicans like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and the White House over whether Congress was technically still in session, so the legality of Cordray’s appointment might be challenged in court. It’s also entirely possible—perhaps even likely—that the CFPB will be legislated out of existence should the Republican Party recapture the White House and both houses of Congress this fall. No doubt many bankers, their trade associations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would like to see that happen.
On the other hand, if the president wins reelection, I am sure he would veto any such bill that might emerge from a Republican controlled Congress, should the Republicans hold the House and retake the Senate this fall, which is possible but by no means assured. And if you give Obama a 50/50 chance of being reelected—which is my guess at this point having watched the Republican presidential race closely—then you can reasonably assume the CFPB has a 50/50 chance of surviving at least until January 2016.
And I think that’s a good thing.
This probably puts me at odds with most of Bank Director magazine’s readers. There’s no question that Dodd-Frank, combined with a variety of recent initiatives that have come directly from agencies like the Federal Reserve, will drive up compliance costs for banks and thrifts. And the CFPB‘s information demands alone will be a component of those higher costs. However, I have a hunch that what scares some people the most is the specter of a wild-eyed liberal bureaucrat imposing his or her consumer activist agenda on the marketplace. I don’t think Cordray quite fits that description, based on what I’ve read about him, but obviously we won’t know for sure until he’s been in the job for a while, so the naysayers’ apprehension is understandable. At the very least he seems determined to get on with the job, so we should know soon enough what kind of director he will be.
Here’s my side of the argument. Among the primary causes of the global financial crisis of 2008, which was precipitated by the collapse of the residential real estate market in the United States, were some of the truly deplorable practices that occurred during—and contributed to—the creation of a housing bubble. Chief among them were the notorious option-payment adjustable rate mortgages and similar permutations that allowed borrowers to pay less than the amortization rate that would have paid down their mortgages, which essentially allowed them to buy more house and take out a bigger mortgage than they could afford to repay. Some of these buyers were speculators who didn’t care about amortization because they planned on flipping the house in two years. But many of them were just people who wanted a nicer, more expensive house than they could afford and figured optimistically that things would work out. And the expansion of the subprime mortgage market brought millions of new home buyers into the market just when housing prices were becoming over inflated.
I’m not suggesting that the CFPB, had it been in existence during the home mortgage boom, could have single-handedly prevented the housing bubble. The causes of the bubble and the financial panic that eventually ensued were many and varied, including the interest rate policies of the Federal Reserve, the laxness on the bank regulatory agencies when it came to supervising the commercial banks and thrifts, the laxness of the Securities and Exchange Commission when it came to supervising the Wall Street investment banks and the fact that no one regulated the securitization market. But an agency like the CFPB, had it been doing its job, would have cracked down on dangerous practices like the so-called liar loans, or loans that didn’t require borrowers to verify their income. It would have put an end to phony real estate appraisals that overstated a home’s worth, making it easier for borrowers to qualify for a mortgage. And it would have been appropriately suspicious of option-ARMs if a super-low teaser rate and negative amortization were the only way that a borrower could afford to buy a home.
The CFPB is not a prudential bank regulator and will not focus on bank safety and soundness like the Federal Reserve, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. But in cracking down on some of these dangerous marketplace practices, the CFPB might have reigned in institutions like Wachovia, Washington Mutual, IndyMac and Countrywide that ultimately failed, or were forced to sell out, because it would have discouraged many of the shenanigans that helped feed the housing bubble.
Of course, many of the unsound practices that helped inflate the bubble were widespread outside the banking industry, and one of the CFPB’s principal—and I would say most important—duties will be to regulate the mortgage brokers and nonbank mortgage originators who accounted for a significant percentage of origination volume during the housing boom. Banks and thrifts should benefit greatly from this effort if it leads to the creation of a level playing field where nonbank lenders can no longer exploit the advantages of asymmetrical regulation.
A truism of our financial system is that money and institutional power will always be attracted to those sectors that have the least amount of regulation. For all intents and purposes, both the gigantic secondary market and the large network of mortgage brokers and nonbank mortgage lenders went unregulated during the boom years, and this is where the greatest abuses occurred. (Dodd-Frank also addressed the secondary market, although the jury is out whether its prescribed changes will work. Indeed, at this point it’s unclear whether the secondary market for home mortgages will ever recover.)
In hindsight, having two mortgage origination markets—one highly regulated, the other unregulated—was asking for trouble. And that’s exactly what we got.
Which is why we need the CFPB.