In 2012, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recognized that the industry we now call fintech was starting to accelerate the delivery of cutting edge technology products to the financial services marketplace. The CFPB was aware that many of these offerings would make banking faster and easier for consumers and might also allow banks to perform their operations far more efficiently. At first blush, that seems like a win-win situation for consumers and the industry alike. However, the bureau was also aware that rapid growth of the largely unregulated fintech sector created the potential for abuse and fraud. The result was Project Catalyst, a program in which the bureau works with fintech firms to encourage the development of new consumer-friendly products while making sure these companies color inside the regulatory lines.
The CFPB released it first look at the achievements of the program in October. In “Project Catalyst report: Promoting consumer-friendly innovation,”the bureau outlined it efforts to work with fintech companies to develop consumer-friendly programs while avoiding potential regulatory pitfalls. In his preamble to the report, Director Richard Cordray noted that “As these efforts reflect, the Bureau believes innovation has enormous potential to improve the financial lives of consumers. At the same time, however, the Bureau recognizes that innovation cannot skirt the need for sufficient oversight and consumer protection.” While the CFPB wants to encourage financial innovation, it has endeavored to do so in a manner that keeps consumers and their money safe. So far the bureau would seem to be succeeding.
The report also outlines areas where the bureau has high interest and concerns. For example, payday lending products has been a concern for the CFPB from day one. These high-cost, short-term loans exploit lower-income and underbanked consumers who have cash flow issues. To reduce the need for these products the bureau has been encouraging the development of alternatives that help consumers better manage their finances to avoid the cash crunch that creates the need for a payday loan in the first place.
Underbanked and “credit invisible” consumers are a particular concern of the bureau. These individuals tend to be less sophisticated and are often easy prey for less scrupulous fintech companies. While they may not have a bank account, they do have smartphones and are targeted for payday loans, car title loans and other high-cost consumer loan products. Project catalyst has been actively working with fintech companies to find ways to deliver reasonably priced loans to the underbanked market on terms that are also favorable for the lender.
Building savings is also a key focus for the bureau. Project Catalyst is interested in working with companies that develop products that encourage savings and make it easier for customers to get and keep money in a savings account. Building tools that help consumers understand and utilize the budgeting and savings process is a key goal of the project and has been since the beginning. One of Project Catalyst’s first collaborations was with the personal finance website Simple to develop a program that helped consumers understand their spending habits and patterns.
Project Catalyst also highlights the need for improvements in mortgage servicing platforms. The bureau notes that many banks have just loaded new mortgage servicing platforms on the back of their current legacy system and that is not the optimum solution. The report comments that “These workarounds can be costly and are sometimes plagued by programming errors, failures in system integration or instances of data corruption. These failures cause consumer harm and increase the risk of data inaccuracies during loan transfers.” The CFPB is working with fintech companies to build new, more efficient technology platforms that will make the process easier and more consumer friendly.
Credit reporting and clarity are also a focus of the CFPB. Many credit users have no idea what is on their credit report and any technology that makes it easier to check credit scores and profiles is of interest to the bureau. It is also working with companies to develop products that help understand what types of behavior might improve or worsen their score.
Project Catalyst is also looking to improve the peer-to-peer payments process. The bureau is working with fintech providers to help people send money overseas, pay their bills or make purchases on a cost effective basis. It has also met with firms that are working on providing easily accessed price comparisons when sending money overseas so that people can find the cheapest and most convenient way to transfer cash to relatives back home.
While the CFPB’s mission is to help and protect all consumers, it is evident from the report that the bureau is very sensitive to the needs of the underbanked and less affluent consumers. This segment of the market has always been the target of fraud and predatory practices, and the introduction of mobile technology has made them more so than ever before. Fintech companies that develop programs to serve and protect this market will find the CFPB more than willing to help get their products to market.