The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) recently announced it would move forward with a plan to grant special purpose national bank charters to qualifying financial technology companies. The OCC has solicited comments on the proposal, which it will evaluate to determine whether to formally adopt the process for granting fintech charters. If adopted, companies granted such a charter would become national banks regulated by the OCC, with the attendant regulatory obligations and oversight, and would no longer need to partner with traditional banks to take advantage of preemption of certain state laws. As noted by the OCC Chief Counsel Amy Friend, the first charter may be granted in the first half of 2017.
Under the proposed rule, for a company to qualify for a fintech charter, it must have the appropriate corporate structure, engage solely in bank-permissible activities and adhere to certain regulatory requirements.
Generally, national bank charters subject their holders to specific standards and federal oversight such that the firm can conduct business nationally. Because the proposed fintech charter would be granted under the National Bank Act (NBA), fintech companies would need to adhere to the statute’s governance requirements. For example, a fintech firm chartered by the OCC would need to have a minimum of five board members.
In addition, fintech charter holders only would be permitted to engage in activities authorized by OCC regulations and associated interpretations. These activities can include, among others, lending money, issuing debit cards and facilitating payments, but also investment advisory services and certain brokerage activities. If a given activity is not clearly permitted by the OCC, the firm could seek permission from the OCC, which grants approval of new activities on a case-by-case basis. Beyond OCC regulations, the new charter would impose other laws on a chartered fintech firm, such as the Bank Secrecy Act and related anti-money laundering laws, as well as certain enhanced prudential standards under the Dodd-Frank Act if applicable.
Moreover, a fintech charter holder will be required to meet various supervisory requirements, including that it maintain a business plan documenting its activities, such as with respect to financial inclusion; have a governance structure that reflects the expertise, financial acumen and risk management necessary in light of the proposed business lines; effectively manage compliance risks, such as consumer protection and anti-money laundering; and address potential recovery and resolution. In addition, a fintech firm would need to maintain capital and liquidity commensurate with the risk and complexity of the proposed businesses, including any off-balance sheet activities.
Despite the many requirements the OCC is likely to impose when granting a fintech charter, fintech-chartered companies would have the advantage of no longer being required to register with or become licensed in each state where they conduct business. As enjoyed by national banks, the fintech charter generally would give a company the benefit of preemption under the NBA. Among other features, this would allow the exportation of interest rates from a bank’s home state to other states regardless of the home state’s usury restrictions.
Various stakeholders have reacted to the proposal with differing views. For example, the New York Department of Financial Services submitted a comment letter opposing the proposal and arguing that state regulators are the best equipped to regulate the fintech industry. Others in the industry have voiced their support.
Considerations for Existing Banks
Banks may see fewer partnerships with fintech companies as a result of the fintech charter because NBA preemption means that fintech firms no longer need a bank to obtain the advantage of state law preemption.
The fintech charter holders would not have a material competitive advantage with respect to banks because they are subject to the full panoply of OCC regulation and supervision.
Banks may consider seeking their own fintech charter, perhaps through an affiliate, if particular business lines might benefit or if they are currently chartered in one or only a few states in order to expand their national presence.