The CFPB Turns Six (and Ten)

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is marking a double birthday. As an institution, it turns six this week. As an idea, it goes back ten years – to the summer of 2007 and an article by a little-known expert on bankruptcy and household debt named Elizabeth Warren.

Writing in the wonky pages of Democracy magazine, then-Professor, now-Senator Warren pointed out that you couldn’t buy a toaster with “a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house.” And yet it was entirely possible “to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street.”

One big reason for that difference, Warren wrote, was the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which had been watching over the world of toasters, power saws, baby cribs and the like since 1972. By contrast, the task of guarding consumers against defective financial products was scattered across half a dozen federal agencies; and their main concern, as she noted, was “to protect the financial stability of banks and other financial institutions, not to protect consumers.” Indeed, one of those agencies, the Office of Comptroller of the Currency, had repeatedly encouraged banks to thumb their noses at the handful of state regulators who were trying to crack down on predatory lending in the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis.

As a remedy, Warren urged Congress to establish a watchdog agency with the full-time job of guarding consumers against deceptive and unfair practices in the financial marketplace, removing dangerous products before they could be peddled to the public.

Five years later, Warren was free to run for the U.S. Senate because the financial industry and its allies had blocked her appointment as director of the agency that Congress had gone ahead and created as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. (Another birthday there: Dodd Frank was signed into law in July 2010 – seven years ago.)

Fortunately, President Barack Obama found a highly capable candidate in former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray. Under his leadership, the Consumer Bureau has racked up an impressive record of accomplishment. All told, CFPB enforcement actions have delivered more than $17 billion in financial relief to roughly 29 million consumers cheated in various ways by financial companies large and small.

Through its rulemaking and supervision as well as enforcement work, the Bureau has challenged a number of the financial industry’s cherished tricks and traps, like mortgages with teaser rates that adjust sharply upward after a year or two, and auto loan incentives that cause borrowers of color to be charged more than white borrowers of the same credit-worthiness. The CFPB has gone after abusive practices on the part of debt collectors, check cashers, private student lenders, and bogus “credit repair” services, as well as large-scale fraud committed by some of the country’s biggest banks, including JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo.

In short, this is an agency that has been doing its job, standing up for ordinary consumers and resisting the power of the financial industry. But that power remains very great.

Since last fall’s elections, Wall Street lobbyists and their allies in Congress and the Trump administration have waged an all-out campaign to undermine the Bureau’s funding and authority as well as a number of its specific actions. Just this week, they launched an effort, with wide backing in both the House and Senate, to undo a CFPB rule reining in the industry’s use of fine-print forced arbitration clauses with class-action bans.

The industry’s attachment to this practice is easy to understand. Arbitration can be a just and efficient mechanism for resolving disputes between relatively equal parties who voluntarily agree to it. But the process works very differently when one party is a huge corporation and the other is a lone consumer required by a take-it-or-leave-it contract to direct all complaints of illegality to a private arbitration firm – one that has typically been chosen and paid by the company. The damages suffered by any one victim, moreover, are almost never large enough to justify the cost of pursuing a grievance, regardless of the venue. Thus the great majority of wronged consumers, once they learn that individual arbitration is the only path open to them, decide to do nothing. That’s just what happened, for example, with many of the victims of Wells Fargo’s phony accounts, enabling the bank to keep its scam under wraps for years.

In the same way, payday lenders have used these clauses to go on making triple-digit interest loans in defiance of state laws. Arkansas, for example, has a 17-percent interest rate cap inscribed in its constitution; yet it took authorities many years to make headway against lenders who continued to operate there, relying on arbitration clauses to squelch resistance.

This fight is crucial because forced arbitration, in practice, functions as a Get Out of Jail Free card for banks and lenders, allowing them to chisel lots of money out of lots of people, a little at a time. Naturally, the lobbyists and their political allies claim to be defending the “right” of consumers to choose arbitration. In reality, consumers have no say in the matter. The point of the CFPB rule is precisely to give them a choice.

Unsurprisingly, the great majority of Americans support the CFPB on this question, just as they want the Consumer Bureau itself to survive as a strong and effective agency.

It will if lawmakers heed their constituents and stop regurgitating Wall Street’s nonsensical talking points.

— Jim Lardner

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