WASHINGTON - Richard Cordray and Republican members of the House Financial Services Committee are set to square off next Wednesday, March 16. It will be the first time the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will appear before the committee since Republican members issued two staff reports criticizing the bureau’s activities in the auto finance arena.
The last time Cordray appeared before the committee was this past September. Since then, Republican committee members published a report on Nov. 24, titled “Unsafe at Any Bureaucracy: CFPB Junk Science and Indirect Auto Lending,” and a second report on Jan. 20, titled “How the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection Removed Anti-Fraud Safeguards to Achieve Political Goals.”
“The CFPB undoubtedly remains the single most powerful and least accountable federal agency in all of Washington. When it comes to the credit cards, auto loans and mortgages of hardworking taxpayers, the CFPB has unbridled, discretionary power not only to make those less available and more expensive, but to absolutely take them away,” said Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX). “Consequently, Americans are losing both their financial independence and the protection of the rule of law.”
The November report revealed, among other things, that the bureau pursued its potentially “market-tipping” enforcement action against Ally Financial and Ally Bank even though internal bureau documents showed the statistical method used in its case against the finance source was “prone to significant error.” It also revealed that the bureau was able to secure its settlement with Ally because of “undue leverage” — Ally needed Washington regulators’ approval for a broader restructuring of its business.
Republican committee members again hammered the CFPB in their second report, which showed that some settlement checks being dispersed as part of the bureau’s $98 million settlement with Ally Financial and Ally bank had gone to white borrowers. It also charged that the bureau declined to employ a distribution method proposed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) — one that would provide “strong protection from criticism that we are giving damages to non-Hispanic white borrowers” — because it would limit the number of recipients to between 36,000 and 143,000 instead of the 235,000 consumers the CFPB alleged were harmed by Ally’s dealer markup policy.
“Political exigency required the bureau to design a process that would ensure that a sufficient number of alleged victims would be identified as eligible claimants; after all, if fewer claimants received checks than Director Cordray initially announced, the validity of the bureau’s disparate impact methodology would be called into question,” the report charged.
The reports haven’t slowed the CFPB’s activities, however. On Feb. 3, Toyota Motor Credit Corp. ended its three-year standoff with the CFPB and the DOJ regarding its dealer compensation policies by voluntarily agreeing to lower its markup caps and pay up to $21.9 million in restitution to minority borrowers the two regulators allege paid higher interest rates than white borrowers.
And as noted in the press release announcing Cordray’s appearance next week, the bureau recently announced it plans to propose regulations regarding small-dollar, short-term loans. That release also noted the bureau’s decision followed its regulation of the mortgage market by way of its Qualified Mortgage rule, which the committee charged “harmed consumer access and choice when it comes to mortgage by forcing many community financial institutions to downsize or shut down their mortgage operations.”
Speaking yesterday, March 9, at the Consumer Bankers Association’s annual conference in Phoenix, Cordray responded to criticism of its regulation of credit markets by enforcement, saying the criticism is “badly misplaced.”
“Certainly any responsible official or agency charged with enforcing the law is bound to recognize that they should develop a thoughtful strategy for how to deploy their limited resources most efficiently to protect the public,” he said. “That means working toward a pattern of actions that conveys an intelligible direction to the marketplace, so to create deterrence that can be readily understood and implemented.
“Others have framed this criticism as a suggestion that law enforcement officials should think through and explicitly articulate rules for every eventuality before taking any enforcement actions at all,” Cordray added. “But that aspiration would lead to paralysis because it simply sets the bar too high. Particularly in an area like consumer financial protection, the vast majority of our enforcement actions involve some sort of deception or fraud. And courts have long noted that trying to craft specific rules to root out fraud or untruth is a hopeless endeavor, as they would likely fail to cabin ‘ingenuity of the dishonest schemer.’”
Next Wednesday’s hearing begins at 10 a.m. ET at the Rayburn House Office Building. A live stream of the hearing can be found at www.financialservices.house.gov.