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CFPB Highlights Debt Relief Practices in Student Lending

Student Lending CFPB Enforcement:
Alleging Impermissible Debt Relief Service Advance Fees

Director Kraninger has outlined in various settings, the Bureau’s focus on protecting those often most vulnerable, including the elderly, military personnel and veterans, as well as students, sometimes collectively referred to special populations. Recently, the Bureau took aim at several businesses, which according to the CFPB’s complaint were exploiting students by charging impermissible advance fees in connection with purported debt relief services.  We should expect further activity in 2021 with the change of administration, potential extension of certain COVID-19 pandemic-related student lending forbearance orders, and other potential student lending protection efforts. 

The complaint asserts five causes of action under the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 6102(c), 6105(d) (“TCFAPA”); the Telemarketing Sales Rule (“TSR”), 16 C.F.R. pt. 310; and the Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010 (“CFPA”), 12 U.S.C. §§ 5531, 5536(a), 5564, 5565, in connection with the marketing and sale of debt relief services. According to the complaint, “Defendants Performance SLC, LLC and Performance Settlement, LLC, along with their owner and manager Defendant Daniel Crenshaw, are engaging in debt relief activities that have harmed consumers nationwide by charging illegal advance fees, failing to make required disclosures, and engaging in deceptive sales practices.”

Penalties & Injunctive Relief Requested

In its filing announcement the CFPB stated that “Consumers would pay between $1,000 and $1,450 in fees to PSLC for it to file paperwork with [the U.S. Department of Education], even though student loan borrowers can do this themselves for free.” The Bureau claims “that PSLC had some consumers pay this prohibited upfront fee through high-interest financing from a third party.”  The complaint seeks injunctive relief to prevent the potential on-going violations of the TSR and the CFPA; consumer “monetary relief including but not limited to the refund of monies paid, restitution, disgorgement or compensation for unjust enrichment, and payment of damages;” imposition of civil money penalties against Defendants, and an award of costs to the Bureau. The complaint alleges that “[f]rom 2016 to 2019, PSLC enrolled more than 6,500 customers in multiple states” and that certain “Trust Plan Customers paid more than $4,300,000 in fees to PSLC” and other customers “paid more than $4,900,000 in loan principal and interest” on allegedly improper loans arising from Defendants’ activities.

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2020 Governance Best Practices Survey

2020 Governance Best Practices Survey

October 15, 2020

Authored by: Jim McAlpin

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner was pleased to partner with Bank Director on their first annual Governance Best Practices Survey. In my work with boards of directors over the years I’ve found that the most effective tool can be reference to what other well run companies are doing. Best practices are important in every industry, but of particular importance in the banking industry. I believe the information in this year’s survey results will be very helpful to bank boards across the U.S.

The survey focused on the areas of process, independence, oversight, composition and refreshment. You will find from reading the survey results that there is a range of approach In the banking industry to certain key aspects of board governance. For example, not all bank boards have executive committees and among those which do there is not a uniform approach to the committee’s functioning. There is also divergence of approach in whether the CEO also serves as the board chair. I tend to think that a lack of uniformity of approach in the industry is healthy. I am skeptical of those who advocate for rigid adherence to “best practices” in board governance but I agree that practices which have been effective for others can serve as a guide. 

Boards are groups of people, and no two groups of people function in the same way. In my experience, the fundamental building block of an effective board Is careful selection of directors to fill roles within a board. It’s not unlike how the best coaches recruit  for talent based on specific needs of the team. Too often I see board rooms with essentially the same director sitting in all of the seats. Differences in business experience, life experience and perspective among directors can greatly benefit the quality of the board’s collective insight and decision making. 

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Crypto Goes Mainstream: OCC Says Banks Can Provide Crypto Custody Services

On Wednesday, July 22, 2020, Acting Comptroller of the Currency Brian Brooks reaffirmed his interest in being seen as an agent of modernization in a letter clarifying the authority of national banks and federal savings associations to provide cryptocurrency services for customers.

The letter from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) discusses the increasing acceptance of cryptocurrency, and especially Bitcoin, as a method of payment and form of investment. It acknowledges a correlating growing demand for “safe places, such as banks, to hold unique cryptographic keys associated with cryptocurrencies on behalf of customers and to provide related custody services.” Three reasons – a safe way to hold cryptocurrency keys; a secure storage service; and custodian services for assets managed by investment advisors – are cited in the letter as driving the demand for cryptocurrency custody services.

The safekeeping services are described as a modernization of special deposit and safe deposit boxes, falling within “longstanding authorities to engage in safekeeping and custody activities.” Thus, “the authority to provide safekeeping services extends to digital activities and, specifically, that national banks may escrow encryption keys used in connection with digital certificates because a key escrow service is a functional equivalent to physical safekeeping.”

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Can Standards and Voluntary Certification Help Community Banks and Fintechs Grow, Together?

COVID-19 has laid bare the need to have good technological solutions for the systems and services upon which we rely. In the financial sector, perhaps more than many others, the pace of innovation is beholden to regulatory parameters, but there is some optimism that Fintechs can help fill the gap in traditional financial products, especially in emerging markets. As in our in recent post about digital banking modernization by the OCC, regulators are feeling out the interest in certain programs. On Monday, July 20, 2020, the FDIC announced a request for public input on a certification program to “promote the efficient and effective adoption of innovative technologies at FDIC-supervised financial institutions.”

More specifically, the FDIC is seeking input regarding whether the development of relevant standards in connection with a voluntary certification process could be applied to third-party models and whether such standards would allow more financial institutions, particularly community banks, to engage with third parties that provide these models, including Fintechs. Such a voluntary certification program could, in theory, reduce costs of doing business for both the financial institutions and providers of models and permit FDIC supervision resources to be used more efficiently and effectively.

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OCC Continues Digital Banking Modernization

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s (“OCC”) attention to modernizing regulation to better accommodate innovative products and industries is continuing full steam ahead since our recent post about a potential payments charter. In the weeks since we posted that article, Brian Brooks has become the acting Comptroller of the Currency, so it should come as no surprise that his goals are garnering some attention.

On Thursday, June 6, the OCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking public comment to update its rules for national bank and federal savings association activities and operations and an advance notice of proposed rulemaking seeking comment on rules on national banks’ and federal savings associations’ (banks) digital activities. These releases confirm that the agency is “reviewing its regulations on bank digital activities to ensure that its regulations continue to evolve with developments in the industry.”

As part of a substantial modification of the regulatory system, the OCC seeks comment on additional flexibility for banks with respect to permissible derivatives activities, tax equity finance transactions, corporate governance, anti-takeover provisions, capital stock issuances and repurchases, and participation in financial literacy programs.

In addition, the OCC seeks comment on a significant number of banking issues related to digital technology and innovation. The OCC asks whether current legal standards are sufficient flexible, whether they create undue hurdles, and whether there are other areas they should cover. Their requests for comments also touch on current questions, namely whether the pandemic has brought any concerns to light and what issues are unique to smaller institutions – which performed well with the rollout of the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program, but may encounter hard times to come.

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CFPB Rolls Out Pilot Program Offering Advisory Opinions

The devil is in the details.  The best intentioned new financial services rules and regulations can present challenges for compliance folks trying to implement the rules into their institutions’ existing systems and practices.  Requirements, which may seem simple in the abstract, sometimes create herculean challenges because of system limitations, programming challenges, or simple ambiguity when loaded into real world operations.  To hopefully overcome these compliance obstacles, on Thursday, June 18, 2020, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) began its trial phase of a pilot program offering advisory opinions aimed at “reduc[ing] ambiguity and increas[ing] regulatory certainty, support[ing] proactive consumer protection, and enhanc[ing] the timeliness of guidance.”  The CFPB first previewed this pilot program in March 2020 so that financial services providers could solicit provisional legal opinions on matters pertaining to the interpretation of the Bureau’s rules and laws.

Joining other agencies, like HUD who have had a no action letter procedure in place for years, the CFPB pilot will focus on four stated priorities:  (1) “Consumers are provided with timely and understandable information to make responsible decisions”; (2) “Identify outdated, unnecessary or unduly burdensome regulations in order to reduce regulatory burdens”; (3) “Consistency in enforcement of Federal consumer financial law in order to promote fair competition”; and (4) “Ensuring markets for consumer financial products and services operate transparently and efficiently to facilitate access and innovation.”

As the pilot program is new and untested, the CFPB will pick which company questions to answer based on a review of the various petitions, granting priority to those questions that are novel and whose answers might benefit those in the greater consumer financial services community.  The Bureau has said it will consider questions such as those arising during CFPB exams and those that have not otherwise been authoritatively addressed.  In this regard, the CFPB noted the following factors that will drive its prioritization of requests:

  • The request’s alignment with the CFPB’s statutory objectives;
  • The scope of the impact on consumers if the CFPB is to provide an answer or interpretation;
  • In the event where two regulators share concurrent jurisdiction over a specific consumer protection measure, whether the CFPB’s advisory opinion will impact the manner in which the other regulator regulates the same measure; and
  • The impact the advisory opinion would have on the CFPB’s existing resources and personnel.
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Coming Up: A National Non-Depository Payments Charter?

Brian Brooks, Chief Operating Officer of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) said on Monday that he believes the OCC should investigate the viability and utility of a non-depository payments charter: “One of the things I think we have to ask ourselves as an agency is, if it makes sense to have a non-depository lending charter, which was the original fintech concept, would it also make sense to have a non-depository payments charter?”

In his talk, given as part of the Consensus: Distributed virtual conference, Brooks focused on cross-border concerns that are particularly salient to crypto companies. He notes that we may have come to a point where the traditional state-federal divisions of licensing and oversight authority are less relevant, particularly in the crypto space. Brooks says there is an argument that “crypto looks a lot like banking for the twenty-first century,” in which case a single national license may provide modern update to the current patchwork of laws, which is burdensome and time-consuming for both payments companies and state regulators.

Brooks said “one of [his] missions at the OCC . . . is to investigate the extent to which over time it makes sense to think of crypto companies like banks and to think of charter types that might be appropriate for crypto companies.” While Brooks’ comments focused on crypto in mentioning a payments charter, he noted Stripe and PayPal as non-blockchain payments companies, which would presumably also be covered by such a payments charter.

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Lessons for Community Bank Boards from the Great Recession to Apply in the Pandemic

In March, I dialed into the first ever “conference call only” meeting of a 14 year old community bank. The main office of the bank is located in Philadelphia and there was growing concern about the rapidly increasing number of Coronavirus cases in New York and New Jersey, and the spread of new cases into eastern Pennsylvania. I recalled that our board had reviewed an updated version of the bank’s pandemic policy in December but I couldn’t remember the details. Suddenly that policy had relevance in a way I could never have imagined. In April, our board held its second conference call only meeting, and we are likely to continue that pattern for several more months.

We are all aware of the circumstances that led to pandemic policies being retrieved from file folders and read with interest for the first time.  What we don’t yet know is how severe the resulting economic shock will be, and the degree to which loan portfolios of community banks will be adversely impacted.  It is clear, however, that the adverse impact on small to medium sized businesses across the U.S. has been considerable. As the CEO of one of our law firm’s bank clients in the Southwest recently remarked, we are experiencing the first ever government imposed recession.

God willing, the banking industry will remain strong and be a source of support for the nation’s economy as we recover from the onslaught of COVID-19.  In that context, the boards of community banks could benefit from recalling some hard learned lessons from the recent Great Recession. 

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In Praise of Community and Regional Banks

Last week my partner Rob Klingler posted an impassioned plea to the SBA and bank regulators to allow banks with less than 500 employees to be borrowers under the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP as it has become known. Rob joined a chorus of voices across the country pointing out that community banks are small businesses too, and if the jobs of employees at a community bank can be saved isn’t that as helpful to the economy as any other small business? Unfortunately, the overhang of TARP appears to continue to cloud decisions in Washington and banks were excluded from receiving loans under the PPP. Irony drips from that decision. At the beginning of the last financial crisis, when the business fortunes of some of the largest banks appeared at risk, Washington rushed to their aid with TARP. Now, at the beginning of a financial crisis that is hitting small business hard, community banks are being told they are the only small businesses in America which must soldier on without government financial assistance.

In that context, isn’t it remarkable that small and mid-sized businesses across the country are flocking to community and regional banks for responsive assistance in the PPP process? My practice has always been a mix of corporate finance and advisory work for middle market businesses and consulting and board advisory work for banks. I like the balance and the perspective that mix brings. Over the past two weeks this view into two worlds has revealed to me the true nature of relationship banking, and the absolute commitment to that concept at most community and regional banks. My clients and contacts in the middle market business world have been frequently asking for updates on the roll out of the PPP program. That was understandable and to be expected. What I did not expect was the volume of calls I’ve been receiving for referrals to smaller banks from customers of large banks. Those calls often begin with expressions of frustration at the inability to get anyone from the larger bank on a call or even to respond to an email regarding the PPP process, and that the most frequent communication received is “you need to visit our website for assistance.” In an environment where hundreds of thousands and likely millions of small to medium sized businesses across the country are suddenly struggling, and with no sense of the near term path, it really matters to the persons running those businesses that they receive support, encouragement and, if possible, assistance from their bankers. It is in the difficult times when relationship banking really matters, not the boom times.

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Community Banks Should be Encouraged to Participate (as Borrowers) in the SBA Paycheck Protection Program

Community Banks should not only be permitted, they should be encouraged, to participate as borrowers in the CARES Act SBA Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Both the Small Business Administration and each of the federal and state banking regulators should expressly acknowledge that community banks with less than 500 employees are both permitted and encouraged to participate, as borrowers, in the PPP. 

[Update, Evening of April 2, 2020. The SBA has now published the interim final rule for the PPP. Although the guidance published under either “2(a) Am I eligible?” or “2(b) Could I be ineligible even if I meet the eligibility requirements in (a) above?” make no mention of banks being ineligible, provision 2(c) provides that “Businesses that are not eligible for PPP loans are identified in 13 CFR 120.110 and described further in SBA’s Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 50 10.” Banks are included as non-eligible borrowers under both provisions. As discussed below, this remains in apparent disagreement with the CARES Act, but unless the SBA changes its mind, it appears we’re missing an opportunity to further expand credit for small businesses.]

[Update #2, Still Evening of April 2, 2020. The Interim Final Rule clearly contemplates that the PPP is not otherwise subject to SBA rules as it provides “The program requirements of the PPP identified in this rule temporarily supersede any conflicting Loan Program Requirement.” So, to be clear, the SBA and Treasury chose not to allow community banks to participate.]

Without this encouragement, community banks risk regulatory criticism and reputational concerns that participating in the PPP represents a warning regarding the bank’s safety and soundness.   I would argue that the truth is far different.  Participating in the PPP would demonstrate that bank management, notwithstanding the economic uncertainty, wants to fortify the bank’s safety and soundness while extending its ability to provide credit to households and business throughout the United States.

In the last week, the federal banking agencies have announced a number of regulatory actions intended to “increase banking organizations’ ability to provide credit to households and businesses,” including modifications to the supplementary leverage ratio.  These changes are both reasonable and appropriate, but only affect the largest banking institutions.  Like the aims of the Small Business Administration and the Paycheck Protection Program more broadly, efforts should also be taken to support community banks in their efforts to continue to provide credit to households and businesses as we all work through the impacts of the coronavirus.  Banking regulators could directly “increase community banking organizations’ ability to provide credit to households and businesses” by encouraging their participation in the PPP.  

The text of the CARES Act provides that “any business concern … shall be eligible to receive a covered loan” if the business concern meets the employee thresholds set forth in the CARES Act.  If law school taught me anything, it was that any should mean any. Neither the Borrower nor Lender Information Sheet on the program published by the U.S. Treasury Department discuss any additional limitations based on type of business.  In fact, the Borrowers Information sheet states that “All businesses – including nonprofits, veterans organizations, Tribal business concerns, sole proprietorships, self-employed individuals, and independent contractors – with 500 or fewer employees can apply.”  If law school taught me anything else, it was that all should mean all. Similarly, the initial application provided by the U.S. Treasury does not contemplate or provide for any collection of the type of business engaged in by the borrower.

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