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CFPB Requests Information on Fair Lending Practices

On July 28, 2020, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB” or “Bureau”) issued a request for information (“RFI”) seeking public and industry input related to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (“ECOA”) and Regulation B.  The CFPB submitted this RFI in an effort to create a regulatory regime that expands consumer access to credit while ensuring that consumers remain protected from credit transaction discrimination.  The RFI signals a renewed regulatory focus on fair lending in the wake of the broader societal focus on racial equality in the U.S. 

The Bureau presented 10 questions in its RFI related to: disparate impact; Limited English Proficiency products, special purpose credit programs; affirmative advertising to disadvantaged groups; small business lending; sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination; scope of federal preemption of state law; public assistance income; the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning; and ECOA adverse action notices.  We have chosen to highlight a select few below. 

The CFPB’s first question asked whether the Bureau should “provide any additional clarity regarding its approach to disparate impact analysis under ECOA and Regulation B.”  The Supreme Court’s decision in Texas Dept. of Housing and Comm. Affairs v. Inclusive Comm. Project, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 2507 (2015), in which the Court affirmed the cognizability of disparate impact theory under the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”), did not address ECOA.  Likewise, the contours of the Court’s limits on the disparate impact claims left open questions for industry and regulators alike.  Guidance on whether disparate impact theory is cognizable under ECOA and if so what limits might apply would have significant impacts on creditors’ fair lending obligations going forward.        

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New York, California and Illinois Sue OCC to Block “Valid When Made” Rule

Just two months ago, the Office of Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) addressed the “valid when made” doctrine and held that interest rates established on bank-originated loans remain valid even after the loan is transferred to a non-bank partner.  On July 29, the attorneys general of New York, California, and Illinois sued the OCC alleging federal overreach that undermines state-preemption regarding usury rate caps.  Specifically, the AGs allege the OCC’s rule is “arbitrary and capricious” in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act.  In the complaint, the AGs allege “[t]he rule is beyond the OCC’s power to issue, is contrary to statute and would facilitate predatory lending through sham ‘rent-a-bank’ partnerships designed to evade state law.”

Those tuned into the debate surrounding the “valid when made” rule saw this court battle coming.  The OCC has recently worked to clarify disputed rules regarding privileges afforded to banks under the National Bank Act.  Under the National Bank Act, national banks that are under the supervision of the OCC are permitted to charge interest on loans at the maximum rate permitted by their home state—even in instances where that interest rate would violate state usury laws.  While federal law carves out this exception for federally regulated banks, it does not extend the same exemption to non-banks.  Accordingly, the attorneys general have asked the Northern District of California to declare the rule invalid and hold that the OCC exceeded the authority granted to it by the National Bank Act and the Dodd-Frank Act. 

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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 Proposes True Lender Rule

On July 20, 2020, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that would determine the “true lender” of a national bank or federal savings association loan in the context of a partnership between a bank and a third party.  The proposed rule states that a bank is a true lender of a loan “if, as of the date of origination, it is named as the lender in the loan agreement or funds the loan” and would apply to all national banks and federal savings associations.  Most recently, the OCC addressed the related “valid when made” doctrine and held that interest rates established on bank-originated loans remain valid even after the loan is transferred to a non-bank partner.  This final rule, however, did not address the true lender question, and this week’s proposed rule does just that.     

The OCC proposed this rule in response to the “increasing uncertainty” surrounding the legal principles that apply to the loans made in the course of bank and third party relationships.  Courts are not unified in their analysis and have looked to both “the form of the transaction” and a battery of fact-intensive tests to determine the true lender of a loan.  While federal rulemaking addresses many relationships between banks and third parties such as making payments and taking deposits, there is not much guidance on these relationships as it relates to lending.  See e.g., 12 CFR 5.20(e).  Per the OCC’s proposed rule, this uncertainty “may discourage banks and third parties from entering into relationships, limit competition, and chill the innovation that results from these partnerships.”  Taken together, these unintended consequences would restrict consumer access to affordable and available credit. 

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Effect of a Potential Federal Government Shutdown on Federal Banking Agencies? Business as Usual.

If there is a partial Federal government shutdown due to a failure to reach a budget agreement, what effect would this have on the four main Federal banking agencies? The short answer: None.

None of the Federal Reserve System, the FDIC, the OCC, or the OTS receives appropriations from Congress. Instead, each of these Federal agencies is funded through various other sources, as described below. Thus, none of the services or responsibilities of these Federal agencies will be affected if a budget agreement is not reached.

However, many other Federal agencies may be significantly affected by a Federal government shutdown, including, notably for financial institutions, the SEC. We would recommend that institutions with on-going matters with the SEC reach out to their contact persons at the SEC to discuss their situations.

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