Today, during markup of legislation before the House Financial Services Committee that would create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA), Republicans proposed an amendment that would give all of the other federal bank regulators — including the Federal Reserve or the Comptroller of the Currency — the ability to veto CFPA rules that threatened the “safety and soundness” of financial institutions.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) explained that he supported the amendment because the health of a financial institution “ought to trump” concerns regarding consumers, all of the time:
The safety and soundness of the system, taxpayer protection, ought to trump the ability to ban financial products. And let’s face it, I understand the chairman said that this new CFPA would not have the ability to set goals, but if you control the product mix, if you can ban products, if you can modify their terms, of what some have estimated could be as much as 10 to 15 percent of our economy, then yes, I conclude you can adversely impact the safety and soundness of these institutions.
So if it can’t outright prevent the CFPA from being created, the GOP would like to ensure that it’s a toothless agency that can’t stand up to the bank regulators. (Hensarling presents this as “taxpayer protection,” ostensibly suggesting that, if the banks can make money however they see fit, they’ll never need another taxpayer funded bailout.) But the CFPA will only work if it is on equal footing with the bank regulators, with adequate abilities to write and enforce regulations.
This is because many of the products that led to the economic crisis were premised on obfuscation and taking advantage of consumers — credit cards with retroactive rate hikes, mortgages with payments that exploded after a set number of years, or overdraft fees to which consumers are automatically subjected. As Adam Levitan pointed out at Credit Slips, “the market drives the introduction of bad consumer credit products.” “Some of this obfuscation is through fine-print. Some is through product design, as complexity and exploitation of consumers’ cognitive biases can mask pricing,” he wrote.
And these actions are often very profitable, which is why the bank regulators didn’t want to stop the banks from using them. Overdraft fees, for instance, could rake in $38.5 billion for the banks this year. Those billions render the banks incredibly safe and sound, but they come at the expense of consumers. And under the Republican proposal — which will come up for a vote tomorrow — the same exact practices would be allowed to continue, and regulators at the CFPA could do nothing but scream from the sidelines.