Focus Areas:    CFPB | Consumer Protection | Payments

My Reflections on The Senate CFPB Hearing

[Cross-posted at PYMNTS.COM]

Richard Cordray’s nomination hearing provided an opportunity to learn something new about the substantive policies of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Unfortunately, that opportunity came and went without answering many of the key questions that remain concerning the impact of the CFPB’s enforcement and regulatory agenda on the availability of consumer credit, economic growth, and jobs.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s critics, including myself, [1] have expressed concerns that the CFPB— through enforcement and regulation—could harm consumers and small businesses by reducing the availability of credit.  The intellectual blueprint for the CFPB is founded on the insight, from behavioral economics, that “[m]any consumers are uninformed and irrational,” that “consumers make systematic mistakes in their choice of credit products,” and that the CFPB should play a central role in determining which and to what extent these products are used. [2] The CFPB’s recent appointment of Sendhil Mullainathan as its Assistant Director for Research confirms its commitment to the behaviorist approach to regulation of consumer credit.  Mullainathan, in work co-authored with Professor Michael S. Barr, provided the intellectual basis for the much debated “plain vanilla” provision in the original legislation and advocated a whole host of new consumer credit regulations ranging from improved disclosures to “harder” forms of paternalism.  The concern, in short, is that the CFPB is hard-wired to take a myopic view of the tried-and-true benefits of consumer credit markets and runs the risk of harming many (and especially the socially and economically disadvantaged groups in the greatest need of access to consumer credit) in the name of protecting the few.

To be sure, there is absolutely no doubt that there are unscrupulous and unsavory characters in lending markets engaging in bad acts ranging from fraud to preying upon vulnerable borrowers.  Nonetheless, it is critical to recognize the positive role that lending markets and the availability of consumer credit has played in the American economy, especially in facilitating entrepreneurial activity and small business growth.  Taking into account these important benefits is fundamental to developing sound consumer credit policy.  I had hoped that the hearings might focus upon Mr. Cordray’s underlying philosophical approach to weighing the costs and benefits of credit regulation and how that balance might be struck at his CFPB.  They did not, instead focusing largely upon another important issue: the precise contours of CFPB authority and oversight.

Currently, the unemployment rate is over 9 percent and all of the available evidence suggests the CFPB’s approach will run a significant risk of overregulation that will reduce the availability of consumer credit to small businesses and thus further depress the economy.  Therefore, getting hard answers concerning how the CFPB views and will account for these risks in its enforcement and regulatory decisions is critical.  Certainly, the nomination hearing offered small hints toward this end.  We learned that under Mr. Cordray’s watch, CFPB enforcement will involve not only lawsuits but also a “more flexible toolbox” that includes “research reports, rulemaking guidance, consumer education and empowerment, and the ability to supervise and examine both large banks and many nonbank institutions.”

The job of protecting consumers in financial products markets—the domain of the new CFPB—extends to all such consumers.  The benefits of healthy markets and competition in consumer credit products has generated tremendous economic benefits to the most disadvantaged as well as to small businesses.  If the CFPB agenda were limited to educating consumers about the costs and benefits of various products and improving disclosures, there would be far less need for concern that it will be a drag on consumers, entrepreneurial activity, and economic growth.  However, the CFPB’s intellectual blueprint suggests a more aggressive and dangerous agenda, and the authority it has been granted renders that agenda feasible.  The CFPB must account for the benefits from lending markets and balance them against its laudable objective of preventing deceptive practices when crafting its enforcement and regulatory agenda.  Unfortunately, after Tuesday’s nomination hearing, the CFPB’s approach to this complex and delicate balance remains an open question.

—–

[1] David S. Evans & Joshua D. Wright, The Effect of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency Act of 2009 on Consumer Credit, 22(3) Loyola Consumer L. Rev. 277 (2010).

[2] Oren Bar-Gill & Elizabeth Warren, Making Credit Safer, 157 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1, 39 (2008).

Filed under: consumer financial protection bureau, consumer protection, cost-benefit analysis, credit cards, economics, politics