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Financial Watchdog for Consumers Moves Ahead in Congress

Slimmed down but still powerful, a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency has taken a major step toward becoming reality.

On Thursday, the House Financial Services Committee approved legislation to create what would be the first single federal agency with the power to examine and enforce rules for mortgages, credit cards, payday loans and other lending products and services.

The measure must still win approval of the full House, expected in November, and then move to the Senate, where some predict a stronger challenge to the agency.

Already, after weeks of intense lobbying and votes on two dozen amendments in the House panel, the Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) is shaping up as a less robust regulator than the one proposed by President Barack Obama last June.

In its current form, here’s what the CFPA would do, and what it wouldn’t.

One agency, one mission

Its core mission is to prohibit unfair and deceptive practices, such as excessive overdraft fees and other penalties that sometimes lie hidden in the fine print of loan documents and credit card contracts.

By concentrating authority under one roof, the CFPA would largely replace a system that spreads government regulation of consumer lending and credit over at least seven federal agencies.

“Banks and other lenders can now pick and choose their regulator in an effort to seek softer oversight,” says Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor who conceived the concept of the oversight agency. For example, she notes, all it takes is a simple change in a bank’s charter to turn it into a savings-and-loan institution.

“Financial institutions just go somewhere else, taking with them the dues they would have paid the first regulator,” she says. Since federal agencies are anxious to avoid budget shortfalls, Warren tells the Bulletin Today, “financial institutions can shop around for the regulator that provides the most lax oversight.” That creates opportunities for predatory lending, excessive fees and other abusive practices in consumer financial products.

The CFPA would consolidate oversight as “one agency focused on one simple mission—protecting consumers,” says Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. “While there is more work ahead, today we are much closer to putting in place strict new rules of the road for the financial industry.”

What’s out

Before Thursday’s 39-29 vote in the House Financial Services Committee, Chairman Barney Frank of Massachusetts and other Democrats fended off several Republican amendments that would have weakened the CFPA.

But the panel still pared the new agency’s powers in several ways:

  • Some 8,000 community banks and credit unions, which officials say bear little blame for last year’s financial crisis, would have to follow CFPA rules, but their oversight would be handled by existing regulatory agencies. This applies to banks with less than $10 billion in assets and credit unions with less than $1.5 billion in assets.

 

  • Gone is a much-discussed provision originally suggested by Obama requiring lenders to offer “plain vanilla” financial options, such as 30-year mortgages that have fixed rates and are easy to understand.

 

  • Some industries won exemptions from CFPA oversight: providers of Individual Retirement Accounts, 401(k) retirement savings plans, 529 college-savings programs and pension plans; real estate brokers and agents; lawyers and accountants; car dealers and retailers; and sellers of gift cards.

 

  • Also scrapped was a proposal requiring banks to take reasonable steps to make sure customers understand what they are buying, after critics highlighted the difficulty of enforcing it.

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