Ed's Blog

Last week on its blog, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced a "thought starter" beta test version of a tool to make it easier to calculate college debt burdens by comparing the estimated cost of attending different schools. "The goal is to give students and their families an easy-to-understand view of how their decisions today impact your debt burden after graduation." The effort comes as U.S. PIRG fights Congressional efforts not only to reduce the availability of Pell grants but to allow student loan interest rates to double (New York Times).

Meanwhile, papers filed at the SEC by an auto finance company have confirmed that the CFPB is investigating the practices of "buy here, pay here" auto dealers. Separately, papers are reporting the names of banks involved in a CFPB investigation of overdraft practices.

Ken Bensinger of the Los Angeles Times reports that the CFPB "issued a subpoena seeking information and business documents from DriveTime Automotive Group in Phoenix, according to a regulatory filing this week." The story notes other activities concerning the Buy Here, Pay Here industry, including an investigation by the state of Ohio. While some may consider these used car dealers to be "ma-pa" businesses, Bensinger notes that "Last year, DriveTime issued three auto-loan-backed securitizations worth a total of almost $710 million, and this month, it expects to raise $235 million in an additional sale." The Center for Responsible Lending explains how Buy Here, Pay Here firms make money here.

Meanwhile, just a few weeks after a major announcement of a wide-ranging overdraft fee practices inquiry by CFPB director Richard Cordray, the American Banker newspaper reports that nine big banks are under CFPB investigation regarding their overdraft programs. Six of the nine banks are listed: Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, PNC, U.S Bank, Wells Fargo and Regions Bank. In 2010, previous bank regulators led by the Federal Reserve announced a modest rule requiring banks to obtain affirmative opt-in consent before imposing "standard overdraft protection" on customers. Under "standard overdraft protection," banks cover overdrafts as a courtesy at a fee of approximately $34/each. Unfortunately, most overdrafts are caused by debit card transactions averaging around half that penalty.

The important inquiry by the CFPB includes a review of the marketing of the overdraft product, since published reports show that opt-in rates vary widely at different banks. Another important issue is the practice of check and debit re-ordering to increase fee income. A consumer might use a debit card for several small purchases during the day, then find that the bank changed the order of received debits that evening -- placing a larger, later check ahead of those debits -- so that all items, instead of just the last, would bounce. Yet another issue is whether banks actively encourage or attempt to discourage check bouncing. Of the regulators active in the 2010 rulemaking, only the FDIC (its additional guidance) has taken additional steps to protect consumers. The OCC (the bank-friendly national bank regulator which has merged with the former OTS) has gone so far as to take steps to make it easier for banks to enroll consumers in high-cost overdraft protection while the Fed has been silent.

Under the new regulatory scheme, by the way, all banks of any size are subject to the CFPB's rules and all banks larger than $10 billion are subject to its supervision. Banks below $10 billion are supervised (examined) by their safety and soundness regulator: nationally-chartered banks and thrifts by the OCC; Fed member state banks by the Fed; and, non-member state banks by the FDIC. The CFPB has "ride-along authority" to participate in those examinations of smaller banks if it needs to.

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