Consumer Protection Redux: The Lessons of History

For your Labor Day reading enjoyment, we bring you this guest post by Lawrence B. Glickman, who teaches history at the University of South Carolina and is the author of Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America.

“We’re proposing a new and powerful agency charged with just one job: looking out for ordinary consumers,” said the president on June 17th.  The centerpiece of his proposed overhaul of the nation’s financial system, the Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA), is designed to end what the president called “failure of…government to provide adequate oversight” by monitoring banking transactions, including mortgages, credit cards and checking and savings accounts. It did not take long for the predictable critics to denounce the agency with predictable rhetoric.  “It’s bad for the consumers,” said Steve Bartlett, president of the Financial Services Roundtable, a lobbying group for banks.  The institution will add “yet another regulatory layer” while advancing “the agenda of activist special interests,” according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  The new agency represents “an unprecedented grant of power to mandate business practices” claims the American Bankers Association.

This is the language of conservative populism, a mainstay of the Republican party from Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to Karl Rove. Conservative populism, wrote Jonathan Chait in the New Republic last year, “dismisses any inference that the rich and the non-rich might have opposing interests” and defines elites in cultural rather than economic terms as  “intellectuals and other snobs who fancy themselves better than average Americans.” Several decades of repetition have made this rhetoric familiar: federal efforts to help ordinary people–consumers–will inevitably hurt them; government is the problem rather than the solution; bureaucracy is “bumbling” (to use the words of a Crain’s New York Business poll about the proposed Agency); federal agencies designed to serve the public good actually serve narrow special interests.  It has been, in no small measure, through the ready deployment of this language that the Republicans have positioned themselves as simultaneously the party of big business and working Americans while denouncing Democrats as representing both intrusive government and elitism. This meme has been devastating for liberals since any expansion of government services can be dismissed with a quip–Bureaucrat!, Red Tape!, Nanny State!– rather than an argument. Recently, for example, Senator Lindsay Graham said that the American people would never tolerate the public choice option in health insurance because “you’ve got a bureaucrat standing in between the patient and the doctor.” For similar reasons, Senator Kit Bond dismissed the CFPA proposal as a “bad idea.”

Continue reading “Consumer Protection Redux: The Lessons of History”

The Problem with Disclosure

Felix Salmon has a good example of why disclosure (the preferred consumer-protection regime of free-market conservatives and bankers) doesn’t work, courtesy of Ryan Chittum. The topic is no-interest balance transfers offered by credit card companies.

As Salmon points out, most people probably realize what the game is. That is, most people know that banks aren’t in the business of lending money for free; they know that the bank is betting that it can raise the interest rate before they pay off the balance. It’s possible that you will end up getting a free loan: “If you’re smart and disciplined and lucky, you might be able to game the system and pay no interest at all on that balance. Bank of America, for its part, does its very best to make you think that you’ll be able to do just that, essentially getting one over on The Man.” But the bank knows it has the numbers on its side; and most consumers know it too, because they know that’s the only reason the bank would make the offer.

Continue reading “The Problem with Disclosure”

John Dugan: Consumer Advocate Or Bank Defender?

In a quote potentially for the ages, John C. Dugan, Comptroller of the Currency since 2005, told the Senate Banking Committee yesterday, enforcement of consumer protection laws “should stay with the bank regulators, where it works well.”

This is a bold statement.  Does Mr. Dugan have any evidence to support the idea that consumer protection vis-à-vis financial products currently works well?  A close reading of his written testimony to the Senate Banking committee reveals none.

In fact, his whole testimony sounds like it comes from a parallel universe – one that did not just experience the biggest banking crisis in world history. Continue reading “John Dugan: Consumer Advocate Or Bank Defender?”

Community Banks, Part Three

This morning, Simon asked why community banks seem to be opposing the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Felix Salmon agrees that community banks should be in favor of the CFPA, for three reasons: (1) the CFPA should increase the cost of complexity, not the “boring banking” that community banks are typically thought to do; (2) the CFPA should level the playing field with predatory lenders, saving community banks from the choice of losing market share or becoming predatory lenders themselves; and (3) the CFPA should shift competition from finding hidden ways to gouge customers to traditional underwriting, which should be a community bank strength. He later adds (4) the big banks’ big advantage is in deceiving customers, which the CFPA should be able to rein in.

Salmon thinks there are still two reasons why community banks may be afraid of the CFPA:

I think it’s a combination of fear of the unknown, on the one hand, and fear of the big banks, on the other. Since every regulator to date has been successfully captured by Wall Street, it’s reasonable to assume that the CFPA might end up being captured by Wall Street too. In which case the burdens of the CFPA might end up being borne disproportionately by smaller community banks.

Continue reading “Community Banks, Part Three”

Why Don’t The Community Banks Get It?

The continuing ability of Big Finance to play our elected representatives, and thus the taxpayer, should surprise no one.  This is about organized money against relative diffuse public interests.  It’s Mancur Olson’s Logic of Collective Action meets sophisticated media managers with experience in emerging market crises – they know that as long as you can look confident and pump in money, everything turns around and people forget (and then you can re-run the show).

More puzzling is the reluctance of other well-organized interest groups to act against Big Finance.  In particular, powerful business groups – like Independent Community Bankers of America – understand very well what happened and the way in which are largest banks were responsible.  Yet they refuse to push for regulatory reform, either in broad terms or with regard to consumer protection (e.g., see their policy statements; recent testimony).

Their reasoning is fascinating but completely wrong. Continue reading “Why Don’t The Community Banks Get It?”

Jeb Hensarling, George Orwell

The debate over re-regulation of the financial sector has finally, and irreversibly, turned partisan.  This helps define issues in ways that may be more familiar and thus easier to understand.

In the blue corner we have Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.  Secretary Geithner’s overall banking policy continues to be problematic, and his broader re-regulation effort is hampered by all the free passes he gave to bank CEOs earlier this year.  But on consumer protection he has the right message and he delivered it forcefully to Congress last week: we need a Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) and we need it now.

In the red corner, Representative Jeb Hensarling is rapidly emerging as a leader.  A member of the Congressional Oversight Panel and the senior republican on the House Financial Services subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit, he wrote last week in the Washington Timesthat the CFPA is “Orwellian”, because it would strip consumers of their rightful choices.

Mr. Hensarling seems dangerously close to slipping into double think. Continue reading “Jeb Hensarling, George Orwell”

Soaking Customers as a Form of Prudential Regulation

Good for Deputy Treasury Secretary (and YLS alumnus) Neal Wolin for wading into the American Bankers Association to defend the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. According to FinReg21’s article:

Wolin firmly rejected the argument made by American Bankers Association chief executive Ed Yingling in recent congressional testimony that responsibility for consumer protection should not be separated from the responsibility for safety and soundness. . . .

The industry has argued that prudential regulators are careful to preserve a profit margin on financial products, to keep financial institutions sound.

Continue reading “Soaking Customers as a Form of Prudential Regulation”

Bernanke And The Lobbies: Confidence Illusion

Ben Bernanke is opposed to the creation of a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  Disregarding his organization’s disappointing track record in this regard, he claims that the Fed can handle this issue perfectly well going forward.

He thus adds his voice to the cacophony of financial sector lobbyists favoring the status quo.

At the same time, Bernanke and the lobbyists talk about the importance of consumer confidence for the recovery.  But how can you expect anyone to have confidence enough to spend and borrow when so many people have been so badly treated by the financial sector in recent years? Continue reading “Bernanke And The Lobbies: Confidence Illusion”

Three Myths about the Consumer Financial Product Agency

This guest post was contributed by Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel and the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard University. (Update: more on the case for a CFPA in her YouTube video, released yesterday.)

I’ve written a lot about the creation of a new Consumer Protection Financial Agency (CFPA), starting with an article I wrote in the Democracy Journal in the summer of 2007. My writing has helped me work through the idea and has advanced a conversation about what kind of changes in financial products would be most effective. A couple of weeks ago, I testified before the House Financial Services Committee about why I think a new consumer agency is so important, and I’ve argued the case many times.

Today, though, I’d like to post specifically about some of the push back that has developed on this issue.  In particular, I’d like to focus on three big myths – myths designed to protect the same status quo that triggered the economic crisis. Continue reading “Three Myths about the Consumer Financial Product Agency”