Why a prudential regulator can’t house the CFPA

By Felix Salmon
March 3, 2010
conference this morning helped drive home to me exactly why it doesn't make sense to house a Consumer Financial Protection Agency inside the Fed, or other bank regulators. And the reason is that those regulators are consumer financial protection agencies already: the banks are the customers of the Fed and of the other regulators, and it's the regulators' job to protect the finances of their customers the banks.

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Listening to Robert Johnson, a Roosevelt Institute fellow, talk at his institute’s conference this morning helped drive home to me exactly why it doesn’t make sense to house a Consumer Financial Protection Agency inside the Fed, or other bank regulators. And the reason is that those regulators are consumer financial protection agencies already: the banks are the customers of the Fed and of the other regulators, and it’s the regulators’ job to protect the finances of their customers the banks.

Elizabeth Warren was at the conference too, and did a great job of explaining what she called “the bank industry’s complexity machine”. Regulators and regulation always evolve in the direction of complexity and away from the simplicity that real consumers — individuals with mortgages and credit cards — need. “The banks want to make reform very complicated, so that only the experts can understand it,” said Warren — and it’s inevitable that a CFPA housed at the Fed or at any existing institution would gravitate towards the kind of regulatory complexity which is a ubiquitous symptom of regulatory capture.

In 1980, noted Warren, Bank of America’s credit card agreement was one page and 700 words long; today it’s 30 pages of dense legalese. Banks will never willingly return to a world of 700-word credit card agreements, not when their profits from consumer finance are almost entirely a function of forcing consumers into paying hidden fees they don’t understand at the outset.

Essentially, the CFPA, by its nature, is going to have to have an adversarial relationship with the banking industry, at least at the outset. The prudential regulators, meanwhile, exist to make those banks healthier: they like anything which generates income and profits, and have historically not cared in the slightest if such products are only profitable because they rip off consumers with moderate financial literacy. If they end up housing the CFPA, the CFPA will never be allowed to force the banks into the world of simplicity and honesty that we financial consumers so desperately need.

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