Deputy Director Zixta Martinez’s Keynote Address at the Consumer Federation of America’s 2022 Consumer Assembly
Good morning. Thank you to Ann for the kind introduction. Thank you to the Consumer Federation of America for inviting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to the 2022 Consumer Assembly. For nearly 55 years, CFA has advocated on behalf of consumers, and you continue to tackle on a stunning array of issues. It is beyond commendable.
I also want to congratulate Susan Weinstock on her spectacular promotion to serve as CFA’s CEO. Susan, I have appreciated your thoughtful engagement with the CFPB over many years, and I know that CFA will be in good hands with you at the helm.
Today, I would like to talk to you about CFPB’s latest research on payday loans, rent-a-bank schemes, the changing market environment for overdraft and other banking fees, and I will close with remarks about medical debt and credit reporting.
But, first, I want to share with you a little bit of my story. I don’t believe you just fall into consumer protection as a career – it is rather a calling built up from our life experiences and family histories. The experiences and histories become our sculptor’s wheel – helping us to shape the future of consumer protection in a way that supports all people, families, communities, and law-abiding businesses.
I was one of five children raised by a single mother in South Side San Antonio, Texas. As with 75% of families headed by a single mother, we did not own our home. We lived in a three-room shotgun, where the kitchen table was the only table in our home. With five kids, it was a struggle to sit at that table – it is where food was prepared, where we ate, where my mother corralled all the papers and bills that come with raising a family, and where I did my homework –lots of homework.
Just as I often had to fight for a spot at our family table, I realized quickly that if I wanted an education, if I wanted to open doors closed unfairly to so many, I would also have to fight for my spot at that table; and we have to fight to bring others to this table.
And fight I did, so that today I stand before you as proof of what we can accomplish when we have access to resources and support structures. I serve as the Deputy Director of a federal agency that oversees an industry where only 9% of executives are women and just a fraction is of Hispanic descent.
One of my first jobs was working with my congressman to obtain Community Development Block Grants for the colonias – which were located not far from where I grew up. Sometimes referred to as los olvidados, or the forgotten ones, the colonias dot the U.S.-Mexico border, and often lack potable water, sewer systems, electricity, paved roads, and safe housing. Half of the adults living in Texas colonias do not have a high school diploma, and the poverty rate is more than double the rest of the state.1
Congress ultimately assigned a modicum of CDBG monies to the area, and I knew then that so much more was needed to build, support, and facilitate access for communities historically overlooked or ignored. I also knew that I could be part of pressing for such an outcome.
The collapse of the housing market in 2007 wrecked many lives and devastated communities around the country. Latino homeowners were some of the hardest hit. For those who received mortgages between 2005 and 2008, over 7% lost their homes to foreclosure. Thousands of families had been sold the American Dream, and just as soon as they moved in, the welcome mat was pulled out from under them.
At CFPB – right at the outset – we were committed to ensuring that the sparks that triggered the implosion of the housing market did not repeat. With the word “Consumer” in our name, one thing we knew to be true was that we had to be a consumer-driven agency. We were going to listen to consumers and their families, neighborhood groups and community-based nonprofit, and advocacy groups, like CFA. We were also going to listen to industry players who believe in serving customers, like small community banks and credit unions.2 The bottom line – we would not have any forgotten ones.
Over a decade later, we continue to keep people, families, neighborhoods, communities, and law-abiding businesses at the center of all we do.
Payday Loans and Extended Payment Plans
In April, we released a market snapshot report on payday loans.
Our report focused on state payday extended payment plans. These repayment plans allow borrowers to repay their payday loans, along with any accrued fees, in several installments. These plans are intended to help borrowers avoid rollover fees, default, and inescapable debt cycles.
Our research found that 26 states have lending laws that allow payday lenders to operate. However, only 16 of those states require or specifically permit lenders to offer extended payment plans. We also found that the available data demonstrates that usage rates for extended payment plans are lower than rollover rates. That finding leaves a gaping question: why are people ending up in pricey rollovers or defaulting instead of in zero cost extended payment plans?
The report highlights several possible reasons, including lenders’ financial incentives that encourage rollovers over payment plans and lenders concealing or otherwise deceiving borrowers about payment plans.
Our payday report is the first significant piece of research into extended payment plans, and we would welcome any further collection and publication of data on the subject.3 We are also – to be sure -- continuing to assess payday loan and small dollar credit practices more broadly.
One specific area of interest is understanding how the small dollar credit market is evolving. Over the last several years, we’ve seen a rise in installment and lines of credit lending, including by lenders who also make payday loans. A number of installment lenders are engaged in relationships with banks. Some lenders attempt to use these relationships to evade state interest rate caps and licensing laws by making claims that the bank, rather than the non-bank, is the lender.
Some lenders employing rent-a-bank schemes have unusually high default rates, which raise questions about whether their products set borrowers up for failure. And our complaints database reveals a range of other significant consumer protection concerns with certain loans associated with bank partnerships.
Advocates – including many of you here –have raised concerns about the rise of these “rent-a-bank” schemes in the installment space. I want to assure you: CFPB hears you, we share your concerns, and we are taking a close look at this issue.
Overdraft and Other Banking Fees
It used to be big banks wanted your money because their deposits determined their loan capabilities. Now, many consumers are charged for the privilege of maintaining accounts at a depository institution. Consumers also face other banking fees that challenge their ability to remain banked, including overdraft fees.
Overdraft practices can seem more like a maze than a service. As many consumers have learned, to correctly predict the occurrence of overdraft fees, customers must master the intricacies of an arcane payments system.
Banks penalize their customers based on intricate details, outside consumers’ control, such as the difference between authorization and settlement, the amount of time a credit may take to show up in the account, the use of one kind of balance over another for fee calculation purposes, or the order of transaction processing across different types of credit and debits. Even a savvy customer trying to shop for the best checking account would have a hard time parsing it all because she’d have to know the unknowable.
The families who are getting hit hardest with these complicated charges are often the ones who can least afford them. Previous CFPB studies have shown that under 9 percent of account holders have more than 10 overdrafts annually and pay close to 80 percent of overdraft revenue. Because overdraft fees heavily impact many consumers who are already struggling to stay afloat, the fees can drive them into involuntary account closures—and deeper into debt.
Many relationship banks, like community banks and credit unions, as well as startups, have charted a different business model that isn’t dependent on exploitative penalties. However, it isn’t easy for them to chip away at the chokehold big banks have over our checking accounts, since it can be a massive headache for a consumer to take their business elsewhere.
We want to move toward a market that works for families and honest financial institutions alike. And there is reason for hope – many big banks have recently announced that they will reduce or eliminate overdraft fees and meaningfully compete for customers through offering consumer-friendly overdraft protections. While the fee economy continues to rake in billions of dollars in revenue for companies, we are seeing the effects of calling out anti-competitive behavior and putting dominant financial institutions on notice. The market will not solve this failure on its own.4 The CFPB is committed to returning vigorous competition to this market, and we continue to evaluate using the range of our tools to ensure the checking account market works well for consumers.
Medical Debt and Credit Reporting
In addition to overdraft fees, there are many fees and bills that feel as if they were sent or charged to you for no other reason than to kick you when you’re down. Allegedly unpaid medical bills reported to collections or put on your credit reports are one such set of charges that probably all of us here can agree belong in the gut-punch category.
There are approximately 43 million Americans with $88 billion in allegedly unpaid medical bills on their credit reports.5 Undoubtedly, many of those consumers have endured first-hand the frustrations of falling into the bureaucratic doom-loop comprised of the healthcare, insurance, debt collection, and credit reporting industries.
For many consumers, when they try to fix billing mistakes with the care provider, they are sent to insurance. Insurance then sends them back to the provider. In the middle of such a nightmare, many consumers then receive calls and notices from debt collectors telling them they must pay these unpaid and still disputed bills.
After Congress passed the No Surprises Act, CFPB made it clear to debt collectors and credit reporting companies that they have a responsibility, in addition to their other verification responsibilities, to ensure that unpaid medical bills do not run afoul of the No Surprises Act.6
Furthermore, we are also working to ensure the credit reporting system provides a fair and accurate reporting of a person’s credit worthiness, and that it is not used as a coercive tool or, because it is so riddled with inaccuracies, people’s reports become meaningless.
Unfortunately, we know all too well that many people choose to pay unpaid medical bills out of fear of hurting their credit scores and fear of harming their ability to access credit markets. In the case of one Colorado woman – who fought her bill all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court – she was forced to declare bankruptcy because resolving the debt took 8 years.7 A not uncommon, but devastating and unacceptable, result of an error plagued and labyrinthian billing, collections, and reporting system.
When it comes to fixing the intersecting problem of medical debt and credit reporting, CFPB is looking at everything, including whether it is appropriate for allegedly unpaid medical debt to even be on credit reports. We need to work across government and with the non-profit sector, among others, to make sure that medical debt is not something that holds people back from securing or getting to a job, from finding housing, or from qualifying for affordable credit. Credit reports are ubiquitous and are used far beyond the traditional credit sector. The present stakes could not be higher, & if we work together, we can successfully confront this challenge.8
The point of working across government is an important one for Director Chopra. He recognizes that consumers are better served when consumer protection enforcers, across local, state, and federal governments, are able to supervise consumer financial markets, enforce laws under their jurisdiction, and punish lawbreakers.
The CFPB recently made an announcement aimed at reinforcing the authorities of state regulators and attorneys general. As Director Chopra has said, in the years leading up to the financial crisis, federal regulators undermined states seeking to protect families and businesses from abuses in the mortgage market. We are committed to learning from the previous failures of federal regulators and to promoting state action instead of suffocating or preempting it.9 We continue to look at how to support the enforcement powers of the states to ensure that the people CFA serves are protected by local, state, and federal governments.
I would be remiss not to mention the impassioned people I see around this room. Some of you, like me, were here when the CFPB was just an idea. And like me, it is your stories that brought you to this place and to this mission. Consumers and honest businesses alike depend on the CFPB (1) to provide bright-lines and simple and clear rules, (2) to punish lawbreakers, and (3) to keep markets competitive and fair. They likewise depend on CFA to advocate on their behalf to agencies such as the CFPB. Without input, opinions, and your stories, we can go no further. My own story will continue to guide my work at the CFPB, and I do not doubt your stories will continue to guide all of you as well.
1. Jordana Barton and Emily Ryder, et al. “Las Colonias in the 21st Century.” Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. April 2015. https://www.dallasfed.org/~/media/microsites/cd/colonias/background.html .
2. Martinez, Zixta. “Prepared Remarks of Deputy Director Zixta Martinez at the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals Convention and Housing Policy Summit.” Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. March 15, 2022. https://www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/newsroom/prepared-remarks-of-deputy-director-zixta-martinez-at-the-national-association-of-hispanic-real-estate-professionals-convention-and-housing-policy-summit/.
3. Martinez, Zixta. “Deputy Director Martinez’s Opening Remarks to the Academic Research Council.” Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. April 8, 2022. https://www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/newsroom/deputy-director-martinezs-opening-remarks-to-the-academic-research-council/.
4. Chopra, Rohit. Prepared Remarks of CFPB Director Rohit Chopra on the Overdraft Press Call. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. December 1, 2021. https://www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/newsroom/prepared-remarks-cfpb-director-rohit-chopra-overdraft-press-call/.
5. “CFPB Estimates $88 Billion in Medical Bills on Credit Reports.” Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. March 1, 2022. https://www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/newsroom/cfpb-estimates-88-billion-in-medical-bills-on-credit-reports/.
6. “CFPB Issues Bulletin to Prevent Unlawful Medial Debt Collection and Credit Reporting.” January 13, 2022. https://www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/newsroom/cfpb-issues-bulletin-to-prevent-unlawful-medical-debt-collection-and-credit-reporting/.
7. Lopez, Megan. “Colorado Supreme Court rules in favor of woman who was charged $229,000 in hospital bills.” Denver 7 ABC. May 24, 2022. https://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/local-news/colorado-supreme-court-rules-in-favor-of-woman-who-was-charged-229-000-in-hospital-bills .
8. Chopra, Rohit. Statement of CFPB Director Rohit Chopra at White House Event “Vice President Harris Announces Actions by the Administration to Reduce the Burden of Medical Debt.” WH.gov. April 11, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxzvHaH5rHM .
9. “CFPB Bolsters Enforcement Efforts by States.” Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. May 19, 2022. https://www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/newsroom/cfpb-bolsters-enforcement-efforts-by-states/.