Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury for the
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Mortgage Bankers Association 98th Annual Conference
October 10, 2011
Thank you to the Mortgage Bankers Association for inviting me here today. It is great to be with a group that cares so deeply about the same things we care about at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
And it’s a real pleasure to be here in Chicago. But I will confess a certain amount of anxiety about one topic – and it is a topic on which I need your help. From where I stand right now, I am less than one half hour away from my in-laws. And yet, I do not have time to see them. So if you should run into them during your stay here in the Windy City, it is very important that you do not mention that you saw me. Thank you in advance for your cooperation.
I want to spend my time today talking about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s approach to smart regulation. Before I do that, though, I’d like to give some background on the CFPB. I gather there’s a lot of curiosity and speculation about us, but there need not be. We aim to be an open book. And here’s what that book says.
The Bureau launched on July 21st with a single goal: To make the markets for consumer financial products work for consumers, responsible providers, and the economy as a whole. We want to make sure that the price and risks of financial products are clear so that consumers can decide what products are best for them. And, we want to make sure that there are sensible rules of the road and a level playing field so that providers can compete fairly on the basis of price and quality.
The CFPB was, of course, created by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Before Dodd-Frank, responsibility for administering and enforcing the various federal consumer financial laws was scattered across seven different federal agencies. For each of those seven agencies, consumer protection was only one of its responsibilities. The result was that no single agency was truly on the hook for protecting the average, everyday user of financial products and services. There was no true accountability. And consumers got left behind.
The Dodd-Frank Act changed this by creating in the CFPB a single point of accountability for consumer financial protection. And we have been given, for the first time at the Federal level, supervisory authority over independent nonbank companies in addition to depositories. That means, for example, that when it comes to the mortgage market, we will be able to ensure that brokers, originators, and servicers play by the same rules regardless of their charter. It doesn’t matter if you’re a thrift, bank, finance company, ILC, or investment bank. If you want to be in the business of consumer finance, then you’ve got to play by the same rules as everybody else.
This is a tough job. But fortunately, we have lots of tools in our toolkit – research, supervision, rulemaking, enforcement, consumer education. Having the full range of tools means that we don’t have to force a square policy peg into a round hole. We will strive to use each of these tools in the smartest way possible, matching problems to solutions.
Ultimately, our efforts will benefit the entire economy. We’ll help give families the assurance they need to borrow for a home or a child’s education. We’ll give our nation’s financial institutions the confidence they need to innovate and compete. If we succeed in our mission, everybody wins.
The CFPB was created in response to the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. And at the epicenter of the financial crisis was the mortgage meltdown. Everyone in this room already knows this intimately – maybe too intimately – so I’ll be brief. But I think it’s worth remembering, because as Winston Churchill once said, “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”
To a large extent, the creation of the CFPB was a response to the preexisting regulatory regime that allowed the mortgage market to become profoundly broken. There were serious, widespread deficiencies that damaged American homeowners, financial institutions, and the wider economy. I would like to focus on three of the bigger market flaws, which relate to transparency, incentives, and fair competition.
Let me first address transparency. A basic premise of efficient markets is that the buyer and the seller both understand the terms of a deal. People enter into deals because they think the deal is in their own best interest. But in the years leading up to the financial crisis, that assumption broke down. During the housing bubble, the fastest growing mortgage products were some of the most complicated: hybrid ARMs, option ARMs, interest-only loans. To properly calculate the costs and risks of those products, borrowers needed sophisticated knowledge of things like rate caps and rate spreads. The potential costs and risks of these mortgages were unclear to many consumers – and that lack of transparency helped saddle too many people with mortgages they couldn’t afford.
The second market flaw related to incentives. In most lending markets, lenders have an incentive to care about a borrower’s ability to repay – after all, they quite reasonably want to get their money back. But almost everyone involved in the mortgage market leading up to the crisis – mortgage brokers, lenders, appraisers, investment bankers, and even rating agencies – earned up-front rewards that were insufficiently related to the performance of loans over time. In mortgages, unlike, say, in credit cards, it was even possible for a loan originator to sell all of the credit risk. You could sell it all. For cash. Well before anyone could know the loan’s ultimate performance. Under conditions like that, it’s no wonder that mortgage originators chased risks like never before. And when those risks were exposed and borrowers began defaulting, the house of cards came tumbling down.
The third market flaw had to do with fair competition. Even the best rules will mean little if they don’t apply equally to everyone in the market. During the housing bubble, our fragmented system of mortgage regulation, supervision, and enforcement tilted the playing field and encouraged irresponsible lenders to shop for the most permissive legal regime. If mortgage lenders wanted to make no-doc loans or option ARMs, or to engage in other risky practices, they could look for the regulatory regime where they’d be given the least grief about doing so. The result was a race to the bottom in lending standards.
We have to remember this history because it informs why we are here and the work we need to do. I know how important a well-functioning private mortgage market is to consumers and to the economy at large. Owning a home is a big piece of the American dream, and mortgages make that happen. We want to do our part to help ensure the return of a private mortgage market that is vital, robust, and resilient – one that operates transparently, with properly aligned incentives, and where fair competition can thrive.
Now, to some understandably weary mortgage market practitioners, and possibly to one or two of you in this very room, the prospect of an energetic regulator is not exactly what you want to hear about. Some might be anxious: Is the consumer bureau going to make my life harder? So let me be clear: The Bureau believes in smart regulation.
So what does that mean — smart regulation? To us, smart regulation means being relentlessly evidence-based, participatory, and precise in fixing whatever needs to be fixed. Evidence-based. Participatory. Precise. Let me spend a minute on each of those things.
First, smart regulation means making research and market analytics core to everything that we do. We are committed to basing our decisions on the best available research and data analysis. To do this, we need data – lots of data – and a team of world-class economists, social scientists, and market veterans to figure out what that data means. We are working, even now, to acquire and load data assets. And we are building an IT infrastructure to handle it all. And I am happy to report that we have hired and we continue to hire top-tier analytic talent throughout the agency. For example, our head of research is Sendhil Mullainathan, the MacArthur genius prize-winning Harvard economist.
Smart regulation also means being as participatory as possible in everything we do. We don’t plan on hiding behind closed doors. We will be engaged with the public, sharing with them not only what we are doing but how we are doing it.
A good example of how we are already doing this is with our “Know Before You Owe” initiative to create a single, shorter, more useful mortgage disclosure form that combines disclosures required by TILA and RESPA. Before we began designing the sample forms, we reached out to the public, industry participants, and market experts to find out what on the current disclosure forms is helpful for consumers, what is not, and what is information overload. What do consumers really need to know? And what approach makes the most sense for the industry?
We incorporated all that feedback as we developed alternative forms, the first two of which we introduced back in May. We invited comments from stakeholders and displayed the forms on our website. We followed the same approach through subsequent rounds of testing, and have received more than 20,000 comments to date. And bear in mind that all of this is before, not after, a formal proposed rule. That’s participatory government and smart regulation at its best, in my view.
Finally, smart regulation means being precise in how we address problems. The CFPB will diagnose problems carefully and intelligently after examining all the evidence. We will have different tools to choose from when we address a problem. Maybe it is best addressed through education. Maybe it is best addressed through rule writing. Or maybe it is best addressed by examining relevant market actors and shining a brighter light on the issue.
In short, we won’t shoot from the hip. We won’t reason from ideology. We won’t press a political agenda. Instead we are going to be fact-based, transparent, and measured. We’ll bring this approach to any new regulations we issue. And we’ll bring this same approach to the task of re-examining the extensive corpus of consumer financial protection regulations that we are inheriting.
We know this is a lot of work. We know it won’t be easy. But in that vein, I’d like to end with what I am told is an old African proverb: There is only one way to eat an elephant, and that is one bite at a time.
And so, as we think about the task of regulatory review, I want to announce here that we are inviting your feedback as to which areas you believe merit the most immediate focus. I also want to challenge you to come forward not just with a wish list – or your list of pet peeves – but to come forward with the kind of objective analysis and reliable data with respect to costs and benefits on which policy-making can and should proceed. Because I know that if we let the facts speak for themselves, we can help ensure that consumer financial markets actually work – for American families, for the honest firms that serve them, and for the economy as a whole.
Thank you for your time.