Remarks to U.S. Chamber of Commerce Fifth Annual Capital Markets Summit

Elizabeth Warren
Fifth Annual Capital Markets Summit
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I. Introduction

Thank you David for that introduction, and thanks to the Chamber of Commerce for inviting me to join you today.

At the outset, I need to tell you that I’ve had more teasing about this meeting than I’ve had in a long time. But then, perhaps, so have you. You can imagine the analogies: Nixon to China, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Senator John Kennedy speaking before Protestant ministers. All of that’s in good fun, and although I’m not here to minimize our differences, it’s important to begin with common ground. I think our common ground is reducible to a single word: “competition.” Competition in the marketplace of ideas and competition in the economic marketplace. I know that you believe in it passionately. So do I. If you didn’t believe in competition, you wouldn’t have asked me here. If I didn’t believe in it, I wouldn’t have come.

I know this won’t come as a shock to you, but the Chamber and I have not always seen eye-to-eye on issues. This became apparent last year during the negotiations on the Dodd-Frank legislation when we found ourselves on opposite sides of the table in the struggle for the new consumer agency. But I do not consider myself in hostile territory right now because I believe we share a point of principle: Competitive markets are good for consumers and for businesses. The important question is how to ensure that markets are competitive.

I approach the question of how to make markets work effectively as a long-time teacher of contract law – the basic law of markets. I didn’t come to Washington looking for a job in government. I came here back in 2008 because Congress asked me to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel monitoring TARP. First as a contract law teacher, then as chair of the COP, and now in my current role setting up the new consumer bureau, I have held on to my belief in markets. But in these roles, particularly since the economic crisis, I’ve been acutely aware that markets don’t work in the way they are supposed to unless there are some well-enforced rules. Without good rules – and fair and consistent enforcement of those rules – the promise of a “free market” cannot be achieved.

II. Every market needs rules

Every market needs rules. Antitrust rules, for example, ensure that large companies don’t conspire to fix prices or to squeeze out competitors and lock down a whole market. Those regulations ensure that every business – even a small business – has a chance to compete and to innovate. The rules also guarantee that customers have choices, and the ability of customers to choose means that competition works at its best: The best businesses, those that produce the goods and services that customers want most at the most affordable price, can flourish while those whose prices are too high or whose products aren’t as good are left behind.

Small businesses can flourish in the United States because we have regulations in place that limit the strategies that the largest competitors can use to soak up all the business in the marketplace. Antitrust regulations help make markets competitive and make them work both for customers and for businesses.

But market failures can occur for reasons other than price fixing or monopolization. A competitive, efficient, and transparent market presupposes that consumers are able to compare the costs and benefits of different products effectively and to use that information to choose the product that is best for them. In the world of consumer financial services, that is a questionable premise.

For decades, the prices of financial services – credit cards, checking accounts, mortgages, and student loans – were pretty easy to see. Both borrowers and lenders generally understood the basic terms of the deal. But then deals got more complicated with a dozen different moving parts, and it was no longer clear what something really cost. Fine print grew like weeds, and nasty surprises began to hide out amid all those legal terms and long paragraphs. Too often, it has been impossible to read a credit agreement and figure out the real terms of the deal.

As the landscape shifted, a different form of pricing became all too prevalent. The lender uses a low, low advertised price on the front end: “free checking,” zero percent credit card rates, and teaser rates on mortgages. The deal is profitable because the lender plans to make it up with fees, charges, penalties, and re-pricing on the back end. This sort of front-end back-end pricing is bad for families if it is not completely transparent. If the cost isn’t clear, it is a lot harder to answer the most basic question: Can I really afford this? Opaque front-end back-end pricing is also bad for free markets. Undue complexity and fine print make it almost impossible for a consumer to answer the basic question that a consumer should be able to answer in a competitive market: Is this the best deal for me?

Fine print and overly long agreements get in the way of an efficient and competitive market. The role of regulation in credit markets is, at its heart, to make it easy for consumers to see what they are getting and to make it easy for customers to compare one product with another, so that markets can function effectively.

When I make this argument, I know I am not in hostile territory because the Chamber made the same basic point in a letter last month to Secretary Geithner. Joined by various trade groups, the Chamber wrote that the CFPB should focus on empowering consumers by providing them “the information they need to make informed decisions.” I agree, and that’s precisely what the CFPB is trying to do.

III. The CFPB’s Mission: Supporting Competition

The CFPB is focused intensely on how to make credit and other financial products clearer and easier to understand. Our basic premise is that prices should be clear, risks should be clear, and consumers should be able to compare three or four credit cards or three or four mortgages straight up before making a final decision. The mission of the consumer bureau is to stick with these basic ideas – the ideas that make a free market work for customers and for businesses that want to compete in a fair, transparent, and competitive market.

We’re following through. We’ve built a structure to make sure that any rules we write will be fact-based and grounded in a deep understanding of the market being regulated. The Associate Director who has been named to head that office spent almost his entire career working for financial services firms, and he is acutely aware that we need to make sure that any rules we write will enhance the market.

Over the past six months, I have connected directly with community banks, credit unions, and other small financial services providers from all 50 states, and they have described persuasively how bad regulations can reduce their competitiveness. As I’ve traveled the country, I’ve heard about duplicative and complicated paperwork and how often these small institutions need to take employees away from serving customers in order to fill out more forms. I’ve also heard about the extent to which current regulations have left some lenders, like community banks and credit unions, heavily regulated, while their competitors face much lighter regulation.

The lesson seems clear: Rules should be focused, and those that are not useful should be revised or eliminated. I agree with the Chamber’s recent proposition that the CFPB should work to “prevent duplicative and inconsistent regulation of Main Street Business.” That is why one of our very first initiatives will be to consolidate the duplicative and burdensome TILA and RESPA mortgage origination forms. We are aiming to create a shorter, cheaper form that consumers can understand – and that lenders can fill out more quickly and easily. We plan to get on the board with a regulatory win-win.

While tight, well-focused rules are important, I do not want to leave you with the impression that the primary focus of the Bureau will be on rulewriting. The reality is quite different. Most of the Bureau’s resources will be devoted to ensuring independent, consistent enforcement of the law. At the CFPB, we are committed to ensuring that all providers within our jurisdiction – including large banks and, for the first time, non-bank mortgage lenders and payday lenders – follow the rules for offering consumer financial products. We know that enforcement can protect law-abiding businesses that play by the rules against unfair competition from companies that seek advantage by breaking the law.

A cop on the beat looking out for consumers does not reduce the freedom or effectiveness of markets; rather, it permits honest competition to flourish. If you are one of the guys who don’t use steroids when you play ball, then you don’t want to compete against those who are juicing. We understand that it isn’t enough to have good rules; competition flourishes only when those rules are consistently enforced.

IV. Doing the Job Right

How can I speak with such confidence about the direction of the CFPB? Because this Bureau was set up by Congress in a way that ensures it will be transparent and accountable.

There’s been a lot of chatter on these issues, so let’s be clear on the facts. There are plenty of checks in place on the new consumer agency. When we make rules, we will, like other agencies, be subject to the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act. We are specifically required to consider the benefits and costs of any proposed rules to consumers and providers. We are one of only three agencies anywhere in government that is required to organize special panels under SBREFA, a statute that focuses on the costs of a proposed rule to small business. And as with any other agency, any rule we issue will be subject to judicial review and also can be overruled by Congress.

But the constraints go further. The CFPB is the only bank regulator – and perhaps the only agency anywhere in government – whose rules can be overruled by a group of other agencies. Let me say that again: Other agencies can veto our rules, while we cannot do the same. This is an extraordinary restraint.

In addition, the CFPB is the only bank regulator that is expressly limited in its ability to determine its own funding levels. If the OCC believes it needs more funds to hire more examiners or to conduct more studies, it can raise more through levies on the industry. But the consumer agency’s independent funding is statutorily capped at a portion of the Federal Reserve’s expenses, with any additional funding in the control of Congress.

These restrictions were part of the establishment of the consumer agency, and while they make it tougher for the agency to operate, they may help it do its job better. In addition, they create real accountability while permitting the agency sufficient independence to function effectively. Because of that independence, even with these limits, I believe the agency can watch out for American families – and support the kind of competitive marketplace we all want.

But now, before the agency is able to stand, a new restriction has been proposed to subject the consumer bureau to the yearly appropriations process. Not one other banking regulator – not one – is subject to appropriations. Congress has consistently provided for independent funding for bank supervisors to allow for long-term planning and to ensure that banks are examined regularly, thoroughly, and in a manner that is insulated from the political process. There is no principled reason for breaking from this historical practice and for stripping the independence of the first banking agency devoted to consumer protection.

I’ve been in Washington only a short time, but I have eyes. Industry groups have extraordinary resources to push back on oversight and to make their views known, as is their right. I believe in regulatory engagement with industry, and I understand that industry provides a critical perspective in the regulatory process. We are hiring people with industry experience to join the new agency. I have personally met with dozens of large bank executives, trade associations, and small providers across the country.

But when we talk about workable rules and fair and consistent supervision and enforcement – when we talk about balance in the system and how to implement regulation that lets competition work – we need to think about what it would mean if the consumer agency were not independently funded like other bank agencies. Requiring the CFPB to go into every examination against a trillion-dollar company knowing that the company could turn its lobbying force against the agency’s funding is not a prescription for fair and evenhanded enforcement. That is why, for more than a century, Congress has consistently provided for independent funding for bank supervisors.

V. Conclusion

The Chamber and I may not always see eye-to-eye on how specific regulations should unfold or how enforcement actions should be organized. But we should see eye-to-eye on the basic goal – a competitive market in which, to quote the Chamber again, consumers are empowered with “the information they need to make informed decisions.” And I hope that we can see eye-to-eye on the basic structure needed to accomplish that goal: a regulator with limited powers and the independence necessary to execute its authorities effectively.

We began with one word: “competition.” Let’s end with another: “regulation.” They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, when done right, they support each other. Are the Chamber’s members, as citizens or business owners and executives, in a better place today because the FAA regulates air safety, because the states regulate insurance companies, because the federal government enforces antitrust statutes? Of course they are. And so is this country. We can differ over the form and substance of regulation. But let’s not deny the important role of regulation. Let’s not pretend that military families with a parent serving abroad are losing their homes to foreclosure because there is too much regulation. Let’s not pretend that billion-dollar Ponzi schemes are attributable to too much regulation.

I have taught contract law at five law schools. You can ask any student who took one of my classes, whether at Houston or Michigan or Harvard, whether they liked me or not, whether they got an A or a C – and they’ll be able to tell you about my deep belief in the importance of marketplaces, including the marketplace of ideas. If you keep asking me to speak to you, I’ll keep coming – and I’ll enjoy the exchange. Thank you.