New CFPB chief swears difficult oversight of huge tech, big banks

Rohit Chopra looked for commonalities with House legislators in his very first congressional hearing as Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director, and the method normally appeared to work.

Chopra, a Democrat who was sworn in on Oct. 12, concentrated on subjects with bipartisan appeal: the bureau’s enforcement efforts focused on big business, methods it might attempt to assist small companies (consisting of little monetary business) and the value of strong relationships in between banks and clients.

His peace offering seemed well gotten by Republicans and Democrats. During the four-hour hearing Wednesday, legislators prevented utilizing the type of intense rhetoric that they have actually focused on his predecessors in the past.

One of the agreement subjects harped on by Chopra was the requirement for more oversight of the monetary product or services being provided by innovation giants. His look prior to the House Financial Services Committee came less than a week after the company bought Amazon, Apple, Alphabet’s Google, Facebook, PayPal and Square to turn over information about their payments organizations.

“I am worried that big tech companies are coming for financial services and I am uncomfortable not knowing anything of what they are up to,” Chopra affirmed. “Most of those tech companies are not subject to supervision the way the banks are. Unless we can understand the technology that is being used, we won’t be able to effectively police it.”

“One of the important things that troubles me a lot is that when little gamers break the law, they get closed down and when big gamers break the law, absolutely nothing takes place,” new CFPB Director Rohit Chopra said in testimony before the House Financial Services Committee.

Bloomberg News

The CFPB will focus its enforcement actions primarily on large companies and repeat offenders, Chopra said. Investigations of small businesses will not be a priority, and companies that self-identify violations will get some leeway, he said.

“I believe we should focus most of our resources on the largest firms engaged in large-scale harm that is clearly totally beyond the pale,” Chopra said. “One of the things that bothers me so much is that when small players break the law, they get shut down and when large players break the law, nothing happens. … The big one pays a fine.”

He included: “I share the view that when there is an honest desire to play by the rules, it’s not appropriate to harshly penalize that.”

Chopra said another of his priorities is to promote a return to relationship banking and stronger customer service. “I am very concerned that there are many situations where consumers have no place to turn when they need to get help,” he said. “We are disadvantaged as a country the more relationship banking goes away, and I want to figure out what I can do to revitalize that so that the customer has more leverage and institutions are responsive to them.”

All that said, there were some tense moments during the hearing. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., alleged that the Biden administration had “pushed out” and “sought to sideline” six senior civil servants at the CFPB by offering separation incentives and early retirement.

Earlier this month, Emmer and Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, the committee’s top Republican, asked CFPB Inspector General Mark Bialek to investigate whether bureau employees were improperly removed due to their political affiliations. Discrimination based on political affiliation is prohibited by law.

“Were you aware of the Biden administration’s plan to push out career officials who were hired during the Trump administration?” Emmer asked.

“I don’t believe there was a plan to do that,” Chopra replied.

“Did anyone at the White House ever discuss CFPB personnel with you, sir?” Emmer said.

Chopra said: “There has never been any discussion with the White House about career civil servants.”

Emmer then asked Chopra to commit to rehiring any CFPB employees if they were found to have been improperly removed.

“If there is a finding of any prohibited personnel practice — of which I have no indication to suggest there will be — I will take all the steps that I am required to under the law including, if required, rehiring,“ Chopra said.

The exchange was de-escalated when Chopra said that all CFPB employees must cooperate with the inspector general, and that the CFPB’s staff has been told to adhere to all ethics rules.

Several lawmakers focused their questions on two upcoming CFPB rulemakings, one expected early next year on consumers’ right to control their own financial data, and the other involving small-business data collection under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

In response to several Republicans who asked about the potential impact of the data-collection rule, Chopra said he wanted to aid small businesses. “The federal government was disadvantaged throughout the pandemic by not having that small-business information offered.”

Other legislators raised issues about how the CFPB prepares to handle big tech giants, using algorithms in financing and the spread of cryptocurrencies.

Rep. Tony Caplan, D-N.H., asked if a home loan loan provider that marketed on Facebook would go through a reasonable financing infraction if the social networks giant utilized algorithms to target the advertisements to a particular group.

“When [a lender] makes a decision whether or not to advertise on Facebook, Facebook cannot share and refuses to share any information about whether the algorithms they use are in fact intentionally targeting certain racial groups or classes of people,” Caplan stated. “Is that lender potentially guilty of an ECOA violation?”

Chopra reacted that if the choice to approve credit was made by the innovation business’s algorithm then, “Facebook may be liable for that.”

He likewise repeated that business cannot evade reasonable financing laws under the guise of secret algorithms. “I am very worried about black box algorithms and that we have no accountability as to how decisions are made,” Chopra stated. “This is the opposite of relationship banking.”

Rep. David Kustoff, R-Tenn., asked if the CFPB would contribute in cryptocurrency and digital properties, a market that the CFPB and other prudential regulators are inspecting.

“Where digital payments is involved, the Electronic Fund Transfer Act is a key law with key consumer protections,” Chopra stated. “This is part of the reason the bureau issued orders to the tech companies about how they are tracking payments, how they are engaged in surveillance — and I think there are intersections there with digital currencies.”

Some legislators desired responses on why Trump-age assistance on combating “abusive” market practices was rescinded in March. The CFPB’s authority to penalize companies for breaking the longstanding federal restriction of “unfair, deceptive or abusive acts or practices” has actually been a point of debate. Banks and other banks had actually long looked for to directly specify the violent requirement.

Last year, then-CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger provided assistance that specified an “abusive” act or practice as one in which the damage to customers outweighs the advantage. That assistance likewise stated the CFPB would restrict its usage.

In reaction to a concern by McHenry about the assistance, Chopra stated it “did not provide clarity” which he has goals to produce a more “durable jurisprudence.”

“Clarity for those that you’re regulating is important,” McHenry stated.

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., asked if Chopra supported the production of a government-run credit reporting bureau, a concern at first raised by President Biden in 2015 that is supported by some customer supporters. But Chopra soft-pedaled the concept.

“I have not given much thought to this,” he stated. “It would be a huge endeavor. It would be a huge mountain to move. I’m a lot more worried about infractions of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.”


A news media journalist always on the go, I've been published in major publications including VICE, The Atlantic, and TIME.

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