Pence casts deciding vote in Senate to deny consumers rights to sue banks

From today’s Washington Post by Ken Sweet:

Call it a win for “the swamp.”

President Trump and Republicans in Congress handed Wall Street banks a big victory by effectively killing off a politically popular rule that would have allowed consumers to band together to sue their banks.

The 51-50 vote in the Senate, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the deciding vote, means bank customers will still be subject to what are known as mandatory arbitration clauses. These clauses are buried in the fine print of nearly every checking account, credit card, payday loan, auto loan or other financial services contract and require customers to use arbitration to resolve any dispute with his or her bank. They effectively waive the customer’s right to sue.

The banking industry lobbied hard to roll back a proposed regulation from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that would have largely restricted mandatory arbitration clauses by 2019. Consumers would have been allowed to sue their bank as a group in a class-action lawsuit. Individual consumers with individual complaints would still have to use arbitration under the rules.

President Trump is expected to sign the Senate resolution into law, overturning yet another Obama-administration initiative. Trump spent months of the 2016 campaign accusing his opponent Hillary Clinton of being in the pocket of the big banks and therefore unwilling to take on Wall Street.

At least among voters, the CFPB’s regulations had bipartisan support. A poll done by the GOP-leaning American Future Fund found that 67 percent of those surveyed were in favor of the rules, including 64 percent of Republicans. Other polls on the subject show similar levels of support.

The overturn marks a significant victory for Wall Street. After the financial crisis, Congress and the Obama administration put substantial new regulations on how banks operated and fined them tens of billions of dollars for the damage they caused to the housing market. But since Trump’s victory last year, banking lobbyists have felt emboldened to get some of the rules repealed or replaced altogether. Top or near the top of the list was the CFPB’s arbitration rules.

“(The) vote is a giant setback for every consumer in this country. Wall Street won and ordinary people lost. This vote means the courtroom doors will remain closed for groups of people seeking justice and relief when they are wronged by a company,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, in a statement.

The big banks and its lobbyist groups are calling this a victory for U.S. consumers, saying that arbitration is faster and the rules would have been an economic stimulus package for class-action trial lawyers. They also cite statistics from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s own 2015 study that show that the average award from a class-action lawsuit is roughly $32 while an award from arbitration is $5,389.

But reality is more complicated. At best, the banking industry’s arguments twist the truth.

The reason why the award for most class-action suits is small is because people don’t typically sue individually his or her bank over a small sum of money, like an overdraft charge or account service fee, because it’s not worth the financial effort to recover a $10, $25, or $35 fee. Arbitration cases are less common, and usually involve more substantial disputes, hence the larger awards. Also the majority of consumers resolve their dispute with their banks in person, typically at a branch or over the phone.

If the CFPB’s rules had gone into effect, companies like Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Equifax would have been exposed to billions of dollars in lawsuits for future bad behavior. The Center for Responsible Lending estimates the U.S. banking customers paid $14 billion dollars in overdraft fee last year, and the industry has gotten in trouble in the past for shady tactics like transaction reordering, where a bank would reorder a day’s debits and withdrawals to extract the most overdraft fee income from its customers that day.

To overturn the CFPB’s rule, Congress used the Congressional Review Act. The CRA allows Congress to overturn any executive agency’s rules or regulations with a bare majority vote, but more importantly, the law prohibits that agency from issuing any “substantially similar” regulations without Congressional authorization. That means that until Congress passes a law to restrict arbitration, the CFPB’s hands are now permanently bound on this issue.

The political winds are in Wall Street’s favor going forward. Cordray’s term at the CFPB will end in mid-2018 but he is expected to step down before then to make a run for Governor of Ohio. Trump will be able to choose his own appointee and will likely pick someone more likely to favor the banks.

The CFPB was created after the financial crisis as part of the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform law that passed in 2010. The bureau was crafted to be independent and powerful, funded by the Federal Reserve instead of through the traditional Congressional appropriations process. Its director has considerable authority to pursue issues he or she considers important and generally cannot be removed from office.

There’s another major financial consumer protection now pending in front of Congress focused on the payday lending industry. The CFPB finalized new regulations weeks ago that would severely restrict the ability for payday lenders to make loans that its customers, often the poor and financially desperate, cannot afford. The payday lending industry is pushing hard to overturn these rules using the same process that was used to overturn the arbitration rules.

Outrage Over Wall Street Pay, but Shrugs for Silicon Valley?

From the New York Times Blog “DealBook” by Steven Davidoff:

Big paydays on Wall Street often come under laserlike scrutiny, while Silicon Valley gets a pass on its own compensation excesses. Why the double standard?

Take Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive and current chairman of Google. Google’s compensation committee last month awarded Mr. Schmidt $100 million in restricted stock plus $6 million in cash. The stock vests in four years and comes on the heels of a $100 million award made in 2011.

It’s unclear why Google felt the need to award Mr. Schmidt this amount.

When asked for comment, a representative of Google directed me to the regulatory filing Google made disclosing Mr. Schmidt’s compensation award. The filing states the award was paid “in recognition of his contributions to Google’s performance in fiscal year 2013.” How about that for detail?

Mr. Schmidt already owns shares worth billions of dollars in Google, and has a net worth of more than $8 billion, according to Forbes. So the latest award amount is just a few ducats to him.

As chairman, Mr. Schmidt does make a substantial contribution to Google, including helping the company negotiate a settlement with the European Union in an antitrust case. But his pay is extraordinarily high for a chairman. The typical director at a Standard & Poor’s 500 company was paid $251,000 in 2012, according to Bloomberg News. Mr. Schmidt is above that range by over $100 million.

Still, the pay award was greeted with few questions and apparently no criticism from Google’s shareholders or others. Compare this with the continued outcry over Wall Street executive pay.

The latest was the criticism of Jamie Dimon’s pay for 2013, given the many regulatory travails of his bank, JPMorgan Chase. The bank’s board awarded Mr. Dimon $20 million in pay for 2013, $18.5 million of which was in restricted stock that vests over three years.

In doing so, the JPMorgan board stated that the award was justified because of JPMorgan’s “sustained long-term performance; gains in market share and customer satisfaction; and the regulatory issues the company has faced and the steps the company has taken to resolve those issues.”

While JPMorgan may be hogging the regulatory limelight at the moment, other Wall Street banks have faced that glare and have been questioned about their chief executives’ compensation. Total pay for Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, no stranger to regulatory scrutiny, has not yet been disclosed, but he was recently awarded $14 million in stock. Once his cash bonus is announced, Mr. Blankfein will probably be paid an amount similar to Mr. Dimon’s.

Like JPMorgan’s board, Goldman’s board has sought to justify such pay and is criticized just the same.

This double standard for finance and technology doesn’t make sense.

Read the entire article here.

Five regulatory agencies approve Volcker Rule, curbing risky banking

Five federal regulatory agencies approved the so-called “Volcker Rule” today, restricting commercial banks from trading stocks and derivatives for their own gain and limits their ability to invest in hedge funds. The five agencies include the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Comptroller of the Currency:  all five agencies approved the Volcker rule, named after former Fed Chair Paul Volcker who championed restrictions on proprietary trading by banks, which puts into effect the centerpiece of the Dodd-Frank Act’s attempt to reign in financial corruption on Wall Street.

Congress passed and regulators approved the legislation despite the lobbying efforts of Wall Street banks, and the rule itself includes new wording aimed at curbing the risky practices responsible for the $6 billion trading loss, known as the so-called “London Whale,” at JPMorgan Chase last year. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in July 2010, but the complex nature of financial regulation and the lobbying efforts of Wall Street slowed down the process of enacting the law.

The outgoing Fed Chair Ben S. Bernanke stated that “getting to this vote has taken longer than we would have liked, but five agencies have had to work together to grapple with a large number of difficult issues and respond to extensive public comments.”

Consumer advocacy groups praised the spirit of the rule as much needed reform of the greed and corruption that have become synonymous with Wall Street’s practices in the last decade, which led to the catastrophic consequences of the Great Recession including trillions of dollars and millions of jobs lost.

Dennis Kelleher, the head of Better Markets, said:  “The rule recognizes that compliance must be robust, that C.E.O.’s are responsible for ensuring a compliance program that works, that compensation must be limited, and that banned proprietary trading cannot legally be disguised, as market making, risk mitigating hedging or otherwise…Those requirements will not end all gambling activities on Wall Street, but should limit them and reduce the risk to Main Street.”

For a good summary of the Volcker Rule watch this video.

 

Sandy douses Northeast, disrupts markets, campaigns and polling

Last year, Hurricane Irene was promoted by meteorologists and media-hype as the “storm of the century” but failed to develop the promised punch. This year, Sandy did not fail to deliver. The Category I hurricane slammed into New Jersey and New York, causing heavy damage and widespread flooding. There were also power disruptions across several states, leaving millions without electricity. Public officials estimate it will take days, possibly weeks, to restore the power grid.

Parts of lower Manhattan remain underwater today, as the tidal surge from Sandy deluged the coasts of New York and New Jersey.

Meanwhile, financial markets faced an unscheduled interruption on Monday and Tuesday as Wall Street shut down to brace for Sandy’s onslaught. The emergency conditions also disrupted the election as President Obama left the campaign trail to return to Washington Sunday night. In the early hours of Monday morning he declared New Jersey and New York and other parts of the Northeast federal disaster areas, and issued executive orders to ensure FEMA acted quickly to provide states with much needed resources. Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York praised the quick actions of President Obama and federal relief agencies.

The specter of Hurricane Katrina lurked in the background. The Bush Administration’s failure in 2005 to handle that crisis speedily and competently led to widespread criticism of both President Bush and FEMA. Former Gov. Mitt Romney is on the record stating that responsibility for large natural disasters should devolve on states and private actors, but that untenable position is viewed with skepticism and hostility in the face of large, regional disasters affecting multiple states.

Today, President Obama toured the heavily damaged region of New Jersey’s shoreline with Gov. Christie, leaving the campaigning to former President Clinton and others who have stepped up their efforts in the last week to get out the vote in key swing states such as Ohio and Florida. In addition to disrupting campaign events, the lasting damage of the hurricane will make polling impossible in some places before the election. Many pundits and pollsters alike are bemoaning this event, but the disruption of both financial markets and polling can also be viewed as a timely reminder that Americans can be bipartisan, especially during times of national crises.

It remains to be seen whether adequate power is restored and weather conditions permit voters to get to the polls on election day next Tuesday, raising concerns that the storm might tilt the election in favor of one candidate or another in some important states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.