Color of Money: Will consumer watchdog become a lapdog for the financial industry?
WASHINGTON -- The federal agency charged with safeguarding consumers is in jeopardy.
Richard Cordray, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, announced last week that he's leaving by the end of the month. Cordray's departure gives President Trump an opportunity to appoint a new leader, and I'm concerned that this will derail the watchdog agency's consumer-first mission.
The CFPB was created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to protect consumers against predatory financial practices. It has done its job by creating or toughening rules to make sure people understand the financial products they are being sold. The agency has also created a complaint database that is an advocate for consumers looking for justice, and it's been unapologetic about its aggressiveness in going after companies and industries with deceptive practices. Think of the CFPB as a Doberman pinscher guarding your financial interest.
If I were a betting woman, I would wager a great deal of money on President Trump filling the vacancy with someone friendly to the financial industry. Trump's nominee would probably be more like a purse puppy. Think Teacup Chihuahua.
In Cordray's parting statement, he wrote that the agency has recovered $12 billion for nearly 30 million consumers.
But the GOP hasn't liked all this devotion to consumers. Just recently, Republicans overturned a CFPB rule that would have banned future mandatory arbitration clauses from financial contracts. These clauses prevent consumers from joining together in class-action lawsuits. Although the payout to individual consumers is often low, the legal actions often force companies to stop bad behavior.
Critics carp that there has been too much oversight under Cordray. The latest to cry foul are payday lenders.
How dare the CFPB rein in their highly expensive loans to poor people, the lenders complain. These companies argue that they are only helping people on the margins.
But I see the devastating results of such small-dollar loans, which often turn into a debt trap. The CFPB recently issued final rules on payday loans. At its core, the rules simply require lenders to determine upfront whether people can afford a loan and still meet basic living expenses and major financial obligations. Yet the CFPB has been vilified by payday-loan proponents for even this commonsense directive.
Even if you weren't fully aware of what the CFPB is or does, there are many people fighting for your rights who are. And they, too, are alarmed about the future of the agency. Here are some reactions to Cordray's stepping down.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.: "From the day that the agency opened its doors, the CFPB has been targeted by Republicans and their Wall Street bank allies. They attacked the agency at every turn, and tried to stop it from helping consumers. … his is a big test for Donald Trump. He said on the campaign trail that he would stand up to Wall Street and defend forgotten Americans. … If the president appoints another industry hack or bought-and-paid-for politician to lead the agency, it is just the latest sign that he wants to run this government to help his rich buddies."
The National Consumer Law Center: "The president must appoint a new director who is committed to the mission of consumer protection. … Much work has been accomplished, but much more needs to be done, as evidenced by the scandals of financial giants Wells Fargo for its fake accounts and Equifax and complaints that continue to stream in about debt-collection abuses, overdraft fees, and predatory loans."
Pamela Banks, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, which is the policy division of Consumer Reports: "Consumers need a tough watchdog in Washington to protect them from abusive practices that jeopardize their financial security. We can't afford to take the financial cop off the beat and leave families vulnerable to costly scams and rip-offs."
Mike Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending: "The [CFPB] has fought against discriminatory practices in the financial marketplace, including bringing actions to enforce fair-lending laws that protect consumers of color from being charged more for a mortgage, auto loan or credit card."
Mark Hamrick, Bankrate.com senior economic analyst: "For President Trump, it will be yet another opportunity to put his stamp on a nominee who is friendlier to business and more inclined to deregulate. For consumers, the risk is that they will have fewer advocates working for them in the federal government."
These are the people you should listen to, because they've got your back. So now let your voices be heard, because we need a leader of the CFPB who will continue to be a watchdog for consumer interests and not a lapdog for the financial industry.
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