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State oversight needed to fight bank abuses

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Consumers Union Urges Obama Administration To Let States
Take Greater Role In Overseeing Banks

States Were Blocked From Taking Tougher Action
Against Abusive Mortgage Lenders Under Bush

WASHINGTON, D.C. – States should be able to enforce consumer protections that apply to all banks that operate within their borders, according to Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. The group urged Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to rescind Bush Administration era regulations that have prevented states from protecting consumers from many of the mortgage lending abuses that contributed to the current foreclosure crisis.
“While federal regulators were asleep at the switch, state agencies were blocked from taking more aggressive action to protect consumers,” said Mark Savage, Senior Attorney with Consumers Union. “It’s clear we need more cops on the beat. The Obama Administration should make sure states aren’t prevented from addressing financial industry abuses that threaten American families and ultimately our economy.”
In a letter to Geithner, Consumers Union called on the Treasury Secretary to repeal a set of regulations adopted by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in 2004 that prevent states from enforcing state laws against national banks and their operating subsidiaries. The role of states in enforcing existing laws applying to national banks is a key issue in the debate over the effective regulation of the financial industry and is at the heart of a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Cuomo v. The Clearing House Association, L.L.C. and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Court will decide if the New York Attorney General has the right to investigate whether several national banks discriminated against African American and Latino borrowers by charging them significantly higher mortgage interest rates. New York was prevented from investigating the banks after the OCC sued the state and cited its preemption regulation to argue that the Attorney General did not have the authority to take such action.
After the Second Circuit Court sided with the OCC, the Attorneys General of all 50 states urged the Supreme Court to take up the case and reverse the appeals court decision. The Supreme Court agreed and, on March 25, the U.S. must file its brief in the case on behalf of the OCC, an agency under the Treasury Department.
For the past four years, the OCC has been championing deregulatory and minimal standards against states that have been trying to enact higher standards for banks and their operating subsidiaries. When states tried to monitor mortgage lending and protect consumers, the OCC invited national banks to contact the agency, which then wrote letters to banks and state banking agencies asserting that states had no authority to do so. The OCC also sided with national banks in the courts, writing amicus briefs arguing that state monitoring and enforcement in a variety of areas did not apply, and that only the OCC could investigate and enforce laws against nationally chartered banks.
This included the case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court last year against Michigan, in which the OCC sided with Wachovia Bank and argued that state mortgage lending laws and oversight could not apply to a national bank’s operating subsidiary. Wachovia subsequently found itself on the brink of collapse because of risky mortgages and was forced to sell itself to Wells Fargo. Similarly, the OCC took action to block more aggressive mortgage lending oversight by regulators in California, Georgia, and Ohio – states that have been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis.
“Under the Bush Administration, the OCC repeatedly sided with the banks and against consumers and the states,” said Savage. “If states had been allowed to act, consumers would have been better protected from unfair lending practices that led to the mortgage meltdown. Treasury Secretary Geithner should repeal the Bush era regulations and untie the hands of the states so they can protect consumers against financial industry abuses.”
Consumers Union’s letter to Geithner is available at: http://www.consumersunion.org/pdf/Geithner-Ltr-209.pdf
Mark Savage or Michael McCauley