Monday, June 23, 2014

The Bureau’s Pursuit of Fair Lending

By now it is a known fact that one of the most important features of an examination conducted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB” or “Bureau”) is a rigorous review of fair lending compliance. So, given its importance, it behooves us to learn about what the CFPB has found out about fair lending and what actions are needed to ensure its compliance. In this article, I provide an analysis of the CFPB’s most recent findings in the mortgage space as well as practical actions to be taken that help to build a vibrant fair lending initiative, gleaned from both the Bureau’s own issuances and actions, as well as my firm’s experience in assisting institutions with their CFPB fair lending examinations.

On April 30, 2014, the Bureau issued an Annual Report, entitled “Fair lending Report of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau” (“Report”).[i] Richard Cordray, Director of the CFPB, stated in the Report’s preamble:
“Far too many consumers still must navigate a financial marketplace laden with deceptive marketing, debt traps, dead ends, and discrimination. At the Consumer Bureau, we are fierce advocates for a consumer financial marketplace that allows all Americans to pursue a path to greater opportunity. To that end, we are working to remove the unnecessary obstacles too many Americans face in the consumer financial marketplace. This includes ferreting out discrimination in credit markets, including the markets for home mortgages and auto lending.”[ii]
The Report generally covers the period from July 21, 2012 through December 31, 2013. In addition, there is Interagency Reporting on ECOA and HMDA contained therein, which conveys information on the Bureau’s and other administrative agencies’ functions under ECOA and HMDA, as required by those statutes, for the period of January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2013.

Patrice Alexander Ficklin, the Bureau’s Director of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity, offered this overview of the Report:
“In this report we describe our steady focus on ensuring that consumers have fair, equitable, and nondiscriminatory access to credit by using all of the tools at our disposal – including research, supervision, enforcement, consumer education and outreach, rulemaking, and interagency engagement.”[iii]
The Bureau issued the Report to Congress “in fulfillment of its statutory obligation and continued commitment to accountability and transparency.”[iv] In this regard, the Bureau is relying on its claimed efforts to fulfill its fair lending monitoring mandate, and provides additional reporting required by the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA).[v]

Dodd-Frank established the Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity (the “Office of Fair Lending”) within the CFPB, and charged it with “providing oversight and enforcement of Federal laws intended to ensure the fair, equitable, and nondiscriminatory access to credit for both individuals and communities that are enforced by the Bureau,” including ECOA and HMDA.[vi] The Office of Fair Lending is required to coordinate “fair lending efforts of the Bureau with other Federal agencies and State regulators, as appropriate, to promote consistent, efficient, and effective enforcement of federal fair lending laws,” and works “with private industry, fair lending, civil rights, consumer and community advocates on the promotion of fair lending compliance and education.”[vii]

Since the Bureau’s last report to Congress in December 2012, the Bureau has built fair lending tools and materials and engaged in public dialogue in order to educate, inform, and learn from consumers, advocates, and industry. It introduced a Home Mortgage Disclosure Act Database, which allows the public to study trends in the mortgage market across the nation and in their own communities. Additionally, the Bureau has published a bulletin on lending discrimination to help consumers and industry stakeholders recognize fair lending and access to credit risks in the home mortgage and auto lending markets.[viii] 


We can derive certain salient observations about the Report’s findings.

In the first place, the Bureau has noted increasing efficiencies in fair lending activity. Thus, they have “created, refined, and implemented a risk-based fair lending prioritization process” to ensure that their supervisory procedures focus on the “areas presenting the greatest fair lending risk to consumers.” The approach, dubbed “risk-based prioritization” by the Bureau, uses the collection of both quantitative and qualitative data to assess fair lending risk to consumers as well as assessments of risk in order to prioritize enforcement actions.[ix]

Importantly, with respect to providing guidance on its examinations, the Bureau publicly released information about the three methods its examiners use in fair lending supervisory reviews: (1) ECOA Baseline Reviews, (2) ECOA Targeted Reviews, and (3) HMDA Data Integrity Reviews. In the period subject to the Report, the CFPB has completed dozens of examinations on ECOA and HMDA compliance.[x] Through these examinations the Bureau detected some violations of ECOA and HMDA. However, it also found that many lenders have instituted and maintained strong fair lending Compliance Management Systems (“CMS”) and had no violations of ECOA or HMDA. With respect to self-assessments, the Bureau has issued guidance describing how to conduct them, so as to be in compliance with ECOA and HMDA. Guidance has been provided through the Bureau’s Supervisory Highlights and Bulletins discussing fair lending topics.

The Bureau has used the collection of data to analyze its supervision and enforcement priorities and determine two key priorities: mortgage lending and auto finance. With respect to mortgage lending, the CFPB conducted fair lending supervisory reviews of a number of mortgage lenders, finding that many lenders have strong fair lending compliance management systems and no violations of ECOA or HMDA. However, the Bureau did allege some instances of fair lending non-compliance. Consequently, it took enforcement action against two mortgage lenders for violating HMDA, which resulted in assessments of civil monetary penalties and other relief. It is important to note that, in addition to jointly investigating certain matters with the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), the CFPB also made several referrals to the Department of Justice for violations of ECOA, one of which actually resulted in a recent enforcement action.

The interagency coordination and collaboration is a critical feature of the Bureau’s pursuit of violations. The CFPB continues to coordinate with the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) agencies, as well as the DOJ, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in enforcing fair lending statutes. In fact, in 2012, the CFPB formalized its fair lending enforcement relationship with the DOJ via a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).[xi] 

Complaints and Whistleblowers and Priorities

The CFPB uses input from a variety of external and internal stakeholders to inform its fair lending prioritization process. Thus, it considers fair lending complaints received by its Office of Consumer Response or brought to the Office of Fair Lending’s attention by advocacy groups, whistleblowers, and other government agencies (at the local, state, and federal levels). As part of the prioritization process, the Office of Fair Lending also considers public and private litigation.