In remarks last week at Georgetown University’s Institute of International Economic Law’s Fintech Week event, Acting OCC Comptroller Keith Noreika provided the “latest on our thinking regarding a charter for fintech companies that offer banking products and services.”
The Acting Comptroller began his remarks by expressing his “optimism about banks, fintech companies, and the business of banking as a whole.” He also confirmed the OCC’s efforts to explore and support innovation, including by developing “a framework for OCC participation in bank-run pilots that allow banks to develop and test products in a controlled environment.” He indicated that “[t]he idea behind our effort is to create principles that support the industry’s need for a place to experiment while furthering the OCC’s understanding of innovative products, services, and technologies. Information gathered in the pilots can inform OCC policies and help make sure that we are ready to supervise the new activity when rolled out on a larger scale.”
With regard to the OCC’s proposal to allow fintech companies to apply for a special purpose national bank (SPNB) charter, the Acting Comptroller first observed that because there was so much interest in the proposal, he felt it was important to provide an update on where we are in that process and to correct some misperceptions that I see out there.”
He then referenced his remarks in July 2017 in which he confirmed his view “that companies that offer banking products and services should be allowed to apply for national bank charters so that they can pursue their businesses on a national scale if they choose, and if they meet the criteria and standards for doing so. Providing a path for these companies to become national banks is pro-growth, can reduce regulatory burden for those companies, and can bring enhanced services to millions of people served by the federal banking system.”
He also observed that national bank charters “will never be compulsory and should be just one choice for companies interested in banking,” existing as an option alongside other choices such as “becoming a state bank or state industrial loan company, or operating as a state-licensed financial service provider.” He added that “[a] fintech company also has the option to pursue partnerships or business combinations with existing banks, or it could even consider buying a bank, if that makes sense.”
The Acting Comptroller commented that while such options exist, “[i]f, and it is still an if, a fintech company has ambitions to engage in business on a national scale and meets the criteria for doing so, it should be free to seek a national bank charter. That includes pursuing a charter under the agency’s authority to charter special purpose national banks or the agency’s long-existing authority to charter full-service national banks and federal saving associations, as well as other long-established limited-purpose banks, such as trust banks, bankers’ banks, and other so-called CEBA credit card banks.” He observed that many fintech and online lending business models are a good fit for such categories of national bank charters, and noted that there was some interest in fintechs becoming full-service banks, trust banks, or credit card banks.
The Acting Comptroller described the OCC’s proposal to use its authority to charter nondepository fintech companies as “a work in progress,” and noted the challenges to such authority by the Conference of State Bank Supervisors and the New York Department of Financial Services and the OCC’s defense of its authority even though it has not yet decided whether it will exercise that specific authority. He commented that before the OCC reaches a decision, it needs “to be certain that the companies expressing interest in becoming a national bank fully understand just what it means to be a bank” and that “[t]alking about and applying for are a long way from approval of an application, and even further away from resulting in the kind of harm and abuse suggested.”
He labeled the argument being made by opponents of the SPNB charter that it may be a “slippery slope toward the inappropriate mixing of banking and commerce” a concern “that I think has been exaggerated with the intent of scuttling our idea for a fintech charter.” He commented that the suggestion “that such mixing would result in destabilizing the market and increase consumer abuses” is an idea that “has been blown out of proportion.”
He then described the process that the OCC might use in considering SPNB charter applications. The OCC would consider every application on its own merits. Issues it might consider are whether: (1) the business plan is sound, (2) the proposed management team passes muster, (3) the proposed company has adequate capital and liquidity, (4) the proposed company has adequate processes for ensuring that it operates in a safe and sound manner, provides fair access, and treats customers fairly, and (5) the proposed company has a good chance to succeed.
The Acting Comptroller noted that there already are “dozens of examples where commercial companies are allowed to own banks at the state and federal levels without such abuse and harm—national credit card banks, state merchant processing banks, state-chartered ILCs” and commented that commercial companies are allowed to own such banks “for good reason—they support legitimate business goals and deliver valued products and services to their customers.” He also stated that if a chartered bank does not meet the Bank Holding Company Act’s definition of what it means to be a bank for the purposes of the Act, “its parent company would not become a bank holding company solely by virtue of owning the bank, and therefore, nonbank holding companies, commercial entities, or other banks could own such banks under the law.”
He also indicated that he wanted to make it “crystal clear” that the chartered entity regulated by the OCC “would be a bank, engaged in at least one of the core activities of banking—taking deposits, paying checks, or making loans” and that those “who suggest that the OCC is considering granting charters to nonfinancial companies are wrong, and the more sophisticated ones know it.” He cautioned that fear should not prevent “a constructive discussion of where commerce and banking coexist successfully today and where else it may make sense in the future.”