Last July, the OCC announced its decision to accept applications for special purpose national bank (SPNB) charters from fintech companies.  At that time we observed that, while not discussed in the materials released by the OCC, it appeared that a fintech company holding an SPNB charter would be required to be a member of the Federal Reserve System and be subject to oversight as a member bank.  As a Federal Reserve member, an SPNB would have access to the Federal Reserve discount window and other Federal Reserve services.

According to a Reuters article published today, Federal Reserve officials have expressed reservations about allowing such access to fintech companies.  Reuters reports that “many Fed officials fear that these firms lack robust risk-management controls and consumer protections that banks have in place.”  The article quotes the President of the St. Louis Fed as having expressed concern that “fintech will be the source of the next crisis.” The Atlanta Fed President is quoted as having said that “almost none of [the fintech entrepreneurs he has talked to] has risk at the top of what they’re thinking about, and that makes me nervous.”

Despite its reported reservations about the SPNB charter, the Federal Reserve has acknowledged the increasing role played by fintech in shaping financial and banking landscapes and indicated that it is interested in developing policy solutions that would result in greater efficiencies and benefits to all parties.  To that end, the Philadelphia Fed sponsored a conference last November on “Fintech and the New Financial Landscape.”  At the conference, Ballard Spahr partner Scott Pearson was a member of a panel that discussed “The Roles of Alternative Data in Expanding Credit Access and Bank/Fintech Partnership.”

 

 

 

The OCC has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed in D.C. federal district court in October 2018 by the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS) to stop the OCC from issuing special purpose national bank (SPNB) charters to fintech companies.

The CSBS had previously filed a lawsuit challenging the OCC’s authority to grant SPNB charters to fintech companies at a time when the OCC had not yet decided whether it would move forward on its charter proposal.  That lawsuit was dismissed for failing to establish an injury in fact necessary for Article III standing and for lacking ripeness for judicial review.  The new lawsuit was filed in response to the OCC’s July 2018 announcement that it would begin accepting applications for SPNB charters from fintech companies.

In its brief, the OCC makes the following principal arguments in favor of dismissal:

  • CSBS cannot have standing to sue until the OCC approves an application for an SPNB charter because only then could a CSBS member suffer an injury in fact.
  • Because the OCC “remains several stages away from actually granting an SPNB Charter” and “has not finalized its decision to issue an SPNB Charter to a particular applicant,” the matter remains both constitutionally and prudentially unripe for judicial review.
  • Because the OCC’s July 2018 announcement was not a final agency action within the meaning of the Administrative Procedure Act, it is not subject to judicial review under the APA’s arbitrary and capricious standard.
  • The OCC’s July 2018 announcement does not represent a preemption determination to which notice and comment procedures apply “because the question of whether granting a proposed national bank will result in the preemption of any particular state consumer financial law is not relevant to the chartering process.”  (According to the OCC, in deciding whether to grant a charter, its focus is on ”the proposed institution’s prospects and whether it will operate in a safe and sound manner.”)
  • The OCC’s rule (12 C.F.R. Section 5.20(e)(1)) interpreting the term “business of banking” in the National Bank Act by reference to three core banking functions—receiving deposits, paying checks, or lending money—represents a reasonable interpretation of such term and supports treating any one of such functions as the required core activity for purposes of the OCC’s chartering authority.  Nothing in the NBA identifies deposit-taking as an indispensable function for a national bank to be engaged in the “business of banking.”

In September 2018, the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) filed a second in a New York federal district court to block the OCC’s issuance of SPNB charters.  Like the first CSBS lawsuit, the first DFS lawsuit challenging the OCC’s authority to grant SPNB charters was dismissed for failing to establish an injury in fact necessary for Article III standing and for lacking ripeness for judicial review.

]Last month, the OCC submitted a letter to the court indicating that it intends to file a motion to dismiss the DFS lawsuit. The grounds for the motion set forth in the OCC’s letter substantially mirror its arguments for dismissal above in the CSBS lawsuit.  The DFS also submitted a letter to the court in which, in addition to outlining the arguments it would make in opposing an OCC motion to dismiss, it indicated that it intends to file a motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent the OCC from issuing any SPNB charters while the lawsuit is pending.

The next step in the case is likely to be the entry of an order by the court setting a motion schedule.  However, based on a docket entry indicating that a standing order was entered on December 27 requiring the U.S. Attorney’s Office to notify the court immediately upon the restoration of DOJ funding, it appears any further developments will not occur until the partial government shutdown ends.

 

 

The OCC’s decision to issue special purpose national bank (or fintech) charters has sparked renewed litigation.  In this episode, we review the charter’s potential benefits and drawbacks, provide a litigation update and examine its possible impact on charter applicants, and flag issues for potential applicants.  We also look at fintech charter alternatives, including full-service and Utah industrial banks.

To listen and subscribe to the podcast, click here.

 

 

 

Attorneys for defendants, U.S. Comptroller and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (together “the OCC”), in the pending Southern District of New York lawsuit, Vullo v. OCC, submitted a letter to the court announcing their intent to move to dismiss the complaint brought by New York’s Superintendent of the Department of Financial Services (“DFS”). This is the second lawsuit brought by Superintendent Vullo against the OCC and mirrors the litigation being pursued by the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS) in the District of Columbia. DFS’s lawsuit alleges that the OCC’s decision to accept applications for “Special Purpose National Bank Charters” (or “fintech charters”) from non-fiduciary institutions that do not accept deposits exceeds the OCC’s authority under the National Banking Act (“NBA”) and would violate the Tenth Amendment by removing such institutions from state regulatory oversight. The first lawsuit, Vullo v. OCC et al. (“Vullo I”), was dismissed without prejudice last December when Southern District of New York Judge Buchwald ruled that DFS lacked standing to assert its claims, which were unripe for judicial determination.

In its letter, the OCC announced its intention to file a motion to dismiss the latest DFS complaint on substantially identical grounds to those it advanced in Vullo I. The OCC intends to argue that: (1) DFS lacks sanding to bring these claims as it has not suffered an injury in fact; (2) the OCC interpretation of the ambiguous term “business of banking” in the NBA is reasonable, and the OCC therefore has authority under the NBA to issue fintech charters; (3) DFS’s challenge is barred by the applicable statute of limitations; and (4) the OCC’s decision to issue fintech charters would not violate the Tenth Amendment because of the Supremacy Clause and the authority granted to the OCC by the NBA. While DFS had tried to cure its standing issues in the most recent complaint by emphasizing the OCC’s decision to issue fintech charters was the “agency’s final decision,” the OCC has signaled in its letter that it believes the DFS complaint remains premature. The OCC’s letter emphasizes that while “it will accept applications for fintech charters, [the agency] has not actually received any such applications, let alone granted one.” Accordingly, the OCC will argue that any harm DFS describes in its complaint or in its response to the motion to dismiss remains “future-oriented and speculative.”

DFS filed its own letter in response, announcing not only DFS’s strategy for overcoming the OCC’s anticipated motion to dismiss, but also its intent to file a motion for preliminary injunction in order to prevent the OCC from issuing any fintech charters while the lawsuit is pending. DFS focused on the reasoning of Judge Buchwald’s Vullo I opinion and highlighted several subsequent changes to the regulatory landscape that should change the result. In particular, DFS noted that at the time Judge Buchwald found DFS’s claims unripe: (1) the OCC had not yet announced its intent to accept applications from non-depository institutions; (2) the relevant supplement to the OCC licensing manual was still in “draft” form; and (3) the Comptroller at the time was a nominee who had made no public statements regarding whether to offer charters to non-depository institutions. In contrast, presently the OCC has announced that it is accepting fintech charter applications, the manual detailing procedures for the process has been finalized, and the then-nominee-now-Comptroller has made several public statements regarding the OCC’s intent to issue fintech charters. DFS will argue that, based on these changes to the facts underpinning Judge Buchwald’s determination, DFS now has standing to make its claims against the OCC.

DFS also strongly implied that the OCC had been less-than-forthright with the court in its letter when the OCC stated that DFS lacked standing (in part) because the OCC had not actually received, much less granted, any applications for fintech charters. DFS cited to reports that the OCC has already singled-out the first entity to receive a fintech charter, and characterized the OCC’s representation to the Court that no fintech charters were currently being considered as “brutishly inconsistent” and duplicitous.

Regarding the merits of the claims (on which DFS will have to prove a substantial likelihood of success if it does indeed seek a preliminary injunction), DFS signaled in its letter that it intends to focus primarily on the history of the NBA, the OCC’s traditional deference to congressional authority when regulating non-depository institutions, and the degree to which the OCC’s actions in the realm of offering fintech charters has no precedent. In emphasizing the need for a preliminary injunction, DFS characterized the OCC’s “unprecedented issuance” of fintech charters as “destructive to New York and New Yorkers” insofar as it would preempt state laws that “powerfully protect” consumers from the industry’s “well-known abuses.”

The OCC anticipates filing its motion to dismiss in early December, though the court has neither ruled on the parties’ jointly proposed briefing schedule, nor DFS’s request for a pre-motion conference or briefing schedule on the motion for preliminary injunction.

While the OCC’s position that the DFS lawsuit is not yet ripe for adjudication because the OCC has not yet approved a fintech charter may have some merit, it is important to the industry that the legal question of the OCC’s authority to issue such a charter get resolved expeditiously. Until that happens, there is likely to be limited interest on the part of the industry in pursuing such a charter.

The CFPB, Fed, and OCC have published notices in the Federal Register announcing that they are increasing three exemption thresholds that are subject to annual inflation adjustments. Effective January 1, 2019 through December 31, 2019, these exemption thresholds are increased as follows:

The Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS) has filed a second lawsuit in D.C. federal district court to stop the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) from issuing special purpose national bank (SPNB) charters to fintech companies.  A similar lawsuit was filed last month in a New York federal district court by the New York Department of Financial Services.

The CSBS and the DFS had previously filed lawsuits challenging the OCC’s authority to grant SPNB charters to fintech companies at a time when the OCC had not yet decided whether it would move forward on its charter proposal.  Both lawsuits were dismissed for failing to establish an injury in fact necessary for Article III standing and for lacking ripeness for judicial review.  The new lawsuits were filed in response to the OCC’s July 2018 announcement that it would begin accepting applications for SPNB charters from fintech companies.  In its complaint, the CSBS alleges that “things have changed substantially since the Court’s decision [dismissing the prior CSBS lawsuit].  The issuance of a [SPNB] charter is now clearly imminent.”  It further alleges that “upon information and belief, multiple pre-qualified candidates have already decided to apply (and may have already applied).”

The CSBS challenges the OCC’s SPNB charter plans in the new lawsuit on the following grounds (which generally track those asserted in the first CSBS lawsuit):

  • 12 C.F.R. Section 5.20(e)(1), on which the OCC has relied for its authority to charter a bank that performs a single core banking function—receiving deposits, paying checks, or lending money—is inconsistent with the National Bank Act because the NBA does not allow the OCC to charter entities that do not receive deposits unless they are carrying on a special purpose expressly authorized by Congress.
  • Because the OCC has indicated that state law would be preempted as to fintech companies that obtain a SPNB charter, the OCC’s plans to issue the charters represent a preemption determination to which notice and comment procedures apply.
  • The OCC’s plans to issue SPNB charters to fintech companies represent a “rule” that was made without compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act and is an arbitrary and capricious action that does not constitute “reasoned decision making” as required by the APA.
  • The OCC’s plans to issue SPNB charters to fintech companies, by enabling nonbank charter holders to disregard state law, violate the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution under which states retain the powers not delegated to the federal government, including the police powers necessary to regulate nonbank providers of financial services and protect consumers and the public interest from unsound and abusive financial practices.

For the reasons discussed in our blog post about the second lawsuit filed by the DFS, we expect the OCC’s power to issue an SPNB charter will ultimately be withheld.

At the Online Lending Policy Institute’s (OLPI) annual summit in Washington, D.C. earlier this week, the OCC’s recent decision to accept applications from non-depository financial technology firms for a special purpose national bank (SPNB) charter was the focus of considerable discussion.

The summit speakers included Grovetta Gardineer, the Senior Deputy Comptroller for Compliance and Community Affairs at the OCC.  Comments made by attendees indicated that there is substantial interest in the SPNB charter but a reluctance to be the first applicant due to concerns about litigation risk and regulatory requirements.  After the OCC announced its decision to accept applications, the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS) announced that it would again pursue litigation challenging the OCC’s recent decision.  While the CSBS has not yet filed another lawsuit and there is speculation that it is waiting until the first SPNB charter is granted to do so, a second lawsuit challenging the OCC’s authority to issue SPNB charters was filed last month by the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) in New York federal district court.  (For an analysis of the DFS lawsuit, click here.)

In her remarks and responses to questions, Ms. Gardineer indicated that, although the Community Reinvestment Act does not apply to non-depository institutions, financial inclusion commitments from the SPNB charter applicant will be required and be subject to scrutiny by the OCC.  Questions directed at Ms. Gardineer raised concerns about the application of bespoke capital, liquidity, and risk management requirements for SPNB charter applicants.  And in response to questions about the charter’s implications for Federal Reserve requirements and access to Federal Reserve services, Ms. Gardineer indicated that the Federal Reserve was considering these issues and that they were the subject of ongoing discussions between the OCC and Federal Reserve.

Paul Watkins, recently named by CFPB Acting Director Mulvaney to serve as Director of the Bureau’s Office of Innovation, was also a speaker at the summit.  Mr. Watkins was formerly in charge of fintech initiatives in the Arizona Attorney General’s office, and Arizona is the first state to create a “regulatory sandbox” that allows new financial technologies and products to be tested in a controlled environment with reduced regulatory risk.  Mr. Watkins discussed the CFPB’s proposal to revise its Trial Disclosure Policy and suggested that the program could be used to address a broad range of issues.  For example, Mr. Watkins noted that a trial disclosure could be used to address challenges faced by creditors in supplying reasons for an adverse action where a decision is made through artificial intelligence or mechanical learning.  Mr. Watkins indicated that the CFPB’s no-action letter policy may also be subject to review by the Bureau.  Taken together, the trial disclosure and no-action letter policies appear to be the CFPB’s tools of choice for advancing its efforts to facilitate innovation that might be unduly limited by regulatory constraints.

A third summit speaker was Maria Vullo, DFS Superintendent.  Ms. Vullo expressed concern regarding the risks that “regulatory sandboxes” and trial disclosures can create for consumers where they are used for products and services actually offered in the marketplace rather than in a mock setting.  She also expressed concern about the potential for alternative data used in credit decisions to serve as a proxy for prohibited characteristics and suggested that an ability to repay standard should apply to all consumer credit and not be limited to mortgages and credit cards.

Finally, Adam Maarec, Of Counsel in Ballard’s D.C. Office, participated in a panel on data, privacy, and fraud prevention policy.  The panelists discussed the California Consumer Privacy Act’s potential application to financial institutions as a result of shortcomings in the exception for information “collected, processed, sold, or disclosed pursuant to” the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.  They also discussed ways for companies to manage the tension between data minimization and artificial intelligence/machine learning priorities, the latter of which depends on the accumulation of large data sets to identify insights.

On September 12, 2018, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (the “OCC“) released its first update to the “Deposit-Related Credit” booklet of the Comptroller’s Handbook (the “DRC Booklet“) since its March 2015 release.  (The OCC initially released a widely-critiqued DRC Booklet in February of 2015 as a replacement to its “Credit Check” booklet, but this release was quickly withdrawn.)  The DRC Booklet provides guidance to OCC examiners in their review of “deposit-related credit” (“DRC Products“) which typically constitute small-dollar, unsecured credit products related to a consumer’s deposit account, such as “check credit,” “overdraft protection services,” or “deposit advance products.”

Importantly, this is the first revision to the DRC Booklet since the OCC’s rescission of its guidance entitled “Supervisory Concerns and Expectations Regarding Deposit Advance Products” and corresponding OCC Bulletin 2013-40 that had effectively precluded banks subject to OCC supervision from offering deposit advance products.  As we have previously discussed, the OCC recently has taken positive, if sometimes contradictory, steps towards encouraging banks to offer small-dollar credit, and the updated DRC Booklet appears to be another positive step forward.  Among other things, it removes examination procedures related to burdensome “ability to repay” requirements as well as references to OCC Bulletin 2013-40’s risk management expectations.

The OCC’s revisions also attend to various housekeeping matters, such as the incorporation of recent OCC Bulletin 2018-14, “Installment Lending: Core Lending Principles for Short-Term, Small-Dollar Installment Lending,” OCC Bulletin 2017-21: “Third-Party Relationships” and OCC Bulletin 2017-43: New, Modified, or Expanded Bank Products and Services–Risk Management Principles,” and they integrate the Dodd-Frank concept of “unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices.”  Finally, the DRC Bulletin has been revised to clarify certain provisions of the Military Lending Act as they relate to DRC Products.

As we have noted, financial institutions such as national and federal savings banks may have opportunities to structure DRC Products that will not only fall outside the CFPB’s small-dollar rule but also meet supervisory expectations, produce substantial revenues and provide credit to otherwise credit-limited consumers.  (And at least one major financial institution has already launched a program in this changing regulatory environment.)  The revisions to the DRC Bulletin are yet another indication of the OCC’s increased permissiveness of DRC and other small-dollar products, and we will continue to provide updates on these regulatory changes as they occur.

On September 12th, the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS) announced that it would again pursue litigation in opposition to the OCC’s recent decision to accept applications from non-depository financial technology firms for a special purpose national bank (SPNB) charter.

While it announced that its Board of Directors had approved renewing litigation against the OCC at an August 28 meeting, the CSBS did not indicate when it plans to file the lawsuit.  The lawsuit would represent the second time that the CSBS has pursued litigation challenging the OCC’s authority to issue a SPNB charter to fintech companies.  On April 30, 2018, a D.C. federal district court dismissed the first lawsuit filed by the CSBS challenging the OCC’s authority to grant SPNB charters on the grounds that the CSBS had failed to establish any injury in fact necessary for Article III standing and that the case was not ripe for judicial review.  In its initial filing, the CSBS argued that the OCC’s 2017 proposal to issue SBNB charters to fintech companies exceeded the authority granted to the OCC by Congress under the National Bank Act (NBA) and other federal banking laws to charter institutions that engage in the “business of banking.”  The CSBS argued that to engage in the “business of banking,” the NBA requires an institution, at a minimum, to receive deposits.

The New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) also previously filed a lawsuit challenging the OCC’s authority to issue SPNB charters.  That lawsuit, which was filed in a New York federal district court, was dismissed in December, 2017 on similar grounds.  While the DFS has not announced whether it will renew its litigation against the OCC, DFS Superintendent Maria Vullo stated in a July 31 press release that “DFS believes that this [OCC] endeavor, which is also wrongly supported by the Treasury Department, is clearly not authorized under the National Bank Act.  As DFS has noted since the OCC’s proposal, a national fintech charter will impose an entirely unjustified federal regulatory scheme on an already fully functional and deeply rooted state regulatory landscape.”

We recently blogged about the announcement by Varo Bank, N.A., a fintech bank, that it had received preliminary approval from the OCC of its application for a full-service national bank charter.  We do not expect the CSBS or the DFS to challenge the preliminary approval since there would not appear to be any basis to challenge the OCC’s authority to issue a full-service national bank charter to Varo assuming it satisfies the standard conditions for obtaining such a charter.

In a press release, the organizers of Varo Bank, N.A. announced they have been granted preliminary approval by the OCC of their application to form a de novo national bank, which they claim “put[s] Varo on track to become the first all-mobile national bank in the history of the United States.”

In July 2018, the OCC announced that it would begin accepting applications for special purpose national bank (SPNB) charters from financial technology (fintech) companies.  Rather than a SPNB charter, Varo is seeking a full-service national bank charter from the OCC.  A SPNB charter provides an option for a fintech company for whom, because of its own non-financial activities or those of an affiliate, the Bank Holding Company Act would be an obstacle to obtaining a full-service national bank charter.  Obtaining a full-service national bank charter, however, is the preferred option for a fintech company that can do so consistent with the BHCA.  Many years ago, two of my Ballard partners successfully converted a consumer finance company to a full-service national bank.

Federal court lawsuits challenging the OCC’s authority to issue SPNB charters were filed in 2017 by the Conference of State Bank Supervisors and the New York Department of Financial Services.  Both lawsuits were dismissed for failure to establish an injury in fact necessary for Article III standing and lack of ripeness for judicial review.  While such challenges may be renewed now that the OCC has announced that it will begin accepting SPNB charter applications, there would not appear to be any basis for a similar challenge to the issuance of a full-service national bank charter to Varo assuming it satisfies the standard conditions for obtaining such a charter.