The Obama administration has proposed restructuring financial services regulation by transferring all consumer protection functions from existing agencies to a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA). The goal of the CFPA legislation is to address the flaws in the regulatory architecture that have inhibited effective responses to the substantive problems, rather than mandate specific new substantive consumer protection laws.
The current consumer financial protection is based on disclosure regime and is policed through supervisory feedback, enforcement actions, and occasionally prohibitions on terms, products, and practices that are deemed inherently unfair and deceptive. On the federal level, consumer protection in financial services is divided among a number of agencies: the OCC, OTS, NCUA, Federal Reserve Board, FDIC, FHFA, HUD, VA, FTC and DOJ. Some of these agencies have the ability to promulgate regulations, some also exercise supervisory authority over financial institutions, and some may only enforce existing regulations. Sometimes authority is over a class of institutions, and sometimes it is over a particular type of product.
There are four main structural criticisms of the current regulatory structure: that consumer protection is a so-called 'orphan' mission; that consumer protection conflicts with, and is subordinated to, safety-and-soundness concerns; that no agency has developed an expertise in consumer protection in financial services, and; that regulatory arbitrage of the current system fuels a regulatory race-to-the-bottom.
Consolidation of consumer financial services protection authority could: place all financial services companies, regardless of the form of their charter, under a single regulator, thus ending its orphan status; separate consumer protection from safety-and-soundness regulation, thus ending subordination; encourage the development of a deep bench of regulatory expertise and knowledge, and; end the opportunity for regulatory arbitrage and any potential race to the bottom.
There are several potential concerns about a CFPA: conflicts with prudential regulators; ambiguity with respect to Consumer Reinvestment Act authority, and; potential overregulation resulting in higher costs of financial products, less product availability, and discouragement of innovation. Still, there are compelling reasons to believe that the present regulatory architecture cannot produce the optimal consumer protection regime and will continue to fail in its task, resulting in unfair treatment of consumers and a potentially significant source of systemic risk. To this extent, consideration of a CFPA should strive to distinguish between the basic thrust of the legislation - a consolidation of the regulatory authority of - and the proposed new substantive powers granted to the agency.