One of the potential impacts of a new administration in Washington, D.C., is a lot less fair lending enforcement. For a number of banks, that would be a very good thing. Banks have been hit with fines, bad press and enforcement actions in the last few years, as the Justice Department and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have brought cases alleging everything from indirect auto loan discrimination to redlining, the practice of carving out minority neighborhoods to exclude from loans.
Institutions such as Fifth Third Bank and Ally Bank have been hit with the auto finance accusations, and Tupelo, Mississippi-based BancorpSouth Bank last year paid $10.58 million in fines and restitution to settle a case accusing it of redlining in Memphis. The $13.9 billion asset bank said it had taken several steps to improve its commitment to affordable lending products in low and moderate income and minority areas.
Many of the accusations have relied on the disparate impact theory, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court. The idea behind it is that no intentional discrimination has to occur for a violation of the law. Bank managers, as a result, must stay vigilant not only on their own lending policies and staff training, but they have to research lending patterns and loan terms to make sure that a disproportionate number of minorities aren’t stuck with loans on worse terms than non-Hispanic whites. If they are, there has to be a justifiable reason why this was so. Marketing efforts can't exclude minority neighborhoods.
The most recent case was when the U.S. Department of Justice sued KleinBank, a small community bank in the suburbs of Minneapolis, accusing it of redlining. The bank’s CEO said the lawsuit had no basis in fact, and challenged the idea that the $1.9 billion asset bank has a duty to serve the urban areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
One of the odd aspects of the case is that it was filed on Jan. 13, 2017, right before President Donald Trump was inaugurated. Now, the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is in an excellent position to influence the case and whether it moves forward at all.
“I would expect fair lending cases to be less a priority under Jeff Sessions,’’ says Christopher Willis, a fair lending attorney and partner at Ballad Spahr. “And the cases that would be brought would be less eager to explore new ground.”
John Geiringer, a partner at the law firm Barack Ferrazzano in Chicago, agreed. “Presumably, under the Trump administration, fair lending is not going to be on the front burner as much as it was in the Obama administration.”
But that’s not a pass-go card, not quite yet. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is moving ahead with plans to implement an expansion of the requirements for mortgage data under the Dodd-Frank Act. Basically, there are 25 new data points banks must send to the bureau, starting January 2018, on everything from the borrower’s credit score, to the parcel number of the property, to a unique identifier for the loan originator who originated the loan, according to the American Bankers Association, which has argued the rule should be repealed because of increased cost to banks and data security concerns. The Home Mortgage Disclosure Act already mandates 23 data points, the association says.
The fear is that the data will be used to initiate even more fair lending cases against banks, although regulators have said the data could be used to weed out unnecessary fair lending reviews. The CFPB and the Justice Department did not respond to a request to comment.
So far, it’s not clear that the rule will be thrown out, despite the change at the White House. The CFPB is led by Director Richard Cordray, whose term doesn’t end until 2018.
For now, bankers must assume that regulations due to go into effect will indeed do so. Fair lending enforcement won’t go away under the Trump Administration. It’s not just that the CFPB’s leadership is still in place. The agency’s goal from the Fair Lending Report for 2016, published in April, 2017, is to increase “our focus on markets or products where we see significant or emerging fair lending risk to consumers, including redlining, mortgage loan servicing, student loan servicing, and small business lending.” The banking agencies also can continue to pursue enforcement actions, even if the Justice Department doesn’t.
But the tone has changed. The former head of the Justice Department’s civil right division, Vanita Gupta, told The New York Times in January 2017 that “the project of civil rights has always demanded creativity... It requires being bold. Often that means going against the grain of current-day popular thinking. Or it requires going to the more expansive reading of the law to ensure we are actually ensuring equal protection for everyone.”
There’s a good chance that the creativity Gupta described is gone.