Don’t expect an onslaught of fintech companies rushing to become banks. The recent announcement that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency would begin accepting applications for special purpose national bank charters from fintech companies was met with gloom from some in the banking industry, and optimistic rejoicing from others.
For now, the impact on banking and innovation seems unclear, but the hurdles to obtaining a national banking charter will be significant, and include compliance with many of the same regulations that apply to other national banks, possibly dissuading many startup fintech companies from even wanting one. On the other hand, larger or more established players may find it worth the added regulatory costs to boost their marketing and attractiveness to investors, says Cliff Stanford, an attorney at Alston & Bird. Plus, fintech firms can avoid the mélange of state-by-state banking rules and regulations by opting for a national banking charter instead. So don’t be surprised if a Wal-Mart, Apple or Google decides to get a banking license, along with some other, less well known names. The online marketplace lender OnDeck has already said it was open to the possibility of a national bank charter.
The OCC is offering fintech companies the same charter many credit card companies and trust companies have. Basically, the institution has to become a member of the Federal Reserve, and is regulated as a national bank with the same capital standards and liquidity requirements as others. The company has to provide a detailed plan of what products and services it intends to offer, a potential hurdle for a nimble start-up culture more accustomed to experimentation than regulation. “They will have a high bar to meet and they might not be able to meet those requirements,” Stanford says.
However, if the special purpose bank doesn’t accept deposits, it won’t need to comply with the same regulations as banks insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which means it is exempt from the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). Although nondepository institutions would not have to comply with the CRA, the OCC described requirements to make sure the fintech companies follow a plan of inclusion, basically making sure they don’t discriminate, and promote their products to the underserved or small businesses. This has caused some consternation among community banks.
“Why should a tiny bank have to comply with CRA and a big national bank across America does not have to comply?’’ says C.R. “Rusty” Cloutier, the CEO of MidSouth Bancorp, a $1.9 billion asset bank holding company in Lafayette, Louisiana. “If they want a bank charter, that’s fine. Let’s just make sure they play by the same rules.”
The Independent Community Bankers of America, a trade group, put out a press release saying it had “grave” concerns about what it called a “limited” bank charter. “We don’t want a charter that disadvantages one set of financial institutions,’’ says Paul Merski, an executive vice president at the ICBA. “We aren’t against innovation. But we want to make sure some institutions aren’t put at a disadvantage.”
Richard Fischer, an attorney in Washington, D.C., who represents banks, says he doesn’t think a fintech charter is a threat to banks. The Wal-Marts and Apples of the world will do what they want to do, whether or not they have a bank charter. Wal-Mart, which abandoned attempts to get a special purpose banking charter in 2007, already has a sizeable set of financial services, although it partners with banks that do have a charter, such as Green Dot Corp. in Pasadena, California.
Could a new fintech charter lead to fewer bank partnerships with fintech companies, as the fintech companies can cut out the need for a bank? Possibly. But it could also lead to more bank partnerships, as some banks, especially small or midsized banks, become more comfortable with the risk involved in doing business with a fintech company that has a national banking charter.
Jimmy Lenz, the director of technology risk at Wells Fargo Wealth and Investment Management, a division of Wells Fargo & Co., says he’s optimistic that a charter could create more products and services.
“I don’t see this cutting the pie into smaller slices,’’ he says. “I think they will be cutting a bigger pie. I don’t see the banks coming out on the short end of this.” Others said that the competition to banks coming from fintech companies already exists, and won’t go away if you don’t offer a federal charter for fintech companies. “The competition is already there,’’ Stanford says.