As many Presidents of the United States have done, President Obama avoided confrontation with Congress by appointing an individual to direct a government organization while lawmakers were on recess. Yesterday, the President appointed former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray to the long-delayed position of director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Now that this department has a director, it can move forward in enacting regulations — not just suggestions — for non-bank financial entities.
Lately, the CFPB has been working on simplifying customer agreements for financial accounts. A great example is this redesigned credit card agreements. The new design highlights the important terms of the agreement, describes financial terms in plain language, and helps consumers increase awareness of their obligations and rights. The bureau is currently working on a similar resigned agreement for mortgage contracts.
Without a director, none of these recommendations would be required to be enacted by financial firms. Some banks have already taken steps to improve communication, but banks are also regulated by the Federal Reserve. The Fed issued some regulations as part of the Credit CARD Act of 2009, but the regulations do not extend to non-bank financial firms.
The CFPB may face legal challenges from industry groups who insist that the bureau can have no power to issue regulations.
Who is Richard Cordray?
When Richard Cordray was the attorney general in Ohio, and when he was Ohio’s treasurer before assuming the role of attorney general, I would receive marketing emails from him every couple of months. He championed pro-consumer causes and worked to ensure the public had a better understanding of predatory financial arrangements. His emails were directed at the press to help raise issues in the media. For example, he campaigned for closing loopholes that allows payday lenders to practice predatory tactics and he warned consumers of scams related to the Cash for Clunkers program. Cordray lost in his campaign to be re-elected attorney general in Ohio.
Cordray wasn’t without enemies in the banking industry. He filed a lawsuit against Bank of America and its executives in 2009 on behalf of Ohio’s state pension funds related to the acquisition of Merrill Lynch.
Cordray is also a five-time champion on Jeopardy.
In general, judging by his past actions, Cordray appears to be comfortable with a position strongly in opposition with Wall Street interests, which is a change in direction for Washington politicians for as long as I’ve been an adult. Clinton, Bush II, and Obama have all, despite occasional moments of pro-consumer rhetoric, appointed Wall Street insiders to major financial roles in government and pseudo-government agencies.
There is some validity to that philosophy, after all, Wall Street executives have the connections and relationships with other Wall Street executives, and these connections are necessary for the government to operate efficiently with one of the largest driving forces of the American and global economy. The government, however, can’t be expected to issue effective regulations if it needs to stay on Wall Street’s “good side,” however.
It’s a tough balance to manage, and it’s one of the many reasons why I avoid politics.
Photo: Richard Cordray