The US Supreme Court decided this week to hear a case that will consider the constitutionality of funding for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and, in doing so, test the constraints of US regulators’ power. The case would be heard in the fall, with a decision likely by summer 2024.
But what is the CFPB? How does its work affect your wallet? And why is its future potentially at risk?
The CFPB’s mission
The agency was created after the 2008 financial meltdown, as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. That law was passed in the wake of the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession that followed.
The broad purpose of the CFPB is to protect consumers from financial abuses and to serve as the central agency for consumer financial protection authorities.
Prior to its creation, as the agency notes on its site, “[c]onsumer financial protection had not been the primary focus of any federal agency, and no agency had effective tools to set the rules for and oversee the whole market.”
The CFPB has regulatory authority over providers of many types of financial products and services, including credit cards, banking accounts, loan servicing, credit reporting and consumer debt collection.
It is charged with implementing and enforcing consumer protection laws, making rules and issuing guidance for consumer financial institutions. And it is the place consumers can go to lodge complaints about financial products and services.
Importantly, Dodd-Frank also gave the agency new authority to determine whether any given consumer financial product or service is unfair, deceptive or abusive and therefore unlawful.
What has the agency done for consumers?
While there are critics of the agency’s current structure and funding, it has saved consumers money, made it easier for them to seek redress and to get better clarity and more tailored responses from companies when they have a problem with their accounts, loans or credit reports.
“It has completely changed the consumer financial marketplace. Overall it has had a tremendous impact on making it more fair and transparent,” said Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center.
For instance, the CFPB has taken action against bank overdraft policies. “Arguably, the focus on overdraft practices has led some banks to eliminate or reduce their overdraft fees,” said Christine Hines, legislative director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates.
And it has gone after institutions for saddling consumers with pointless products, excessive fees and punitive terms.
Both Hines and Saunders made a special note of CFPB’s actions against Wells Fargo, after the agency found the bank had been engaging in multiple abusive and unlawful consumer practices across several financial products between 2011 and 2022 — from auto loans to mortgage loans to bank accounts.
Last month, the agency required the bank to pay more than $2 billion to customers who were harmed by such practices, plus a $1.7 billion fine that will go into a relief fund for victims.
“More than 16 million accounts at Wells Fargo were subject to their illegal practices, including misapplied payments, wrongful foreclosures, and incorrect fees and interest charges,” the agency said in a blog post.
In the area of mortgages, “CFPB has written rules to implement new protections so that mortgage lenders don’t make loans with tricks and traps that lead people to lose their homes,” Saunders said.
It also has created other safeguards, including rules on how service providers should communicate with borrowers who want to find alternatives to foreclosure, Hines noted.
Currently, the agency is in the midst of an effort to curb excessive or “junk” fees on a range of consumer financial products, such as credit card late fees.
The potential impact of a Supreme Court decision
Critics of the CFPB have been trying for years to limit its power and independence, attacking the way the agency is structured and funded. Like federal banking regulators, its funding is not determined by lawmakers in Congress as part of the annual appropriations process. Rather, it gets its money from the Federal Reserve System’s earnings.
“This nontraditional funding source limits congressional oversight of the agency and is the subject of legal challenges,” according to the Congressional Research Service.
The latest challenge — arising from a federal appeals court ruling that CFPB’s funding violates the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause and separation of powers — is what the Supreme Court will take up in its October term.
While it’s impossible to predict how the justices will rule, should they decide to uphold the appeals court ruling, that will put in doubt how the agency will be funded going forward, and whether it can continue to function effectively.
It’s also unclear whether the agency’s actions and rule-making over the past 11 years would be invalidated, nor what impact it would have on banks and other financial institutions that have set up systems to be in compliance with CFPB rules and safe harbors.
“The agency would be unable to do anything if the funding is invalidated. And prior rules could be challenged as the agency did not have a legal funding source that it could use to write those rules,” Cowen Washington Research Group analyst Jaret Seiberg said in a note to clients.