WASHINGTON — The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced Monday that it was restructuring the agency to add an office that will directly deal with financial institutions and their trade groups.
The establishment of an Office of Financial Institutions and Business Liaison is meant to ward off long-standing criticism that the agency is biased against banks and its actions are opaque to the industry it helps to oversee.
Industry representatives welcomed the office, which will be headed by a former Freddie Mac official, saying it was a sign the agency wanted to engage with banks and other institutions.
"We've been consistently concerned with the lack of transparency and clarity from other regulators but this is going the other way," said David Stevens, president and chief executive of the Mortgage Bankers Association. "The fact that the CFPB is now putting together an office whose sole directive is to engage the industry ... that's just a reflection on the culture of engagement and being transparent."
The CFPB has already experimented with its structure in atypical ways for a financial regulator. For example, it consolidated its bank and non-bank examiners under one roof so examiners have a broader knowledge-base and ensure consistent examination techniques. That differs from the more silo-like approaches that bank regulators often take, but CFPB officials say they are seeking a more efficient approach by focusing on products rather than institution type.
"A specific charge of the bureau is to attempt to level the playing field between banks and non-bank entities relative to compliance with federal consumer financial laws," Steve Antonakes, the CFPB's acting deputy director, said last week at an American Bankers Association conference. "Accordingly, we have begun to implement a prioritization framework that allocates our examination, investigation, and fair lending resources across product types. This strategy intentionally moves us away from static examination cycles."
The new liaison office is designed to ease bankers' concerns that the agency would risk the safety of institutions in order to please consumers.
"While the bureau does not have a safety and soundness mandate, we very much care about the financial health of banks and nonbanks," said Antonakes at the Wednesday conference with bankers.
The agency selected four officials to lead the new office, all of whom hold vastly different backgrounds.
It will be headed by Dan Smith, the former director for industry and state relations at Freddie; and Catherine Galicia, the former senior counsel to the Senate Banking Committee. Smith is the assistant director and business liaison for the CFPB's new office while Galicia is assistant director for legislative affairs.
"As the bureau moves forward with its important work, we continue to build a strong, talented team and to enhance our outreach to all stakeholders involved in improving markets for consumers and responsible businesses," said CFPB Director Richard Cordray, in the release.
The agency's previous assistant director for legislative affairs, Lisa Konwinski, has been named deputy associate director for external affairs. She was formerly the deputy director of legislative affairs for President Obama.
The CFPB's current assistant director for its older Americans office, Hubert "Skip" Humphrey, will now serve as senior liaison officer.
The CFPB says the new office is meant to "enhance collaboration and communication" with financial institutions, trade associations and businesses.
Smaller community banks and credit unions have raised concerns about the cost of complying with mortgage rules that the CFPB issued in January despite several proposed carve-outs for smaller lenders in rural and underserved communities.
The National Association of Federal Credit Unions "appreciates the open line of communication that we have had with the CFPB thus far," said a spokesperson for the NAFCU in an emailed response. "NAFCU has and will continue to strongly advocate on behalf of credit unions using every line of communication at our disposal, including this newly created office."
Stevens says the CFPB has been more communicative on policy matters than most banking regulators, though he hopes the new office will make the process more seamless. Previously, he said they would go to a different individual for a specific part of the rules or Cordray, based on his availability.
The rules issued by the CFPB "are so massive that every rule has something we have concerns with," Stevens said. "But I will also say these rules could have been significantly worse for consumers' access to credit had the CFPB not engaged from the beginning in an open dialogue."