Former Banker, Now Regulator, Wants To Allow Banks To Make Payday-Style Loans Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting is a former bank executive testifying before Congress this week about reshaping some banking rules. He wants big banks to start making small-dollar loans.

Former Banker, Now Regulator, Wants To Allow Banks To Make Payday-Style Loans

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right, a powerful banking regulator who was appointed by President Trump is facing questions today in the Senate. Joseph Otting is a former bank executive. He now runs a federal agency that oversees some of the very companies that paid him millions of dollars in compensation. Consumer advocates are particularly worried that he is encouraging banks to make loans like payday lenders. Here's NPR's Chris Arnold.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Trump administration officials have been aggressively moving to roll back environmental and consumer protections, and Wall Street watchdog groups have been worried that Joseph Otting would also take a chainsaw to regulations that they like. He now heads up the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees the nation's largest banks. Christopher Peterson is with the Consumer Federation of America.

CHRISTOPHER PETERSON: Joseph Otting is a multimillionaire bank CEO that made a lot of money in foreclosures on homes of families during the financial crisis.

ARNOLD: Otting worked at OneWest Bank, which drew criticism for aggressive foreclosure practices. He worked with a bunch of other banks, too. And it's been nearly 40 years since a former bank executive became the top regulator overseeing banks at the OCC. Otting has a long list of things he wants to change. But actually, Peterson says, so far, Otting hasn't been as aggressive as other Trump appointees.

PETERSON: I think it's a little too soon to tell what Otting's approach is going to be. He has not come in like a wrecking ball in the same way that Scott Pruitt has at the EPA or Mick Mulvaney has at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

ARNOLD: But Otting has done one very concrete thing so far that worries Peterson. Otting wrote to the CEOs of all national banks to formally encourage them to get into what's called small-dollar loans - that is, a loan, say, for a few hundred bucks to pay for a car repair. Sometimes the loans are more - a few thousand dollars. Many payday lending outfits charge very high interest rates for these types of loans. Under the Obama administration, banks were blocked from making these payday-style loans, and conservatives don't like that.

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SEAN DUFFY: Sixty-three percent of Americans don't have enough in their savings account to cover a $500 emergency expense.

ARNOLD: That's Republican Congressman Sean Duffy of Wisconsin. He was at a hearing yesterday where Otting testified before the House Financial Services Committee. Otting himself said, basically, that if banks were offering loans to compete with payday lenders, that would mean Americans needing some emergency cash would be able to get more affordable loan terms. Otting told Congressman Duffy...

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JOSEPH OTTING: By getting banks back in that space, I think they get fair, more economically efficient pricing on loans.

ARNOLD: And Otting says people with bad credit could improve their credit scores by paying off these small-dollar loans to banks.

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OTTING: Then they can get back into the mainstream of banking, and that's another one of my clear goals.

ARNOLD: The banking industry makes the same points, but Christopher Peterson isn't so sure. He says in the past when banks are making these loans...

PETERSON: Some banks have charged triple-digit interest rates that have rivaled the high costs that you see at payday lenders. For example, Wells Fargo - it had interest rates that were effectively around 300 percent, and they also charged a bunch of extra fees at the same time on top of that 300 percent interest rate.

ARNOLD: Peterson says it's still unclear exactly what Otting will allow banks to do this time around. Also on Otting's to-do list - he says he wants to, quote, "modernize" what banks have to do to comply with a civil rights law that requires banks to serve low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. Advocates worry he'll water down the requirements. Otting is bound to get questions about that as he faces the Senate Banking Committee today. Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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