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What the Consumer Financial Protection Agency Means for You

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Fresh off of the heels of Congress’s passing of the Credit Cardholders Bill of Rights, President Obama sent a proposed law to Congress, which if enacted, would create a shiny brand new Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA). The agency would not only help enforce the Credit Cardholders Bill, it would expand into the broader scope of consumer protection. Treasury Secretary Geithner summarized the agency by saying, “This agency will have only one mission – to protect consumers”.

Knowing exactly what the proposed CFPA would mean for you is based largely on speculation at this point, and the full effects may not be seen for years (and the bill isn’t expected to go to vote until this fall or beyond). However, it’s fair to say that the primary reason behind the proposed creation of the new agency would be to police and put an end to the type of greedy and unfair predatory practices by financial institutions (mostly banks and credit providers) that has resulted in many borrowers suffering from undue financial hardship.

Citing the agency’s crackdown on predatory mortgage lending techniques, President Obama states, “You’ll be able to compare products and see what’s best for you. The most unfair practices will be banned. Those ridiculous contracts with pages of fine print that no one can figure out – those things will be a thing of the past.” Although, I find it hard to imagine that my next mortgage closure will result in anything less than a headache and a mild case of carpal tunnel, having an agency focused on enforcing simple, concise, and clear terms is certainly a step in the right direction.

According the White House’s official press release on financialstability.gov, the CFPA would

1. Provide protection against unfair credit card rate increases and late fee traps: The agency will enforce the credit card bill enacted by Congress and President Obama this spring, taking responsibility for enforcing the ban on unfair rate increases and for the implementation of new rules preventing late fee traps.

In other words, the Credit Cardholders Bill of Rights that was passed recently, but doesn’t go into effect until mid 2010 needs a governing body. The CFPA would be that governing body.

2. Set guidelines for simple “Plain Vanilla” products: The agency could create guidelines for standard mortgages without prepayment penalties; that are fully underwritten with documented income; that collect escrow for taxes and insurance; and have predictable payments.

Remember all of those funky ARM’s, jumbo loans, and other sleek mortgage names masking a product that is designed to rip you off? The CFPA would seek to put an end to these type of products.

3. Duties of care for mortgage brokers: The agency could require mortgage brokers to owe a duty of best execution among available mortgage loans to avoid conflicts of interest between themselves and the homeowners, and a duty to help ensure that only appropriate loans are offered.

A colleague who once worked for one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders once told me that ‘in the good ole days’ mortgage underwriters would look for any possible reason to offer the largest loan possible and ignore little technicalities such as the borrower not providing proof of income. The goal of the CFPA would be to put an end to this type of practice and ensure that financial institutions are offering the right loan amounts to the right people in the right situations.

4. Ban unfair side payments: The agency could ban unfair practices such as “yield spread premiums” – side payments from lenders that encourage mortgage brokers to push consumers into higher priced loans.

Essentially, what the press release is trying to say here is that the CFPA would monitor and attempt to put an end to broker/institution side arrangements that are designed to steer you into a mortgage that may not be the best for you, but results in the mortgage broker getting a commission.

If you’d like to curl up and read the full version of the CFPA-Act bill, you can check it out here.

The Opposition

The financial industry will surely be up in arms over the bill, because it provides the type of oversight that they have been able to evade for so long. Opponents argue that the CFPA would limit product innovation and dictate what type of loans consumers should receive in certain situations.

Didn’t product innovation and offering ‘customized’ loans mostly get us into this mess?

For more of GE Miller’s writing, visit personal finance blog 20somethingfinance.com.