NACBA’s Washington Update IX

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This is the latest update from Washington, designed to keep NACBA members informed about significant and relevant activity on the part of Congress, regulatory agencies and interest groups/think tanks.  Feedback should be directed to mthompson@hastingsgroup.com.

Obviously, the big news out of Washington continues to be the election results.  NACBA members who joined us for the November 18 webinar, “The 2016 Election: What Now?,” heard NACBA leaders and our representatives in Washington answer the questions about what to expect in 2017 from the Administration, Congress and the courts.  We are planning to issue a special report in the next few weeks, after we learn more about the Cabinet and priorities of the Trump Administration and Congress.  Our report will focus not only on what to expect from the White House come January, but also the key agencies of interest to NACBA — Department of Justice, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the Department of Education — as well as the leadership and key committees in Congress.

Continue reading for non-election news out of Washington this week.

ON THE HILL The 114th Congress has unofficially come to a close, but our elected officials are still at work.  Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) are broadening their investigation of the Wells Fargo scandal to examine whether Prudential Financial insurance products were also charged to the bank’s customers without their knowledge.  In a December 13, 2016 letter to Prudential’s CEO, the two Democrats asked for documents related to the bank’s sales of Prudential insurance. They requested the information and a briefing by January 13, 2017.

The action came after three former Prudential (PRU) employees alleged that Wells Fargo employees signed up customers for a low-cost Prudential life insurance policy without their knowledge or permission.  The three former PRU employees filed a Dodd-Frank whistleblower complaint with the SEC alleging they were retaliated against after uncovering the misconduct.

IN THE AGENCIES Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced a program to aid homeowners who are behind on their mortgage payments.  The Flex Modification loan program will begin in January 2017 and replaces the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), a foreclosure-prevention policy that’s set to expire at the end of this year. Loan servicers have until October 2017 to implement the program.

The new loan modification guidelines are expected to expand the population of homeowners eligible for lower monthly payments, short sales and other alternatives to foreclosure, according to Fannie Mae.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report documenting the consequences that the Department of the Treasury’s practice of garnishing Americans’ social security payments has on student loan borrowers in default. The number of older Americans defaulting on education loans has steadily increased in recent decades, as many have returned to college or co-signed loans for family members. Unpaid debt has resulted in the government garnishing the benefits of 114,000 people age 50 and older in the past year, more than half of whom were receiving Social Security disability rather than retirement income.  The report found that for more than two-thirds of borrowers whose monthly benefit was below the poverty line, the money deducted from their Social Security benefits was enough only to pay fees and interest, so the amount of the debt was not even reduced. The report also found that of older student loan borrowers with a Social Security offset, 43% had held their loans for 20 years or more and 80% had held their loans for 10 years or more.  Although there are rules designed to protect a portion of the recipient’s benefits, the dollar amount protected has not changed since 1996, and leaves a borrower with only $750/month ($9,000/year) to live on.

MORE FROM CFPB  The Bureau released a report raising new concerns about costly fees and risky features that can be attached to certain college-sponsored accounts. The report comes after analysis of roughly 500 marketing deals between the schools and large banks found that many deals allow for risky features that can lead students to rack up hundreds of dollars in fees per year. The report also examines trends in the school-sponsored credit card market. The CFPB also issued a bulletin today reminding colleges and universities they are required to publicly disclose marketing agreements with credit card companies.  The campus banking report is available at here.

Both the Director of the CFPB and the head of the FHFA have expressed their intent to finish out their terms at their respective agencies.  Richard Cordray “has no plans” to leave the top job at the CFPB, the agency said. “Director Cordray was confirmed by a bipartisan group of 66 senators to serve a term until July 2018 and has no plans to step down,” CFPB Communications Director Jen Howard said in an email.  Mel Watt, the FHFA head overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, will serve out the remaining two years of his term after President-elect Donald Trump takes office.  Watt made his intent clear during a recent meeting with agency staff, according to people familiar with that gathering who confirmed the remarks Friday. His term expires in January 2019.

FROM THE INTEREST GROUPS U.S.PIRG has released a report titled “Big Banks, Big Overdraft Fees” that concludes that “overdraft fees are a major source of consumer pain, since they are borne disproportionately by Americans with few financial resources” but, that the CFPB is working to protect consumers from unfair overdraft fees.” A copy of the report is available here.

The private student loan industry is making a push to expand its role in the Department of Education’s growing $1.3 trillion portfolio of federal student loans.  A main lobbying group for the industry, the National Council of Higher Education Resources, wrote a letter this week to President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team, making a series of proposals that included a bold plan to auction off some of the existing portfolio of federal loans to private investors. You can read a copy of the letter here.

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