Alston & Bird Consumer Finance Blog


The CFPB is Sending Mixed Messages on COVID-19 Flexibility

A&B ABstract: The CFPB’s inconsistent statements about the need for flexibility to address the pandemic suggest a deeper game afoot.

 CFPB warns that continued COVID flexibility for financial institutions is not prudent…

On March 31, 2021, the CFPB announced it would be rescinding seven policy statements issued last year that provided financial institutions with flexibilities regarding certain regulatory filings or compliance with consumer financial laws and regulations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the rescinded statements, for example, encouraged financial institutions to “work constructively with borrowers and other customers affected by COVID-19 to meet their financial needs” and to that end, “when conducting examinations and other supervisory activities and in determining whether to take enforcement action, the Bureau will consider the circumstances that entities may face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and will be sensitive to good-faith efforts demonstrably designed to assist consumers.”

In explaining the rescissions, Acting CFPB Director Uejio reasoned: “Because many financial institutions have developed more robust remote capabilities and demonstrated improved operations, it is no longer prudent to maintain these flexibilities.” Accordingly, the CFPB provided notice that it “intends to exercise the full scope of the supervisory and enforcement authority provided under the Dodd-Frank Act.”

To further drive home its point, on April 1, 2021, the CFPB issued a press release and compliance bulletin warning mortgage servicers that “unprepared is unacceptable” with regard to the treatment of mortgage borrowers exiting extended forbearances this fall. The CFPB stated it is “committed to using its authorities, including its authority under Regulation X mortgage servicing requirements and under the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA), to ensure that homeowners facing the ongoing economic impact of the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) national emergency receive the benefits of critical legal protections and that avoidable foreclosures are avoided.”

Except when it is!

On March 2, 2021, the CFPB issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to delay the mandatory compliance date of the General Qualified Mortgage (QM) final rule from July 1, 2021 to October 1, 2022. The reason cited by the CFPB for the compliance delay is the “need to provide maximum flexibility [to financial institutions] to address the effects of the pandemic.” In particular, the CFPB’s proposal states:

“The Bureau is concerned that the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mortgage market may continue for longer than anticipated at the time the Bureau issued the General QM Final Rule, and so could warrant additional flexibility in the QM market to ensure creditors are able to accommodate struggling consumers.”

Additionally, on April 7, 2021, the CFPB proposed to delay the effective date of two recent debt collection rules by sixty days, from November 30, 2021 until January 29, 2022. The reason cited by the CFPB for its proposed delay is “to give affected parties more time to comply due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.” In particular, the CFPB’s proposal states:

“Since the Debt Collection Final Rules were published, the global COVID-19 pandemic has continued to cause widespread societal disruption, with effects extending into 2021. In light of that disruption, the Bureau believes that providing additional time for stakeholders to review and, if applicable, to implement the final rules may be warranted. The Bureau believes that extending the rules’ effective date by 60 days, to January 29, 2022, may provide stakeholders with sufficient time for review and implementation.”

What is really going on?

 Both of the CFPB’s delay NPRMs are curious. With respect to the QM delay proposal, a broad coalition of both housing and mortgage industry and consumer and civil rights groups files a joint comment letter stating that the recent enhancements to the General QM definition will replace loans that were designated QM under the temporary GSE Patch, and as a result, the organizations do not believe that extending the July 1 mandatory compliance date is necessary. And as our colleague Stephen Ornstein explained, recent FHFA actions will effectively sunset the GSE Patch on July 1 with or without the CFPB taking action. Further, with respect to the debt collection delay proposal, it is unlikely that 60 extra days before the rules take effect will make any appreciable difference to most market participants, considering that they were already given a full year to implement the rules, and they still won’t take effect for seven months.

The CFPB clearly has a strong desire to revisit both the underlying QM and debt collection final rules issued last year. For instance, as early as February 4, 2021, Acting Director Uejio stated that the CFPB would “[e]xplore options for preserving the status quo with respect to QM and debt collection rules.” And Diane Thompson, the Biden Administration political appointee now overseeing CFPB rulemaking efforts, publicly declared her hatred for the CFPB’s new General QM rule. If the CFPB does revisit these rules, it makes sense to do so soon; completing new rulemakings before the old ones take effect or require compliance could provide the CFPB a significant advantage in framing its mandatory Section 1022 cost-benefit analysis, depending upon the economic baseline established for analyzing the effects of its proposals. However, delaying rules simply for the purpose of changing them in light of the policy preferences of an incoming administration can be viewed skeptically by reviewing courts, since such actions tend to undermine the purposes of the Administrative Procedure Act. Perhaps that is the reason why the CFPB is disclaiming its plans to revisit the underlying rules in its delay NPRMs and, contrary to its own recent policy pronouncements, is relying instead upon the need for institutional flexibility to deal with the pandemic in the limited context of these two rules alone. Given the time constraints involved, the CFPB can be expected to show its full hand and propose changes to the QM and debt collection rules soon after it finalizes its associated delay rules.