Predatory Fintech and the Politics of Banking
63 Pages Posted: 20 Oct 2020 Last revised: 31 Mar 2021
Date Written: January 5, 2021
With American families living on the financial edge and seeking out high cost loans even before COVID-19, the term financial technology or “fintech” has been used like an incantation aimed at remedying everything that’s wrong with America’s financial system. Scholars and supporters from both the public and private sector proclaim that innovations in financial technology will “bank the unbanked” and open new channels to affordable credit. This exuberance for all things tech in finance has led to a quiet yet aggressive deregulatory agenda, including, as of late, a federal assault via rulemaking on the ability of states to police the cost and privilege of extending credit within their borders. This deregulation and the ethos behind it have made space for growth in high cost, predatory lending that reaches across state lines via websites and smart phones and that is aggressively targeting cash-strapped families. These loans are made using a business model whereby funds are funneled through a group of lightly regulated banks in a way designed to take advantage of federal preemption. Fintech companies rent out and profit from the special legal status of these bank partners, which in turn keeps the bank’s involvement in the shadows. Stripping down fintech’s predatory practices and showing them for what they really are, this Article situates fintech in the context of this country’s longstanding dual banking wars, both between states and the federal government and between consumer advocates and banking regulators. And it points the way forward for scholars and regulators willing to shake off fintech’s hypnotic effect. This means, in the short term, using existing regulatory tools to curtail the dangerous lending identified here, including by taking a more expansive view of what it means for a bank to operate safely and soundly under the law. In the long term, it means having a more comprehensive and national discussion about how we regulate household credit in the digital age, specifically through the convening of a Twenty-First Century Commission on Consumer Finance. The Article explains how and why the time is ripe to do both. As the current pandemic wipes out wages and decimates savings, leaving desperate families turning to predatory fintech finance ever more, the need for reform has never been greater.
Keywords: fintech, banking, consumer finance, household finance, financial regulation, FDIC, OCC, usury, lending, credit, debt, financial technology, arbitrage, federalism, dual banking
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