Since the termination of Operation Choke Point, some have questioned whether Obama-era federal regulators really did engage in systematic and top-down attempts to squeeze off access to financial services for businesses that were lawful but disliked. Now Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.) has released documents produced in connection with a lawsuit against the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. They show extensive pressure by numerous FDIC regional directors and other officials on regulated banks to terminate customer relationships with payday lenders (the banks were generally already not themselves engaged in such lending). They also include repeated wordings about how higher-ups wanted the pressure applied and that banks’ decisions to cut off customers should be styled as if it were a voluntary choice. [Luetkemeyer press release; Norbert Michel, Forbes; John Berlau, Forbes; trade group Community Financial Services of America]
The Department of Justice has confirmed that it is putting an official end to Operation Choke Point, the under-the-radar initiative by Obama financial regulators to discourage banks from doing business with certain disfavored businesses such as payday lenders and gun dealers. I’ve written a piece for the Washington Examiner on it, excerpt:
The fate of Choke Point should serve as a warning that it’s dangerous to allow those in power to flag legal-but-suspect domestic businesses for shaming and commercial ostracism — especially if the process is covert, and especially if the result is to cut off the outcasts from access to the basics of economic life.
At the same time, it’s significant that the answer to Choke Point was *not* to pass some new law compelling banks to do business with payday lenders, fireworks stands, or X-rated studios.
Part of a free society is that we shouldn’t force commercial relationships on private actors. Businesses — and that includes providers of credit and payments services — should legally be free to follow their conscience.
And Eric Boehm quotes me at Reason:
“It should serve as a warning that the government doesn’t get to flag for banks—or businesses generally—which legal-but-suspect domestic customers it would like them to ostracize,” Olson told Reason on Friday. “Those in power must refrain from signaling that they’d be pleased if certain categories of otherwise legal customer get cut off from their access to economic life.”
“Fox Business Network’s John Stossel interviews US Consumer Coalition’s Brian Wise and Kat O’Connor, owner of TomKat Ammunition LLC, on the Justice Department’s Operation Choke Point.” The Gaithersburg-based ammo seller was cut off from credit card processing services and suspects that the federal Choke Point program was the reason. [cross-posted from Free State Notes; earlier on Operation Choke Point].
Throwing its Chicago regional director under the bus, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has disavowed a February 2013 letter in which the director had told an Ohio bank, “It is our view that payday loans are costly, and offer limited utility for consumers, as compared to traditional loan products … Consequently, we have generally found that activities related to payday lending are unacceptable for an insured depository institution.” Critics have charged that the federal government has not been forthright about the extent to which it discouraged banks from providing services to lawful but frowned-on businesses in such lines as payday lending and ammunition sales. [Kevin Funnell, earlier on Operation Choke Point]
Cato event held earlier this month with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Cato senior fellow Mark Calabria. Here’s the description:
Launched in early 2013, “Operation Choke Point” is a joint effort by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the bank regulators to limit access to the bank payments system by various businesses. Initially targeted at small-dollar nonbank lenders, Choke Point has grown to cover a variety of legitimate, legal businesses that just happen to be unpopular with DOJ, such as gun dealers and porn stars. Initial responses from DOJ claimed such efforts were limited to illegal businesses committing fraud. A recent report by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform reveals DOJ’s claims to be false. In today’s economy, almost any economic activity depends on access to the payments system; allowing DOJ, without trial or a right to appeal, to arbitrarily limit access represents an almost unprecedented abuse of power.
The vote, which has occasioned little notice thus far in the press, took place on a proposed amendment brought to the House floor by Rep. Blane Luetkemeyer (R-Missouri) and co-sponsored by three Democratic members (Cardenas, Hastings, Perlmutter) as well as two other Republicans (Mulvaney, Yoder) [Kelly Riddell, Washington Times] The investigation by Rep. Issa’s committee released last week capped a steadily mounting furor, starting among groups like payday lenders experiencing reduced access to the banking system but spreading to various “vice” businesses and the firearms community — assuming the administration is still distinguishing the latter from the former. Earlier here, here, here, etc.
As we mentioned in a brief earlier item, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has “directed the Department of Financial Services to urge insurance companies, New York State-chartered banks, and other financial services companies licensed in New York to review any relationships they may have with the National Rifle Association and other similar organizations. Upon this review, the companies are encouraged to consider whether such ties harm their corporate reputations and jeopardize public safety.” [Cuomo press release] Maria T. Vullo, Superintendent of Financial Services for the state of New York, issued a guidance memorandum. In language not altogether typical of safety-and-soundness financial regulation, Vullo wrote:
While the social backlash against the National Rifle Association (the “NRA”) and similar organizations that promote guns that lead to senseless violence has in the past been strong, the nature and the intensity of the voices now speaking out, including the voices of the passionate, courageous, and articulate young people who have experienced this recent horror first hand, is a strong reminder that such voices can no longer be ignored and that society, as a whole, has a responsibility to act and is no longer willing to stand by and wait and witness more tragedies caused by gun violence, but instead is demanding change now.
Brian Knight writes at FinRegRag:
This request could easily be construed is a thinly veiled threat. While the NYDFS statement does not explicitly say that NY FIs (financial institutions) that may face regulatory sanction for failing to cut ties with the NRA, it doesn’t rule out the possibility either. If the NYDFS had no intention of threatening regulatory sanctions, they could clearly have added language taking the threat of enforcement off of the table. They didn’t, which indicates they want NY FIs to think there is a potential the government will come after them if they don’t end their relationships with groups like the NRA.
These instructions to NY FIs could also be seen as an attempt to suppress political speech that some New York policy makers disagree with. Whatever one thinks of the NRA, it is an organization engaged in legal political speech and advocacy. Cutting off the NRA’s access to financial services could change the political debate by reducing opposition to political efforts to tighten gun laws. The NYDFS release says, “This is not just a matter of reputation, it is a matter of public safety, and working together, we can put an end to gun violence in New York once and for all.” Given that the NRA does not make a product that could pose a direct risk to public safety, this release is clearly referencing the NRA’s political advocacy.
Knight compares the initiative to the Operation Choke Point episode, in which federal regulators steered banks away from dealing with various controversial but lawful lines of business, including some that were politically fraught. But in that episode, at least, the target enterprises were primarily engaged in the sale of goods and services and thus might in principle have faced financial risks related by fraud or unfulfillable obligations to customers.
The NYDFS order appears to be inherently about political speech. After all, there is no allegation that the NRA is committing fraud against its members. Rather, the argument is that the NRA’s positions are so dangerous that they are harmful to the community and pose a risk to the reputation of any FI that works with them. This could fairly be seen as an attempt to restrict the NRA’s ability to operate in the political arena and marketplace of ideals.
The guidance memorandum might thus accomplish by indirection what it would be plainly improper for the state to attempt directly:
There is no law that says a FI (financial institution) cannot do business with a gun rights group and such a law would almost assuredly be unconstitutional. However if the regulator declares that such an affiliation poses a reputational risk to the FI (that the regulator, not the market, determined existed), it has leverage to force the FI to comply.
The NRA has filed a suit against the governor and New York officials saying the program amounts to “coercion” aimed at depriving the association and its constituents of First Amendment rights. More: Scott Greenfield.
Meanwhile, in other news of regulatory retaliation — see also our tag on that — U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly urged the U.S. Postal Service to double its rates for handling packages shipped by Amazon.com, linked in his mind through founder Jeff Bezos with his journalistic nemesis the Washington Post. Postmaster General Megan Brennan is said to have “resisted Trump’s suggestion in private conversations in 2017 and 2018, telling him that package delivery rates are set by contract and reviewed by an independent commission” and that the Postal Service does not get a bad deal from its arrangements with Amazon and other e-commerce firms. [Reuters]
- Wells Fargo declines to serve firm that sells knives online, which might relate to a “mass de-risking” trend that followed Operation Choke Point [Kelsey Harkness/Daily Signal, H. Clay Aalders/The Truth About Knives]
- “Time For Securities Lawyers To Stand Behind Their `Confidential Witnesses'” [Lyle Roberts via Daniel Fisher]
- Attractions of English law may help London retain luster as financial center post-Brexit [Jon Sindreu, WSJ]
- “Hillary Clinton’s ‘Exit Tax’ Is an Unseemly Example of Banana Republic Economics” [Daniel Mitchell, related earlier] Three good ideas from Clinton’s small business tax plan [Scott Greenberg, Tax Foundation]
- Lawyers file class actions against Yale, Harvard, MIT, many other universities, objecting to excessive fees on retirement fund investments [Ira Stoll, Future of Capitalism; Benjamin Edwards, PrawfsBlawg]
- “White House climate disclosure plan is major executive overreach.” [Ray Lehmann, R Street Institute]
- To keep your sex business free from the coils of federal regulation, your best bet might in fact be Ted Cruz, implacable opponent of Operation Choke Point [Elizabeth Nolan Brown; more from Snopes on rather silly attacks on Cruz for doing job lawyers are expected to do for clients in Texas case]
- Snoopy, you’re not systematically important: judge frees MetLife from SIFI designation under Dodd-Frank [Thaya Brook Knight/Cato, John Cochrane]
- What with Sen. Elizabeth Warren trying to put a lid on some companies’ criticism of the Labor Department’s fiduciary rule, hope it’s still OK for the rest of us to talk about it [Thaya Brook Knight, Cato]
- Sen. Warren isn’t only one using letters to SEC to browbeat businesses: New York City elected Public Advocate Letitia (“Tish”) James tries to hassle gunmaker Sturm Ruger to comply with various demands of gun control advocates [Manikandan Raman, Benzinga/Yahoo; more on Ms. James and her blames]
- Next term Supreme Court will consider case on scope of insider trading law, Salman v. U.S. [Ira Stoll, more] “Returning to Common-Law Principles of Insider Trading After United States v. Newman” [Richard Epstein, Yale Law Journal on Second Circuit’s decision via Stoll]
- DoJ cracks down on big-investor activism — at least when of a sort antitrust enforcers don’t like [Matt Levine]
- Robert Litan in Fortune on why Elizabeth Warren went after him;
- “Economists have no idea how to measure the value created by the financial sector.” [Arnold Kling]
- W$J at end of August had an investigative report on the (opaque, high-discretion, unaccountable) system of installing “monitors” in banks and other financial institutions to settle civil or criminal charges;
- Update: in a sidebar to my City Journal piece on New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman this summer, I covered his charges of “redlining” against small upstate banks that did not operate in inner cities; now Schneiderman has extracted $825,000 from a Buffalo bank [NY AG press release]
- No kangaroo courts at the SEC, please [Bloomberg View editorial on in-house adjudicators, earlier here, etc.]
- How the FATCA law, deplored in this space for years, makes life hard for U.S. expatriates/spouses [Colleen Graffy, WSJ]
- “Except for the ten to twelve million people who use them every year, just about everybody hates payday loans.” [New York Fed “Liberty Street Economics” via Tabarrok] Despite reports of FDIC back-off, Operation Choke Point controversy not over [Ballard Spahr via Kevin Funnell]