'We're Here To Stay' Says Newly Confirmed Consumer Watchdog
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
The agency set up to protect consumers from banking abuses that led to the national financial crisis of 2008 is officially open for business. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau actually opened two years ago, and Richard Cordray has been running the office for most of that time under a legal cloud because the Senate had not confirmed him due to Republican opposition.
Well, last night, Republicans agreed to hold a vote, and Cordray was confirmed by a vote of 66 to 34. Richard Cordray joins me now from his office in Washington. Welcome.
RICHARD CORDRAY: Thank you.
CORNISH: So it's been two years of limbo for you, right, waiting for a confirmation? Now that you're really the boss and you've got the full power of the Senate behind you, what can you do now that you couldn't do, say, two weeks ago?
CORDRAY: Well, we've actually been working at it this whole time, and we understand that the job of this new bureau is to stand on the side of consumers in the financial marketplace, where they often find it very hard to navigate very complex transactions, mortgages, credit cards and the like, and to see that they're treated fairly. We will continue doing that. It's just going to be a bit of a smoother path now going forward.
CORNISH: Does this mean, though, that, you know, you can issue orders that you couldn't before, or are there legal actions you could take against banks that you couldn't before?
CORDRAY: We've actually had a good set of authorities all along, and we've been using those authorities to protect people against deceptive and misleading, unfair practices. I think it just removes some of the debate and contention that had been something of a distraction, although we hadn't allowed it to distract us from focusing on our work.
CORNISH: Now, one thing that the bureau has been doing is creating a database of information about consumer and banking industry financial transactions, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has called these data requests unfocused and overly inclusive. And given the recent publicity around privacy in the federal government, is it fair for consumers to be concerned about this big data grab?
CORDRAY: Well, I think everybody has their point of view, but what we're doing here is we need to collect information in order to know what's going on in these markets. Frankly, one of the big problems before the crisis was people didn't necessarily understand some of the things that were happening in the mortgage market that eventually brought down the system.
So by having good information about what's happening at a market level, not at an individual consumer level, I think that helps us do our work more effectively. At the same time, we want to make sure that we speak with people and understand any concerns and that we're doing things just as we should, but I'm confident that we are.
CORNISH: So when you're saying at a market level, you mean that you don't have our names and addresses, who we are attached to these transactions?
CORDRAY: Yeah, that's typically not what we're looking for. What we're looking for is what are the patterns of consumer behavior? Are there particular issues where people are being treated poorly on different mortgages? Are there mortgages that are failing? Why is that happening? It's that kind of information in the aggregate that gives us line of sight into what's going on in the markets and allows us to protect people effectively.
CORNISH: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was, of course, born out of the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul, and that was the brainchild of Senator Elizabeth Warren. But much of that law is still not in place, you know, an estimated 50 percent of it. And is this a sign that the financial industry has won? You know, does this hamper the ability of this law, your bureau, to do any good?
CORDRAY: I don't think so. And, in fact, when you talk about parts of the law that are not in effect, the Consumer Bureau has made it a point to be hitting our deadlines, and we put in place a number of significant mortgage rules in January that really will protect that market against the kind of abuses that led to the financial meltdown in 2008.
So there's progress being made on all fronts, but in terms of the Consumer Bureau in particular, we're delivering value for American consumers. We're making sure that they will have a better opportunity to know before they owe, which is an important principle for us, and that we're also rooting out substantive unfair and deceptive practices that should not be engaged in.
CORNISH: But as a consumer, when it comes to dealing with the financial industry, I mean, how are our lives all that different than back in 2007?
CORDRAY: Well, number one, going forward, there's going to be very significant protections we put in place for the mortgage market, which is the market that led to millions of people losing their jobs, millions of people losing their homes, people losing a lot of their life savings. So that's a very, very important step forward.
I think changes that have occurred in the credit card industry, particularly under the CARD Act and some of the things that we've been implementing, have really reduced complaints around credit cards where there was a lot of hidden fees. I think that the work we're doing around student loans and auto lending will deliver value for people.
And, notably, some new markets that we're looking at: credit reporting. It's a very important market for Americans, one that they often don't know much about. It's not very visible to them but affects their lives, their ability to get loans, their ability to be hired for a job. That's something we're going to be able to look at very carefully and clean up any unfair or illegal practices.
CORNISH: You built this agency from scratch, but at this point, does it feel like that this confirmation makes it legitimate? Does this convey authority to the public that you really can do something going forward?
CORDRAY: I think we've known for some time that we're here. We're here to stay. We have a job to do, and it's an important job. It's one that people in this country deserve to have done. But even to some of the most intransigent critics now, it's clear that this Consumer Bureau is here to stay.
I think, again, the fact that we got such an overwhelming bipartisan vote for confirmation of the director is a sign that people are recognizing the work we're doing, and they know it's important work, good work, and needs to be done.
CORNISH: Richard Cordray, thank you so much for speaking with us.
CORDRAY: All right. My pleasure.
CORNISH: Richard Cordray is director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.