Yesterday, Acting Comptroller of the Currency Michael J. Hsu discussed clarifying and modernizing the bank regulatory perimeter at the American Fintech Council’s Fintech Policy Summit 2021. He described recent trends toward digitalization of banking and financial innovation, which have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Several years of projected growth in digitalization took place in a matter of quarters. For instance, digital payments transactions increased by 27 percent, from $4.1 trillion to $5.2 trillion, from 2019 to 2020. Similarly, the total market value of cryptocurrencies has grown to approximately $2.5 trillion from $200 billion in 2019. Consumers and businesses experienced greater convenience, expanded capabilities, and an increase in opportunities, all as a result of financial innovation.
However, said Hsu, "these trends are being driven by firms that are not subject to bank rules and do not have the same controls as banks. In regulatory-speak, they sit outside of the so-called bank regulatory perimeter. The full implications of this will likely only become apparent over time. While the convenience and benefits of rapid innovation can be enjoyed immediately, the risks and harms to consumers and businesses of engaging in financial activities with fewer controls tend to emerge only later. He pointed to the apparent success of fintech companies in facilitating expanded access to PPP loans, and recent evidence of higher rates of customer dissatisfaction and of fraud with fintech-facilitated PPP loans versus those run through traditional banks. He also described the rapid growth in users and total market value in the cryptocurrency space, matched by growth in cryptocurrency scams and consumer complaints. He said "'Move fast and break things' is a common mantra in tech. In the financial services context, it is important to remember that those 'things' are people and their money."
Hsu added, "Increasingly, the three cornerstones of banking—taking deposits, making loans, and facilitating payments—are being reassembled functionally and digitally outside of the bank regulatory perimeter by certain firms... [and] these 'synthetic banking providers' (SBPs) operate out of the reach of bank regulators and free of bank rules, such as capital requirements, bank consumer protection laws, and the Community Reinvestment Act. History and research warn us that unregulated banking ends badly. Indeed, the origins of the OCC, Federal Reserve, and FDIC, as well as of many state banking agencies, can be traced back to financial panics and destabilizing runs resulting from unregulated or poorly regulated banking."
Hsu then suggested "we need to remove the disparity between the rights and responsibilities of banks and those of synthetic banking providers by holding SBPs to banking standards."