WASHINGTON -- Wall Street banks are deploying little-known lobbying organizations who represent companies like Pizza Hut and Radio Shack in a new push to hamstring the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It's a tactic that bankers used repeatedly during last year's legislative debate over financial reform-- by rolling out airlines and butchers to warn about regulation, megabanks could lobby against the overhaul without tainting the public relations effort with their own unpopular brands. But now, for the first time, banks are using obscure lobby groups in order to team up with payday lenders, check-cashing agencies and other financial firms that target the poor-- and presenting the blitz as the work of a broad, non-financial business coalition.
During a Tuesday conference call organized by the Chamber, coalitions ostensibly comprised of companies outside the financial sector argued that the nascent federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will hurt their bottom lines. But while those groups, the International Franchise Association and the Manufactured Housing Institute, include payday lenders, check-cashing agencies and mortgage lenders-- exactly the kinds of firms the CFPB is designed to regulate.
Financial services or consumer lending firms are also part of at least nine of the other ten organizations that signed off on a Tuesday letter to Congress decrying what they called the CFPB's combination of "extremely broad rulemaking authority with an unusual absence of meaningful checks on the exercise of that authority."
This is not the first time Wall Street has asked The Chamber to block bank regulations by rolling out companies with a better public image than bailed-out financiers. Last year, the Chamber helped organize the Coalition for Derivatives End-Users to help lobby against reforms to the financial products that helped bring down insurance giant AIG, and ran ads featuring local butchers warning about the supposed dangers of consumer financial protection.
During Tuesday's conference call, Jason Straczewski of the International Franchise Association and Thayer Long from the Manufactured Housing Institute argued that too much consumer protection would restrict critical access to credit during a recession.
Restricting access to predatory or deceptive credit offers, of course, is one principal goal of consumer-protection regulation. When asked by HuffPost whether the IFA represented any check-cashing agencies or payday lenders, Straczewski said he didn't know. But according to the group's website, the IFA represents dozens of franchises that provide financial services, including some of the services most often flagged as predatory by consumer advocates.
Banks typically avoid being associated with payday lenders and other financial firms that target the poor out of fears that such alliances will create a "reputation risk" for banks. But with Tuesday's Chamber effort, they are teaming up with many of those very firms.
Check-cashing agencies charge high fees to cash checks in the absence of a bank account, and two major such franchises belong to the IFA -- Mr. Payroll and United Check Cashing. The latter company also offers payday loans, as does another IFA member, CashAmerica.
The IFA also includes a host of tax-preparation services which are frequently cited by both consumer groups and federal regulators for issuing tax refund anticipation loans -- short-term, high-interest loans from which issuing companies take a slice of tax refunds. Liberty Tax Service, H&R Block, ATAX Tax Preparation Services, Eagle Tax Services Group, Ronni Deutsch Tax Center, Tax Centers of America and Smart Tax are all IFA members.
During Tuesday's call, the Manufactured Housing Institute created the impression that it works on behalf of mobile home producers, but in fact, the group represents just about any firm connected with the mobile home business, including mortgage companies and other lenders. Subsidiaries of Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank are both MHI members, along with American Land Lease, 21st Mortgage, Clayton Bank and Trust, CIS Financial Services, CU Factory Built Lending, Land/Home Financial Services and Origen Financial Services.
Banks send out high volumes of junk mail, and as a result, several banks and credit card firms are members of the Direct Marketing Association, one signatory to the Chamber letter. The Association of Settlement Companies, another signatory, is a lobby group for debt collectors. Yet another signatory, The Center for Association Leadership, is a lobby group for trade groups -- other lobbying organizations.