Consumer bureau looks to broaden its agenda

WASHINGTON Fri Feb 1, 2013 12:24pm EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The consumer watchdog is considering broadening its reach beyond mortgages and credit cards, including a potentially controversial push into retirement savings accounts.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has checked off its list many of the steps the 2010 Dodd-Frank law required it to take. Now the bureau could expand its authority to new products, despite pressure from Republican lawmakers to scale back its powers and questions surrounding its director's validity.

According to people briefed on the CFPB's progress, the agency is studying possible forays into retirement savings accounts, mobile payments and the "new subprime," or people who no longer have good credit because of the financial crisis.

The most contentious could be the retirement savings industry. Consumer advocates say retiring workers can be subject to scams or steered into costly products, and industry experts say existing regulations for people who provide financial advice leave loopholes that can create problems for retirees.

While it seems like a prime target for the bureau, multiple regulators already oversee the industry, raising jurisdictional questions. And the industry would likely fight the intrusion of another rule-setter.

"I do think that them looking at what's going on in the retirement world could be productive from a consumer protection point of view," said Ed Ferrigno, vice president for Washington affairs for the Plan Sponsor Council of America.

"While we think they might be able to play a positive role, we certainly wouldn't welcome a new set of rules and a new regulator," he said.

A spokeswoman for the bureau declined to comment. CFPB Director Richard Cordray told Bloomberg News the bureau was exploring what authority it might have over retirement savings but did not specify potential actions it could take.

MOVING FORWARD

The Dodd-Frank law directed the consumer bureau to write rules, bring enforcement actions and educate consumers about mortgages, overseas money transfers and other products.

The bureau has been a source of controversy since its formation, as Republican lawmakers and business groups claim it has too much power and too little congressional oversight.

Republicans refused to confirm a director until Democrats agree to change the CFPB's structure, so President Barack Obama used a procedural maneuver last year to give Cordray the helm. Republicans now question whether his appointment was valid, and a federal appeals court last week struck down a similar use of a "recess" appointment.

The bureau has focused much of its efforts on education and could continue on this path by gathering information for workers and retirees about investment strategies. Dodd-Frank created an Office for Older Americans within the CFPB to work on improving seniors' education about and options for long-term savings.

Asserting itself as a regulator could be more problematic.

The U.S. Department of Labor already oversees most pension plans. Large independent advisers are regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission; state regulators oversee smaller firms. Commission-earning brokers are regulated by the SEC and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

Dodd-Frank contains a number of exclusions that would limit the bureau's authority over investments, including exempting entities regulated by the SEC from the CFPB's oversight.

A spokesman for the SEC declined to comment. A DOL spokesman said the department and the CFPB have held forums on retirees' financial literacy but would not comment further.

People briefed on the CFPB's work said the bureau is in the early stages of looking into the subject and is still considering whether to make retirement savings a priority.

Cordray said in a speech last summer that the bureau was interested in certifications obtained by financial planners and advisers who work with older people.

A variety of credentials exist for financial advisers, including designating those who work with older people, and some are more difficult to obtain than others. Cordray did not specify which credentials the bureau wanted to study.

"We want to know where these designations are coming from and whether or not older Americans and their families can easily find out which designations are legitimate," he said.

"ROLLOVER MOMENT"

Consumer advocates say workers face problems at the point at which they retire or leave their jobs and move money from employer-based accounts, such as 401(k)s, to individual accounts. This has been called the "rollover moment."

Companies that manage 401(k) accounts often also offer rollover accounts and investment products that workers could use when they leave their jobs. Those companies may steer retiring workers into their products rather than explaining all of the available options.

"There's a captured audience that you have if you are a recordkeeper or any type of administrator," said Norman Stein, senior policy adviser for the Pension Rights Center.

Workers also seek advice when they must choose between a lump sum payout or lifelong monthly payments. Financial advisers may have an incentive to recommend that workers take the lump sum so they can manage it.

The Labor Department and SEC have already taken some steps toward closing such loopholes, working on parallel rules that would impose a so-called fiduciary standard requiring advisers to act in clients' best interest.

The department plans to re-propose rules to require advisers who counsel employees on retirement plans to be fiduciaries. The SEC is considering writing uniform rules for independent financial advisers and for retail stock brokers.

The industry would likely fight an attempt by the CFPB to add to the regulatory burden by introducing its own rules.

John Woerth, a spokesman for investment management company Vanguard, said the Labor Department and SEC already protect retirement plan participants and IRA investors.

"There is no need for additional regulation that would encumber the system with additional cost and complexity," Woerth said in an email.

(Reporting By Emily Stephenson, additional reporting by Linda Stern in Washington and Ross Kerber in Boston; Editing by Karey Wutkowski and M.D. Golan)