Monday, January 4, 2016

No. 137: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Business of Insurance

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 provided for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Two years ago, Alan Press and I submitted to CFPB a complaint involving an insurance matter. CFPB immediately brushed off the complaint because it related to insurance. We asked CFPB to show us the statutory basis for its rejection of the complaint, but we received no reply. Recently I explored the massive Dodd-Frank Act in an effort to identify the statutory basis for CFPB's rejection of the complaint.

Our Complaint to the CFPB

Alan Press, CLU, is a retired general agent in New York City for Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, a past president of what is now the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, and the recipient of several prestigious insurance industry awards. Press and I have been good friends for many years.

Press was familiar with the mission statement of Primerica Life Insurance Company. In January 2014, he saw CFPB's mission statement. Here are the two statements:

Primerica: Our mission is to serve middle income families by helping them to make informed financial decisions and providing them with a strategy and means to gain financial independence.... Our clients are generally middle income consumers, which we define as households with $30,000 to $100,000 of annual income.
CFPB: Our mission is to make markets for consumer financial products and services work for Americans—whether they are applying for a mortgage, choosing among credit cards, or using any number of other consumer financial products. Above all, this means ... no provider should be able to use unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices.
Press called CFPB's whistleblower number. He asked whether CFPB would be interested in information about a life insurance company that imposes undisclosed charges equivalent to an unfair, deceptive, and abusive annual percentage rate (APR) of 29.7 percent on millions of policyholders who pay premiums monthly (rather than annually) through preauthorized withdrawals from checking accounts. The CFPB person who answered the telephone encouraged Press to file a complaint.

Press was aware of my extensive writings about fractional (modal) premium charges imposed on policyholders who pay premiums more often than once a year, and he contacted me. We assembled a 52-page PDF and submitted the complaint to CFPB by email at 8:45 a.m. on February 12, 2014. The package consisted of a two-page explanatory cover letter, brief biographical sketches of the two of us, an article Press had written, and seven articles I had written. The complaint described the unconscionable 29.7 percent APR Primerica imposed and still imposes on buyers of life insurance who pay premiums monthly with preauthorized checks.

In the cover letter we quoted the mission statements of Primerica and CFPB. Several of my articles in the package described in great detail how state insurance regulators not only have refused to require APR disclosure of fractional premium charges but also have fought to prevent consumer access to such information. At 11:34 a.m. the same day, CFPB rejected the complaint with this email:

Thank you for your information that was sent to Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's whistleblower email address. The Bureau has authority to investigate possible violations of Federal consumer financial laws, and to enforce such statutes. These matters typically involve mortgages, student loans, credit cards, payday loans, and auto finance. The Bureau generally does not have jurisdiction over matters involving life insurance or securities. We therefore are not able to investigate your allegations relating to an insurance matter.
We asked CFPB to send us the statutory language prohibiting CFPB from investigating harmful practices that insurance companies perpetrate against consumers. We also asked CFPB to explain why its mission statement refers to "any number of other consumer financial products" and fails to warn the reader that CFPB is barred from investigating harmful insurance practices. Finally, we asked that CFPB staff members read the complaint and reconsider their rejection of it. We received no further reply.

The Dodd-Frank Act

The version of the Dodd-Frank Act that I examined is an 848-page PDF posted on the website of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The page numbers mentioned later in this blog post are page numbers of that PDF. The Dodd-Frank Act consists of these 16 titles:
I Financial Stability
II Orderly Liquidation Authority
III Transfer of Powers to the Comptroller of the Currency, the [Federal Deposit Insurance] Corporation, and the [Federal Reserve] Board of Governors
IV Regulation of Advisers to Hedge Funds and Others
V Insurance
VI Improvements to Regulation of Bank and Savings Association Holding Companies and Depository Institutions
VII Wall Street Transparency and Accountability
VIII Payment, Clearing, and Settlement Supervision
IX Investor Protections and Improvements to the Regulation of Securities
X Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection
XI Federal Reserve System Provisions
XII Improving Access to Mainstream Financial Institutions
XIII Pay It Back Act
XIV Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act
XV Miscellaneous Provisions
XVI Section 1256 Contracts
Title V on insurance deals with such matters as nonadmitted insurance and reinsurance. That title is not relevant to the CFPB matter discussed in this blog post.

Title X
The Dodd-Frank Act's Title X, which begins on page 580, provides for the creation of CFPB. On the same page, "business of insurance" is defined as follows:
The term "business of insurance" means the writing of insurance or the reinsuring of risks by an insurer, including all acts necessary to such writing or reinsuring and the activities relating to the writing of insurance or the reinsuring of risks conducted by persons who act as, or are, officers, directors, agents, or employees of insurers or who are other persons authorized to act on behalf of such persons.
Beginning on page 582, there is a lengthy section in which the term "financial product or service" is defined. The following brief exclusion is on page 585, near the end of that section:
The term "financial product or service" does not include the business of insurance.
General Observations
I have long been impressed by the ability of the insurance industry to lobby successfully for enactment of laws that allow insurance companies to harm consumers with "unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices." One of my early experiences in that regard was the enactment of federal legislation in 1979 prohibiting the Federal Trade Commission from taking action against insurance companies and from even investigating insurance companies without a formal request from a congressional committee. I discussed the matter on pages 78-79 in my new book, The Insurance Forum: A Memoir, where I showed the current language of the relevant federal statute.

Now we have the Dodd-Frank Act prohibiting CFPB from doing anything about insurance. The combination of the definition of "business of insurance" and the exclusion of insurance from the definition of "financial product or service" allows insurance companies to engage in practices harmful to insurance consumers, given the industry's success in preventing state insurance regulators from taking effective action against such practices. As an example, the complaint we submitted to CFPB includes detailed discussions of how state insurance regulators opposed a potential requirement that insurance companies disclose APRs associated with fractional premium charges.

Available Material
I am making available as a complimentary 52-page PDF the complaint Press and I submitted to CFPB. My primary reasons for offering the package are to allow readers to see the discussions of the significance of APR disclosure of fractional premium charges and how state insurance regulators opposed that important form of consumer protection. Email and ask for the Press/Belth 2014 complaint to CFPB.