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Looking for a watchdog with teeth

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010; G01

Burglars hate alarm systems, and they hate big barking dogs.

This is what we need in the financial industry: a better alarm system in the form of a big, bad barking dog solely dedicated to protecting consumers.

With health-care reform in place, such as it is, Congress is now fighting over financial regulatory reform. This is a battle consumers need to win.

Part of the reform being pushed by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) is the creation of a Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. This agency would regulate consumer financial products and such services as mortgages, other loans and credit cards. A council would be established to sound the alarm early if companies or products pose a risk to the economy. New rules would better protect and inform investors.

Given what we've seen in recent years, it's time to enact some safeguards to help prevent what led to our current economic crisis.

For too long, the financial industry has been able to prey on consumers in the name of caveat emptor -- "let the buyer beware."

As in the past, the financial industry will holler and pump up the coffers of their lobbyists to try and block reform. It already is trotting out the same old tired and self-serving arguments that the legislation will create a regulatory burden and eventually drive up prices, tighten the availability of credit or prevent the creation of new products.

Oh, cry me a river.

Some regulation is better than none at all. Besides, prices were going up anyway. Some people shouldn't have access to credit because they can't afford it. And financial firms will still have an economic incentive to create new ways to snarl people in debt.

But let's not forget that for decades, Congress has stepped in and successfully passed laws that have helped curb abuses on consumers.

So in pondering the debate over financial reform, ask yourself: Where would we be without the Truth in Lending Act of 1968? This federal law requires clear disclosure of key terms and costs of a lending deal. For the first time, lenders had to really come clean about the true interest rates on loans. That legislation, pushed by Sen. William Proxmire, took years to pass. But it eventually got through because people were tired of lenders who were misleading borrowers about the cost of their credit.

Later, we got the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which gives consumers the right to check their credit reports and regulates how credit bureaus use the information they collect about consumers. This law has paved the way for people to get a free copy of their credit reports. In 1974, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, prohibiting discriminatory credit screening, was passed. The Fair Credit Billing Act protects consumers from unfair billing practices: It gives them the ability to fight back if incorrectly charged on an "open end" account, such as credit card.

The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 helped curb redlining, the ugly discriminatory practice in which lenders denied or raised the cost of credit to minorities even when they were otherwise qualified.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act of 1978 was passed in response to debt collectors using abusive, unfair or deceptive practices.

Now, here we are in 2010 and still trying to make the financial industry do right. We need to put it on notice. It has to take responsibility for the reckless products or services it sells. So, yes, we need a consumer protection bureau.

Right now, what's on the table is a strong agency with teeth, said Elizabeth Warren, chairwoman of the congressional oversight panel monitoring the U.S. banking bailout.

But, she added, "The lobbyists are out in force to pull those teeth. The Senate will need to pick sides between banks that profit from tricks and traps hidden in the fine print on one side and families that are fed up on the other side."

President Obama, in a speech Thursday on Wall Street reform, said: "While it's true that many Americans took on financial obligations that they knew or should have known they could not have afforded, millions of others were, frankly, duped. They were misled by deceptive terms and conditions, buried deep in the fine print."

This debate might drag on just as the health-care battle did, but don't get weary. And don't be fooled into thinking the industry can police itself.

I say, caveat venditor -- "let the seller beware."

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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