Strategic Alliance

Rent-a-Charter vs. Strategic Alliance

In June 2004, I wrote a post about schemes by non-bank lenders, especially payday lenders, to “partner” with banks and thrifts in ways that would allow the non-banks to use the bank’s or thrift’s status to “preempt” “inconvenient state laws, such as those pesky usury limits. As I said at the time:

Apparently, the state-chartered banks involved in this practice are counting on the continued lack of objection by the FDIC, and the continued sympathy of state banking regulators who are eager to increase the number of state-chartered institutions that they regulate. In my opinion, this is a risky course.

I also pointed out at the time that national banks and federal savings banks could rest assured that their primary federal regulator would be scrutinizing their business arrangements with non-banks like Elizabeth Warren looking under her bed every night for a bad banker looking to steal all the cash she has hidden in the sock that she keeps under her pillow.

According to a recent client alert from Chapman and Cutler LLP, this bad old idea not only refuses to die, but has engendered state officials to take action to stop it in its tracks. While the alert discusses the State of Pennsylvania going after payday lenders who’ve aligned themselves with Native American tribes (which has been a problematic marriage for quite some time), it has wider implications for similar arrangements. In this instance, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania alleged that the “true lender” for regulatory purposes was not a bank in Delaware that would have been exempt from Pennsylvania usury limits and licensing requirements but the non-bank website “originator” that did most of the origination work and derived most of the economic benefits from the loans. The authors note that in other jurisdictions, the court decisions have not been in lockstep on the issue of preemption, arrangements like the one challenged here are likely always to put the lenders in the regulatory crosshairs.

No clear rule has emerged although regulatory challenges almost certainly are more likely to be made when excessive interest rates and/or abusive sales or collection practices are involved. In this case, the loans imposed interest rates of 200% to 300%.

The alert notes that even though the court’s decision involved only a motion to dismiss Pennsylvania’s action, and that is a long way from a judgment on the merits, the red flags for financial institutions involved in such relationships are clear “because it demonstrates that plaintiffs will continue to raise the “true lender” theory and courts will not necessarily dismiss at an early stage (for failure to state a claim upon relief can be granted) “true lender” claims solely because a bank is the named lender on the loans, at least where there are allegations that the originating bank does not have substantive duties or economic interest in the program.”

In order to mitigate the risk of claims based on the “true lender” doctrine, companies that engage in internet-based lending programs through an arrangement with one or more banks should consider how the programs are structured. For example, consideration should be given to operations where the bank has substantive duties and/or an economic interest in the program or loans. We are aware that some internet-based lending programs are considering structural changes of this nature.

The firm also advises institutions to make certain that they comply with regulatory guidance governing relationships with service providers. They cite FIL-9-2016 and related FDIC guidance. I’d also suggest taking a look at the OCC’s Bulletin 2013-29.

Or, for a change of pace, a bank considering one of these schemes might decide to take its entire capital to The Bellagio in Vegas, walk up to the nearest roulette wheel, and lay it all on “00.” I mean, if you like dancing along the razor’s edge with insured deposits, you might as well go all-in. Plus, you get free booze as long as your money lasts. To hedge your bet, you might want to hold back enough to buy a one-way ticket to Havana (regular flights from the States start soon) just in case that method of income-generation doesn’t work out as well as a strategic alliance with a non-bank payday lender.

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