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Policymakers continue to debate fintech charter

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Investors and financial institutions continue to invest in fintech to help meet the dynamic expectations of consumers who want fast, easy and hassle-free access to new financial products and services. Just last week, in his annual letter to shareholders, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon noted that the bank has invested approximately $600 million “on emerging fintech solutions – which include building and improving digital and mobile services and partnering with fintech companies.”

Meanwhile, policymakers in Washington continue to grapple with how to spur responsible innovation and how fintech fits into the existing regulatory paradigm.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) continues to move forward with the development of a special purpose national charter for fintech lenders.  On March 15, the OCC issued a draft supplement to its existing Licensing Manual that describes how the agency “will apply the licensing standards and requirements in its existing regulations and policies to fintech companies applying for a special purpose national bank charter.” The draft manual, which is open for a 30-day public comment period ending April 14, 2017, would prohibit fintech lenders from offering products “with predatory features” or entities that inappropriately mingle banking and commerce. The agency also defended its legal authority to make the move without a new law from Congress or any formal rulemaking process, saying it’s doing nothing more than expanding a longstanding practice.

At the same time, a group of House Republicans, led by House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), has asked Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry to slow down plans to grant special charters to fintech firms. In the letter, the lawmakers state that OCC should provide “full and fair opportunity” for public comment on standards for granting fintech charters and allow President Trump’s pick for the next comptroller to weigh in. The lawmakers go on to say that if OCC “proceeds in haste” to create new limited-purpose charter for fintech, Congress will examine the agency’s actions and “if appropriate, overturn them.”

The issue will likely continue to bubble under the surface as Congress and the Trump Administration tackle larger issues such as tax reform, infrastructure spending and possibly wider financial services reform. However, the fintech charter is a legacy item for Comptroller Curry and he is likely to seek to move this to closure given that his term expires at the end of April (although he would remain in place until President Trump nominates and confirms his replacement).