WASHINGTON — Just four days after being appointed to spearhead the creation of the new consumer bureau, Elizabeth Warren has hit the ground running.
She has reached out to banking trade groups, called the top executives of the largest banks, had lunch with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and convened the first official meeting of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to hash out mortgage disclosures.
"It's easy to forget how enormous the task is of establishing this agency, so one would expect the administration's chief advocate for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to be pushing hard, and that seems to be what's happening," said Jaret Seiberg, an analyst at Washington Research Group, a division of Concept Capital.
Still, observers were struck by how quickly she sought out bankers who vigorously opposed the creation of the CFPB and Warren's having a role with it. In the last few days, Warren has called the CEOs of most of the 10 largest banks and in some cases attempted to set up meetings with the executives.
Warren contacted Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., last week while he was in Russia. The two had a "positive discussion about working together," a company spokesman said.
She also got in touch with Ed Yingling, president and CEO of the American Bankers Association, which fought the creation of the CFPB. The two agreed to meet soon.
On Monday Warren was spotted meeting with officials from the Oklahoma Bankers Association during their annual trip to Washington (Warren is originally from Oklahoma). On Wednesday she is due to give her first speech to the industry since her appointment as an assistant to the president and special adviser to Geithner in charge of setting up the CFPB.
Warren also had lunch Monday with Geithner, with whom she has had a tense relationship as the chairman of the Troubled Asset Relief Program's Congressional Oversight Panel. "She's clearly reaching out, and from our perspective that's a good thing," Yingling said. "She wants to have a better understanding of the issues. … It's constructive on everybody's part to have a full dialogue."
Some observers suggested Warren was trying to mend her relationship with an industry that has all but demonized the Harvard professor since she first suggested the creation of a consumer protection agency in 2007.
"The single biggest issue about the bureau was the singularity of purpose that it was designed solely to protect consumers, not to balance the lenders … and reaching out shows she wants to have an open dialogue and the views of the industry," said Laurence Platt, a partner at K&L Gates.
Ernest Patrikis, a partner at White & Case LLP, doubted the wounds would heal so easily.
"It seems that she is trying to show that she is not that antagonistic to the industry, but the statements she's made on credit cards and the industry, all of it doesn't parse … the statements she's made don't make it seem that she is going to be all that warm and fuzzy," Patrikis said.
Bruce Marks, CEO of Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, said he hopes Warren won't go too far to placate the industry. "Our concern is we don't want her to be more like Geithner," he said. "We need Geithner to be more like her as opposed to Elizabeth being more like Geithner. The issue should not be to win over the industry."
Warren was also moving Tuesday to address a top priority for the CFPB: merging mortgage disclosure requirements of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act and the Truth in Lending Act. She and Geithner convened a meeting with 28 individuals, including mortgage industry representatives, consumers, housing counselors and financial literacy experts. The Dodd-Frank law requires the CFPB to merge the two laws within a year of its creation. During the meeting, officials released a sample 4-page disclosure form which they are seeking feedback on. The form can be found here.
"It is no secret to this group that consumers need good information so that they can make good decisions, and that's what this undertaking is about," Warren said as the meeting got under way. "It's about how it is that we think about what information consumers need, and when they need it, to make the best possible financial decisions."
Participants in the meeting said that although it was a difficult task, Warren appeared intent on accomplishing it as soon as possible.
"Clearly she's hitting the ground running and she's taking on a difficult and complex issue," said Ann Grochala, director of lending and accounting policy for the Independent Community Bankers of America, who attended the meeting. "She's a very active and willing listener to all parts of the industry."
David Berenbaum, chief program officer at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, said he was impressed.
"She was very interactive, listened carefully with all of the vantage points, confirmed with the speakers on what they said as she tried to summarize remarks," he said. "I felt she was a consensus builder and very knowledgeable on her position."
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