U.S. Agency Takes Big Step Toward Regulating Fintech Companies

  • OCC to set up innovation office to examine new technologies
  • Regulator to have staff in Washington, New York, San Francisco

Without saying how it might oversee financial-technology firms in the future, a key U.S. regulator is setting up an office to respond to a surge in banking-industry innovations.

The new arm of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency will establish an outreach program to companies, conduct research and collaborate with other financial regulators, the agency said in a statement Wednesday. The front-line office will open in the first few months of 2017, and be based in Washington, with some staff in New York and San Francisco.

The agency also said it’s open to setting up a program that lets companies test cutting-edge financing strategies under the government’s watch.

“We are ensuring that institutions with federal charters have a regulatory framework that is receptive to responsible innovation and the supervision that supports it,” Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry said in the statement.

Banking Charter

Left unanswered by the regulator’s announcement is how it might set up special charters for nonbank fintech firms. Charters would formally subject companies to federal rules and oversight. While such a designation could extend the industry’s reach by making it more established, it may also bring regulatory headaches and added compliance costs depending on the structure.

The OCC did say Wednesday that it will release a white paper in the coming weeks outlining the issues around providing special-purpose bank charters for fintech companies.

With the development of technologies -- such as blockchain, mobile payments systems and the fresh approaches to finance taken by companies including LendingClub Corp. and On Deck Capital Inc. -- regulators have scrambled to keep pace. Many of the innovations have popped up without the government restrictions that established financial firms are subjected to.

The amount of money at stake is also increasing. An estimated $13.8 billion of investments poured into the fintech companies last year, according to data from CB Insights and KPMG International. The volume for U.S. loans issued by tech companies lending over the Internet was $20 billion last year, and could climb to $120 billion by the end of the decade, according to Morgan Stanley research.

Innovation Sandbox

The industry has been clamoring for a sort of sandbox that would allow it to try out innovations without running afoul of regulators. The OCC said it’s willing to allow that for banks it supervises and their partners, though a specific plan still needs to be ironed out.

Even before announcing its new office, the OCC had begun clearing a path for fintech. Last month, the agency proposed a strategy for how it plans to handle failing firms that don’t have government-insured deposits.

The OCC’s innovation office will initially be led by an acting chief, Beth Knickerbocker, the agency said.

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