The mutual split between AI-driven lender Upstart and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers a look inside the agency's fast-evolving approach to fintech.
The CFPB last week revoked a no-action letter granting limited regulatory immunity to Upstart, a publicly traded fintech company whose AI-driven underwriting in 2021 helped originate nearly $12 billion in loans through lending partners, according to the CFPB. CFPB Director Rohit Chopra had recently declared no-action letters and the agency’s related fintech sandbox program “ineffective.”
Upstart said it requested the letter’s termination in response to “changing priorities” at the agency, as well as the “need to keep our risk models accurate and up-to-date during a period of significant economic change,” Nat Hoopes, Upstart’s vice president and head of public policy and regulatory affairs, said in a company blog post.
The CFPB under the Trump administration planned to help bring new products to market by issuing no-action letters to certain businesses and by launching a regulatory sandbox within the agency’s innovation office. In May, Chopra, who was nominated to the agency by President Joe Biden, said the CFPB would reorganize that office and shift away from efforts that place "special regulatory treatment on individual companies.”
Upstart was granted the agency’s first-ever no-action letter in 2017 and had it extended for three years in 2020. The letter provided assurance that the CFPB would not pursue a fair-lending action against the company during that time.
Weeks before that announcement, Upstart had notified the CFPB that it planned to add new variables to its underwriting and pricing model—notice the company was required to give under the terms of the letter. The CFPB said it needed time to “rigorously evaluate" those changes. Part of the regulator’s concern was how the no-action letter could be seen by the public.
"In light of the risk that the [no-action letter] is misconstrued as an endorsement, the CFPB would need to perform more rigorous monitoring and assessment of Upstart’s model and any changes to the model," according to a notice of termination signed by Chopra.
Upstart "correctly identified" that this review would prevent the company from making quick business decisions, the notice added. On May 27, Upstart asked to have its no-action letter expiration moved up by 18 months, from Nov. 30, 2023 to the end of May.
The CFPB under its prior leadership had promoted the results of the sandbox program. In 2019, the agency’s blog re-published results from an Upstart-run analysis — which was required for the no-action letter — that found its lending model expanded access to credit when compared to traditional lending, though the CFPB made clear it had not replicated the results and does not promote the product.
The next sandbox
While the CFPB is still taking applications for the sandbox and no-action letter programs, it is encouraging companies to instead file formal rule-making petitions when seeking regulatory clarity. The CFPB's sandbox was not widely used — only four other companies received a no-action letter — but it was the most prominent effort on the federal level. There are 11 states with some form of regulatory sandboxes, a concept first tested in the U.K.
The recently proposed cryptocurrency regulation bill from Sens. Cynthia Lummis and Kirsten Gillibrand calls for a federal regulatory sandbox, which would allow crypto companies to test new products across state lines. Lummis hopes the sandbox will help innovation “flourish in its early stages.”
Proponents of sandboxes, including Republicans on the House Committee on Financial Services, say the CFPB's move will make it harder to bring new products to market. But consumer watchdog groups, which widely opposed the CFPB's sandbox when it was first proposed, say the agency is right to shift away from the effort.
"Regulatory processes already allow for all stakeholders to 'kick the tires' of new proposed rules to ensure they are fit for purpose," said Mark Hays, a senior policy analyst on fintech at Americans for Financial Reform.
Widespread state-level sandbox programs, such as the one proposed in the crypto bill, “could simply create a race to the bottom,” Hays added.
Along with reorganizing the innovation office, Chopra’s CFPB has pushed to expand its oversight authority over non-bank institutions, including technology providers for the financial industry. The agency has announced probes of employer-driven debt and “buy now, pay later” companies while warning about the risks of bias from algorithms used by financial institutions.
"Tech, fintech and the use of data more generally are a clear priority of the bureau, based not only on the experience at the FTC that Rohit Chopra has, but it's very timely [with] the growth of fintech," Michael Gordon, an attorney with Ballard Spahr and former top CFPB official, said on a podcast analyzing Chopra's first six months in office. That interest will likely involve the agency bringing more enforcement actions, he added.
Upstart declined to comment about what the absence of a no-action letter means for its business, but the firm cited the loss of the letter among risk factors for investors in its most recent earnings report. The company said it will “continue to rigorously test" its loan applications for fairness and hopes to work closely with the CFPB’s new Office of Competition and Innovation.
“Effective cooperation between the government and financial technology innovators remains critical to improving financial access for the millions of borrowers left behind by America’s current credit system,” wrote Hoopes.