July 31, 2018 / 2:18 PM / 3 months ago

UPDATE 6-U.S. bank regulator allows fintech firms to seek federal charter

(Adds more context on charter, companies)

By Michelle Price and Pete Schroeder

WASHINGTON, July 31 (Reuters) - A U.S. bank regulator said on Tuesday it would start accepting national charter applications from financial technology companies, giving so-called fintech firms a path to federal oversight for the first time.

The move by the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) will be cheered by the likes of OnDeck Capital Inc, Kabbage and LendingClub Corp because it opens the door to operating nationwide under a single licensing and regulatory regime instead of a patchwork of state licenses.

The decision came hours after the Treasury Department endorsed the approach. Effective immediately, the OCC will accept applications from non-depository fintech companies for a special purpose national bank charter.

The regulator said successful applicants would be supervised similarly to comparable banks, and companies must provide a contingency plan for how they would navigate financial stress that could threaten their operations.

There is no current federal regulatory regime for fintech firms, meaning online lenders must seek licenses in every state they wish to operate, an onerous and expensive process, or partner with traditional banks.

The OCC charter would allow fintech firms to operate independently across the country under a single federal license.

"If they can create a national standard of sorts and harmonize that regulatory burden then that will provide a real benefit to America’s small businesses and hopefully in the long run decrease of the cost of credit,” said Scott Stewart, chief executive of trade group Innovative Lending Platform Association.

A fintech charter was first floated by the OCC in 2016. State regulators have vigorously opposed the idea, saying it exceeds the OCC's statutory authority.

The New York Department of Financial Services and the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS) unsuccessfully sued the OCC last year to block the charter.

In a statement, the New York regulator said the OCC decision will impose an "unjustified" federal regulatory scheme on the state regulatory landscape.

The CSBS did not rule out further litigation. “State regulators are keeping all options open to stop this regulatory overreach," the group said in a statement.

The Independent Community Bankers of America has also raised concerns, saying such a charter may allow fintech firms to circumvent tough banking rules.

But the Treasury and many conservative Republicans see promoting fintech as a way to boost small companies and create jobs.

In a report earlier on Tuesday, the Treasury recommended the charter as a way to support non-bank financial institutions and foster technology-driven innovation.

But the Treasury recommended against allowing fintech firms to collect government-insured deposits under such a charter.

The OCC will only accept applications from non-depository firms. This limitation, which aims to reduce risks to taxpayers, could undermine the use of a charter for some fintech firms, according to industry insiders.

Tuesday's report was the last of four by the Treasury as part of a review of financial rules mandated by an executive order from U.S. President Donald Trump in February. (Reporting by Michelle Price and Pete Schroeder; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli)

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