White House consumer adviser gathers input in Ohio

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Posted: Oct 14, 2010 5:56 PM
White House consumer adviser gathers input in Ohio

The success of a new federal consumer protection agency depends on how well it grasps the challenges people face with credit card agreements, mortgage deals and other financial products, a White House adviser said Thursday.

Elizabeth Warren, a special assistant to President Barack Obama, is tasked with overseeing the creation of the new Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. She made her first outside-Washington fact-gathering mission on Thursday, meeting with consumer advocates in Ohio.

"I think it's powerfully important for this agency to be in touch with families across America in a real and sustained way, and for the agency to understand _ really understand _ the problems families are having with consumer credit products," Warren said in her opening remarks. "That will be absolutely critical to its success."

The new consumer agency, which will rewrite the rules for everyday products such as credit cards and mortgages, is a cornerstone of the Obama administration's financial overhaul. The administration says it shows that its legislative agenda has produced real changes and hopes the agency will appeal to voters who are unmoved by changes to the complex rules governing Wall Street banks.

Warren's round-table discussion at a suburban Columbus church was closed to members of the press.

Credit card disclosure, harassment of seniors for unverifiable debts and payday lending were among the topics discussed, said Suzanne Acker, a spokeswoman for the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio. The meeting with Warren was hosted by the coalition, Americans for Financial Reform, and Policy Matters Ohio.

Warren told reporters before the round-table that payday lending would be a "high priority" for the agency.

People should have access to small-dollar loans for emergencies, she said, but "a model that is designed to keep those families in a revolving door of debt is not good for families _ and ultimately not good for the economy."

Warren said federal regulators would look at the business models used in payday lending, the costs to consumers and the actions states have taken to regulate it.

During her first few weeks on the job, Warren met with financial industry leaders and consumers groups in Washington to talk about the role of regulation. That role, she said "is not to come in and either tell families what they should do or tell creditors a whole list of 'thou shall nots.' What this is really about is trying to get a credit market that actually works."

The new agency's early efforts will involve making mortgage and credit card disclosures easier to understand, she said.

"Page after page of fine print makes it impossible for customers to compare one product to another and then choose the one that is right for them," Warren said in her opening remarks.

Warren said she came to Ohio to see what people were hearing and thinking outside of Washington.

Acker said Warren listened to ideas from the consumer advocates for about 50 minutes.

"When the agency is ready to rock and roll, we'll be represented _ I'm certain," Acker said.

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AP Business Writer Daniel Wagner in Washington contributed to this report.