The Trilateral Dilemma in Financial Regulation

This post is by Howell Jackson of Harvard Law School.

My recent article “The Trilateral Dilemma in Financial Regulation” analyzes a practice — which I label the trilateral dilemma — existing in many different sections of the financial services industry, including mortgage lending, retirement savings, investment management, insurance brokering and banking services. The practice arises in the context of a consumer seeking the recommendation of a financial adviser for the purpose of choosing financial products and services. With surprising frequency, these advisers receive side payments or other forms of compensation from the firms that provide the product or service the advisers recommend. Many times these payments are not clearly disclosed to the consumers; often they are entirely secret.

In the article I describe how trilateral dilemmas have arisen in many different sections of the financial services industry. I then review the many different regulatory strategies that legislatures, courts and regulatory bodies have employed to address the problem. The modal regulatory response is the imposition of some sort of fiduciary duty on the financial advisor along with a generalized disclosure to consumers affected by the transaction. I then discuss a range of recurring analytical issues that arise in policy debates over trilateral dilemmas in a variety of settings, and I also evaluate the possibility that side payments and other forms of indirect compensation may in fact be an efficient or at least innocuous means of financing the cost of distributing financial products and services. The article concludes with some thoughts about the implications of my analysis for devising regulatory responses and for the role that consumer education might play in helping consumers work through these difficulties.

The article is available here.

One specific — and highly controversial — example of the trilateral dilemma in the real estate context involves the payment of yield spread premiums by lending institutions to mortgage brokers for steering consumers towards particular loans. In a recent article entitled “Kickbacks or Compensation: The Case of Yield Spread Premiums“, Laurie Burlingame and I present an empirical study of approximately 3,000 mortgage financings of a major lending institution operating on a nationwide basis through both a network of independent mortgage brokers and some direct lending. The data for this study was obtained through discovery in litigation that was subsequently settled. The study offers a number of insights into the impact of yield spread premiums of mortgage broker compensation and borrower costs. In particular, the study suggests that for transactions involving yield spread premiums, mortgage brokers received substantially more compensation than they did in transactions without yield spread premiums. This estimated difference in mortgage broker compensation is statistically significant and robust to a variety of formulations.

Industry representatives have long argued that yield spread premiums are not harmful to consumers because these payments are recouped through lower direct payments to mortgage brokers. However, our analysis suggests that this claim is baseless, at least with respect to sample included in our database. With a high degree of statistical confidence and using multiple formulations, we can reject the proposition that consumers fully recoup the cost of yield spread premiums. Our best estimate is that consumers get less than 35 cents of value for every dollar of yield spread premiums, a very bad deal for consumers.

The article also provides evidence that the payment of yield spread premiums may allow mortgage brokers to engage in price discrimination among borrowers. The evidence suggests that yield spread premiums are not simply another form of mortgage broker compensation, but rather a unique form of compensation that allows mortgage brokers to extract excessive payments from many consumers. The article concludes with a discussion of the implications of the study, areas for regulatory focus, and proposals for regulatory reform.

The article is available here.

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  1. By The Bellows » More on Mortgages on Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    […] sense, they do deserve a transfer from financial institutions. Along those lines, a friend emails a summary (by Howell Jackson) of a new paper (by Howell Jackson): My recent article “The Trilateral Dilemma […]