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Barefoot Innovation Podcast

Sep 25, 2018

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I am especially thrilled about today’s guest -- California DBO Commissioner Jan Owen -- because this episode has been years in the making. I’ve known Jan for a long time, and as anyone who knows her will attest, she’s a breath of fresh air in the regulatory world. She’s candid, she’s outspoken, she’s thought provoking, and she's fearless in tackling thorny issues. We’ve been looking for a good chance to sit down and talk, and we finally found one this summer.

As it happens, it turned out to be one of Barefoot Innovation’s most fun settings ever (and we’ve had some great ones, including beachside in Fiji at the AFI conference). Jan and I were both in Santa Fe in July for a conference and we decided to record our talk on an outdoor balcony, as a thunder storm approached. It was extremely windy, and we could smell the ozone and coming rain, and you’ll be able to hear the thunder booming, sometimes startlingly well-timed to punctuate Jan’s more pointed comments. We took our chances with the weather, staying outside as the sky darkened and dozens of lightning strikes forked down out of the clouds onto the mountains behind Jan -- I wish I’d gotten a photo of that.  In the end, we had to run for it as the rain began, first with big drops spattering the deck and then, ten seconds later, deluge! So the episode ends a little abruptly!

Jan Lynn Owen is one of the most important financial regulators in the US because she heads the California Department of Business Oversight (DBO). Since California arguably leads the world in financial innovation, the DBO is at the forefront in addressing emerging regulatory issues around fintech. Importantly, state regulators, unlike most of the federal ones, oversee both banks and nonbanks. The US federal regulators dominate financial policy, but they don't directly supervise nonbank startups. That means they’re not in close touch with the cutting edge of innovation, which is not in the banks -- it’s in the nonbank startups.

So having a regulator like Jan who understands both banking and fintech is invaluable. In our conversation, she shares her diverse background, including having been a banker and regulator. She describes the scope of the DBO, which is breathtaking -- 368,000 licensees, over 4,000 small business and small dollar lenders, over 300 payday lenders, over 400 nondepository mortgage companies - you get the picture.

As you would expect, we had a lively discussion about the proposal by the US Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) to create a fintech charter. Jan is famously opposed to it and I have been an outspoken advocate for it - we’ll link in the show notes to my debate on that topic with John Ryan, CEO of the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS). Jan is of course a leader in CSBS and in our talk, she describes their efforts to modernize and streamline the state regulatory systems and licensing system in ways that she believes can meet the needs of the fintech sector without the OCC establishing a new type of federal charter. (Note that my discussion with Jan was recorded in mid-July, and so predated the OCC’s July 31 announcement that it is going ahead with the new fintech charter.)

Jan points out that the fintech world has transitioned from seeking to avoid regulation to embracing it, in the realization that it helps their business model. She says this shift is putting healthy pressure on government to figure out how to regulate these novel companies, and she’s candid in saying that many of our financial laws and rules are old and out of date. In our talk, she invites input from anyone and everyone on how to fix them.

The OCC fintech charter was not the only issue on which Jan and I disagree. If you read the news, you probably already know that she’s been outspoken in her skepticism about regulatory sandboxes -- and our regular listeners know that I think regulators really need them. Much of the issue comes down to how they’re designed, and we had a good conversation about the dos and don'ts of sandboxes, reglabs, and innovation hubs. The key is to give regulators a safe space to do easy experimentation, mainly to accelerate their own learning, while still assuring full consumer protection. (Since Jan and I spoke, the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection also announced that it will launch a regulatory sandbox.)

Before we fled the rainstorm, I asked Jan to talk about a speech she’s been giving titled “Sex, Drugs, and Skinny Jeans” (a perfect example of her style). The “sex” topic is the #MeToo movement, including Jan’s personal experience with workplace sexual misconduct. The “drugs” issue is, of course, how to regulate the financial issues raised by legal marijuana in states like California, since federal law still bars banks from opening accounts for these cash-rich businesses. And “skinny jeans” is about the culture clash between traditional, suit-and-tie finance and the jeans-and-tee-shirt worldview of Silicon Valley. We’re going to have to bridge that divide, if we want to optimize the technology change coming to the financial world.

Enjoy this thunderous episode with Jan Lynn Owen.



Podcast with John Ryan - Conference of State Bank Bank Supervisors President

Recent Speech at Lendit

More on Jan Lynn Owen

Jan Lynn Owen was appointed the first-ever Commissioner of the California Department of Business Oversight by Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. on July 1, 2013, following a merger of the departments of Corporations and Financial Institutions. Previously, Ms. Owen served as Commissioner of Corporations.

Prior to becoming Commissioner, Ms. Owen was the principal at The Jan Owen Group; a strategic initiatives manager at Apple Inc.; vice president of government affairs at JP Morgan Chase; state director of government and industry affairs at Washington Mutual Inc.; and executive director of the California Mortgage Bankers Association.

From 1999 to 2000, Ms. Owen was acting commissioner of the Department of Financial Institutions, following on her role as deputy commissioner from 1996 to 1999. She also served for several years as a consultant to the state Senate Banking Committee.

Ms. Owen is an alumna of California State University, Fresno, where she earned her degree in Economics.

More for our listeners

We have great podcasts in the queue. We have a series focused on global developments in fintech and regtech, including Harish Natarajan of the World Bank and Anju Padwardhan of CreditEase and Stanford University, who talks about fintech developments in China. From London, we’ll have a talk with P.J. DiGiamarino of JWG and the Regtech Council. We’ll also have a really thought-provoking show with Peter Renton, who leads LendAcademy and the LendIt conference series. We have a regtech firm coming up, Alloy, which has high-tech solutions for meeting the Know-Your-Customer rules in AML. And we’ll have a show with the co-founders of Earnup. So, lots to look forward to!

The fall conference circuit is exciting. Some of the places I’ll be speaking are:

I’ll also be speaking at several events hosted by US regulators this fall. It’s great to see so many of them really digging into the issues surrounding fintech and regtech.

Also, watch for upcoming information on my collaboration with Brett King on his new book on the future of finance -- we’ll have a show and events on that as well.

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