After studying millions of payday loans, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that 67 percent went to borrowers with seven or more transactions a year, and the majority of borrowers paid more in fees than the amount of their initial loan. This is why Diane Standaert, the director of state policy at the Center for Responsible Lending, which argues for a 36 percent interest-rate cap, says, “The typical borrower experience involves long-term indebtedness—that’s core to the business model.”
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DUBNER:OK, so this is interesting that a watchdog group that will not reveal its funding is going after an industry for trying to influence academics that it’s funding. So should we assume that CFA, the watchdog, has some kind of horse in the payday race? Or do we just not know?
In many cases, borrowers write a post-dated check (check with a future date) to the lender; if the borrowers don’t have enough money in their account by the check’s date, their check will bounce. In Texas, payday lenders are prohibited from suing a borrower for theft if the check is post-dated. One payday lender in the state instead gets their customers to write checks dated for the day the loan is given. Customers borrow money because they don’t have any, so the lender accepts the check knowing that it would bounce on the check’s date. If the borrower fails to pay on the due date, the lender sues the borrower for writing a hot check.
DEYOUNG: Oh, I do think that our history of usury laws is a direct result of our Judeo-Christian background. And even Islamic banking, which follows in the same tradition. But clearly interest on money lent or borrowed has a, has been looked at non-objectively, let’s put it that way. So the shocking APR numbers if we apply them to renting a hotel room or renting an automobile or lending your father’s gold watch or your mother’s silverware to the pawnbroker for a month, the APRs come out similar. So the shock from these numbers is, we recognize the shock here because we are used to calculating interest rates on loans but not interest rates on anything else. And it’s human nature to want to hear bad news and it’s, you know, the media understands this and so they report bad news more often than good news. We don’t hear this. It’s like the houses that don’t burn down and the stores that don’t get robbed.
The idea that interest rates should have limits goes back to the beginning of civilization. Even before money was invented, the early Babylonians set a ceiling on how much grain could be paid in interest, according to Christopher Peterson, a law professor at the University of Utah and a senior adviser at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: They recognized the pernicious effects of trapping a family with debt that could not be paid back. In the United States, early, illegal payday-like loans trapped many borrowers, and harassment by lenders awoke the ire of progressives. States began to pass versions of the Uniform Small Loan Law, drafted in 1916 under the supervision of Arthur Ham, the first director of the Russell Sage Foundation’s Department of Remedial Loans. Ham recognized a key truth about small, short-term loans: They are expensive for lenders to make. His model law tried to encourage legal short-term lending by capping rates at a high enough level—states determined their own ceilings, typically ranging from 36 to 42 percent a year—to enable lenders to turn a profit. This was highly controversial, but many Americans still could not secure loans at that rate; their risk of default was deemed too great. Some of them eventually turned to the mob, which grew strong during Prohibition.
ZINMAN: And so we have a setup for a nice natural experiment there. You have two neighboring states, similar in a lot of ways. One passed a law, another considered passing a law, but didn’t quite pass it.
MCKAMEY: Everybody that comes in here always comes out with a smile on their face. I don’t never see nobody come out hollering. They take care of everybody that comes in to the T. You be satisfied, I be satisfied, and I see other people be satisfied. I never seen a person walk out with a bad attitude or anything.
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To prevent usury (unreasonable and excessive rates of interest), some jurisdictions limit the annual percentage rate (APR) that any lender, including payday lenders, can charge. Some jurisdictions outlaw payday lending entirely, and some have very few restrictions on payday lenders. In the United States, the rates of these loans used to be restricted in most states by the Uniform Small Loan Laws (USLL), with 36–40% APR generally the norm.
If you have taken out a payday loan and realize prior to the due date that you will be unable to remit a timely payment in full, contact the lender immediately to request a payment plan or make other arrangements. Although this will add more interest and fees (which can make the loan even harder to pay off), it prevents the loan from going into default and damaging your credit score for the time being.
Income tax refund anticipation loans are not technically payday loans (because they are repayable upon receipt of the borrower’s income tax refund, not at his next payday), but they have similar credit and cost characteristics. A car title loan is secured by the borrower’s car, but are available only to borrowers who hold clear title (i.e., no other loans) to a vehicle. The maximum amount of the loan is some fraction of the resale value of the car. A similar credit facility seen in the UK is a logbook loan secured against a car’s logbook, which the lender retains. These loans may be available on slightly better terms than an unsecured payday loan, since they are less risky to the lender. If the borrower defaults, then the lender can attempt to recover costs by repossessing and reselling the car.
The rules should be formally proposed this spring, but the pushback—from the industry and from more-surprising sources—has already been fierce. Dennis Shaul, who, before he became the head of the industry’s trade association, was a senior adviser to then-Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, accused the rule-makers of a harmful paternalism, rooted in a belief that payday-lending customers “are not able to make their own choices about credit.” All 10 of Florida’s congressional Democrats wrote in a letter to Richard Cordray, the bureau’s director, that the proposals do an “immeasurable disservice to our constituents, many of whom rely on the availability of short-term and small-dollar loans.” Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, recently co-sponsored a bill that would delay the regulations for at least two years.
Check ‘n Go (“we,” “our,” or “us”) provides deferred deposit transactions. Deferred deposit transactions are subject to a finance charge based on the amount you borrow, the “amount financed.” The larger your amount financed is, the larger the finance charge will be. We offer deferred deposit transactions in $5 amount-financed increments ranging from $50 to $255. The amount you owe equals the sum of the amount financed and the finance charge. For example, if you obtain a $255 deferred deposit transaction, then the finance charge is $45 and the amount you owe would be $300 (i.e., $255 + $45).
DUBNER: Wowzer. That does sound pretty damning — that the head of a research group funded by payday lenders is essentially ghostwriting parts of an academic paper that happens to reach pro-payday lending conclusions. Were you able to speak with Marc Fusaro, the author of the paper?
OBAMA: You take out a $500 loan at the rates that they’re charging at these payday loans — some cases 450 percent interest — you wind up paying more than $1,000 in interest and fees on the $500 that you borrowed … You don’t need to be a math genius to know that it’s a pretty bad deal if you’re borrowing $500 and you have to pay back $1,000 in interest.
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WERTH: So far, so good. But I think we should mention two things here: one, Fusaro had a co-author on the paper. Her name is Patricia Cirillo; she’s the president of a company called Cypress Research, which, by the way, is the same survey firm that produced data for the paper you mentioned earlier, about how payday borrowers are pretty good at predicting when they’ll be able to pay back their loans. And the other point, two, there was a long chain of e-mails between Marc Fusaro, the academic researcher here, and CCRF. And what they show is they certainly look like editorial interference.
WERTH: So, what Fusaro did was he set up a randomized control trial where he gave one group of borrowers a traditional high-interest-rate payday loan and then he gave another group of borrowers no interest rate on their loans and then he compared the two and he found out that both groups were just as likely to roll over their loans again. And we should say, again, the research was funded by CCRF.
Now, we should say, that when you’re an academic studying a particular industry, often the only way to get the data is from the industry itself. It’s a common practice. But, as Zinman noted in his paper, as the researcher you draw the line at letting the industry or industry advocates influence the findings. But as our producer Christopher Werth learned, that doesn’t always seem to have been the case with payday-lending research and the Consumer Credit Research Foundation, or CCRF.
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It may not even surprise you to learn that the Center for Responsible Lending — the non-profit that’s fighting predatory lending — that it was founded by a credit union, the Self-Help Credit Union, which would likely stand to benefit from the elimination of payday loans. And that among the Center’s many funders are banks and other mainstream financial institutions.
The Trump administration’s deregulatory mania is proceeding so quickly it’s sometimes tough to keep track of. Mulvaney is just another foot soldier for Trump’s ideological agenda, part of an ongoing campaign to dismantle regulations and defund agencies as a way of attacking financial safeguards, civil rights, and labor protections across government.
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.
DUBNER: Hey Christopher. So, as I understand it, much of what you’ve learned about CCRF’s involvement in the payday research comes from a watchdog group called the Campaign for Accountability, or CFA? So, first off, tell us a little bit more about them, and what their incentives might be.
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MANN: If your prior is that none of the people using this product would do it if they actually understood what was going on — well, that just doesn’t seem to be right because the data at least suggests that most people do have a fairly good understanding of what’s going to happen to them.
If you have concerns about taking a payday loan, don’t worry. Check ‘n Go is an industry leader and a founding member of the Community Financial Services Association, which promotes responsible lending practices and monitors consumer protection. And we’ll be here for you every step of the process. Our customer service representatives are ready to help when you need it.
DUBNER: Well, Christopher, that defense sounds, at least to me, like pretty weak sauce. I mean, the university writing center doesn’t have as much vested interest in the outcome of my writing as an industry group does for an academic paper about that industry, right?