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.
One problem with the payday-lending industry—for regulators, for lenders, for the public interest—is that it defies simple economic intuition. For instance, in most industries, more competition means lower prices for consumers. That maxim surely helped guide the deregulation of the fringe lending business in the 1990s—and some advocates still believe that further deregulation is the key to making payday loans affordable. Yet there’s little evidence that a proliferation of payday lenders produces this consumer-friendly competitive effect. Quite the contrary: While states with no interest-rate limits do have more competition—there are more stores—borrowers in those states (Idaho, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin) pay the highest prices in the country, more than double those paid by residents of some other states, according to Pew. In states where the interest rate is capped, the rate that payday lenders charge gravitates right toward the cap. “Instead of a race to the lowest rates, it’s a race to the highest rates,” says Tom Feltner, the director of financial services at the Consumer Federation of America.
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As you find when you dig into just about any modern economic scenario, most people have at least one horse in every race, which makes it hard to separate advocacy and reality. So let’s go where Freakonomics Radio often goes when we want to find someone who does not have a horse in the race: to academia. Let’s ask some academic researchers if the payday-loan industry is really as nasty as it seems.
Consider a study that Zinman published a few years back. It looked at what happened in Oregon after that state capped interest rates on short-term loans from the usual 400 percent to 150 percent, which meant a payday lender could no longer charge the industry average of roughly $15 per $100 borrowed; now they could charge only about $6. As an economist might predict, if the financial incentive to sell a product is severely curtailed, people will stop selling the product.
Perhaps a solution of sorts—something that is better, but not perfect—could come from more-modest reforms to the payday-lending industry, rather than attempts to transform it. There is some evidence that smart regulation can improve the business for both lenders and consumers. In 2010, Colorado reformed its payday-lending industry by reducing the permissible fees, extending the minimum term of a loan to six months, and requiring that a loan be repayable over time, instead of coming due all at once. Pew reports that half of the payday stores in Colorado closed, but each remaining store almost doubled its customer volume, and now payday borrowers are paying 42 percent less in fees and defaulting less frequently, with no reduction in access to credit. “There’s been a debate for 20 years about whether to allow payday lending or not,” says Pew’s Alex Horowitz. “Colorado demonstrates it can be much, much better.”
While the loans are simple to obtain — some online lenders promise approval in minutes with no credit check — they are tough to get rid of. Customers who want to repay their loan in full typically must contact the online lender at least three days before the next withdrawal. Otherwise, the lender automatically renews the loans at least monthly and withdraws only the interest owed. Under federal law, customers are allowed to stop authorized withdrawals from their account. Still, some borrowers say their banks do not heed requests to stop the loans.
DeYoung also argues that most payday borrowers know exactly what they’re getting into when they sign up; that they’re not unwitting and desperate people who are being preyed upon. He points to a key piece of research by Ronald Mann; that’s another co-author on the New York Fed blog post.
Consumer advocates and other experts[who?] argue, however, that payday loans appear to exist in a classic market failure. In a perfect market of competing sellers and buyers seeking to trade in a rational manner, pricing fluctuates based on the capacity of the market. Payday lenders have no incentive to price their loans competitively since loans are not capable of being patented. Thus, if a lender chooses to innovate and reduce cost to borrowers in order to secure a larger share of the market the competing lenders will instantly do the same, negating the effect. For this reason, among others, all lenders in the payday marketplace charge at or very near the maximum fees and rates allowed by local law.
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The payday lending industry argues that conventional interest rates for lower dollar amounts and shorter terms would not be profitable. For example, a $100 one-week loan, at a 20% APR (compounded weekly) would generate only 38 cents of interest, which would fail to match loan processing costs. Research shows that on average, payday loan prices moved upward, and that such moves were “consistent with implicit collusion facilitated by price focal points”.
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Which suggests there is a small but substantial group of people who are so financially desperate and/or financially illiterate that they can probably get into big trouble with a financial instrument like a payday loan.
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Begin with last October’s oral argument in Gill v. Whitford, the political-gerrymandering case many observers expected to be the court’s major statement on the issue. The challengers to Wisconsin’s Republican-leaning system of legislative districts claimed that it violated both the First Amendment (by “penalizing … voters because of their political beliefs”) and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (by “diluting the political influence of a targeted group of voters”). They asked the court to ratify the lower court’s three-part test. Under that test, a legislative map is invalid if it (1) is intended to discriminate among voters based on partisan identity; (2) causes a “large and durable” political swing in representation from one party to another; and (3) lacks any other reason or justification except political advantage.
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U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (left) talks with Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray after he testified about Wall Street reform at a 2014 Senate Banking Committee hearing. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
Some other academic research we’ve mentioned today does acknowledge the role of CCRF in providing industry data — like Jonathan Zinman’s paper which showed that people suffered from the disappearance of payday-loan shops in Oregon. Here’s what Zinman writes in an author’s note: “Thanks to Consumer Credit Research Foundation (CCRF) for providing household survey data. CCRF is a non-profit organization, funded by payday lenders, with the mission of funding objective research. CCRF did not exercise any editorial control over this paper.”
The likelihood that a family will use a payday loan increases if they are unbanked, or lack access to a traditional deposit bank account. In an American context the families who will use a payday loan are disproportionately either of black or Hispanic descent, recent immigrants, and/or under-educated. These individuals are least able to secure normal, lower-interest-rate forms of credit. Since payday lending operations charge higher interest-rates than traditional banks, they have the effect of depleting the assets of low-income communities. The Insight Center, a consumer advocacy group, reported in 2013 that payday lending cost U.S communities $774 million a year.
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Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Are Payday Loans Really as Evil as People Say?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)
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