FULMER: If you associate the cost of paying our rent to our local landlords, paying our light bill and electrical fees, paying our other fees to local merchants who provide services to us, we operate on a relatively thin margin.
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MARC FUSARO: The Consumer Credit Research Foundation and I had an interest in the paper being as clear as possible. And if someone, including Hilary Miller, would take a paragraph that I had written and re-write it in a way that made what I was trying to say more clear, I’m happy for that kind of advice. I have taken papers to the university writing center before and they’ve helped me make my writing more clear. And there’s nothing scandalous about that, at all. I mean the results of the paper have never been called into question. Nobody had suggested I changed any other results or anything like that based on any comments from anybody. Frankly, I think this is much ado about nothing.
“My French identity is reinforced by the very large number of people who openly declare, often now with violence, their hostility to French values and culture,” he said. “I live in a strange place. There is so much guilt and so much worry.” We were seated at a table in his apartment, near the Luxembourg Gardens. I had come to discuss with him the precarious future of French Jewry, but, as the hunt for the Charlie Hebdo killers seemed to be reaching its conclusion, we had become fixated on the television.
This reinforces the findings of the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) study from 2011 which found black and Hispanic families, recent immigrants, and single parents were more likely to use payday loans. In addition, their reasons for using these products were not as suggested by the payday industry for one time expenses, but to meet normal recurring obligations.
SEBASTIAN McKAMEY: It’s open. It’s outside. So I was just standing outside, waiting on the bus stop. And I lit me a cigarette and the officers pulled up on me and was like, “Hey, you know you can’t smoke here?” I was like, “No, I didn’t know. I don’t see no signs.” So they wrote me a ticket.
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Installment loans offer larger loan amounts and longer repayment terms than payday loans typically provide. An installment loan offers you the ability to repay over time, according to your pay schedule.
This idea has been around since at least 2005, when Sheila Bair, before her tenure at the FDIC, wrote a paper arguing that banks were the natural solution. But that was more than a decade ago. “The issue has been intractable,” Bair says. Back in 2008, the FDIC began a two-year pilot program encouraging banks to make small-dollar loans with an annualized interest-rate cap of 36 percent. But it didn’t take off, at least in part because of the time required for bank personnel, who are paid a lot more than payday-store staffers, to underwrite the loans. The idea is also at odds with a different federal mandate: Since the financial crisis, bank regulators have been insisting that their charges take less risk, not more. After guidelines issued by the FDIC and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency warned of the risks involved in small-dollar lending, Wells Fargo and U.S. Bankcorp stopped offering payday-like loans altogether.
So we are left with at least two questions, I guess. Number one: how legitimate is any of the payday-loan research we’ve been telling you about today, pro or con? And number two: how skeptical should we be of any academic research?
Many countries offer basic banking services through their postal systems. The United States Post Office Department offered such as service in the past. Called the United States Postal Savings System it was discontinued in 1967. In January 2014 the Office of the Inspector General of the United States Postal Service issued a white paper suggesting that the USPS could offer banking services, to include small dollar loans for under 30% APR. Support and criticism quickly followed; opponents of postal banking argued that as payday lenders would be forced out of business due to competition, the plan is nothing more than a scheme to support postal employees.
These arguments are countered in two ways. First, the history of borrowers turning to illegal or dangerous sources of credit seems to have little basis in fact according to Robert Mayer’s 2012 “Loan Sharks, Interest-Rate Caps, and Deregulation”. Outside of specific contexts, interest rates caps had the effect of allowing small loans in most areas without an increase of “loan sharking”. Next, since 80% of payday borrowers will roll their loan over at least one time  because their income prevents them from paying the principal within the repayment period, they often report turning to friends or family members to help repay the loan  according to a 2012 report from the Center for Financial Services Innovation. In addition, there appears to be no evidence of unmet demand for small dollar credit in states which prohibit or strictly limit payday lending.
RONALD MANN: I have a general idea that people that are really tight for money know a lot more where their next dollar is coming from and going than the people that are not particularly tight for money. So, I generally think that the kinds of people that borrow from payday lenders have a much better idea of how their finances are going to go for the next two or three months because it’s really a crucial item for them that they worry about every day. So that’s what I set out to test.
Other options are available to most payday loan customers. These include pawnbrokers, credit union loans with lower interest and more stringent terms which take longer to gain approval, employee access to earned but unpaid wages, credit payment plans, paycheck cash advances from employers (“advance on salary”), auto pawn loans, bank overdraft protection, cash advances from credit cards, emergency community assistance plans, small consumer loans, installment loans and direct loans from family or friends. The Pew Charitable Trusts found in 2013 their study on the ways in which users pay off payday loans that borrowers often took a payday loan to avoid one of these alternatives, only to turn to one of them to pay off the payday loan.
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.
High cost payday lending is authorized by state laws or regulations in thirty-two states. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia protect their borrowers from high-cost payday lending with reasonable small loan rate caps or other prohibitions. Three states set lower rate caps or longer terms for somewhat less expensive loans. Online payday lenders are generally subject to the state licensing laws and rate caps of the state where the borrower receives the loan. For more information, click on Legal Status of Payday Loans by State.
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DeYOUNG: Right now, there’s very very little information on rollovers, the reasons for rollovers, and the effects of rollovers. And without academic research, the regulation is going to be based on who shouts the loudest. And that’s a really bad way to write law or regulation. That’s what I really worry about. If I could advocate a solution to this, it would be: identify the number of rollovers at which it’s been revealed that the borrower is in trouble and is being irresponsible and this is the wrong product for them. At that point the payday lender doesn’t flip the borrower into another loan, doesn’t encourage the borrower to find another payday lender. At that point the lender’s principal is then switched over into a different product, a longer term loan where he or she pays it off a little bit each month.
But as we kept researching this episode, our producer Christopher Werth learned something interesting about one study cited in that blog post — the study by Columbia law professor Ronald Mann, another co-author on the post, the study where a survey of payday borrowers found that most of them were pretty good at predicting how long it would take to pay off the loan. Here’s Ronald Mann again:
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.
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Proponents of minimal regulations for payday loan businesses argue that some individuals that require the use of payday loans have already exhausted other alternatives. Such consumers could potentially be forced to illegal sources if not for payday loans. Tom Lehman, an advocate of payday lending, said:
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 CFPB has issued several enforcement actions against payday lenders for reasons such as violating the prohibition on lending to military members and aggressive collection tactics. The CFPB also operates a website to answer questions about payday lending. In addition, some states have aggressively pursued lenders they felt violate their state laws.
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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.
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