The explanation for this is not simple, and a variety of economic jargon floats around the issue. But it all begins with this: The typical payday-loan consumer is too desperate, too unsophisticated, or too exhausted from being treated with disrespect by traditional lenders to engage in price shopping. So demand is what economists call price inelastic. As Clarence Hodson, who published a book in 1919 about the business of small loans, put it, “Necessity cannot bargain to advantage with cupidity.” In its last annual financial report, Advance America, one of the country’s biggest payday lenders, wrote, “We believe that the principal competitive factors are customer service, location, convenience, speed, and confidentiality.” You’ll notice it didn’t mention price.
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.
The problem we’ve been looking at today is pretty straightforward: there are a lot of low-income people in the U.S. who’ve come to rely on a financial instrument, the payday loan, that is, according to its detractors, exploitative, and according to its supporters, useful. President Obama is pushing for regulatory reform; payday advocates say the reform may kill off the industry, leaving borrowers in the lurch.
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.
MCKAMEY: I got like $200 and it was just like I needed some real quick cash. There wasn’t no hesitations, no nothing. They asked me for certain pieces of information. I provided the information, and I got my loan.
Jump up ^ “Testimony of Dr. Kimberly R. Manturuk, Center for Community Capital, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Before the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Credit for Consumers, United States House of Representatives, Hearing on ‘An Examination of the Availability of Credit for Consumers,'” Page 5, September 22, 2011
Now, however, the storefront-payday-lending industry is embattled. In 2006, after much outcry about the upcropping of payday lenders near military bases, Congress passed a law capping at 36 percent the annualized rate that lenders could charge members of the military. In response to pressure from consumer advocates, many states have begun trying to rein in the industry, through either regulation or outright bans. Lenders have excelled at finding loopholes in these regulations. Still, according to Pew, the number of states in which payday lenders operate has fallen from a peak of 44 in 2004 to 36 this year. Nationwide, according to the Center for Financial Services Innovation, “single-payment credit”—so named because the amount borrowed is due in one lump sum—barely grew from 2012 to 2014.
DeYoung, along with three co-authors, recently published an article about payday loans on Liberty Street Economics. That’s a blog run by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Another co-author, Donald Morgan, is an assistant vice president at the New York Fed. The article is titled “Reframing the Debate About Payday Lending.”
DEYOUNG: That’s a very standard disclaimer. The Federal Reserve System is rather unique among regulators across the world. They see the value in having their researchers exercise scientific and academic freedom because they know that inquiry is a good thing.
That makes plenty of sense in theory. Payday lending in its most unfettered form seems to be ideal for neither consumers nor lenders. As Luigi Zingales, a professor at the University of Chicago, told a group of finance professionals in a speech last year, “The efficient outcome cannot be achieved without mandatory regulation.” One controversy is whether the bureau, in its zeal to protect consumers, is going too far. Under the plan it is now considering, lenders would have to make sure that borrowers can repay their loans and cover other living expenses without extensive defaults or reborrowing. These actions would indeed seem to curtail the possibility of people falling into debt traps with payday lenders. But the industry argues that the rules would put it out of business. And while a self-serving howl of pain is precisely what you’d expect from any industry under government fire, this appears, based on the business model, to be true—not only would the regulations eliminate the very loans from which the industry makes its money, but they would also introduce significant new underwriting expenses on every loan.
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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?
Payday loans are made by payday loan stores, or at stores that sell other financial services, such as check cashing, title loans, rent-to-own and pawn, depending on state licensing requirements. Loans are made via websites and mobile devices. CFPB found 15,766 payday loan stores operating in 2015.
As for federal regulation, the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act gave the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) specific authority to regulate all payday lenders, regardless of size. Also, the Military Lending Act imposes a 36% rate cap on tax refund loans and certain payday and auto title loans made to active duty armed forces members and their covered dependents, and prohibits certain terms in such loans.
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What our producer learned was that while Ronald Mann did create the survey, it was actually administered by a survey firm. And that firm had been hired by the chairman of a group called the Consumer Credit Research Foundation, or CCRF, which is funded by payday lenders. Now, to be clear, Ronald Mann says that CCRF did not pay him to do the study, and did not attempt to influence his findings; but nor does his paper disclose that the data collection was handled by an industry-funded group. So we went back to Bob DeYoung and asked whether, maybe, it should have.
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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?
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.
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A 2012 report produced by the Cato Institute found that the cost of the loans is overstated, and that payday lenders offer a product traditional lenders simply refuse to offer. However, the report is based on 40 survey responses collected at a payday storefront location. The report’s author, Victor Stango, was on the board of the Consumer Credit Research Foundation (CCRF) until 2015, an organization funded by payday lenders, and received $18,000 in payments from CCRF in 2013.
But state and federal officials are taking aim at the banks’ role at a time when authorities are increasing their efforts to clamp down on payday lending and its practice of providing quick money to borrowers who need cash.
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It begins like this: “Except for the ten to twelve million people who use them every year, just about everybody hates payday loans. Their detractors include many law professors, consumer advocates, members of the clergy, journalists, policymakers, and even the President! But is all the enmity justified?”
Payday lending works like this: In exchange for a small loan—the average amount borrowed is about $350—a customer agrees to pay a single flat fee, typically in the vicinity of $15 per $100 borrowed. For a two-week loan, that can equate to an annualized rate of almost 400 percent. The entire amount—the fee plus the sum that was borrowed—is generally due all at once, at the end of the term. (Borrowers give the lender access to their bank account when they take out the loan.) But because many borrowers can’t pay it all back at once, they roll the loan into a new one, and end up in what the industry’s many critics call a debt trap, with gargantuan fees piling up. As Mehrsa Baradaran, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s law school, puts it in her new book, How the Other Half Banks, “One of the great ironies in modern America is that the less money you have, the more you pay to use it.”
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DEYOUNG: This is why price caps are a bad idea. Because if the solution was implemented as I suggest and, in fact, payday lenders lost some of their most profitable customers — because now we’re not getting that fee the 6th and 7th time from them — then the price would have to go up. And we’d let the market determine whether or not at that high price we still have folks wanting to use the product.
Zinman and Carrell got hold of personnel data from U.S. Air Force bases across many states that looked at job performance and military readiness. Like the Oregon-Washington study, this one also took advantage of changes in different states’ payday laws, which allowed the researchers to isolate that variable and then compare outcomes.
We’ve been asking a pretty simple question today: are payday loans as evil as their critics say or overall, are they pretty useful? But even such a simple question can be hard to answer, especially when so many of the parties involved have incentive to twist the argument, and even the data, in their favor. At least the academic research we’ve been hearing about is totally unbiased, right?
A spokeswoman for Bank of America said the bank always honored requests to stop automatic withdrawals. Wells Fargo declined to comment. Kristin Lemkau, a spokeswoman for Chase, said: “We are working with the customers to resolve these cases.” Online lenders say they work to abide by state laws.
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.
So, given this fact, how should one think about the industry? Is it treacherous enough that it should be eliminated? Or, is it a useful, if relatively expensive, financial product that the majority of customers benefit from?
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