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A more nefarious theory is that banks currently make a lot of money on a payday-lending alternative that already exists—namely, overdraft protection. One study done by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that most debit-card overdraft fees are incurred on transactions of $24 or less, and yield a median fee of $34. Why would banks want to undercut such a rich source of profits?
A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York concluded that, “We … test whether payday lending fits our definition of predatory. We find that in states with higher payday loan limits, less educated households and households with uncertain income are less likely to be denied credit, but are not more likely to miss a debt payment. Absent higher delinquency, the extra credit from payday lenders does not fit our definition of predatory.”[23] The caveat to this is that with a term of under 30 days there are no payments, and the lender is more than willing to roll the loan over at the end of the period upon payment of another fee. The report goes on to note that payday loans are extremely expensive, and borrowers who take a payday loan are at a disadvantage in comparison to the lender, a reversal of the normal consumer lending information asymmetry, where the lender must underwrite the loan to assess creditworthiness.
There’s one more thing I want to add to today’s discussion. The payday-loan industry is, in a lot of ways, an easy target. But the more I think about it, the more it seems like a symptom of a much larger problem, which is this: remember, in order to get a payday loan, you need to have a job and a bank account. So what does it say about an economy in which millions of working people make so little money that they can’t pay their phone bills, that they can’t absorb one hit like a ticket for smoking in public?
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Along with reforming payday lending, Cordray is trying to jawbone banks and credit unions into offering small-dollar, payday-like loans. Theoretically, they could use their preexisting branches, mitigating the overhead costs that affect payday stores and hence enabling profitable lending at a much lower rate. This is the holy grail for consumer advocates. “What everyone really wants to see is for it to come into the mainstream of financial services if it’s going to exist at all,” Cox says.
Cash loans are fairly costly when you compare them with other loan types. You are advised not to use them as a long-term financial solution; rather, you should only take them out to deal with emergency situations.
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.
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.”
Whatever you want to call it — wage deflation, structural unemployment, the absence of good-paying jobs — isn’t that a much bigger problem? And, if so, what’s to be done about that? Next time on Freakonomics Radio, we will continue this conversation by looking at one strange, controversial proposal for making sure that everyone’s got enough money to get by.
A minority of mainstream banks and TxtLoan companies lending short-term credit over mobile phone text messaging offer virtual credit advances for customers whose paychecks or other funds are deposited electronically into their accounts. The terms are similar to those of a payday loan; a customer receives a predetermined cash credit available for immediate withdrawal. The amount is deducted, along with a fee, usually about 10 percent of the amount borrowed, when the next direct deposit is posted to the customer’s account. After the programs attracted regulatory attention,[90][91] Wells Fargo called its fee “voluntary” and offered to waive it for any reason. It later scaled back the program in several states. Wells Fargo currently offers its version of a payday loan, called “Direct Deposit Advance,” which charges 120% APR. Similarly, the BBC reported in 2010 that controversial TxtLoan charges 10% for 7-days advance which is available for approved customers instantly over a text message.[92]
ERVIN BANKS: I don’t see nothing wrong with them. I had some back bills I had to pay off. So it didn’t take me too long to pay it back — about three months, something like that. They’re beautiful people.
You do your best to ask as many questions as you can of the research and of the researchers themselves. You ask where the data comes from, whether it really means what they say it means, and you ask them to explain why they might be wrong, or compromised. You make the best judgment you can, and then you move forward and try to figure out how the research really matters. Because the whole idea of the research, presumably, is to help solve some larger problem.
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In 2014 several firms were reprimanded and required to pay compensation for illegal practices; Wonga.com for using letters untruthfully purporting to be from solicitors to demand payment—a formal police investigation for fraud was being considered in 2014[61]—and Cash Genie, owned by multinational EZCorp, for a string of problems with the way it had imposed charges and collected money from borrowers who were in arrears.[62]
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.
DeYOUNG: The payday lender doesn’t collect any other information. The payday borrower then writes a check — and this is the key part of the technology — the payday borrower then writes a check for the amount of the loan and postdates it by two weeks. And this becomes the collateral for the loan. So should the payday borrower not pay the loan off in two weeks, the payday lender then deposits the check.
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.
Ms. Baptiste said she asked Chase to revoke the automatic withdrawals in October 2011, but was told that she had to ask the lenders instead. In one month, her bank records show, the lenders tried to take money from her account at least six times. Chase charged her $812 in fees and deducted over $600 from her child-support payments to cover them.
FULMER: It would take the $15 and it would make that fee $1.38 per $100 borrowed. That’s less than 7.5 cents per day. The New York Times can’t sell a newspaper for 7.5 cents a day. And somehow we’re expected to be offering unsecured, relatively, $100 loans for a two-week period for 7.5 cents a day. It just doesn’t make economical sense.
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.
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.
The President was promoting some proposed new rules from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that would change how payday lenders operate, or perhaps put them out of business. Which, if payday lenders are as nasty as the President makes them sound, is a good thing, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
STANDAERT: These payday loans cost borrowers hundreds of dollars for what is marketed as a small loan. And the Center for Responsible Lending has estimated that payday loan fees drain over $3.4 billion a year from low-income consumers stuck in the payday-loan debt trap.
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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.
At the time, McKamey was making $8.45 an hour, working at a supermarket. A $150 ticket was a big problem. He also had an outstanding $45 phone bill. So he ignored the smoking ticket, hoping it’d go away. That didn’t work out so well. He got some letters from the city, demanding he pay the fine. So he went to a payday-loan store and borrowed some money.
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So, the payday business model is not like a pawn shop, where you surrender your valuable possessions to raise cash. To get a payday loan, you need to have a job and a bank account. According to Pew survey data, some 12 million Americans — roughly 1 in 20 adults — take out a payday loan in a given year. They tend to be relatively young and earn less than $40,000; they tend to not have a four-year college degree; and while the most common borrower is a white female, the rate of borrowing is highest among minorities.
Many students choose law school after getting their freshman math grades, and law school curricula make little attempt to build numeracy among these refugees. Because complex issues inevitably involve statistical information, that gap in legal education can cause mischief, especially when it affects judges.
When Britain threw out 23 Russian diplomats in response to an assassination attempt on Russian agent Sergei Skripal, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia and current bad boy of modern geopolitics, shrugged it off. With relations between London and Moscow so strained, the embassy didn’t have all that much to do, anyway. The cost, Putin no doubt felt, was predictable and bearable. Then on Monday, 20 additional countries, from Albania to Ukraine, joined in a coordinated expulsion campaign, with the United States accounting for 60 of the Russians sent packing. On Tuesday, NATO announced it would expel seven Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning. Suddenly, the Kremlin isn’t looking quite so comfortable. With the Skripal hit, it looks as if Putin may have finally overreached.
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