According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB — the federal agency that President Obama wants to tighten payday-loan rules — 75 percent of the industry’s fees come from borrowers who take out more than ten loans a year.
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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.
The Twisted economics of payday lending can’t be separated from its predatory nature. The industry has always insisted that its products are intended only for short-term emergency use and that it doesn’t encourage repeat borrowing—the debt trap. “This is like the tobacco industry saying that smoking doesn’t cause cancer,” says Sheila Bair, the former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Study after study has found that repeat borrowing accounts for a large share of the industry’s revenues. Flannery and Samolyk found that “high per-customer loan volume” helps payday lenders cover their overhead and offset defaults. At a financial-services event in 2007, Daniel Feehan, then the CEO of the payday lender Cash America, said, according to multiple reports (here and here), “The theory in the business is you’ve got to get that customer in, work to turn him into a repetitive customer, long-term customer, because that’s really where the profitability is.”
Jonathan Zinman is a professor of economics at Dartmouth College. Zinman says that a number of studies have tried to answer the benchmark question of whether payday lending is essentially a benefit to society. Some studies say yes …
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DUBNER: Let’s say you have a one-on-one audience with President Obama. We know that the President understands economics pretty well or, I would argue that at least. What’s your pitch to the President for how this industry should be treated and not eliminated?
According to a study by The Pew Charitable Trusts, “Most payday loan borrowers [in the United States] are white, female, and are 25 to 44 years old. However, after controlling for other characteristics, there are five groups that have higher odds of having used a payday loan: those without a four-year college degree; home renters; African Americans; those earning below $40,000 annually; and those who are separated or divorced.” Most borrowers use payday loans to cover ordinary living expenses over the course of months, not unexpected emergencies over the course of weeks. The average borrower is indebted about five months of the year.[14]
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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.
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.[15] 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.[21] The Insight Center, a consumer advocacy group, reported in 2013 that payday lending cost U.S communities $774 million a year.[22]
Lenders hold the checks until the borrower’s next payday when loans and the finance charge must be paid in one lump sum. To pay a loan, borrowers can redeem the check by paying the loan with cash, allow the check to be deposited at the bank, or just pay the finance charge to roll the loan over for another pay period. Some payday lenders also offer longer-term payday instalment loans and request authorization to electronically withdraw multiple payments from the borrower’s bank account, typically due on each pay date. Payday loans range in size from $100 to $1,000, depending on state legal maximums. The average loan term is about two weeks. Loans typically cost 400% annual interest (APR) or more. The finance charge ranges from $15 to $30 to borrow $100. For two-week loans, these finance charges result in interest rates from 390 to 780% APR. Shorter term loans have even higher APRs.  Rates are higher in states that do not cap the maximum cost.
They’re called payday loans because payday is typically when borrowers can pay them back. They’re usually small, short-term loans that can tie you over in an emergency. The interest rates, on an annualized basis, can be in the neighborhood of 400 percent — much, much higher than even the most expensive credit cards. But again, they’re meant to be short-term loans, so you’re not supposed to get anywhere near that annualized rate. Unless, of course, you do. Because if you can’t pay off your payday loan, you might take out another one — a rollover, it’s called. This can get really expensive. Really, really, really expensive — so much so that some people think payday loans are just evil. This guy, for instance:
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MANN: The data actually suggest that there’s a relatively small group of borrowers, in the range of 10 to 15 percent, who had been extremely heavy users, whose predictions are really bad. And I think that group of people seems to fundamentally not understand their financial situation.
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But if the only explanation for high rates were that lenders can, so they do, you’d expect to see an industry awash in profits. It is not, especially today. The industry’s profits are tough to track—many companies are private—but in 2009, Ernst & Young released a study, commissioned by the Financial Service Centers of America, finding that stores’ average profit margin before tax and interest was less than 10 percent. (For the sake of comparison, over the past five quarters, the consumer-financial-services industry as a whole averaged a pretax profit margin of more than 30 percent, according to CSIMarket, a provider of financial information.) A perusal of those financial statements that are public confirms a simple fact: As payday lending exploded, the economics of the business worsened—and are today no better than middling. The Community Financial Services Association argues that a 36 percent rate cap, like the one in place for members of the military, is a death knell because payday lenders can’t make money at that rate, and this seems to be correct. In states that cap their rates at 36 percent a year or lower, the payday lenders vanish. In New York, which caps payday lending at 25 percent a year, there are no stores at all.
ZINMAN: And what we found matching that data on job performance and job readiness supports the Pentagon’s hypothesis. We found that as payday loan access increases, servicemen job performance evaluations decline. And we see that sanctions for severely poor readiness increase as payday-loan access increases, as the spigot gets turned on. So that’s a study that very much supports the anti-payday lending camp.
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.
WERTH: I was, and what he told me was that even though Hilary Miller was making substantial changes to the paper, CCRF did not exercise editorial control. That is, he says, he still had complete academic freedom to accept or reject Miller’s changes. Here’s Fusaro:
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.
Payday lenders will attempt to collect on the consumer’s obligation first by simply requesting payment. If internal collection fails, some payday lenders may outsource the debt collection, or sell the debt to a third party.
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FULMER: We have to wait for the final proposal rules to come out. But where they appear to be going is down a path that would simply eliminate a product instead of reforming the industry or better regulating the industry.
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In another study, by Gregory Elliehausen, Division of Research of the Federal Reserve System and Financial Services Research Program at the George Washington University School of Business, 41% earn between $25,000 and $50,000, and 39% report incomes of $40,000 or more. 18% have an income below $25,000.[20]
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There is a long and often twisted history of industries co-opting scientists and other academic researchers to produce findings that make their industries look safer or more reliable or otherwise better than they really are. Whenever we talk about academic research on this show — which is pretty much every week — we do try to show the provenance of that research and establish how legitimate it is. The best first step in figuring that out is to ask what kind of incentives are at play. But even that is only one step.
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