DEYOUNG: Yes, I like to think of myself as an objective observer of social activity, as an economist. But there’s one section of the blog where we highlight mixed evidence. That in some cases having access to payday loans looks like on balance, it helps reduce financial distress at the household level. And we also point to, I believe, an equal number of studies in that section that find the exact opposite. And then of course there’s another section in the blog where we point directly to rollovers and rollovers is where the rubber hits the road on this. If we can somehow predict which folks will not be able to handle this product and would roll it over incessantly, then we could impress upon payday lenders not to make the loans to those people. This product, in fact, is particularly badly suited to predict this because the payday lender only gets a small number of pieces of information when she makes the loan, as opposed to the information that a regulated financial institution would collect. The expense of collecting that information, of underwriting the loan in the traditional way that a bank would, would be too high for the payday lender to offer the product. If we load up additional costs on the production function of these loans, the loans won’t be profitable any longer.
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Poor credit or a limited credit history can make it difficult to find financing from traditional sources. You might not be able to get a credit card or buy a car without a credit score that meets minimum requirements. That can make it tough to handle emergencies.
Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Christopher Werth. The rest of our staff includes Arwa Gunja, Jay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Greg Rosalsky, Kasia Mychajlowycz, Alison Hockenberry and Caroline English. Thanks also to Bill Healy for his help with this episode from Chicago. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook and don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.
Tags: Alison Hockenberry, Arwa Gunja, Barack Obama, Bill Healy, Bob DeYoung, Caroline English, Christopher Werth, Diane Standaert, Donald Morgan, Elizabeth Dole, Greg Rosalsky, Hilary Miller, Jamie Fulmer, Jay Cowit, Jonathan Zinman, Kasia Mychajlowycz, Marc Fusaro, Merritt Jacob, Patricia Cirillo, Pew Charitable Trusts, President Obama, Ronald Mann, Scott Carrell, Sebastian McKamey
In many cases, borrowers write a post-dated check (check with a future date) to the lender; if the borrowers don’t have enough money in their account by the check’s date, their check will bounce. In Texas, payday lenders are prohibited from suing a borrower for theft if the check is post-dated. One payday lender in the state instead gets their customers to write checks dated for the day the loan is given. Customers borrow money because they don’t have any, so the lender accepts the check knowing that it would bounce on the check’s date. If the borrower fails to pay on the due date, the lender sues the borrower for writing a hot check.[32]
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:
“Payday lending brings up this meta issue,” says Prentiss Cox, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s law school and a member of the consumer advisory board at the bureau: “What should consumer protection be?” If most payday-lending customers ultimately need to fall back on financial support from family members, or on bankruptcy, then perhaps the industry should be eliminated, because it merely makes the inevitable more painful. Yet some consumers do use payday loans just as the industry markets them—as a short-term emergency source of cash, one that won’t be there if the payday-lending industry goes away. The argument that payday lending shouldn’t exist would be easy if there were widespread, affordable sources of small-dollar loans. But thus far, there are not.
On the critic side right now are the Center for Responsible Lending, who advocates a 36 percent cap on payday lending, which we know puts the industry out of business. The CFPB’s proposed policy is to require payday lenders to collect more information at the point of contact and that’s one of the expenses that if avoided allows payday lenders to actually be profitable, deliver the product. Now that’s, that’s not the only plank in the CFPB’s platform. They advocate limiting rollovers and cooling-off periods and the research does point out that in states where rollovers are limited, payday lenders have gotten around them by paying the loan off by refinancing. Just starting a separate loan with a separate loan number, evading the regulation. Of course that’s a regulation that was poorly written, if the payday lenders can evade it that easily.
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This transaction is being made pursuant to section 23035 of the Financial Code and is not subject to section 1719 of the Civil Code. You are not liable under civil laws relating to returned payment items if you default on this transaction. For example, you are not liable for treble (triple) damages, collection fees, or any other fees other than the $15 returned item fee that we charge per transaction (if applicable). Consequently, we may not use or threaten to use civil returned item laws to collect a defaulted transaction.
That does sound reasonable, doesn’t it? A typical credit-card rate is around 15 percent, maybe 20 or higher if you have bad credit. But to the payday-loan industry, a proposed cap of 36 percent is not reasonable at all.
Lawmakers, led by Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, introduced a bill in July aimed at reining in the lenders, in part, by forcing them to abide by the laws of the state where the borrower lives, rather than where the lender is. The legislation, pending in Congress, would also allow borrowers to cancel automatic withdrawals more easily. “Technology has taken a lot of these scams online, and it’s time to crack down,” Mr. Merkley said in a statement when the bill was introduced.
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.
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.
A small percentage of payday lenders have, in the past, threatened delinquent borrowers with criminal prosecution for check fraud.[33] This practice is illegal in many jurisdictions and has been denounced by the Community Financial Services Association of America, the industry’s trade association.
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Payday loans are legal in 27 states, and 9 others allows some form of short term storefront lending with restrictions. The remaining 14 and the District of Columbia forbid the practice.[64] The annual percentage rate (APR) is also limited in some jurisdictions to prevent usury.[65][66] And in some states, there are laws limiting the number of loans a borrower can take at a single time.
You are not culpable under criminal laws relating to returned payment items if you default on this transaction. Consequently, we may not use or threaten to use criminal process (e.g., criminal returned item laws) to collect a defaulted transaction.
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?
DeYOUNG: OK, in a short sentence that’s highly scientific I would begin by saying, “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.” The question comes down to how do we identify the bath water and how do we identify the baby here. One way is to collect a lot of information, as the CFPB suggests, about the creditworthiness of the borrower. But that raises the production cost of payday loans and will probably put the industry out of business. But I think we can all agree that once someone pays fees in an aggregate amount equal to the amount that was originally borrowed, that’s pretty clear that there’s a problem there.
With 15 states banning payday loans, a growing number of the lenders have set up online operations in more hospitable states or far-flung locales like Belize, Malta and the West Indies to more easily evade statewide caps on interest rates.
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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The CFPB doesn’t have the authority to limit interest rates. Congress does. So what the CFPB is asking for is that payday lenders either more thoroughly evaluate a borrower’s financial profile or limit the number of rollovers on a loan, and offer easier repayment terms. Payday lenders say even these regulations might just about put them out of business — and they may be right. The CFPB estimates that the new regulations could reduce the total volume of short-term loans, including payday loans but other types as well, by roughly 60 percent.
The bigger problem for payday lenders is the overhead. Alex Horowitz, a research manager at the Pew Charitable Trusts, says that on average, two-thirds of the fees payday lenders collect are spent just keeping the lights on. The average storefront serves only 500 customers a year, and employee turnover is ridiculously high. For instance, QC Holdings, a publicly traded nationwide lender, reported that it had to replace approximately 65 percent of its branch-level employees in 2014. “The profits are not extraordinary,” Horowitz says. “What is extraordinary is the inefficiency.”
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.
The report was reinforced by a Federal Reserve Board (FRB) 2014 study which found that while bankruptcies did double among users of payday loans, the increase was too small to be considered significant.[48][49] The same FRB researchers found that payday usage had no positive or negative impact on household welfare as measured by credit score changes over time.[50]
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.
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:
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The propensity for very low default rates seems to be an incentive for investors interested in payday lenders. In the Advance America 10-k SEC filing from December 2011 they note that their agreement with investors, “limits the average of actual charge-offs incurred during each fiscal month to a maximum of 4.50% of the average amount of adjusted transaction receivables outstanding at the end of each fiscal month during the prior twelve consecutive months”. They go on to note that for 2011 their average monthly receivables were $287.1 million and their average charge-off was $9.3 million, or 3.2%.[12] In comparison with traditional lenders, payday firms also save on costs by not engaging in traditional forms of underwriting, relying on their easy rollover terms and the small size of each individual loan as method of diversification eliminating the need for verifying each borrowers ability to repay.[37] It is perhaps due to this that payday lenders rarely exhibit any real effort to verify that the borrower will be able to pay the principal on their payday in addition to their other debt obligations.[38]
Fulmer’s firm, Advance America, runs about 2,400 payday loan shops, across 29 states. All in, there are roughly 20,000 payday shops in the U.S., with total loan volume estimated at around $40 billion a year. If you were to go back to the early 1990s, there were fewer than 500 payday-loan stores. But the industry grew as many states relaxed their usury laws — many states, but not all. Payday lending is forbidden in 14 states, including much of the northeast and in Washington, D.C. Another nine states allow payday loans but only with more borrower-friendly terms. And that leaves 27 states where payday lenders can charge in the neighborhood of 400 percent interest — states ranging from California to Texas to Wisconsin to Alabama, which is what drew President Obama there.
Payday lenders have been dogged by controversy almost from their inception two decades ago from storefront check-cashing stores. In 2007, federal lawmakers restricted the lenders from focusing on military members. Across the country, states have steadily imposed caps on interest rates and fees that effectively ban the high-rate loans.
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.
Although some have noted that these loans appear to carry substantial risk to the lender,[7][8] it has been shown that these loans carry no more long term risk for the lender than other forms of credit.[9][10][11] These studies seem to be confirmed by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission filings of at least one lender, who notes a charge-off rate of 3.2%.[12]

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