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.”
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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.
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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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Fringe financial services is the label sometimes applied to payday lending and its close cousins, like installment lending and auto-title lending—services that provide quick cash to credit-strapped borrowers. It’s a euphemism, sure, but one that seems to aptly convey the dubiousness of the activity and the location of the customer outside the mainstream of American life.
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, 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.
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DEYOUNG: If we take an objective look at the folks who use payday lending, what we find is that most users of the product are very satisfied with the product. Survey results show that almost 90 percent of users of the product say that they’re either somewhat satisfied or very satisfied with the product afterwards.
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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.
Maybe that’s about as good as it gets on the fringe. Outrage is easy, and outrage is warranted—but maybe payday lenders shouldn’t be its main target. The problem isn’t just that people who desperately need a $350 loan can’t get it at an affordable rate, but that a growing number of people need that loan in the first place.
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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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It’s a coincidence that Penny, the heroine of Mary H.K. Choi’s young-adult novel Emergency Contact, happens to be passing by as Sam, her local barista, is having his first panic attack. She gives him a ride, and her number, and tells him to text her when he gets home. He jokes that she’s his “emergency contact.”
Elizabeth Warren has endorsed the idea of the Postal Service partnering with banks to offer short-term loans. But even some fellow opponents of payday lending think that’s unfeasible. In a New York Times op-ed last fall, Frederick Wherry, a sociology professor at Yale, pointed out that doing this would require the Postal Service to have a whole new infrastructure, and its employees a whole new skill set. Another alternative would seem to be online companies, because they don’t have the storefront overhead. But they may have difficulty managing consumer fraud, and are themselves difficult to police, so they may at times evade state caps on interest rates. So far, the rates charged by many Internet lenders seem to be higher, not lower, than those charged by traditional lenders. (Elevate Credit, which says it has a sophisticated, technology-based way of underwriting loans, brags that its loans for the “new middle class” are half the cost of typical payday loans—but it is selective in its lending, and still charges about 200 percent annually.) Promising out-of-the-box ideas, in other words, are in short supply.
Let’s talk about how a pay day loan works. An individual who needs immediate cash due to a personal emergency can obtain a “payday loan” from any of the numerous payday loan companies throughout Texas. The borrower agrees to pay an exorbitant interest rate – often over 500 percent—for the loan. The borrower then gives the payday lender a post-dated check which is dated the same day as his/her next pay day. Alternatively, the borrower gives the lender the ability to take an automatic withdrawal from the borrower’s bank account on the day of the borrower’s next pay check hits his/her bank. Frequently, a borrower does not have the funds to repay the loan when it becomes due so the loan is rolled-over with yet another large chunk in interest added to the debt. Not surprisingly, borrowers often default because they cannot pay the loan plus all of the exorbitant interest and fees.
Payday lenders have made effective use of the sovereign status of Native American reservations, often forming partnerships with members of a tribe to offer loans over the Internet which evade state law. However, the Federal Trade Commission has begun the aggressively monitor these lenders as well. While some tribal lenders are operated by Native Americans, there is also evidence many are simply a creation of so-called “rent-a-tribe” schemes, where a non-Native company sets up operations on tribal land.
1. All loans subject to approval pursuant to standard underwriting criteria. Rates and terms will vary depending upon the state where you reside. Not all consumers will qualify for a loan or for the maximum loan amount. Terms and conditions apply. Loans should be used for short-term financial needs only, and not as a long-term solution. Customers with credit difficulties should seek credit counseling. ACE Cash Express, Inc. is licensed by the Department of Business Oversight pursuant to Financial Code Section 23005(a) of the California Deferred Deposit Transaction Law. Loans in Minnesota made by ACE Minnesota Corp. Loans in Ohio arranged by FSH Credit Services LLC d/b/a ACE Cash Express, CS.900100.000, and made by, and subject to the approval of, an unaffiliated third party lender. Loans in Texas arranged by ACE Credit Access LLC and made by, and subject to the approval of, an unaffiliated third party lender. ACE Cash Express, Inc. is licensed by the Virginia State Corporation Commission, PL-115.
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As for credit unions, although a few have had success offering small, short-term loans, many struggle with regulators, with reputational risk, and with the cost of making such loans. “We are all cognizant that we should do it, but it is very challenging to figure out a business model that works,” says Tom Kane, the president of the Illinois Credit Union League. In any event, the credit-union industry is small—smaller altogether, Kane points out, than JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, or Wells Fargo alone. “The scale isn’t there,” he says.
The stakes are very high, not just for the lenders, but for the whole “new middle class.” It seems obvious that there must be a far less expensive way of providing credit to the less creditworthy. But once you delve into the question of why rates are so high, you begin to realize that the solution isn’t obvious at all.
Many people ask about 1 Hour Payday Loans. In theory this can happen but from a practical standpoint it never happens. When applying for a payday loan the lender must take some time to explain all the terms and conditions to you as well as get your final approval.
Payday loan providers are typically small credit merchants with physical locations that allow onsite credit applications and approval. Some payday loan services may also be available through online lenders.
And yet the fringe has gotten awfully large. The typical payday-lending customer, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, is a white woman age 25 to 44. Payday lenders serve more than 19 million American households—nearly one in six—according to the Community Financial Services Association of America, the industry’s trade group. And even that’s only a fraction of those who could become customers any day now. The group’s CEO, Dennis Shaul, told Congress in February that as many as 76 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, without the resources to cover unexpected expenses. Or, as an online lender called Elevate Credit, which offers small loans that often have triple-digit annualized interest rates, put it in a recent financial filing, “Decades-long macroeconomic trends and the recent financial crisis have resulted in a growing ‘New Middle Class’ with little to no savings, urgent credit needs and limited options.”
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:
Online payday loans can be the right solution to your short-term financial troubles because they are easily obtained and easily repaid, and the costs associated with them are highly comparable to other forms of credit as long as they are repaid on time. Bad credit or no credit are also welcomed to try to get matched with a lender.
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.
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