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.”
As you find when you dig into just about any modern economic scenario, most people have at least one horse in every race, which makes it hard to separate advocacy and reality. So let’s go where Freakonomics Radio often goes when we want to find someone who does not have a horse in the race: to academia. Let’s ask some academic researchers if the payday-loan industry is really as nasty as it seems.
Congress had been so concerned about the effects of payday loans that in 2006 it passed the Military Lending Act, which, among other things, capped the interest rate that payday lenders can charge active personnel and their dependents at 36 percent nationwide. So what happened next? You guessed it. A lot of the payday loan shops near military bases closed down.
Payday loans charge borrowers high levels of interest. These loans may be considered predatory loans as they have a reputation for extremely high interest and hidden provisions that charge borrowers added fees.
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.
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DeYOUNG: We need to do more research and try to figure out the best ways to regulate rather than regulations that are being pursued now that would eventually shut down the industry. I don’t want to come off as being an advocate of payday lenders. That’s not my position. My position is I want to make sure the users of payday loans who are using them responsibly and for who are made better off by them don’t lose access to this product.
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. 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. The Insight Center, a consumer advocacy group, reported in 2013 that payday lending cost U.S communities $774 million a year.
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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WERTH: So far, so good. But I think we should mention two things here: one, Fusaro had a co-author on the paper. Her name is Patricia Cirillo; she’s the president of a company called Cypress Research, which, by the way, is the same survey firm that produced data for the paper you mentioned earlier, about how payday borrowers are pretty good at predicting when they’ll be able to pay back their loans. And the other point, two, there was a long chain of e-mails between Marc Fusaro, the academic researcher here, and CCRF. And what they show is they certainly look like editorial interference.
With annual interest rates around 400 percent, payday loans are called exploitative by critics. But the industry says those rates are necessary. And nearly 90% of borrowers are satisfied customers. (photo: stallio)
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.
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And yet it is surprisingly difficult to condemn the business wholesale. Emergency credit can be a lifeline, after all. And while stories about the payday-lending industry’s individual victims are horrible, the research on its effect at a more macro level is limited and highly ambiguous. One study shows that payday lending makes local communities more resilient; another says it increases personal bankruptcies; and so on.
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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.”
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The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau doesn’t have the power to ban payday lending outright, or to set a nationwide interest-rate cap, but it can act to prevent practices deemed “unfair, abusive, or deceptive.” In March 2015, it announced that it was considering a set of rules for most small-dollar loans (up to $500) that consumers are required to repay within 45 days. The goal is to put an end to payday-lending debt traps.
This is an expensive form of credit. A short term loan should be used for short term financial needs only, not as a long term financial solution. Customers with credit difficulties should seek credit counseling or meet with a nonprofit financial counseling service in their community. You are encouraged to consult your state’s consumer information pages to learn more about the risks involved with cash advances. State laws and regulations may be applicable to your payday loan.
DEYOUNG: Oh, I do think that our history of usury laws is a direct result of our Judeo-Christian background. And even Islamic banking, which follows in the same tradition. But clearly interest on money lent or borrowed has a, has been looked at non-objectively, let’s put it that way. So the shocking APR numbers if we apply them to renting a hotel room or renting an automobile or lending your father’s gold watch or your mother’s silverware to the pawnbroker for a month, the APRs come out similar. So the shock from these numbers is, we recognize the shock here because we are used to calculating interest rates on loans but not interest rates on anything else. And it’s human nature to want to hear bad news and it’s, you know, the media understands this and so they report bad news more often than good news. We don’t hear this. It’s like the houses that don’t burn down and the stores that don’t get robbed.
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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?