In the traditional retail model, borrowers visit a payday lending store and secure a small cash loan, with payment due in full at the borrower’s next paycheck. The borrower writes a postdated check to the lender in the full amount of the loan plus fees. On the maturity date, the borrower is expected to return to the store to repay the loan in person. If the borrower does not repay the loan in person, the lender may redeem the check. If the account is short on funds to cover the check, the borrower may now face a bounced check fee from their bank in addition to the costs of the loan, and the loan may incur additional fees or an increased interest rate (or both) as a result of the failure to pay.
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.
“If this legislative session is like last session, payday lenders will likely be pushing more of their dangerous bills in more states,” said CRL’s State Policy Director Diane Standaert in a statement. “States, just as they all did last year, must reject these efforts by the payday lenders to increase the types of the predatory products they’re peddling” by enacting and maintaining existing rate caps.
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.
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.
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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WERTH: He was communicating with CCRF’s chairman, a lawyer named Hilary Miller. He’s the president of the Payday Loan Bar Association. And he’s testified before Congress on behalf of payday lenders. And as you can see in the e-mails between him and Fusaro, again the professor here, Miller was not only reading drafts of the paper but he was making all kinds of suggestions about the paper’s structure, its tone, its content. And eventually what you see is Miller writing whole paragraphs that go pretty much verbatim straight into the finished paper.
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This idea has been around since at least 2005, when Sheila Bair, before her tenure at the FDIC, wrote a paper arguing that banks were the natural solution. But that was more than a decade ago. “The issue has been intractable,” Bair says. Back in 2008, the FDIC began a two-year pilot program encouraging banks to make small-dollar loans with an annualized interest-rate cap of 36 percent. But it didn’t take off, at least in part because of the time required for bank personnel, who are paid a lot more than payday-store staffers, to underwrite the loans. The idea is also at odds with a different federal mandate: Since the financial crisis, bank regulators have been insisting that their charges take less risk, not more. After guidelines issued by the FDIC and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency warned of the risks involved in small-dollar lending, Wells Fargo and U.S. Bankcorp stopped offering payday-like loans altogether.
WERTH: It’s hard to say. Actually, we just don’t know. But whatever their incentive might be, their FOIA requests have produced what look like some pretty damning e-mails between CCRF — which, again, receives funding from payday lenders — and academic researchers who have written about payday lending.
If you take out a payday loan that is equivalent to your next check, you won’t have anything left to pay bills or make it to the next paycheck. That leaves you in a cycle where you are lining up your next loan as you pay off the first. Payday loan alternatives can help you avoid that debt cycle and still get the capital you need.
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Stephen Loveridge’s documentary, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., appears to start filling in that script, preluding the Grammys performance with footage of the rapper and producer’s breezy home life in Los Angeles. Then we see her arrive on stage in those blazing maternal polka dots, with the Clash-borrowed groove of her smash “Paper Planes” twitching to life, and—
Does a researcher who’s out to make a splash with some sexy finding necessarily operate with more bias than a researcher who’s operating out of pure intellectual curiosity? I don’t think that’s necessarily so. Like life itself, academic research is a case-by-case scenario.
DIANE STANDAERT: From the data that we’ve seen, payday loans disproportionately are concentrated in African-American and Latino communities, and that African-American and Latino borrowers are disproportionately represented among the borrowing population.
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.
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.
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After studying millions of payday loans, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that 67 percent went to borrowers with seven or more transactions a year, and the majority of borrowers paid more in fees than the amount of their initial loan. This is why Diane Standaert, the director of state policy at the Center for Responsible Lending, which argues for a 36 percent interest-rate cap, says, “The typical borrower experience involves long-term indebtedness—that’s core to the business model.”
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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.
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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.
Although some have noted that these loans appear to carry substantial risk to the lender, it has been shown that these loans carry no more long term risk for the lender than other forms of credit. 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%.
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WERTH: So, what Fusaro did was he set up a randomized control trial where he gave one group of borrowers a traditional high-interest-rate payday loan and then he gave another group of borrowers no interest rate on their loans and then he compared the two and he found out that both groups were just as likely to roll over their loans again. And we should say, again, the research was funded by CCRF.
This is not true. A creditor cannot put you in jail. Only Prosecutors or U.S. Attorneys can pursue you if they believe that you have committed a crime. However, virtually every Prosecutor knows that not paying a pay day loan is not a crime and will not even attempt to prosecute you. In fact, most payday lenders know that Prosecutors have no time for a pay day lender using the state’s offices to collect their debt and crazy interest rates and will not even contact them. They will threaten to contact them in an attempt to scare you into paying. I have even seen Payday lenders lie and state that they are “Investigator Jones” in order to scare a debtor into paying a debt. Don’t let them scare you. It is not a crime to not pay a pay day loan.
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The rules should be formally proposed this spring, but the pushback—from the industry and from more-surprising sources—has already been fierce. Dennis Shaul, who, before he became the head of the industry’s trade association, was a senior adviser to then-Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, accused the rule-makers of a harmful paternalism, rooted in a belief that payday-lending customers “are not able to make their own choices about credit.” All 10 of Florida’s congressional Democrats wrote in a letter to Richard Cordray, the bureau’s director, that the proposals do an “immeasurable disservice to our constituents, many of whom rely on the availability of short-term and small-dollar loans.” Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, recently co-sponsored a bill that would delay the regulations for at least two years.
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The rule would also target longer-term loans with a 36 percent yearly interest rate or higher, restricting lenders from directly extracting money from the consumer’s account, without the borrower’s explicit consent, if they failed to repay twice in a row. Any direct withdrawal from a consumer’s account would also require standard prior notification. The commonsense rule was projected to reduce the industry’s yearly revenue by two-thirds.
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Worse yet, she says, borrowers have almost no choice but to roll over their loans again and again, which jacks up the fees. In fact, rollovers, Standaert says, are an essential part of the industry’s business model.
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?
On the other hand, this leaves about 40 percent of borrowers who weren’t good at predicting when they’d pay the loan off. And Mann found a correlation between bad predictions and past payday loan use.
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.
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