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)
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Black and white polka-dots covering her nine-months-pregnant belly, M.I.A. sauntered onto the Grammys stage in 2009 for a performance that would seem to announce the arrival of a supremely 21st-century sort of icon—artistically daring, unapologetically female, and from a part of the world the West has often ignored. But in retrospect now, the moment stands as the apex of her supposedly finished music career, a summit never reached again. Anyone unfamiliar with M.I.A. but familiar with the scripts of stardom could assume what came next: difficulty following up a barrier-busting hit, mistakes with the press, and personal setbacks.
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.
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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ZINMAN: And so we have a setup for a nice natural experiment there. You have two neighboring states, similar in a lot of ways. One passed a law, another considered passing a law, but didn’t quite pass it.
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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“Say, don’t you know this business is a blessing to the poor?” So said Frank Jay Mackey, who was known as the king of the loan sharks in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, according to Quick Cash, a book about the industry by Robert Mayer, a political-science professor at Loyola University Chicago. There are many parallels between the early-20th-century loan sharks and today’s payday lenders, including the fact that both sprang up at times when the income divide was growing. Back then the loans were illegal, because states had usury caps that prevented lending at rates much higher than single digits. Still, those illegal loans were far cheaper than today’s legal ones. “At the turn of the twentieth century, 20% a month was a scandal,” Mayer writes. “Today, the average payday loan is twice as expensive as that.”
Along with reforming payday lending, Cordray is trying to jawbone banks and credit unions into offering small-dollar, payday-like loans. Theoretically, they could use their preexisting branches, mitigating the overhead costs that affect payday stores and hence enabling profitable lending at a much lower rate. This is the holy grail for consumer advocates. “What everyone really wants to see is for it to come into the mainstream of financial services if it’s going to exist at all,” Cox says.
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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.
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Bob DeYoung makes one particularly counterintuitive argument about the use of payday loans. Rather than “trapping borrowers in a cycle of debt,” as President Obama and other critics put it, DeYoung argues that payday loans may help people avoid a cycle of debt — like the late fees your phone company charges for an unpaid bill; like the overdraft fees or bounced-check fees your bank might charge you.
The payday industry, and some political allies, argue the CFPB is trying to deny credit to people who really need it. Now, it probably does not surprise you that the payday industry doesn’t want this kind of government regulation. Nor should it surprise you that a government agency called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is trying to regulate an industry like the payday industry.
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.
In early 1967, on vacation in Jamaica, King; his wife, Coretta; and two aides rented a house with no telephone. There he wrote the first draft of a book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, which described the opportunities for—and obstacles to—eradicating poverty at last. (Coretta wrote the foreword.) In this excerpt from the published book, King predicted that white resistance to racial equality would stiffen when the agenda moved on to far-costlier measures—improvements in jobs, schools, and housing.
According to Amy Traub of the think tank Demos, “many advocates are worried that it’s the beginning of a larger effort to undo the CFPB’s successful work of protecting consumers.” The payday-lending sector has historically preyed on poor, “underbanked” communities, marketing short-term loans at astronomically high interest rates. Payday loans trade on exploitative debt schemes, as borrowers spiral into a deepening cycle of repeated over-borrowing and financial crisis. Historically, the industry has disproportionately targeted consumers who are extremely poor, black, recently divorced or separated, and renting their housing.
Buried in a late-night court filing in Robert Mueller’s expansive probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was an explosive claim: An adviser to President Donald Trump’s campaign and transition teams had knowingly been in contact with a former Russian intelligence officer as late as September 2016, prosecutors said. The revelation is the strongest connection to date between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s intelligence services, which U.S. officials say were behind the cyberattacks on Democrats during the election.
Proponents of minimal regulations for payday loan businesses argue that some individuals that require the use of payday loans have already exhausted other alternatives. Such consumers could potentially be forced to illegal sources if not for payday loans. Tom Lehman, an advocate of payday lending, said:
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Alternative Financial Services: Innovating to Meet Customer Needs in an Evolving Regulatory Framework, by John Hecht, Research Analyst, Stephens Inc. (now at Jefferies & Company Inc.) (February, 2014).
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?
The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity. Overwhelmingly America is still struggling with irresolution and contradictions. It has been sincere and even ardent in welcoming some change. But too quickly apathy and disinterest rise to the surface when the next logical steps are to be taken. Laws are passed in a crisis mood after a Birmingham or a Selma, but no substantial fervor survives the formal signing of legislation. The recording of the law in itself is treated as the reality of the reform.
One problem with the payday-lending industry—for regulators, for lenders, for the public interest—is that it defies simple economic intuition. For instance, in most industries, more competition means lower prices for consumers. That maxim surely helped guide the deregulation of the fringe lending business in the 1990s—and some advocates still believe that further deregulation is the key to making payday loans affordable. Yet there’s little evidence that a proliferation of payday lenders produces this consumer-friendly competitive effect. Quite the contrary: While states with no interest-rate limits do have more competition—there are more stores—borrowers in those states (Idaho, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin) pay the highest prices in the country, more than double those paid by residents of some other states, according to Pew. In states where the interest rate is capped, the rate that payday lenders charge gravitates right toward the cap. “Instead of a race to the lowest rates, it’s a race to the highest rates,” says Tom Feltner, the director of financial services at the Consumer Federation of America.
A staff report released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York concluded that payday loans should not be categorized as “predatory” since they may improve household welfare. “Defining and Detecting Predatory Lending” reports “if payday lenders raise household welfare by relaxing credit constraints, anti-predatory legislation may lower it.” The author of the report, Donald P. Morgan, defined predatory lending as “a welfare reducing provision of credit.” However, he also noted that the loans are very expensive, and that they are likely to be made to under-educated households or households of uncertain income.
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Jump up ^ Choplin, Jessica; Stark, Debra; Ahmad, Jasmine (2011). “A Psychological Investigation of Consumer Vulnerability to Fraud: Legal and Policy Implication”. Hein Online. pp. 61–108. Retrieved 2017-12-09.