“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.”
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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.
DeYOUNG: Borrowing money is like renting money. You get to use it two weeks and then you pay it back. You could rent a car for two weeks, right? You get to use that car. Well, if you calculate the annual percentage rate on that car rental — meaning that if you divide the amount you pay on that car by the value of that automobile — you get similarly high rates. So this isn’t about interest. This is about short-term use of a product that’s been lent to you. This is just arithmetic.

But if the only explanation for high rates were that lenders can, so they do, you’d expect to see an industry awash in profits. It is not, especially today. The industry’s profits are tough to track—many companies are private—but in 2009, Ernst & Young released a study, commissioned by the Financial Service Centers of America, finding that stores’ average profit margin before tax and interest was less than 10 percent. (For the sake of comparison, over the past five quarters, the consumer-financial-services industry as a whole averaged a pretax profit margin of more than 30 percent, according to CSIMarket, a provider of financial information.) A perusal of those financial statements that are public confirms a simple fact: As payday lending exploded, the economics of the business worsened—and are today no better than middling. The Community Financial Services Association argues that a 36 percent rate cap, like the one in place for members of the military, is a death knell because payday lenders can’t make money at that rate, and this seems to be correct. In states that cap their rates at 36 percent a year or lower, the payday lenders vanish. In New York, which caps payday lending at 25 percent a year, there are no stores at all.
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.
Financial Implications – The cost associated with short term loans of up to $500 can range from 15% to 40%, and these costs may climb even higher for loans that are greater than $500 in value. Before you sign your agreement, you should check these fees carefully. Similarly, there may also be charges applied for nonsufficient funds. As an example, if your $100 loan is 15 days past due, you may be assessed a charge that is equal to 10% of the principle balance as well as a $25 nonsufficient funds fee.
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?
While the Trump rollback of the rule is an obvious direct attack on the regulation, it is predictable. Mulvaney—who received over $62,000 in political contributions from the payday-lending industry in past positions and whose appointment faces an ongoing legal challenge in court by his Obama-selected predecessor—raked in thousands in contributions just around the same time he issued a letter of protest to the Obama administration in 2016, warning that curbing payday lenders would unfairly limit “access to credit” for poor borrowers. He also opposed legislation to protect households at military bases from predatory lenders.
The payday lending industry argues that conventional interest rates for lower dollar amounts and shorter terms would not be profitable. For example, a $100 one-week loan, at a 20% APR (compounded weekly) would generate only 38 cents of interest, which would fail to match loan processing costs. Research shows that on average, payday loan prices moved upward, and that such moves were “consistent with implicit collusion facilitated by price focal points”.[34]
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In the event that the post-dated check you provided to the payday lender does not clear the bank and you default on the loan, your credit score could take a hit, unless you have another source of funds available (or arrange a payment plan or extension) to cover the balance. Defaulting on a loan often results in the debt being sold to a collection agency and reported to each of the three credit bureaus. Some lenders even go as far as filing lawsuits, which will also show up in the public records section of your credit report if the judge rules in their favor.
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.
Payday loans are short-term cash loans based on the borrower’s personal check held for future deposit or on electronic access to the borrower’s bank account. Borrowers write a personal check for the amount borrowed plus the finance charge and receive cash. In some cases, borrowers sign over electronic access to their bank accounts to receive and repay payday loans.
Comparatively the profit margin of Starbucks for the measured time period was just over 9%, and comparison lenders had an average profit margin of 13.04%. These comparison lenders were mainstream companies: Capital One, GE Capital, HSBC, Money Tree, and American Express Credit.[35]
Contact your state’s regulator or attorney general office for more information. You may also contact a legal aid attorney or private attorney for assistance. You can submit a complaint about payday loans with the CFPB online or by calling (855) 411-2372.
The adviser, Rick Gates, was a deputy to Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort and stayed on as a liaison between Trump’s transition team and the Republican National Committee after the election, well after Manafort was forced to step down over his alleged ties to dirty Ukrainian money. Manafort and Gates’s arrival to the campaign team coincided with the most pivotal Russia-related episode of the election: the release of emails that had been stolen from the Democratic National Committee by hackers working for the GRU, Russia’s premier military-intelligence unit. The GRU remained at the center of the Russians’ interference campaign, using the Guccifer 2.0 persona, DCLeaks.com, and WikiLeaks to publish the hacked material in droves before the election. Gates and Manafort, meanwhile, remained in touch with the former GRU officer who the special counsel’s office believes was still connected to Russian intelligence services during the election—raising new questions about what the campaign officials knew about Russia’s hack-and-dump scheme.
Allison Martin is a copywriter and financial mentor. She specializes in educating individuals about personal finance through insightful and candid articles. Allison earned her Bachelor of Science and Master of Accountancy degrees from the University of South Florida. She also covers personal finance topics at Love to Know and Lifehack. www.allisonemartin.com
The suspension of the rule signals a new direction for the CFPB, which is now headed by Mick Mulvaney, a longtime Trump crony and eminent Wall Street warrior who has a record of fiercely protecting financiers, not consumers. Mulvaney immediately followed the rule’s suppression by launching an internal review of the agency, which watchdog groups see as another step toward reversal of the agency’s founding mission. Paralleling Trump’s anti-Obama vendetta, Mulvaney is poised to dismantle the agency’s regulatory framework, which prior to his tenure aimed at promoting modest but meaningful limits on the financial industry’s exploitative power. And his first move is fittingly to roll back a major instrument of fraud and usury that’s aimed at the poorest consumers.
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.
All a consumer needs to get a payday loan is an open bank account in relatively good standing, a steady source of income, and identification. Lenders do not conduct a full credit check or ask questions to determine if a borrower can afford to repay the loan.  Since loans are made based on the lender’s ability to collect, not the borrower’s ability to repay while meeting other financial obligations, payday loans create a debt trap.
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.
January 16 was supposed to be the day of reckoning for a notorious predatory-lending industry, when a rule from the Obama administration’s consumer-watchdog agency would finally start to curb a business that’s fleecing the poor. But the day the new regulation was set to kick in, the Trump White House’s newly appointed head of the agency decided to suspend the rule indefinitely, and soon announced a “review” of all agency operations, signaling a shift in mission from protecting Main Street to coddling Wall Street.
Consider a study that Zinman published a few years back. It looked at what happened in Oregon after that state capped interest rates on short-term loans from the usual 400 percent to 150 percent, which meant a payday lender could no longer charge the industry average of roughly $15 per $100 borrowed; now they could charge only about $6. As an economist might predict, if the financial incentive to sell a product is severely curtailed, people will stop selling the product.
DeYOUNG: They choose not to overdraft the checking account and take out the payday loan because they’ve done the calculus. That overdrafting on four or five checks at their bank is going to cost them more money than taking out the payday loan.
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.[44] “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.
Lenders use your credit score to determine if you’re a good or bad risk for a loan. Credit scores range from 300 to 850. The higher the number, the better your score, and the easier it is to get approved for loans. Many lenders consider consumers with scores of 620 or lower to be a bad credit risk.
A 2009 study by University of Chicago Booth School of Business Professor Adair Morse[51] found that in natural disaster areas where payday loans were readily available consumers fared better than those in disaster zones where payday lending was not present. Not only were fewer foreclosures recorded, but such categories as birth rate were not affected adversely by comparison. Moreover, Morse’s study found that fewer people in areas served by payday lenders were treated for drug and alcohol addiction.
Brian Melzer of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found that payday loan users did suffer a reduction in their household financial situation, as the high costs of repeated rollover loans impacted their ability to pay recurring bills such as utilities and rent.[45] This assumes a payday user will rollover their loan rather than repay it, which has been shown both by the FDIC and the Consumer Finance Protection bureau in large sample studies of payday consumers [11][15][46]
CHRISTOPHER WERTH: Right. Well, it’s a non-profit watchdog, relatively new organization. Its mission is to expose corporate and political misconduct, primarily by using open-records requests, like the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA requests, to produce evidence.
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.
DUBNER: Now, Bob, the blog post is sort of a pop version of a meta-study, which rolls up other research on different pieces of the issue. Persuade me that the studies that you cite in the post aren’t merely the biased rantings of some ultra-right-wing pro-market-at-all-costs lunatics. And I realize that at least one of the primary studies was authored by yourself, so I guess I’m asking you to prove that you are not an ultra-right-wing pro-market-at-all-costs lunatic.