Perhaps a solution of sorts—something that is better, but not perfect—could come from more-modest reforms to the payday-lending industry, rather than attempts to transform it. There is some evidence that smart regulation can improve the business for both lenders and consumers. In 2010, Colorado reformed its payday-lending industry by reducing the permissible fees, extending the minimum term of a loan to six months, and requiring that a loan be repayable over time, instead of coming due all at once. Pew reports that half of the payday stores in Colorado closed, but each remaining store almost doubled its customer volume, and now payday borrowers are paying 42 percent less in fees and defaulting less frequently, with no reduction in access to credit. “There’s been a debate for 20 years about whether to allow payday lending or not,” says Pew’s Alex Horowitz. “Colorado demonstrates it can be much, much better.”
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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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.
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.
The problem we’ve been looking at today is pretty straightforward: there are a lot of low-income people in the U.S. who’ve come to rely on a financial instrument, the payday loan, that is, according to its detractors, exploitative, and according to its supporters, useful. President Obama is pushing for regulatory reform; payday advocates say the reform may kill off the industry, leaving borrowers in the lurch.
DEYOUNG: Yes, I like to think of myself as an objective observer of social activity, as an economist. But there’s one section of the blog where we highlight mixed evidence. That in some cases having access to payday loans looks like on balance, it helps reduce financial distress at the household level. And we also point to, I believe, an equal number of studies in that section that find the exact opposite. And then of course there’s another section in the blog where we point directly to rollovers and rollovers is where the rubber hits the road on this. If we can somehow predict which folks will not be able to handle this product and would roll it over incessantly, then we could impress upon payday lenders not to make the loans to those people. This product, in fact, is particularly badly suited to predict this because the payday lender only gets a small number of pieces of information when she makes the loan, as opposed to the information that a regulated financial institution would collect. The expense of collecting that information, of underwriting the loan in the traditional way that a bank would, would be too high for the payday lender to offer the product. If we load up additional costs on the production function of these loans, the loans won’t be profitable any longer.
WERTH: I was, and what he told me was that even though Hilary Miller was making substantial changes to the paper, CCRF did not exercise editorial control. That is, he says, he still had complete academic freedom to accept or reject Miller’s changes. Here’s Fusaro:
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.
“The control of man’s diet is readily accomplished, but mastery over his intestinal bacterial flora is not,” wrote a doctor named Bond Stow in the Medical Record Journal of Medicine and Surgery in 1914. “The innumerable examples of autointoxication that one sees in his daily walks in life is proof thereof … malaise, total lack of ambition so that every effort in life is a burden, mental depression often bordering upon melancholia.”
The idea that interest rates should have limits goes back to the beginning of civilization. Even before money was invented, the early Babylonians set a ceiling on how much grain could be paid in interest, according to Christopher Peterson, a law professor at the University of Utah and a senior adviser at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: They recognized the pernicious effects of trapping a family with debt that could not be paid back. In the United States, early, illegal payday-like loans trapped many borrowers, and harassment by lenders awoke the ire of progressives. States began to pass versions of the Uniform Small Loan Law, drafted in 1916 under the supervision of Arthur Ham, the first director of the Russell Sage Foundation’s Department of Remedial Loans. Ham recognized a key truth about small, short-term loans: They are expensive for lenders to make. His model law tried to encourage legal short-term lending by capping rates at a high enough level—states determined their own ceilings, typically ranging from 36 to 42 percent a year—to enable lenders to turn a profit. This was highly controversial, but many Americans still could not secure loans at that rate; their risk of default was deemed too great. Some of them eventually turned to the mob, which grew strong during Prohibition.
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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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.
So, if you were to apply in the morning and get approved, it is possible you would have the money in your bank account later that day. However, always assume that once you are approved you will receive the money in your account the next business day. Lenders do not transfer funds on weekends and holidays (or when banks are usually closed). One hour payday loans can happen but it is extremely rare.
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.
One of the gripes people have over how payday lenders work is over their collection process. The truth is you cannot be made to repay more than you can afford. We can tell you how much that is and crucially we can help you prove that to the payday lender.
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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?
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CHICAGO—Americans hear a lot these days about the country’s urban-rural divide. Rural counties are poorer; urban ones richer. Rural areas are losing jobs; urban ones are gaining them. People with a college education are leaving rural areas. They’re moving to urban places.
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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:
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.
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DEYOUNG: This is why price caps are a bad idea. Because if the solution was implemented as I suggest and, in fact, payday lenders lost some of their most profitable customers — because now we’re not getting that fee the 6th and 7th time from them — then the price would have to go up. And we’d let the market determine whether or not at that high price we still have folks wanting to use the product.