WERTH: It’s hard to say. Actually, we just do not know. But whatever their incentive might be, their FOIA applications have produced what looks like some pretty damning e-mails between CCRF – which, again, receives funding from payday lenders – and academic researchers who have written about payday lending.
FULMER: If you associate the cost of paying our rent to our local owners, paying our light bill and electrical fees, paying our other fees to local merchants who provide services to us, we operate on a relatively thin margin.
heavy users, whose predictions are really bad. And I think that group of people seems to fundamentally not understand their financial situation.
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Consumer Notice: Payday loans are intended for short-term financial needs only, and should
In a vicious cycle, the higher the permitted fees, the more stores, the lesser customers each store serves, so the higher the fees need to be. Competition, in other words, does reduce profits to lenders, as expected – but it seems to carry no benefit to consumers, at least as measured by the rates they are charged. (The old loan sharks may have been able to charge lower rates because of lower overhead, although it’s impossible to know.) Mayer thinks the explanation may have more to do with the differences in the customer base: Because alternative alternatives were sparse back then, these lenders served a more diverse and overall more creditworthy set of borrowers, so default rates were likely lower.)
But if the only explanation for high rates were that lenders can, so they do, you would expect to see an industry awash in profits. It is not, especially today. Ernst & Young released a study, commissioned by the Financial Service Centers of America, to find that the ‘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 has averaged a pre-profit profit rate 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 at 36 percent rate cap, the one in place for members of the military, is a death knell because payday lenders can not make money at that rate, and this seems to be correct. In states that their rates are at 36% per year or lower, the payday lenders vanish. In New York, which caps payday loans at 25 percent a year, there are no stores at all.
As it happens, Tambu and I met while we were working at the Check Center, check-in casher and payday lender in a low-income neighborhood in downtown Oakland. As a part of a research project designed to better understand why an increasing number of Americans use payday lenders and check cashers, I spent two weeks in October working as a teller and collections agent, calling delinquent borrowers at Check Center. Before that, I spent four months as a teller at a casher in the South Bronx, and one month staffing the Predatory Loan Help Hotline at the Virginia Poverty Law Center.
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 the Prohibition.
Back when he was a private businessman, Trump learned how to use law as a weapon. The lesson he took from that is that if your pockets are deep enough – and your conscience dull enough – it does not matter that you are wrong. The other party will be broken before you will lose.
DUBNER: Obviously the history of lending is long and often, at least in my reading, tied to religion. There is a prohibition against it in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the Old Testament. It’s in the New Testament. In Shakespeare, the Merchant of Venice was not the hero. So, do you think that the general view of this kind of lending is colored by an emotional or moral argument too much at the expense of an economic and practical argument?
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DEYOUNG: Yes, I like to think of myself as an objective observer of social activity, as an economist. But there is one section of the blog where we highlight mixed evidence. That helps you to reduce the risk of money at home 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 is 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 will roll it over incessantly, then we can impress on payday lenders not to make the loans to those people. This product, in fact, is especially badly suited to predict this because the payday lender 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 cost of collecting that information, of underwriting the loan in the traditional way that a bank would be, would be too high for the payday to offer the product. If we load up additional costs on the production of these loans, the loans will not be profitable any longer.
MANN: If you did not know what to do, that’s what you’re going to do, that’s just what it’s going to do because the data at least suggests that most people do have a fairly good understanding of what’s going to happen to them.
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 certainly 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 is little evidence that a proliferation of payday lenders produces this consumer-friendly competitive effect. What’s the difference: There are more than double-paid loans in those states (Idaho, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin). by residents of some other states, according to Pew. In the state where the interest rate is capped, the rate that payday lenders charge gravitates right to the cap. “In the race to the lowest rates, it’s a race to the highest rates,” says Tom Feltner, director of financial services at the Consumer Federation of America.
DEYOUNG: That’s a very standard disclaimer. The Federal Reserve System is a unique alternative to regulators across the world. They see the value in having their researchers exercise science and academic freedom because they know that inquiry is a good thing.
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MANN: And if you went to the counter and asked for a loan, they would hand you this sheet of paper and say, “If you’ll fill out this survey for us, we’ll give you $ 15 to $ 25, “I forget what one was. And then I get the surveys sent to me and I can look at them.
Lenders use your credit score to determine whether you are good or bad 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.
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The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau does not have the power to ban payday lending outright, or to set a nationwide interest-rate cap, but it can act to prevent deemed “unfair, abusive, or deceptive” practices. In March 2015, it announced that it was considered 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.
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DeYOUNG: Borrowing money is like renting money. You have to use it for a few weeks. 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 – that means that you divide the amount you pay on that car by the value of that automobile – you get similarly high rates. So this is not about interest. This is about short-term use of a product that’s been lent to you. This is just arithmetic.
Demand for small-dollar loans may be rising partly because of the growing availability of payday loans. But a more significant factor seems to be that an increasing number of people are unable to make ends meet. Real wages have declined significantly since 1972, and more than a quarter of people in the U.S. have no emergency savings whatever. The demand for payday loans remains because the wages of these Americans are not sufficient to pay for basic needs, much less put something aside. Meanwhile, mainstream financial services have all but left low-and-moderate-income groups. And the incentives that enable higher-income earners to save and invest are nonexistent for those with lower incomes.
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 named Cypress Research, which is 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 will 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 the CCRF. And what they show is they really look like editorial interference.
‘M happy for that kind of advice. I’ve 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.
Let’s talk about how a day pay loan works. An individual who needs immediate cash due to a personal emergency can obtain a “payday loan” from any of the many payday loans companies across 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
The Military Lending Act Five Years Later: The High-Cost Small Dollar Loan Market, and the Campaign against Predatory Lending, by Jean Ann Fox, Consumer Federation of America (May, 2012).
When California borrowers default on their loans, lenders do not have much recourse to collect on the debts. Borrowers sign an agreement when they apply for a loan; The lender can not take them to court. One of Tambu’s lenders did harassing his phone calls, a violation of federal law, but Tambu knew her rights. “I’m not stupid,” she told me. “I knew they could not take me to court.”
Donald Trump allegedly told the porn actress Stormy Daniels in a hotel room in Lake Tahoe in 2006. “After that proposal, you will be able to go on [The Celebrity Apprentice] as Daniels told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes on Sunday night, she went to the bathroom, and when she came out, Trump had relocated herself to the end of the bed. It was clear, she said, what she assumed would happen next.
Bob DeYoung makes a very complicated argument about the use of payday loans. Instead of “trapping borrowers in a cycle of debt,” as President Obama and other critics put it, DeYoung argues that payday loans can help people avoid a cycle of debt – like the late payment of your company company charges for an unpaid bill; like the overdraft fees or bounced-check your bank fees may charge you.
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 estimated at around $ 40 billion per year. If you were 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 prohibited in 14 states, including much of the north 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.
DeYOUNG: They do not 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.
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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 would not let the market determine whether or not at that high price we still have the need to use the product.
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WERTH: He was communicating with CCRF’s chairman, a lawyer named Hilary Miller. He is 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 finally what you see is Miller writing whole paragraphs that go pretty much verbatim straight into the finished paper.
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As I opened the CT scan last week to read the next case, I was baffled. The history just read “gun wound.” I have been a radiologist in one of the busiest trauma centers in the United States for 13 years, and have diagnosed thousands of handgun injuries to the brain, lung, liver, spleen, bowel, and other vital organs. I thought that I knew all that I needed to know about gunballs, but the specific pattern of injury on my computer screen was one that I had seen only once before.
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 means really 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, is likely to help solve some big problem.
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 safe 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 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 that is only one step.
Maybe that’s about as good as it gets on the fringe. Outrage is easy, and outrage is warranted-but maybe payday lenders should not be its main target. The problem is not just that people who desperately need a $ 350 loan can not get it at a affordable rate, but that a growing number of people need that loan in the first place.
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 important part of the industry’s business model.
Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Christopher Werth. The rest of our staff include 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 do not forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or anywhere else you get your free, weekly podcasts.
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