DUBNER: OK, so this is interesting that a watchdog group that will not reveal its funding is going after an industry to try to influence academics that’s funding. So should we assume that CFA, the watchdog, has some kind of horse in the payday race? Do we just not know?
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This is exactly the approach by which Donald Trump inadvertently made millions for Michael Wolff. Having so spectacularly backfired the first time, why do it again? The short answer is: Team Trump knows nothing else.
And yet it is surprisingly difficult to condemn the business wholesale. Emergency credit can be a lifeline, after all. And while stories about the payday-lending industry’s individual victims are horrible, the research on its effect at a more macro level is limited and very ambiguous. One study shows that payday lending makes local communities more resilient; another says it increases personal bankruptcies; and so on.
, gesturing at the area surrounding Check Center, where the drug dealers hang out in front of the store and bullet holes riddled the storefront, “you should see where I live. It makes this place look like Beverly Hills. ”
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DeYOUNG: Well, in a short sentence that’s very scientific I would start by saying, “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.” The question comes down to how we identify the water here and how do we identify the baby here. One way is to collect a lot of information, as the CFPB suggests, about the creditworthiness of the borrower. But that brings up production cost of payday loans and will probably put the industry out of business. But I think we can all agree that once someone pays a fee in an aggregate amount equal to the amount that was originally borrowed, that’s pretty clear that there’s a problem there.
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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In a typical handgun injury, which I diagnose almost daily, leaf bullet in laceration through an organ such as the liver. To a radiologist, it appears as a linear, thin, gray bullet track through the organ. There may be bleeding and some bullet fragments.
Now, we should say, that when you are an academic study of a particular industry, often the only way to get the data is from the industry itself. It’s a common practice. But, as Zinman noted in his paper, as the researcher you draw the line at letting the industry or industry advocates influence the findings. But as our producer Christopher Werth learned that it has not always been the case with payday-lending research and the Consumer Credit Research Foundation, or the CCRF.
The bigger problem for payday lenders is the overhead. Alex Horowitz, a research manager at the Pew Charitable Trusts, says that two-thirds of the fee payday lenders collect are spent just keeping the lights on. The average storefront serves only 500 customers a year, and employee turnover is ridiculously high. For example, QC Holdings, a public traded nationwide lender, reported that it had to replace approximately 65 percent of its branch-level employees in 2014. “The profits are not extraordinary,” Horowitz says. “What is extraordinary is the inefficiency.”
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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.
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.
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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?
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.
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.
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There are plenty of takeaways from Daniels’s 60 Minutes interview. There’s the fact that Daniels said someone threatened her safety in front of her daughter in a parking lot in Las Vegas in 2011, telling her to “Leave Trump alone-forget the story.” There’s Cooper’s second focus on campaign-finance law, and how Trump and his lawyer Michael Cohen may have broken it with the $ 130,000 payment Daniels says Cohen gave him. There’s Daniels’s firm repudiation of anyone who suggests that she’s a victim in this situation.
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DUBNER: Wowzer. That does sound pretty damning – that the head of a research group funded by payday lenders is essentially ghostwriting parts of an academic paper that happens to reach pro-payday lending conclusions. Were you able to speak with Marc Fusaro, the author of the paper?
Whatever you want to call it – wage deflation, structural unemployment, the absence of good-paying jobs – is not that a bigger problem? And, if so, what’s to be done about that? Next time on Freakonomics Radio, we will continue this conversation by looking at a strange, controversial proposal to make sure everyone’s got enough money to get by.
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.