DEYOUNG: Studies that have looked at this have found that once you control for the demographics and income levels in these areas and these communities, the racial characteristics no longer drive the location decisions. As you can expect, business people do not care what color their customers are, as long as their money’s green.
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When the giant Indian technology-service firm Infosys announced last November that it would open a design and innovation hub in Providence, the company’s president
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.
DEYOUNG: Oh, I think that our history of usury laws is a direct result of our Judeo-Christian background. And even Islamic banking, which follows in the same tradition. But clearly interest on lent or borrowed money has, has been looked at non-objectively, let’s put it that way. So the shocking APR numbers if we apply them to rent a hotel or rent a car or lend your father’s gold watch or your mother’s silverware to the pawnbroker for a month, the APRs come out similar. So the shock from these numbers is, we recognize the shock here because we are used to calculate interest rates on loans but not interest rates on anything else. And it’s human nature to want to hear bad news and it’s, you know, the media understands this and so they report bad news more often than good news. We do not hear this. It’s like the houses that do not burn down and the stores that do not get robbed.
But when I staffed the window at Check Center, I was instructed to urge customers to take out the smallest possible loans that would serve their needs. And before I worked the phones as an agent collections, I was required to read the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, which limits what lenders can say and do in the process of trying to get borrowers to repay their debts.
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).
Lisa J. Servon is a professor and former dean at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School. She studies and conducts research in the areas of urban poverty and economic development. Her books include “Bootstrap Capital: Microenterprises and the American Poor” and “Bridging the Digital Divide: Technology, Community, and Public Policy.”
DEYOUNG: If we take an objective look at the folks who use payday lending, what we find is that most users of the product are very satisfied with the product. Survey results show that almost 90 percent of the users of the product say that they are either somewhat satisfied or very satisfied with the product afterwards.
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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.
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.
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-wrote it in a way that made what I was trying to say more clearly, I
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garnishment occurs when your employer has a legally required portion of your pay for your debts. Bank garnishment occurs when your bank or credit union is served with a garnishment order. The bank or credit union then holds an amount for the payday lend or collector as allowed by your state law. Each state will have different procedures, as well as exemption from garnishment, which applies to both the wage and banking garnishment process. For instance, under federal law certain benefits or payments are generally exempt from garnishment.
DeYoung also argues that most payday borrowers know exactly what they’re getting into when they sign up; that they’re not unwitting and desperate people who are being preyed on. He points to a key piece of research by Ronald Mann; That’s another co-author on the New York Fed blog post.
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?
DUBNER: Well, Christopher, that defense sounds, at least to me, like pretty weak sauce. I mean, the university writing center does not have as much vested interest in the outcome of my writing as an industry group does for an academic paper about that industry, right?
If you find some of the modern economic scenario, most people have at least one horse in every race, which makes it difficult 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 looks.
The Twisted Economics of Payday lending can not be separated from its natural predatory. The industry has always insisted that its products are intended for short-term emergency use and that it does not encourage repeat borrowing-the debt trap. “It’s like the tobacco industry saying that smoking does not cause cancer,” says Sheila Bair, former president of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Study after study has found that repeating borrowing accounts for a large share of the industry’s revenues. Flannery and Samolyk found that “high per-customer loan volume” helps payday lenders cover their overhead and offset defaults. At a financial-service event in 2007, Daniel Feehan, then CEO of the payday lender Cash America, said, according to multiple reports (here and here), “The theory in the business is that you have got that customer , work to turn it into a repetitive customer, long-term customer, because that’s where the profitability is. ”
Researchers, journalists, and policymakers routinely demonize the businesses that provide payday loans, calling them predatory or worse. Indeed, if you are not living close to the edge, it’s hard to understand why a person would pay such a high price to borrow such a small amount of money.
That does sound sound, does not it? A typical credit card rate is around 15 percent, maybe 20 or higher if you have bad credit. But to the payday-loan industry, a proposal of 36 percent is not reasonable at all.
To be sure, some payday lenders engage in abusive practices. During the month I staffed the Predatory Loan Help Hotline operated by the Virginia Poverty Law Center, I heard a lot of stories from people who had been harassed and threatened with lawsuits by businesses that routinely flute existing regulation.
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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.
said one of the key reasons he chose Rhode Island was its strong network of higher education institutions: Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Community College of Rhode Island.
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There’s one more thing I want to add to today’s discussion. The payday-loan industry is, in a lot of ways, a simple target. But the more I think about it, the more it looks like a symptom of a bigger problem, which is this: remember, to get a payday loan, you need to have a job and a bank account. So what does it say about an economy in which millions of working people make so little money that they can not pay their bills, that they can not absorb one hit like a ticket for smoking in public?
First, Mann wanted to gauge borrowers’ expectations – how long they thought it would take them to pay back a payday loan. So he created a survey that was given out to borrowers in a few dozen payday loan shops across five states.
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.
The problem we’ve been looking at today is pretty straightforward: there are a lot of low-income people in the U.S. who has come to rely on a financial instrument, the payday loan, which 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.
RONALD MANN: I have a general idea that people who are really tight for money know more where their next dollar is coming from and going than the people that are not particularly tight for money. So, I generally think that the people who borrow from payday lenders have a better idea of how their finances are going to go for the next two or three months because it’s really a crucial item for them that they worry about every day. So that’s what I set out to test.
DEYOUNG: Well, I do not know what the president would buy. You know, we have a problem in society right now, it’s getting worse and worse, we go to loggerheads and we’re very bad at finding solutions that satisfy both sides, and I think this is a solution that does satisfy both sides, gold could at least satisfy both sides. It keeps the industry running for folks who value the product. On the other hand it identifies folks using it incorrectly and allows them to get out without you knowing being more trapped.
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.
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.
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