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.
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U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (left) talks with Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray after he testified about Wall Street reform at the 2014 Senate Banking Committee hearing. (Jonathan Ernst
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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.
The last time Tambu and I talked, she told me about a job she had recently started, working at a veterinary hospital. “This is a career-a real job,” she told me. Tambu hopes that she will finally be able to set aside twenty-five dollars from each paycheck, and maybe start taking classes at a local college to work towards degree in counseling.
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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?
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.
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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.
Ally Hockenberry, Arwa Gunja, Barack Obama, Bill Healy, Bob DeYoung, Caroline English, Christopher Werth, Diane Standaert, Donald Morgan, Elizabeth Dole, Greg Rosalsky, Hilary Miller, Jamie Fulmer, Jay Cowit, Jonathan Zinman, Kasia Mychajlowycz, Marc Fusaro, Merritt Jacob, Patricia Cirillo, Pew Charitable Trusts, President Obama, Ronald Mann, Scott Carrell, Sebastian McKamey
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.
FULMER: It would take the $ 15 and it would make that fee $ 1.38 per $ 100 borrowed. That’s less than 7.5 cents per day. The New York Times can not sell a newspaper for 7.5 cents a day. And somehow we are expected to be unsecured, relative, $ 100 loans for a two-week period for 7.5 cents per day. It just does not make economical sense.
Indeed, even those who work in the industry recognize that these loans are imperfect solutions to the growing demand for small loans. John Weinstein, a third-generation check casher and the president of Check Center, told me that he recognizes the problems (mentioned in a series of recent Pew reports) associated with repeat borrowing. Weinstein believes that “changes in the industry are inevitable.”
WERTH: So, what did Fusaro do when he set up a randomzed control trial where he gave a group of borrowers a traditional high-interest-rate payday loan and then gave another group of borrowers no interest rates 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 financed by CCRF.
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.
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.
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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.
Some payday loan companies gather your personal information and then shop around for a lender. That means your information can go out to third parties as part of the lending process. Other companies will even sell contact information, leaving you dealing with sales calls and spam emails. LendUp protects customer information and will never sell it.
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.
On the critic side right now are the Center for Responsible Lending, who promotes 36 percent cap on payday lending, which we know puts the industry out of business. The CFPB’s proposed policy is to pay payday lenders to collect more information at the point of contact that if avoided allows payday lenders to really be profitable, deliver the product. Now that’s, that’s not the only plank in the CFPB’s platform. They advocate limiting rollovers and cooling-off periods and the research does not indicate that in states where rollovers are limited, payday lenders have got around them by paying the loan off by refinancing. Just start a separate loan with a separate loan number, evading the regulation. Of course that’s a regulation that was poorly written, if the payday lenders
To date, the debates about payday loans have been focused solely on the supply side of the issue-the payday lending-and not on the demand side-the borrowers. Lately, however, the body of research in the latter has been growing. A recent report by the Center for Financial Services Innovation highlights several categories of small-dollar credit borrowers. Tambu is not representative of the entire payday market, but according to the center’s research, borrowers seeking loans because of an unexpected expense represent thirty-two per cent of the over-all market. Policy recommendations, however, are focused on the regulation of the industry, rather than on the conditions that lead people to seek out small, expensive loans in the first place.
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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?
Tambu already knew that she would not be able to pay the loan back on time using her paychecks: she needed every dollar to pay her rent and utilities, and to buy food. Although many states allow lenders to “roll over” and refinance loans, California does not. Tambu paid back the first loans and then took out more from the same five lenders, with a second round of fees-effectively extending the length of the first ones. When the lenders tried to withdraw the money she had from her checking account, she did not have enough funds and was hit with overdraft fees that quickly mounted to three hundred dollars. Tambu paid off the overdraft charges and closed its account.
MANN: The data really suggests that there is a relatively small group of borrowers, in the range of 10 to 15 percent, who had been extremely
need it. Now, it’s not surprising you that the payday industry does not want this kind of government regulation. Nor should it surprise you that a government agency called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is trying to regulate an industry like the payday industry.
Be aware that some payday lenders have threatened garnishment in order to get borrowers to pay, even though they do not have a court order or judgment. If that should happen, you may want to seek legal assistance.
DIANE STANDAERT: From the data we’ve seen, payday loans are disproportionately 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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