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.
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about where the data came from and who paid for it – yes, I would have disclosed that. I do not think it’s one way or the other in terms of what the research found and what the paper says.
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
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.
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.
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.
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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.
WERTH: I was, and what he told me was that although 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:
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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.
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.
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So we are left with at least two questions, I guess. Number one: How well is the one of the payday-loan research we’ve been telling you about today, pro or con? And number two: How do we have any academic research?
MCKAMEY: Everybody that comes in here always comes out with a smile on their face. I do not see anyone come out hollering. They take care of everyone who comes to the T. You have been satisfied, I’m satisfied, and I see other people be satisfied. I never seen a person walk out with a bad attitude or anything.
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According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or the CFPB – the federal agency that President Obama wants to tighten payday-loan rules – 75 percent of the industry’s fees come from borrowers who take over 10 loans per year.
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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?
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.
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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.
Diane Standaert is the director of state policy at the Center for Responsible Lending, which has offices in North Carolina, California, and Washington, D.C. The CRL calls itself a “nonprofit, non-partisan organization” with a focus on “fighting predatory lending practices.” You’ve probably figured out that the CRL is anti-payday loan. Standaert argues that payday loans are often not used how the industry markets them, as a quick solution to a short-term emergency.
WINCY COLLINS: I advise everyone, “Do not even mess with those people. They are rip-offs “I would not go back again. I do not even like to walk across the street past it. That’s just how pissed I was, and so hurt.
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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.
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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.
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.
Consumer advocates argue that lenders take advantage of situations like this, knowing full well that a significant number of borrowers will be unable to repay payday loans when they come due. Because the borrowers roll over their old loan, or pay back the first loan and immediately take out another, the advocates argue, they get trapped in a cycle of debt, repaying much more than they borrowed. Those who own and manage payday-loan shops stand by the products they sell, maintaining that they are lenders of the last resort for borrowers like Tambu, who have no other options.
ERVIN BANKS: I do not see anything wrong with them. I had some back bills I had to pay off. So it did not take me too long to pay it back – about three months, something like that. They are beautiful people.
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.
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