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.
After studying the millions of payday loans, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that 67 percent went to borrowers with seven or more transactions per year, and the majority of borrowers paid more in fees than the amount of their initial loan. This is why Diane Standaert, the director of state policy at the Center for Responsible Lending, says 36 percent interest-rate cap, says, “The typical borrower experience involves long-term indebtedness-that’s core to the business model.”
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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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
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.
Tambu is still paying back the loan she got to fix her car last summer, visiting each of her five lenders on Wednesdays, her payday, and paying them twenty-two dollars each. When I asked Tambu whether, given her experience, she thought payday loans should be illegal in California, as they are in New York, she told me, “no, I think they should still exist. You know it’s undoable to take out five loans and be able to pay them back. But sometimes you have no choice. The reason I’m working so hard to pay these backs is that I want to be in good standing, in case I ever need another one. ”
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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?
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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.
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.
DUBNER: Let’s say you have a one-on-one audience with President Obama. We know that the President understands economics pretty well or, I would argue that at least. What’s your pitch to the President for how this industry should be treated and not eliminated?
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.
If you take out a payday loan that is equal to your next check, you will not have to pay any bills or make it to the next paycheck. That leaves you in a cycle where you are lining up your next loan as you pay off the first. Payday loan alternatives can help you avoid that debt cycle and still get the capital you need.
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 makes plenty of sense in theory. Payday lending in its most unfettered form seems to be ideal for neither consumers nor lenders. As Luigi Zingales, professor at the University of Chicago, told a group of finance professionals in a speech speech last year, “The effective outcome can not be achieved without mandatory regulation.” One controversy is whether the office, in its zeal to protect consumers, is going too far. Under the plan it is now considering, lenders would have to make sure that borrowers can repay their loans and cover other living expenses without extensive defaults or reborrowing. These actions would really seem to curtail the possibility of people falling into debt traps with payday lenders. But the industry argues that the rules would be put out of business. And while a self-serving howl of pain is precisely what you would expect from any industry
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.
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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.
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.
Race Matters: The Concentration of Payday Lenders in North Carolina, by Uriah King, Wei Li, Delvin Davis and Keith Ernst, The Center for Responsible Lending (March, 2005).
The explanation for this is not simple, and a variety of economic jargon floats around the issue. But it’s all started with this: The typical payday-consumer loan is too desperate, too unsophisticated, or too exhausted from being treated with disrespect by traditional lenders to engage in shopping. So demand is what economists call price tax. As Clarence Hodson, who published a book in 1919 about the business of small loans, put it, “It is not possible for bargain to benefit with cupidity.” In its last financial year, Advance America, one of the country’s largest payday lenders, wrote, “We believe that the main competitive factor is customer service, rental, convenience, speed, and confidentiality.” You will notice it did not mention the price.
A Review of the Department of Defense’s Report on Predatory Lending Practices Directed at Members of the Armed Forces and Their Dependents, hearing in the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing. & Urban Affairs, (September, 2006).
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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.
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.
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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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.
The porn actress’s account of her alleged sexual encounter with the president on 60 Minutes- “I thought of it as a business deal,” she said-shares similarities with Hollywood tales of the “casting couch.”
DeYOUNG: Right now, there are very little information about rollovers, the reasons for rollovers, and the effects of rollovers. And without academic research, the rule is going to be based on who shouts the loudest. And that’s a bad way to write law or regulation. That’s what I really worry about. If I could advocate a solution to this, it would be: identify the number of rollovers at which it has been revealed that the borrower is in trouble and is being irresponsible and this is the wrong product for them. At that point the payday lender does not flip the borrower into another loan, does not encourage the borrower to find another payday lender. At that point the lender’s main is then switched into a different product, a long term loan where he or she pays it a bit bit every month.
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.
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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