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.
Later on, the payday lenders gave Mann the data that showed how long it really took those exact customers to pay off their loans. About 60 percent of them paid off the loan within 14 days of the date they were predicted.
One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics-really one of the most extraordinary developments of recent political history-is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump. The president won four-fifths of the votes of white evangelical Christians. This was a higher level of support than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, an evangelist himself himself, ever received.
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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It may not even surprise you to learn that the Center for Responsible Lending – the non-profit that’s fighting predatory lending – that it was founded by a self-help Credit Union, which would likely stand to benefit from the elimination of payday loans. And that among the Center’s many funders are banks and other mainstream financial institutions.
you, your bank controls when you have access to it.
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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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.
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Azlinah Tambu, a twenty-two-year-old single mother who lives in Oakland, California, recently found herself in a tough spot. Her car had broken down, and she needed to drop her off at work and to get to work. Tambu, an upbeat woman with glossy black hair and dazzling eyes, did not have the money for the repairs. She had no savings and credit card; she had no family or friends who could help her. So she took out five payday loans from five different payday lenders ranging from fifty to five dollars to three hundred dollars each. The fee to get the loan was fifteen dollars for each hundred dollars borrowed.
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?
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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.
DUBNER: Hey Christopher. So, as I understand it, much of what you’ve learned about CCRF’s involvement in the payday research comes from a watchdog group called the Campaign for Accountability, or CFA? So, first off, tell us a bit more about them, and what their incentives may be.
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.
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.
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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.
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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.”
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.
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.
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.
raise cash. To get a payday loan, you need to have a job and a bank account. According to Pew survey data, some 12 million Americans – roughly 1 in 20 adults – take out a payday loan in a given year. They tend to be relatively young and earn less than $ 40,000; they tend to not have a four-year college degree; and while the most common borrower is a white female, the rate of borrowing is the highest among the minorities.
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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?
MANN: If you did not know what to do, that’s what you’re going to do, that’s just what it’s going to do because the data at least suggests that most people do have a fairly good understanding of what’s going to happen to them.
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.
Fulmer says that payday-loan interest rates are not almost as predatory as they seem, for two reasons. First: When you hear “400 percent on an annualized basis,” you might think that people are borrowing the money for a year. But these loans are designed to be held for just a few weeks, unless, of course, they get rolled over a bunch of times. And, reason number two: because payday loans are so small – the average loan is about $ 375 – the fees need to be relatively high to make it worthwhile for the lender. For every $ 100 borrowed, Fulmer says, the lender gets about $ 15 in fees. So, capping the rate at an annualized 36 percent just would not work.
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Over the past few days, many have tried to disable John Bolton’s worldview, to get a sense of how he might shape the foreign policy of the Trump administration as he takes up the post of national-security adviser. His detractors have paid particular attention to his bellicose statements about North Korea, arguably the country’s most pressing security challenge, and his forceful critics of the Iran deal, which has been on the verge of unraveling for months. They’ve drawn the conclusion that Bolton has an unslakeable appetite for armed intervention that will lead the country to ruin. But although Bolton is often described as a rigid ideologist, he sees himself as a ruthless pragmatist who is more willing to use diplomatic means to advance U.S. interests. And if Bolton the pragmatist wines out, he will be well-placed to steer the Trump White House in a more coherent and constructive direction.
When California borrowers default on their loans, lenders do not have much recourse to collect on the debts. Borrowers sign an agreement when they apply for a loan; The lender can not take them to court. One of Tambu’s lenders did harassing his phone calls, a violation of federal law, but Tambu knew her rights. “I’m not stupid,” she told me. “I knew they could not take me to court.”
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