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?
Tambu and I sometimes stayed in the sun on the steps outside the building during our lunch and coffee breaks. When I told her about my research, she volunteered to tell me her own story of how she ended up both giving out loans and taking them out herself.
Alternative Financial Services: Innovating to Meet Customer Needs in an Evolving Regulatory Framework, by John Hecht, Research Analyst, Stephens Inc. (now at Jefferies & Company Inc.) (February, 2014).
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.
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.
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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?
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.
MANN: And if you went to the counter and asked for a loan, they would hand you this sheet of paper and say, “If you’ll fill out this survey for us, we’ll give you $ 15 to $ 25, “I forget what one was. And then I get the surveys sent to me and I can look at them.
“I’m a working woman again,” she told me, in the common room of the old apartment where she now lives, in California’s Inland Empire. Gordon has worked a number of odd jobs throughout his life-as a house cleaner, a home health assistant, a telemarketer, a librarian, a fundraiser-but at many times in his life, he did not have a steady job that paid in Social Security. She did not receive a pension. And she definitely was not making enough money for retirement.
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).
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There is no reason payday lending in its mainstream, visible form took off in the 1990s, but an important factor was deregulation. States began to roll back usury caps, and changes in federal laws helped lenders structure their loans so as to avoid the caps. By 2008, writes Jonathan Zinman, a economist at Dartmouth, payday-loan stores nationwide outnumbered McDonald’s restaurants and Starbucks coffee shops combined.
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: 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.
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FULMER: We have to wait for the final proposal rules to come out. But where they appear to go is down a path that would simply eliminate a product instead of reforming the industry or better regulating the industry.
DeYoung, along with three co-authors, recently published an article about payday loans on Liberty Street Economics. That’s a blog run by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Another co-author, Donald Morgan, is Assistant Vice President at the New York Fed. The article is entitled “Reframing the Debate About Payday Lending.”
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. ”
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.
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.”
Some other academic research we’ve mentioned today does not recognize the role of CCRF in providing industry data – like Jonathan Zinman’s paper which showed that people suffered from the disappearance of payday-loan shops in Oregon. Here’s what Zinman writes in an author’s note: “Thanks to the Consumer Credit Research Foundation (CCRF) for providing home survey data. CCRF is a non-profit organization, funded by payday lenders, with the mission of funding objective research. CCRF did not exercise any editorial control over this paper. ”
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