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Richard Cordray

CFPB makes its presence felt in Texas

Good for them.

Texas-based payday lender ACE Cash Express has agreed to pay $10 million to settle allegations by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that it used harassment and other illegal tactics to push borrowers into a cycle of debt.

Under the agreement, the company, one of the nation’s largest payday lenders, will pay $5 million in refunds to consumers and will also pay a $5 million fine, the bureau said Thursday.

“ACE used false threats, intimidation and harassing calls to bully payday borrowers into a cycle of debt,” bureau Director Richard Cordray said in a statement. “This culture of coercion drained millions of dollars from cash-strapped consumers who had few options to fight back.”

Supporters of payday lending say it offers a needed service to consumers who have few options for short-term loans. Critics say the companies prey on struggling people by charging high fees and trapping borrowers in a cycle of debt.

Nice. The CFPB has been making noise about payday lenders for awhile, with some new regulations still to come. Hey, if you’re not lucky enough to live in a city that has passed a payday lending ordinance, the CFPB is what you’ve got. More like this, please.

The CFPB is almost ready to roll out payday lending regulations

I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Whenever governments start thinking about cracking down on small-dollar, high-interest financial products like payday loans and check cashing services, a shrill cry goes up from the businesses that offer them: You’re just going to hurt the poor folks who need the money! What do you want them to do, start bouncing checks? 

A field hearing held by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau today was no exception. The young agency has been studying how the industry functions for a couple years and is now very close to issuing new rules to govern it. To start setting the scene, CFPB Director Richard Cordray came to Nashville — the locus of intense payday lending activity recently — to release a report and take testimony from the public.

The report, building on a previous white paper, is fairly damning: It makes the case that “short term” loans are usually not short term at all, but more often renewed again and again as consumers dig themselves into deeper sinkholes of debt. Half of all loans, for example, come as part of sequences of 10 or more renewed loans — and in one out of five loans, borrowers end up paying more in fees than the initial amount they borrowed.

[…]

Passing a rate cap, however, is not the only remedy. In fact, it’s not even possible: The CFPB is barred by statute from doing so.* And actually, the Pew Charitable Trusts — which has been tracking payday lending for years — doesn’t even think it’s the best approach.

“The core problem here is this lump-sum payday loan that takes 36 percent of their paycheck,” says Pew’s Nick Bourke, referring to the average $430 loan size. “The policy response now has to be either eliminate that product altogether, or require it to be a more affordable installment loans.”

Bourke favors the latter option: Require lenders to take into account a borrower’s ability to repay the loan over a longer period of time, with monthly payments not to exceed 5 percent of a customer’s income. That, along with other fixes like making sure that fees are assessed across the life of the loan rather than up front, would decrease the likelihood that borrowers would need to take out new loans just to pay off the old ones.

See here for the background. It’s fine by me if the CFPB takes a different approach than usury caps. States and localities can still do that themselves if they wish, with the CFPB’s rules serving as a regulatory floor. It’s a step forward any way you look at it, with the potential to do a lot more if needed.

Now, the installment loan plan wouldn’t leave the industry untouched. When Colorado mandated something similar, Pew found that half of the storefront payday lenders closed up shop. But actual lending didn’t decrease that much, since most people found alternative locations. That illustrates a really important point about the small dollar loan industry: As a Fed study last year showed, barriers to entry have been so low that new shops have flooded the market, scraping by issuing an average of 15 loans per day. They have to charge high interest rates because they have to maintain the high fixed costs of brick and mortar locations — according to Pew, 60 percent of their revenue goes into overhead, and only 16 percent to profit (still quite a healthy margin). If they were forced to consolidate, they could offer safer products and still make tons of money.

Meanwhile, there’s another player in the mix here: Regular banks, which got out of the payday lending business a few months ago in response to guidance from other regulators. With the benefits of diversification and scale, they’re able to offer small-dollar loans at lower rates, and so are better equipped to compete in the market under whatever conditions the CFPB might impose.

Actually, there are two other potential players here as well: Post offices and WalMart stores, both of which could do a lot to streamline this industry by aggressively competing on price. If that happens to drive a lot of small, inefficient players out of the market, too bad for them. These options would unfortunately require an act of Congress to become reality, and the odds of that are vanishingly small. But the point is that those options exist, and if the regs that the CFPB does put forth winds up squeezing a lot of the existing players, the demand will be there for bigger dogs to come in. In most cases that would be bad, but this is the exception. We’ll see how it goes. And whatever does eventually happen, let’s not forget that if we had less poverty, we’d have less demand for payday lending. Consider that yet another argument for raising the minimum wage.

The CFPB and payday lending

This ought to be good.

Picking his first public fight with the banking industry, Washington’s top consumer cop, Richard Cordray, promised on Thursday that his examiners will scrutinize a handful of big banks that make high-cost loans. Inspection of major financial institutions will be part of a broader review of payday lenders, he said at a public hearing organized by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Birmingham, Ala.

The move is significant in that Cordray made no distinction between established financial institutions, including Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank, and less-respectable storefront and online payday lenders with names like EZ Money and AmeriCash Advance, widely criticized for making high-cost, short-term loans to the most desperate borrowers.

Although he was careful not to strike a directly confrontational tone, by specifically mentioning banks’ high-cost loans in his first major speech as the new CFPB chief, Cordray suggested that his agency doesn’t buy the bank industry line that its loans are not traditional payday products because they are structured differently.

Cordray did not single out any bank. But the listing of specific names of such payday lending programs in an examination guide released at the hearing — such as Fifth Third Bank’s “early access advance” — is likely to chill the blood of bank executives, whose companies make big profits off payday loans.

“We recognize the need for emergency credit,” Cordray said in a transcript of his opening remarks, provided in advance. “At the same time, it is important that these products actually help consumers, rather than harm them.”

I have a copy of his remarks beneath the fold. I note this story for two reasons. One, of course, is because I believe this sort of scrutiny is long overdue. While there is certainly a need for short-term emergency credit, you don’t have to do a lot of research on this topic to see that an awful lot of payday lending is designed to take advantage of people who are not very sophisticated about finances, most of whom are poor. It’s a huge transfer of wealth away from those who have the least, which is why many religious leaders and organizations are involved in this fight, to their credit. Often, churches are left to clean up the mess that this causes for their members. Putting a stop to the worst practices and arming people with the information they need to make better choices will make a big difference.

The other reason is that the state of Texas finally took action on payday lending last year, with those new laws taking effect this month. Stronger legislation than what eventually passed was championed by none other than Rep. Tom Craddick, who is no one’s idea of a business opponent. It’s too early to say what effect the state’s new laws will have, and it’s too early to say what direction the CFPB will take, but it’s not hard to imagine the feds being more aggressive than the state was. If so, how will the politics of that play out? There is clearly bipartisan support for more oversight on this industry. Will the federal versus state issue get in the way?

Anyway. The CFPB’s field guide for examiners is here, and there’s more on the CFPB website. Let’s remember what this is all about:

Traditional payday lenders say the high cost of their loans is justified because the risk of default is also high. At those lenders, where average annual interest rates on borrowing top 400 percent, customers leave behind a post-dated check for the amount borrowed, plus a fee.

Bank payday loans, also described as direct deposit advance products, work differently. Customers must have checking accounts and must have their pay or benefits check directly deposited into that account. When the check is deposited — the maximum loan term is 30 days; the maximum loan usually $500 — the bank pays itself what it is owed, plus the fee. If direct deposits are not sufficient to repay the loan within 35 days, the bank repays itself anyway, even if the repayment overdraws the customer’s account, triggering more fees.

For some borrowers, there are much cheaper forms of short-term credit. Members of State Employees’ Credit Union in North Carolina, for example, can take out a payday loan at 12 percent interest. Further, they are required to sock away 5 percent of what they borrow in a savings account. When that balance tops $500, they can borrow money for even less — just 5.5 percent.

Payday loans are still the most profitable loans the credit union makes, said Jim Blaine, president of the company. Blaine said that the credit union earns a 4 percent return on the average loan.

More than 110,000 members participate in the program, with as many as 90,000 taking loans on a recurring monthly basis. They have put away $23 million collectively through the mandatory savings program, according to the credit union’s data.

Blaine said he didn’t want to comment directly on bank payday lending, but noted, “It sometimes seems like our financial system is set up to penalize those who know the least and have the least.”

He added, “It appears to me that the system has gone beyond buyer beware to buyer be damned.”

Indeed it has. This is why the CFPB was created.

(more…)

Payday lenders face new regulation

New regulations aimed at curbing the excesses of payday lenders are now in effect, but they will not be the last word on the subject.

Proponents of the new regulations passed by lawmakers during the 2011 session say they’re needed because the practice of offering short-term, high-interest loans to consumers has led thousands of Texans into a cycle of debt and dependency. Lawmakers heard horror stories about consumers being charged interest rates in excess of their initial loans.

Absent these regulations, the number of payday loan businesses in Texas has more than doubled, from 1,279 registered sites in 2006 to more than 3,500 in 2010. Opponents say this industry has flourished because of a 1997 law intended to give organizations flexibility to help people repair bad credit. A loophole allowed payday lenders to qualify, giving them the freedom to operate without limits on interest rates.

Though the new laws took effect on Jan. 1, state regulators have been working for months to finalize the language of the rules, and businesses are in the process of coming into compliance. Eventually, lenders will be required to disclose more information to their customers before a loan is made, including the cost of the transaction, how it compares to other types of loans and interest fees if the payment is not paid in full.

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Consumer and faith-based groups say payday lenders have run amok with their promises of providing desperate Texans with quick money. (They started the website Texas Faith for Fair Lending to raise awareness about the problem.) In the midst of the regulation debate in the Texas Legislature, Bishop Joe Vasquez of the Catholic Diocese of Austin testified that nearly 20 percent of the people the diocese was assisting had reported using payday and auto title loans — and that debt was the reason they sought help from the church.

“If payday lenders were not making money from these families to line their own pockets, perhaps these families would not need the charitable and public assistance they receive,” Vasquez said in the February 2011 hearing. “They are generally embarrassed to admit they sought a loan without understanding the fees involved. We are concerned that our charitable dollars are in fact funding the profits of payday lenders rather than helping the poor achieve self sufficiency.”

See here, here, and here for some background. While the legislation passed in 2011 was a baby step in the right direction, I don’t really expect it to have much effect. As the story notes, a bill to cap interest rates on payday loans, which can be 500% or more, failed to pass thanks to a strong lobbying effort by the payday loan industry. There’s already legislative recognition that the job is unfinished, so we can hopefully expect more action in 2013, assuming it doesn’t get squeezed off the calendar by bigger issues like the budget, school finance, and re-redistricting. I don’t expect very much from the laws we actually got, but I am prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

One other factor that may be in play here is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which can start to fulfill its mission now that it has a director. While Richard Cordray did not directly address payday lending in his opening remarks, it’s not hard to imagine the subject coming up, and it’s not hard to imagine the feds taking a more aggressive approach than the state did. Given that one of the main proponents in the Lege for more aggressive action had been Rep. Tom Craddick, it’ll be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out if it comes to pass. Would Republicans like Craddick and State Sen. John Carona hew to the feds-bad, states-good party line even as the feds supported their position, or would there be some fractures in that front? It’ll be worth keeping an eye on this.

In which I try to find common ground with Sen. Patrick

From a news item about President Obama’s nomination to helm the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau:

Congress created the bureau a year ago this week with the enactment of the Dodd-Frank law, which overhauled financial regulations after the credit crisis. The bureau, a centerpiece of the sweeping new law, has since emerged as one of the thorniest topics in Washington and on Wall Street.

Putting a director in place is critical because the agency will not gain the full measure of its powers until the Senate confirms a nominee. The agency can supervise the compliance of banks with existing laws, but the Dodd-Frank financial legislation dictates that it cannot write new rules or supervise other financial companies without a director.

[…]

Republicans made it clear on Sunday that they were no more likely to confirm Mr. Cordray than Ms. Warren. Forty-four Republican senators have signed a letter saying they would refuse to vote on any nominee to lead the bureau, demanding instead that the agency replace a single leader with a board of directors.

One of the things my new pal Sen. Dan Patrick and I talked about on that recent Houston8 episode was the Texas Senate’s two thirds rule. He’s against it, in case you hadn’t heard, and he talked at some length about how much more the Senate was able to do in the special session when the two thirds rule was not in effect. I’m certain, therefore, that Sen. Patrick will join me in condemning this obstructive tactic by a minority of Senators in Washington, and call on them to reform their rules so the majority party can do what it was elected to do. If it’s good enough for Austin, it’s good enough for DC. Right, Dan?