Category: Consumer Protection
David Ray Papke has recently published “Perpetuating Poverty: Exploitative Businesses, the Urban Poor, and the Failure of Liberal Reform,” suggesting that it’s time to pull the plug entirely on predatory lenders and rent-to-own outlets. If only legislators would base their decisions on what is just rather than the flow of money to their re-election campaigns. Why ban them rather than regulate them? Because it’s been attempted for a long time, unsuccessfully. These business are great at evading the spirit of regulation.
In the end, the urban poor who shop and borrow at rent-to-own outlets, payday lenders, and title pawns do in fact pay exorbitant amounts that are much higher than what they would pay for goods at Walmart or loans at the local bank. As scholars have argued for almost fifty years, it is routinely the case that the poor pay more than middle and upper-class Americans for comparable goods and services.1 This includes food, housing, transportation, insurance, mortgages, and health care,2 and it certainly includes goods and loans from rent-to-own outlets, payday lenders, and title pawns.
This article has four major sections. The first three examine the business models of, in order, the rent-to-own outlets, payday lenders, and title pawns. Each of these business models features a highly-crafted, standardized contractual agreement that does not merely support the business but rather is central to it. The fourth section of the article reviews reformist efforts related to these businesses and also argues that these liberal efforts at reform have been ineffective. The business models and concomitant contractual agreements of rent-to-own outlets, payday lenders, and title pawns are so sophisticated and adjustable as to make them virtually impervious to regulation. As a result, rent-to-own outlets, payday lenders, and title pawns continue not only to exploit the urban poor but also to socio-economically subjugate the urban poor by trapping them into a ceaseless debt cycle. A blanket proscription of these tawdry businesses might be the only way to drive them from our midst and to eliminate their active role in the perpetuation of urban poverty.
. . .
Some practices so fundamentally affront our shared values that they should quite simply be prohibited. It is one thing to exploit the urban poor, but it is another thing to systematically worsen their socio-economic condition and to thereby subject them to greater control and subservience. Exploitation, in other words, might be tolerable in our market economy, but subjugation should not be. You can take people’s money and the value of their labor, but you not should be able to yoke them permanently or even semi-permanently to subordination. By actively making the urban poor even poorer, the rent-to-own, payday lending, and title pawn businesses do just that and should be banned.
Papke’s article can be found here. It is published by Marquette University Law School.
For more on payday loans, see various articles at this site with the word “payday,” including this look at how the battle between reformers and the industry wages on the ground.
As usual, Florida is still undecided, a mess. According to NPR, though, it is leaning heavily toward Obama, despite the shenanigans of the state GOP in suppressing the vote.
I didn’t watch last night. Couldn’t. We went to bed early.
But then Donna got up around midnight and woke me by a whoop of joy that I briefly mistook for anguish.
To my small surprise and relief, Obama won.
I will not miss the constant electioneering, the radio ads, the tv spots, the slick mailers. I will not miss keeping still in mixed groups about my politics (something I am not good at, but this election cycle it feels more like holy war than an election). I will not miss wincing every time some politician opens his or her mouth and nonsense spills out. (This is, of course, normal, but during presidential years it feels much, much worse.) I will not miss…
Anyway, the election came out partially the way I expected, in those moments when I felt calm enough to think rationally. Rationality seemed in short supply this year and mine was sorely tasked. So now, I sit here sorting through my reactions, trying to come up with something cogent to say.
I am disappointed the House is still Republican, but it seems a number of the Tea Party robots from 2010 lost their seats, so maybe the temperature in chambers will drop a degree or two and some business may get done.
Gary Johnson, running as a Libertarian, pulled 350,000 votes as of nine last night. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, got around 100,000. (Randall Terry received 8700 votes, a fact that both reassures me and gives me shivers—there are people who will actually vote for him?)
Combined, the independent candidates made virtually no difference nationally. Which is a shame, really. I’ve read both Stein’s and Johnson’s platforms and both of them are willing to address the problems in the system. Johnson is the least realistic of the two and I like a lot of the Green Party platform.
More . . .
Interesting post by Jeff Sovern at the Public Citizen Law and Policy Blog. A lot of effort has gone into providing loan customers with the APR (which is somewhat different than the interest rate). But are consumers actually using/heeding that information? Sovern explains the quandary, and raises the issue of alternate approaches.
Yesterday I was honored to have the chance to speak to the Advisory Board of the CFPB (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). Their first meeting ever was in my hometown of St. Louis. I was given only about 2 minutes to speak, so I lashed out against payday lenders and mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently proposed “easier-to-use mortgage disclosure forms that will help consumers make informed decisions when shopping for a mortgage and avoid costly surprises at the closing table. The aim of the CFPB is to expand protections for “high-cost” mortgage loans.
Mortgage transactions are inherently complex, however. The CFPB has done some great work proposing the new forms. (to compare, here is a guide to the current version of the document many people struggle to understand, the real estate Settlement Statement — HUD-1). One might fairly ask whether it is even possible to make these forms (which are still not simple) any easier to read or comprehend. In fact, this is the question asked by Jeff Sovern in a NYT Op-Ed piece, “Help for the Perplexed Home Buyer.” Sovern applauds the excellent work of the CFPB, but then gives a brief tour of the proposed new forms:
The loan estimate, which consumers receive early in the application process, spans three pages and includes more than 100 disclosures about things like monthly payments and taxes. That’s a lot for consumers to take in, and if they use the information to comparison shop, as Congress intends, they will multiply the number of disclosures with every loan they consider. The closing disclosures, which include the final loan terms, are even longer, at five pages. . . The newest forms try to address overload by packing the most important information into the first page — but that first page includes more than 40 disclosures, and it still doesn’t tell borrowers the total amount they will pay over the life of the loan or the late payment penalty . . . There’s no way around it: mortgage transactions are complex and involve a tremendous amount of information.
Sovern suggests that written disclosures can only go so far, at least in complex transactions like these. He proposes that the problem can be lessened somewhat, but not completely cured, by making consumer counseling available.
I agree with this analysis and this approach, and I also applaud the work of the CFPB. I would add that one of these reasons that this issue of communicating financial information to consumers is that so many of them are afflicted with innumeracy. I’ve spoken with many consumers as part of my law practice, and I must report that many of them would struggle with 4th grade math. I’ve had clients who have no conception of how to calculate a simple interest rate (one client couldn’t tell me how much interest would accrue in one year based on $100 principal and 10% interest rate). I wish I could hold that hope that any written disclosures could solve this problem, but I assume my anecdote has already made it clear that the problem is multifaceted, involving consumer education and the policing of the mortgage industry.
The above discussion also makes me wonder whether we couldn’t simply the system much further, and whether path dependence keeps us in the mindset that all of these numbers need to be sprayed all over several pages. When you go to the grocery store, you ask for the price of box of cereal, and you are told a price. You are not told about all of the numbers that go into that price, such as transportation, handling, taxes, mid-level distributors, etc. I am not claiming that I have done any work on this issue of trying to simplify mortgage forms, but I wonder whether a solution might reside in forcing lenders or brokers to figure the many factors internally, and simply give the consumer a price. Then again, that is what the CPFB has done on the first page of the proposed new form. Perhaps my thinking is tainted by my conviction that many system are made to be complex in order to make them opaque to some people and profitable to others (those with teams of lawyers and accountants). Complexity is often not an accident or a necessity. It is often a tactic.
According to a new report by Pew Charitable Trusts, the median length of the list of disclosures that you will be presented when you open a new checking account is 69 pages.
Financial institutions do not summarize important policies and fee information in a uniform, concise, and easy-to-understand format that allows customers to compare account terms and conditions. The median length of bank checking account disclosure statements has decreased, but is still cumbersome at 69 pages. For credit unions, the median length is 31 pages. Although shorter, credit union disclosures often do not include information that would allow a customer to compare account fees, terms, and conditions.
On a related note, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will be making its complaint database public today. The Washington Post indicates the importance of this data:
Complaints are the primary way that most consumers interact with the new agency. The CFPB said it has received more than 45,000 in the year since the bureau was launched. How it handles those complaints — and how much it makes public — has been a source of tension between the agency and financial industry groups.