IN MAY 2013 Gloria James borrowed $200 from Loan Till Payday, a lender near her home in Wilmington, Delaware. Rather than take out a one- or two-month loan for a $100 fee, as she had done several times before, she was offered a one-year loan that would set her back $1,620 in interest, equivalent to an annual rate of 838%. Ms James, a housekeeper making $12 an hour, agreed to the high-interest loan but quickly fell behind on her payments. After filing a lawsuit in federal court, a Delaware judge ruled that the loan in question was not only illegal but “unconscionable”.
Her story is remarkably common. Americans who live pay cheque to pay cheque have few places to turn when they are in financial distress. Many rely on high-interest payday loans to stay afloat. But government efforts to crack down on the $40bn industry may be having an effect.
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Roughly 2.5m American households, about one in 50, use payday loans each year, according to government statistics. The typical loan is $350, lasts two weeks, and costs $15 for each $100 borrowed. Although payday loans are marketed as a source of short-term cash to be used in financial emergencies, they are often used to meet chronic budget shortfalls—in 2015 more borrowers in California took out ten payday loans than took out one. Critics say the industry dupes its vulnerable customers into paying high fees and interest rates. And yet surveys show its customers are mostly satisfied, because payday loans are easy and convenient.
Regulation of payday lending in America has historically been the responsibility of states. Over a dozen use interest-rate caps to, in effect, ban payday loans. But lenders can get around these laws by registering as “credit service organisations”, relocating to other states, or even working with Native American tribes to claim sovereign immunity.
At the federal level, Congress passed the Military Lending Act in 2006, capping loan rates to service members at 36%. More recently, the Department of Justice launched “Operation Choke Point”, an effort to press banks into severing ties with businesses at risk of money-laundering, payday lenders among them. But the real crackdown on payday lending could come if the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB), a watchdog, implements new regulations on high-interest loans. The rules include underwriting standards and other restrictions designed to keep borrowers out of debt; the CFPB estimates that they could reduce payday-loan volumes by more than 80%.
The threat of regulation may already have had an effect. The Centre for Financial Services Innovation, a non-profit group, reckons that payday-loan volumes have fallen by 18% since 2014; revenues have dropped by 30%. During the first nine months of 2016, lenders shut more than 500 stores and total employment in the industry fell by 3,600, or 3.5%. To avoid the new rules, lenders are shifting away from lump-sum payday loans toward instalment loans, which give borrowers more time to get back on their feet.
It would be premature to celebrate the demise of payday lenders. The Trump administration is likely to block the CFPB’s new regulations. And even if the rules are pushed through, consumers may not be better off. Academic research on payday-lending regulation is mixed, with some studies showing benefits, others showing costs, and still others finding no consumer-welfare effects at all. A forthcoming paper by two economists at West Point concludes that the Military Lending Act yielded “no significant benefits to service members”.