Monday, November 26, 2012

Why Doesn't Someone Undercut Payday Lending?

A payday loan works like this: The borrower received an amount that is typically between $100 and $500. The borrower writes a post-dated check to the lender, and the lender agrees not to cash the check for, say, two weeks. No collateral is required: the borrower often needs to show an ID, a recent pay stub, and maybe a statement showing that they have a bank account. The lender charges a fee of about $15 for every $100 borrowed. Paying $15 for a two-week loan of $100 works out to an astronomical annual rate of about 390% per year. But because the payment is a "fee," not an "interest rate," it does not fall afoul of state usury laws. A number of state have passed legislation to limit payday loans, either by capping the maximum amount, capping the interest rate, or banning them outright.

But for those who think like economists, complaints about price-gouging or unfairness in the payday lending market raise an obvious question: If payday lenders are making huge profits, then shouldn't we see entry into that  market from credit unions and banks, which would drive down the prices of such loans for everyone? Victor Stango offers some argument and evidence on this point in "Are Payday Lending Markets Competitive," which appears in the Fall 2012 issue of Regulation magazine.
Stango writes:

"The most direct evidence is the most telling in this case: very few credit unions currently offer payday loans. Fewer than 6 percent of credit unions offered payday loans as of 2009, and credit unions probably comprise less than 2 percent of the national payday loan market. This “market test” shows that credit unions find entering the payday loan market unattractive. With few regulatory obstacles to offering payday loans, it seems that credit unions cannot compete with a substantively similar product at lower prices.

"Those few credit unions that do offer a payday advance product often have total fee and interest charges that are quite close to (or even higher than) standard payday loan fees. Credit union payday loans also have tighter credit requirements, which generate much  lower default rates by rationing riskier borrowers out of the market. The upshot is that risk-adjusted prices on credit union payday loans might be no lower than those on standard payday loans."
The question of whether payday lending should be restricted can make a useful topic for discussions or even short papers in an economics class. The industry is far more prevalent than many people recognize. As Stango describes:

"The scale of a payday outlet can be quite small and startup costs are minimal compared to those of a bank. ... They can locate nearly anywhere and have longer business hours than banks. ... There are currently more than 24,000 physical payday outlets; by comparison there are roughly 16,000 banks and credit unions in total (with roughly 90,000 branches). Many more lenders offer payday loans online. Estimates of market penetration vary, but industry reports suggest that 5–10 percent of the adult population in the United States has used a payday loan at least once."

Payday lending fees do look uncomfortably high, but those with low incomes are often facing hard choices. Overdrawing a bank account often has high fees, as does exceeding a credit card limit. Having your electricity or water turned off for non-payment often leads to high fees, and not getting your car repaired for a couple of weeks can cost you your job.

Moreover, such loans are risky to make. Stango cites data that credit unions steer away from making payday loans because of their riskiness, and instead offer only only much safer loans that have lower costs to the borrower, but also have many more restrictions, like credit checks, or a longer application period, or a requirement that some of the "loan" be immediately placed into a savings account. Credit unions may also charge an "annual" fee for such a loan--but for someone taking out a short-term loan only once or twice in a year, whether the fee is labelled as "annual" or not doesn't affect what they pay. Indeed, Stango cites a July 2009 report from the National Consumer Law Center that criticized credit unions for offering "false payday loan `alternatives'" that actually cost about as much as a typical payday loan.

Stango also cites evidence form his own small survey of payday loan borrowers in Sacramento, California, that many of them prefer the higher fees and looser restrictions on payday loans to the lower fees and tighter restrictions common on similar loans from credit unions. Those interested in a bit more background might begin with my post from July 2011, "Could Restrictions on Payday Lending Hurt Consumers?" and the links included there.