That maxim surely helped guide the deregulation of the fringe lending business in the 1990s-and some advocates still believe that further deregulation is the key to making payday loans affordable
There’s no single reason payday lending in its more mainstream, visible form took off in the 1990s, but an essential enabler 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.
Still, according to Pew, the number of states in which payday lenders operate has fallen from a peak of 44 in 2004 to 36 this year
Now, however, the storefront-payday-lending industry is embattled. In 2006, after much outcry about the upcropping of payday lenders near military bases, Congress passed a law capping at 36 percent the annualized rate that lenders could charge members of the military. In response to pressure from consumer advocates, many states have begun trying to rein in the industry, through either regulation or outright bans. Lenders have excelled at finding loopholes in these regulations. Nationwide, according to the Center for Financial Services Ined because the amount borrowed is due in one lump sum-barely grew from 2012 to 2014.
One problem with the payday-lending industry-for regulators, for lenders, for the public interest-is that it defies simple economic intuition. For instance, in most industries, more competition means lower prices for consumers. Yet there’s little evidence that a proliferation of payday lenders produces this consumer-friendly competitive effect. Quite the contrary: While states with no interest-rate limits do have more competition-there are more stores-borrowers in those states (Idaho, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin) pay the highest prices in the country, more than double those paid by residents of some other states, according to Pew. In states where the interest rate is capped, the rate that payday lenders charge gravitates right toward the cap. “Instead of a race to the lowest rates, it’s a race to the highest rates,” says Tom Feltner, the director of financial services at the Consumer Federation of America.
The explanation for this is not simple, and a variety of economic jargon floats around the issue. But it all begins with this: The typical payday-loan consumer is too desperate, too unsophisticated, or too exhausted from being treated with disrespect by traditional lenders to engage in price shopping. So demand is what economists call price inelastic. As Clarence Hodson, who published a book in 1919 about the business of small loans, put it, “Necessity cannot bargain to advantage with cupidity.” In its last annual financial report, Advance America, one of the country’s biggest payday lenders, wrote, “We believe that the principal competitive factors are customer service, location, convenience, speed, and confidentiality.” You’ll notice it didn’t mention price.
But if the only explanation for high rates were that lenders can, so they do, you’d expect to see an industry awash in profits. It is not, especially today. The industry’s profits are tough to track-many companies are private-but in 2009, Ernst & Young released a study, commissioned by the Financial Service Centers of America, finding that stores’ average profit margin before tax and interest was less than 10 percent. (For the sake of comparison, over the past five quarters, the consumer-financial-services industry as a whole averaged a pretax profit margin of more than 30 percent, according to CSIMarket, a provider of financial information.) A perusal of those financial statements that are public confirms a simple fact: As payday lending exploded, the economics of the business worsened-and are today no better than middling. The Community Financial Services Association argues that a 36 percent rate cap, like the one in place for members of the military, is a death knell because payday lenders can’t make money at that rate, and this seems to be correct. In states that cap their rates at 36 percent a year or lower, the payday lenders vanish. In New York, which caps payday lending at 25 percent a year, there are no stores at all.