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Payday loans.jpgThe federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is unveiling some long-awaited proposed rules targeting the predatory payday lending industry at a big hearing in Richmond, Virginia today and you can follow along on Twitter at the hashtag #StoptheDebtTrap. Generally, the proposed rules amount to a promising start. There are, however a few worrisome potential loopholes. The good people at the Center for Responsible Lending explain:

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to Limit Payday Loan Debt Trap; Curb 400% Interest Rate Loans

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will offer a first look at where the agency’s efforts to rein in the abusive practices of payday and car title lenders are headed at a Thursday hearing in Richmond, VA. The consumer agency will release information outlining their deliberations and take testimony from a panel of consumer and civil rights advocates as well as industry representatives.

Mike Calhoun, President of the Center for Responsible Lending, will present testimony at the hearing.

Calhoun comments on the proposal:

“The proposal endorses the principle that payday lenders be expected to do what responsible mortgage and other lenders already do: check a borrower’s ability to repay the loan on the terms it is given. This is a significant step that is long overdue and a profound change from current practice. If made mandatory, the ability to repay standard will help millions of borrowers avoid dangerously high-cost payday and other abusive loans. The requirement would prevent debt traps, an all-too common practice where a lender flips loans over and over and the consumer ends up paying double the amount borrowed in interest and fees. And the Bureau appropriately applies the standard to both shorter and longer term loans, including vehicle title loans.

At the same time, we are deeply concerned about provisions in the proposal, the so-called “debt trap protection options,” which would in fact permit payday lenders to continue making both short- and longer-term loans without determining the borrower’s ability to repay. The industry has proven itself adept at exploiting loopholes in earlier attempts to rein in the debt trap. The consumer agency can look to necessary revisions to the Military Lending Act after widespread abuses were found, dragging active service members into debt so damaging that a Defense Department report found it undermined military readiness.

These “options” are an invitation to evasion. If adopted in the final rule, they will undermine the ability to repay standard and strong state laws, which give consumers the best hope for the development of a market that offers access to fair and affordable credit.

We urge the consumer bureau to adopt its strong ability to repay standard without making it optional.”

Let’s hope the regulators are listening.

Commentary
Photo: MoneyMutual

Photo: MoneyMutual

There is another small ray of good news today in the long-term battle to rid the nation of the predatory scalawags in the payday loan racket. After years as serving as the well-compensated barker for the sharks at MoneyMutual, TV pitchman Montel Williams has announced that he will stop endorsing the company. The announcement came just a day after the New York Department of Financial Services announced a settlement with owners of MoneyMutual that prohibits the company from doing business in New York and requires it to pay a $2.1 million penalty. Give you any ideas, Attorney General Cooper?

This is from the settlement announcement:

Superintendent [of Financial Services Benjamin] Lawsky said: “Using Mr. Williams’s reputation as a trusted celebrity endorser, MoneyMutual marketed loans to struggling consumers with sky-high interest rates – sometimes in excess of 1,300 percent – that trapped New Yorkers in destructive cycles of debt. The company made special efforts to target the more than 55 percent of their customers who were ‘repeat clients’ – including so-called ‘Gold’ customers who took out a new loan to pay off a previous loan. We are pleased that they have agreed to resolve this matter and stop marketing these illegal, usurious loans to New York consumers. Our investigation into the lead generation industry continues.”

Today’s MoneyMutual agreement is the first successful enforcement action against a payday loan “lead generation” company penalizing it for its unlawful conduct. Lead generation firms do not typically make payday loans directly, but instead set up websites marketing those illegal loans. Through promises of easy access to quick cash, the lead generation companies entice consumers to provide them with sensitive personal information such as social security and bank account numbers, and then sell that information to payday lenders operating unlawfully in New York and other states. In December 2013, DFS issued subpoenas to 16 online “lead generation” firms, including Selling Source/MoneyMutual, which were suspected of deceptive or misleading marketing of illegal, online payday loans in New York.

Let’s hope state officials keep Selling Source (aka “MoneyMutual”) on the run and that, at some point, Mr. Williams offers a public apology to the thousands upon thousands of vulnerable Americans he’s helped connect to these sharks. We won’t get our hopes up, though, that he returns the gazillions of dollars he’s no doubt been paid or, better yet, donates it to a worthy cause.

NC Budget and Tax Center

This year’s Super Bowl Sunday shed new light on the for-profit college industry after advocates took to twitter to share the latest disturbing facts about the industry’s practices. The Super Bowl was held in the University of Phoenix Stadium, which is named for the largest for-profit college in the country. The university agreed to pay more than $150 million over 20 years for the naming rights on the new stadium in 2006.

In the past year, greater scrutiny of for-profit colleges, those that are managed by companies accountable to shareholders and, or publicly traded, has led to a series of legal actions and rising concern from policymakers about the role of these institutions in a context in which post-secondary attainment is the path to the middle class.

The problems with for-profit colleges are many. First, they tend to cost students at least three and half times as much as the same education at a community college. Second, their students are more likely to leave a program without a degree but with a significant level of debt. Leading to the next issue that default rates are far higher among students who attended for-profit institutions relative to their share of the total population: for-profit students represent 12 percent of all enrolled and 44 percent of those who default on their student loans.

Now, new data secured by the Center for Investigative Reporting shows that taxpayers are subsidizing the for-profit college industry to the tune of $9.5 billion a year. This is because the majority of for-profit institutions rely on public funds through Pell Grants, Stafford loans and various military tuition assistance programs to fund their operations. In fact, the analysis finds that more than 90 percent of these institutions’ revenue is from public funds. Read More

Commentary

As Raleigh’s News & Observer reported this morning, a study committee at the General Assembly appears to be in the process of advancing a legislative proposal for the 2015 session that would reverse a controversial Utilities Commission decision from last fall that provided a windfall to big utility companies.

As I explained in the Weekly Briefing last October, the ruling allowed utility companies the option to keep charging consumers for income taxes that the companies no longer paid as a result of recent corporate tax cuts. The ruling was especially controversial in that it came in the form of a direct about-face from a previous 6-1 Commission decision from just months before. In the latter ruling, three new McCrory appointees joined with the Commission chair to overrule the previous decision — a move that sparked bitter dissent from three holdover Perdue appointees.

According to news reports, most companies have not actually been collecting the windfall. Only Dominion North Carolina Power — which serves a swath of northeastern North Carolina — has been pocketing the cash thus far. Nothing, however, would prevent Duke and the other big guys from following suit at some point unless the courts and/or the General Assembly step in.

This brings us back to the Revenue Laws Study Committee which included language in its draft report to the 2015 session reversing the decision yet again — see pages 4-6. This morning’s N&O story — especially the headline (“NC lawmakers to end policy letting utilities overcharge customers”) indicated that the draft report would be adopted today and that the legislature would pass the legislation into law.

A closer look, however, shows that such an optimistic take may well be premature. Read More

Commentary

As reported earlier this week, a committee of the General Assembly will meet tomorrow to, by all indications, recommend legislation to loosen regulations on mortgage brokers. As also reported in the story, consumer advocates believe that the proposals to lower bonding requirements and do away with  the requirement of audited financial statements for regulated businesses is the direct opposite of what ought to be done. These facts remain beyond dispute.

Since the story ran on Tuesday, however, it’s come to my attention that another central premise — that tomorrow’s meeting was scheduled for the Friday before the Christmas holiday to help keep the matter flying under the radar of public scrutiny — may be in error (or, at least, an overstatement).

According to information forwarded to me last night, it does appear that various legislative deadlines and the limited availability of various members of the Committee on Banking Law Amendments on other dates played a significant role in the scheduling of the meeting for tomorrow. By all reports, the chairman of the Committee, Rep. Jonathan Jordan, has run an open process and allowed all parties and points of view to be heard as the committee has moved forward with its work.

And so, while is is clearly true that a) the proposed legislation is strongly opposed by consumer advocates as an unwise giveaway to a troubled industry, b) the scheduling of tomorrow’s meeting can’t help but minimize the public attention on what ought to be a controversial proposal and c) the best solution would have been for the committee in question to simply abandon its work on the subject (or at the least to have approached the process with greater foresight from the beginning so as to have been able to complete its work at a time in which its actions would have received a great deal more sunlight), it was incorrect to imply that tomorrow’s schedule was arranged for the sole purpose of evading public scrutiny.