The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is, to say the least, a controversial agency. As documented by such experts as Scalia Law School Professor Todd Zywicki, the CFPB imposes enormous costs on consumers and financial service providers through costly and unwarranted command-and-control regulation. Furthermore, as I explained in a February 2016 Heritage Foundation legal memorandum, the CFPB’s exemption from the oversight constraints that apply to other federal agencies offends the separation of powers and thus raises serious constitutional problems. (Indeed, a federal district court in the District of Columbia is currently entertaining a challenge to the Bureau’s constitutionality.)
Given its freedom from normal constitutionally-mandated supervision, the CFPB’s willingness to take sweeping and arguably arbitrary actions is perhaps not surprising. Nevertheless, even by its own standards, the Bureau’s latest initiative is particularly egregious. Specifically, on June 2, 2016, the CFPB issued a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans” (CFPB NPRM) setting forth a set of requirements that would effectively put “payday loan” companies out of business. (The U.S. Government has already unjustifiably harmed payday lenders through “Operation Choke Point,” pursuant to which federal bank regulators, in particular the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), have sought to deny those lenders access to banking services. A Heritage Foundation overview of Operation Choke Point and a call for its elimination may be found here; the harm the FDIC has imposed on payday lenders is detailed here.)
The CFPB defines a “payday loan” as “a short-term loan, generally for $500 or less, that is typically due on your next payday. . . . [The borrower] must give lenders access to . . . [his or her] checking account or write a check for the full balance in advance that the lender has an option of depositing when the loan comes due.” Moreover, payday loans are often structured to be paid off in one lump-sum payment, but interest-only payments – “renewals” or “rollovers” – are not unusual. In some cases, payday loans may be structured so that they are repayable in installments over a longer period of time.”
Despite their unusual character, economic analysis reveals that payday loans efficiently serve the needs of a certain class of borrower and that welfare is reduced if government seeks to sharply limit them. In a 2009 study, Professor Zywicki summarized key research findings:
Economic research strongly supports two basic conclusions about payday lending: First, those who use payday lending do so because they have to, not because they want to. They use payday lending to deal with short-term exigencies and a lack of access to payday loans would likely cause them substantial cost and personal difficulty, such as bounced checks, disconnected utilities, or lack of funds for emergencies such as medical expenses or car repairs. Those who use payday loans have limited alternative sources of credit, such as pawn shops, bank overdraft protection, credit card cash advances (where available), and informal lenders. Although expensive, payday loans are less expensive than available alternatives. Misguided paternalistic regulation that deprives consumers of access to payday loans would likely force many of them to turn to even more expensive lenders or to do without emergency funds. Although payday loans may lead some consumers to be trapped in a “debt trap” of repeated revolving debt, this concern is not unique to payday lending. Moreover, evidence indicates that those who are led into a debt trap by payday lending are far fewer in number than those who are benefited by access to payday loans.
Second, efforts by legislators to regulate the terms of small consumer loans (such as by imposing price caps on fees or limitations on repeated use “rollovers”) almost invariably produce negative unintended consequences that vastly exceed any social benefits gained from the legislation. Moreover, prior studies of price caps on lending have found that low-income and minority borrowers are most negatively affected by the regulations and the adjustments that they produce. Volumes of economic theory and empirical analysis indicate that further restrictions on payday lending likely would prove counterproductive and harmful to the very people such restrictions would be intended to help.
Unfortunately, the CFPB seems to be oblivious to these findings on payday lending, as demonstrated by key language of the CFPB NPRM:
[T]he [CFPB’s] proposal would identify it as an abusive and unfair practice for a lender to make a covered loan without reasonably determining that the consumer has the ability to repay the loan. The proposal generally would require that, before making a covered loan, a lender must reasonably determine that the consumer has the ability to repay the loan. The proposal also would impose certain restrictions on making covered loans when a consumer has or recently had certain outstanding loans. . . . The proposal also would identify it as an unfair and abusive practice to attempt to withdraw payment from a consumer’s account for a covered loan after two consecutive payment attempts have failed, unless the lender obtains the consumer’s new and specific authorization to make further withdrawals from the account. The proposal would require lenders to provide certain notices to the consumer before attempting to withdraw payment for a covered loan from the consumer’s account. The proposal would also prescribe processes and criteria for registration of information systems, and requirements for furnishing loan information to and obtaining consumer reports from those registered information systems. The Bureau is proposing to adopt official interpretations to the proposed regulation.
In short, the CFPB NPRM, if implemented, would impose new and onerous costs on payday lenders with respect to each loan, arising out of: (1) determination of the borrower’s ability to pay; (2) identification of the borrower’s other outstanding loans; (3) the practical inability to recover required payments from a defaulting consumer’s account (due to required consumer authorization and notice obligations); and (4) the registration of information systems and requirements for obtaining various sorts of consumer information from those systems. In the aggregate, these costs would likely make a large number of payday loan programs unprofitable – thereby (1) driving those loans out of the market and harming legitimate lenders while also (2) denying credit to, and thereby reducing the welfare of, the consumers who would be denied their best feasible source of credit.
As Heritage Foundation scholar Norbert Michel put it in a June 2, 2016 Daily Signal article:
The CFPB’s [NPRM] regulatory solution . . . centers on an absurd concept: ability to repay. Basically, the new rules force lenders to certify that consumers have the ability to repay their loan, turning the idea of voluntary exchange on its head.
Here, too, the new rules are based on the flawed idea that firms typically seek out consumers who can’t possibly pay what they owe. It doesn’t take a graduate degree to figure out that’s not a viable long-term business strategy.
None of this matters to the CFPB. Shockingly, neither does the CFPB’s own evidence.
In sum, the CFPB NPRM provides yet one more good reason for Congress to seriously consider abolishing the CFPB (legislation introduced by the House and Senate in 2015 would do this), with consumer protection authority authorities currently exercised by the Bureau returned to the seven agencies that originally administered them. While we are awaiting congressional action, however, the CFPB would be well-advised (assuming it truly desires to promote economic welfare) to reconsider its latest ill-considered initiative and withdraw the NPRM as soon as possible.
This piece first appeared in Truth on the Market.