So we are left with at least two questions, I guess. And number two: how skeptical should we be of any academic research?
There is a long and often twisted history of industries co-opting scientists and other academic researchers to produce findings that make their industries look safer or more reliable or otherwise better than they really are. Whenever we talk about academic research on this show – which is pretty much every week – we do try to show the provenance of that research and establish how legitimate it is. The best first step in figuring that out is to ask what kind of incentives are at play. But even that is only one step.
Does a researcher who’s out to make a splash with some sexy finding necessarily operate with more bias than a researcher who’s operating out of pure intellectual curiosity? I don’t think that’s necessarily so. Like life itself, academic research is a case-by-case scenario.
You do your best to ask as many questions as you can of the research and of the researchers themselves. You ask where the data comes from, whether it really means what they say it means, and you ask them to explain why they might be wrong, or compromised. You make the best judgment you can, and then you move forward and try to figure out how the research really matters. Because the whole idea of the research, presumably, is to help solve some larger problem.
The problem we’ve been looking at today is pretty straightforward: there are a lot of low-income people in the U.S. who’ve come to rely on a financial instrument, the payday loan, that is, according to its detractors, exploitative, and according to its supporters, useful. President Obama is pushing for regulatory reform; payday advocates say the reform may kill off the industry, leaving borrowers in the lurch.
I went back to Bob DeYoung, the finance professor and former bank regulator, who has argued that payday loans are not as evil as we think.
DUBNER: Let’s say you have a one-on-one audience with President Obama. We know that the President understands economics pretty well or, I would argue that at least. What’s your pitch to the President for how this industry should be treated and not eliminated?
DeYOUNG: OK, in a short sentence that’s highly scientific I would begin by saying, “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.” The question comes down to how do we identify the bath water and how do we identify the baby here. One way is to collect a lot of information, as the CFPB suggests, about the creditworthiness of the borrower. But that raises the production cost of payday loans and will probably put the industry out of business. But I think we can all agree that once someone pays fees installment loans HI in an aggregate amount equal to the amount that was originally borrowed, that’s pretty clear that there’s a problem there.
So in DeYoung’s view, the real danger of the payday structure is the possibility of rolling over the loan again and again and again. That’s the bathwater. So what’s the solution?
DeYOUNG: Right now, there’s very very little information on rollovers, the reasons for rollovers, and the effects of rollovers. And without academic research, the regulation is going to be based on who shouts the loudest. And that’s a really bad way to write law or regulation. That’s what I really worry about. If I could advocate a solution to this, it would be: identify the number of rollovers at which it’s been revealed that the borrower is in trouble and is being irresponsible and this is the wrong product for them. At that point the payday lender doesn’t flip the borrower into another loan, doesn’t encourage the borrower to find another payday lender. At that point the lender’s principal is then switched over into a different product, a longer term loan where he or she pays it off a little bit each month.
DEYOUNG: Well, I don’t know what the president would buy. You know, we have a problem in society right now, it’s getting worse and worse, is we go to loggerheads and we’re very bad at finding solutions that satisfy both sides, and I think this is a solution that does satisfy both sides, or could at least satisfy both sides. It keeps the industry operating for folks who value the product. On the other hand it identifies folks using it incorrectly and allows them to get out without you know being further trapped.
DEYOUNG: This is why price caps are a bad idea. Because if the solution was implemented as I suggest and, in fact, payday lenders lost some of their most profitable customers – because now we’re not getting that fee the 6th and 7th time from them – then the price would have to go up. And we’d let the market determine whether or not at that high price we still have folks wanting to use the product.
DUBNER: Obviously the history of lending is long and usually, at least in my reading, tied to religion. There’s prohibition against it in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the Old Testament. It’s in the New Testament. In Shakespeare, the Merchant of Venice was not the hero. So, do you think that the general view of this kind of lending is colored by an emotional or moral argument too much at the expense of an economic and practical argument?
DEYOUNG: Oh, I do think that our history of usury laws is a direct result of our Judeo-Christian background. And even Islamic banking, which follows in the same tradition. But clearly interest on money lent or borrowed has been looked at non-objectively, let’s put it that way. So the shocking APR numbers if we apply them to renting a hotel room or renting an automobile or lending your father’s gold watch or your mother’s silverware to the pawnbroker for a month, the APRs come out similar. So the shock from these numbers is, we recognize the shock here because we are used to calculating interest rates on loans but not interest rates on anything else. And it’s human nature to want to hear bad news and it’s, you know, the media understands this and so they report bad news more often than good news. We don’t hear this. It’s like the houses that don’t burn down and the stores that don’t get robbed.