Should States Outlaw Payday Loans?

by : David Roberts

A payday loan is a relatively small dollar loan extended for a short period of time. A typical payday loan is for $300 to $500 and is repaid by the borrower on their next payday, usually in a matter of days or weeks. Rather than charge interest in any conventional sense, payday lenders typically charge a set fee based on the amount of the loan. For example, a $100 loan might cost the borrower a fee of $15. And that's where the trouble begins.

A fee of $15 might not seem like much, but for a $100 loan that lasts all of two weeks, the annual percentage rate comes to over 350%. Lawmakers and consumer advocacy groups believe the APR is the proper and best way to measure the cost of the loan and seek to cap the APR payday lenders can charge. Just last week, the Ohio House passed a laws capping the interest rate payday lenders can charge to 28%. If the Ohio Senate passes the bill and it becomes law, it will effectively ban payday lending in Ohio.

There are at least three reasons why the Ohio bill takes the wrong approach to payday lending. First, using APR to assess the cost of a payday loan is misleading. There is a significant difference between charging a borrower $15 for a short term loan, and charging the same borrower 360% for a long-term loan. APR was designed to assess the cost of longer-term or revolving loans such as mortgages, car loans and credit cards. Its application to payday loans does not provide a meaningful assessment of the cost of the loan.

Second, laws that ban or severely restrict payday loans force consumers to turn to loan sharks and other "underground" sources for emergency cash. With the payday loan industry, state legislatures have an opportunity to impose sensible restrictions and to tax the profits of payday lenders. Driving the industry underground removes these oversight and revenue generating opportunities.

And third, study after study has shown that the use of payday loans in an emergency actually improves a consumers finances. The reason is simple. In these cases consumers are able to avoid foreclosures, evictions, or late penalties that can cause more financial harm than the cost of the payday loan. Removing this source of emergency cash would put many borrowers in far more financial jeopardy.

Where payday lending causes the most harm is with chronic repeat borrowers. These individuals use one payday loan to pay off the last, and find themselves in a continual cycle of borrowing that becomes nearly impossible to break. It is here that the state legislatures should focus their attention. And there are at least three protections legislatures should consider.

First, they should consider limiting the number of payday loans a borrower can obtain each year. Such a restriction would force repeat borrowers to break out of the payday loan cycle, while still allowing consumers to use payday loans in an emergency.

Second, state law makers should focus on the disclosures payday lenders must provide to borrowers. Information is power, and borrowers should fully understand the implications of their choices.

And finally, states should look to educate consumers about personal finance. Sound personal financial decisions can help avoid the need to access payday loans or many other sources of credit. Some states are instituting personal finance classes into the high school curriculum, a move that other states should follow.