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Protect Consumers from Other Consumers

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The CFPB's mission is to protect consumers from financial harm.

Before rushing to grab privileged documents and punish unintentional "discrimination," the CFPB should figure out who's siphoning money unfairly from consumers—rather than just assuming that banks and those nasty "shadow banks" are the greedy culprits. But the CFPB seems to have tripped on the first step, so I'll help.

Example: an unusual, intensively advertised credit card program appeals to customers with no credit or bad credit, and approves 70% of applicants. These people send in $95 to get $225 in credit. Over half those who borrow default and are charged off. The others pay hefty additional fees and interest.

So, each defaulter comes out ahead by $225 minus $95, or $130. Having no credit in the first place, these people had nothing to lose. Very few will ever need to pay. If they are clever enough to send a "Do Not Contact" letter, they won't be bothered by collectors — assuming they can be found. The courts offer no feasible recourse. I’ll refer to these people as deadbeats.

If half the customers are deadbeats then every customer who pays off his balance, every payer, is providing $130 for a deadbeat. Think about that, check it out.

The bank is intermediary for this extraordinary transaction, and takes an additional cut. Whatever the bank is making, and they say they make very little — they get much less than the deadbeats. The bank has a lot of expenses, even marketing. The deadbeats have none.

Now, if you were Picketty or Saez, French economists using skewed data to decry allegedly horrifying economic inequality in America, then you might say this bank is performing a wonderful, Robin Hood-like function: transferring wealth from hundreds of thousands of "rich" to the "poor" (deadbeats) every year.

But are the deadbeats poor? Or are they just clever? Or crooked? Yes. But if rich, they wouldn't sacrifice their credit to steal $130.

In any case, it's the deadbeats who are getting the lion's share of the money, not the bank. If someone is ripping off the payers, that's the deadbeats.

This is not a "subprime card.” Subprime cards approve a much smaller fraction of applicants, incur far lower losses, and don't demand cash up front.

The most practical way to stop this would be to lean on the bank. For that to become politically possible, you'd probably have to provide 1,800 jobs in South Dakota, plus some contributions.

Another, much larger example: mortgages. Only a miracle could cap the GSE losses at $200 billion. These losses are incurred by taxpayers — once again, "the rich," since the poor don't pay taxes.

Who got that $200 billion? The banks? No, they got at most a few percent of what was improvidently lent. Hard-to-regulate street corner mortgage brokers probably got more. They're pretty close to being consumers.

Almost all of the $200 billion, at least $175 billion, went, once again, to deadbeats. Consumers. Some of them put up no down payment, never paid, and wlll stay for years. Many gambled on asset values--not much different from gambling on the stock market.

Any lending incurs losses, and these losses are part of the costs that borrowers who pay interest and fees have to cover. But if regulators such as the CFPB did their job, then the transfer of wealth from payers to deadbeats would be way smaller. In a well-run mortgage program, it's a fraction of a percent. In a typical card program, it's a few percent.

There was a time, almost within living memory, when regulators frowned on banks with too many bad loans — even if they had plenty of capital and profits. Because they understood that excessive bad loans hurt good customers and pervert markets. High-risk loans lack the quality appropriate for assets in which FDIC-insured deposits are invested.

Are those days gone forever? Buy any asset? Take on any deal, no matter how convoluted and risky?

It would be unfair to conclude without mentioning peer-to-peer lending. Here the intermediary's role is minimized. We're near the ideal of direct transfer of wealth to deadbeats from consumers with money who lack the tools and skills of institutional lenders. I credit the SEC — always the bully terrorizing little guys while slapping big guys on the wrist — for at least slowing that one down.

What will it take to get the CFPB and prudential regulators to protect consumers from deadbeats and their shills? Another act of Congress? Or a director who's not a politician?

Andrew Kahr is a principal in Credit Builders LLC, a financial product development company, and was the founding chief executive of First Deposit, later known as Providian.

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Comments (2)
For years there has been much policy agitation under the banner of addressing "predatory lending," based upon the questionable idea that lenders would do well to make loans that they know cannot be repaid. Judge for yourself how credible that idea is. Mr. Kahr points to the need to look at the very provable problem of predatory borrowers, who borrow money with the intent (either at loan originiation or later) of not paying it back. He also points to who picks up most of the tab of the predatory borrowers.
Posted by WayneAbernathy | Wednesday, May 02 2012 at 10:29AM ET
Sorry but this is a huge piece of toilet paper sophistry. First of all, Kahr starts his argument based on an "unusual, intensively advertised credit card program that appeals to customers with no credit or bad credit." Then he goes on to call it NOT sub-prime! Does that seem like a good starting place to draw general conclusions, or is it better to support the most extreme argument? Hahaha.

Then he goes on to blame predatory lending on predatory borrowers; something that ignores the fact that predatory lenders calculated the expectesd losses, price accordingly, and then if things turn really sour, get out with senior management keeping the gains, leaving taxpayers or shareholders holding the empty bag.

Then to top that off, Mr. Kahr implies that ALL TAXPAYERS ARE RICH according to the logic that "poor people don't pay taxes."

Seriously, blatent advocacy pieces like this are part of the problem. If Mr. Kahr considered something other than (seemingly) the interests of those who pay him best, maybe he could write a more balanced piece which contributes to solving problems besetting consumers and bankers, rather than throwing gasoline on the lobbyist fires in DC.
Posted by j.doe | Wednesday, May 02 2012 at 11:38AM ET
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