postings by Katie Porter

Voice--The Credit Card, Not the TV Show

posted by Katie Porter

For years, "product innovation" in financial services made consumer advocates squirm. This was the cover term for the 2/28 teaser ARM, automatic and costly overdraft protection, and direct deposit "payday" style loans. It was a great term because it's hard to be anti-innovation, especially in a world where every day a new app or technology proves useful. A new credit card, called "Voice" from Huntington Bank, is innovating in the credit card space. While the pros and cons of rewards are debatable (Ronald Mann's Charging Ahead has a dated but good discussion of rewards), the marketing and design of the Voice card are intriguing. What do I see?

1) The personification of the bank. It "listens." Consumers can "tell the card" things.

2) Big touted benefit of a one-day late fee. That's a nice consumer perk but perhaps telling about how many late fees are really the result of simple mistake rather than financial hardship. And that's a fact that perhaps should play into what a "reasonable" v. "abusive" late fee is.

3) That consumers presumably will be drawn to this idea of switching up rewards. If people forget to pay on time, are they really going to log on at the start of every quarter to change up and maximize rewards. The card allows consumers to "Earn a point per dollar on all purchases with Voice and pick a triple rewards category. So, you get the flexibility to earn 3x points in the category where you spend most. Go from triple gas points in fall to triple utility points for winter. It’s your choice." Huntington presumably will track whether consumers actually make such choices, and it would a field day for a behavioral economist to study how consumers use such a product.

4) No annual fee, so hey, maybe chasing rewards on cards with high annual fees would do well here. Typically we see high rewards paired with high annual fee (think airline cards). Query how good the rewards perks can be if the bank doesn't have annual fee revenue. Maybe the answer is that Huntington is marketing this card to its retail customers, and it knows enough about their habits to have optimized this product--both in terms of attracting them and being profitable. There's been a lot of talk about personalized medicine, but personalized finance is a reality too.

Living down the Lattes

posted by Katie Porter

Credit Slips is a virtual community so very few of you know that I go to Starbucks at least once a day, although a small detail in the pic here was a hint in that direction. It's not a cheap habit, as personal finance writers have observed here and here. But does it drive people to financial ruin, or even indicate a failure of sound financial habits?

I've never thought so. The decades of research on consumer bankruptcy show that the big 3--job problems, medical problems, and family changes--are underlying structural problems. My thoughts on the "latte problem" are now enshrined in print in Helaine Olen's new book, Pound Foolish. It's tone is largely that of an expose, which makes for fun reading, although academics may find some of the research a bit light. But part of the problem that the book reveals is the lack of innovative solutions to improve financial advice. Certainly the CFPB has undertaken this as a major part of its mission. I'd love to hear readers' suggestions for innovative (not more junior high financial education, please) ways to get people to be more critical "consumers" of financial advice and to take the time and effort to make strides toward their financial goals. In the meantime, I'll enjoy my latte and procrastinate on rebalancing my retirement portfolio!

The Frontiers of Mortgage Servicing, Part I

posted by Katie Porter

For the last 18 months, I've served as the California Monitor for the National Mortgage Settlement at the request of California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris. Disclaimer: This post does not necessarily represent the views of the CA AG or CA DOJ. It's just me, Professor Porter writing. And what I wanted to write about is the first in a series of thoughts that I have about where mortgage servicing policy needs to go in the future. 

My first topic where think mortgage servicing needs more conversation and reform is the role of the FHFA and Fannie/Freddie in having fostered/enabled/encouraged some of the unsavory practices in mortgage servicing through their servicing guidelines. Dustin Zachs' piece, Robo-Litigation, offers several detailed examples of how Fannie and Freddie were entangled with the law firms engaged in robo-signing and other illegal practices. He gives a detailed account of David Stern, named Fannie Mae's lawyer of the year in 1998 and 1999. But in 2002, the Florida Bar disciplined him for misleading affidavits in those prior years. Fannie and Freddie did not stop referring cases to him until October 2010. And then there was the litigation--brought by Stern against F/F to collect fees for his practices--not brought by F/F to recoup fees paid for work that Stern's firm may have done in violation of the rules of professional responsibility, state law, or the servicing guidelines.

Continue reading "The Frontiers of Mortgage Servicing, Part I " »

Student Lending

posted by Katie Porter

As Prof. Nathalie Martin noted, the ABI has an upcoming conference on student loans. For those more interested in policy than straight up bankruptcy law, the St. Louis Federal Reserve will host a one day conference on the state of student loans in America on November 18. The conference, “Generation Debt: The Promise, Perils and Future of Student Loans,” comes on the heels of a report issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau outlining the similarities between the student loan crisis and the recent financial meltdown. The Fed's involvement as a leading research institution--on student lending is great news.

Policy makers, academics and students (young adults) need frank and honest discussions about education finance. But young people’s economic vulnerability in this country is about much more than student loans; this generation faces critical junctures as they secure jobs (or not), marry and form families (or not) and pursue and pay for higher education (or not). The Fed's conference will hopefully offer a more multi-dimensional view into young adults and their financially fragile status than many of the high-profile articles that focus singularly on the role of student loan debt.

Continue reading "Student Lending" »

Fannie/Freddie to Homeowners: Do Nothing and Help Will Arrive

posted by Katie Porter

Housing Wire is reporting that Federal Housing Finance Agency, the conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, has launched a new loan modification program. The program is a major departure from HAMP and HARP (thankfully!). It puts mortgage servicers in charge of delivering relief, instead of requiring homeowners to run down, chase, and exhaust themselves contacting their mortgage company.

The basic details available so far are that the program will start this July 1 and end August 2015. It will be open to Fannie/Freddie homeowners who are 90 days or more delinquent on their mortgages. Homeowners will not have to submit proof of financial hardship or undergo extensive underwriting to be qualified for modifications.

This "Streamlined Modification Initiative" needs a better name, better branding, and at least so far, better publicity. But overall, I am very encouraged that FHFA is adopting this kind of program. It's what I call a "push program," requiring the servicers to deliver relief. We've seen at least two servicers roll out similar push programs as part of the National Mortgage Settlement. Bank of America sent letters to over 100,000 homeowners stating that if the borrower literally did nothing that their second mortgage would be forgiven and released, and the debt reported to credit bureaus paid in full. Guess what, 99% of homeowners who got this letter got the relief. Similarly, JPMorgan Chase rolled out a Settlement "refinance" program that was actually a simple, no-doc, interest rate reduction for the life of the loan. Their consumer response rate was multiples of other institutions that required full documentation for their Settlement refinance programs. Both programs are innovative and leverage the servicers' resources, while reducing the onus on everyday families.

Continue reading "Fannie/Freddie to Homeowners: Do Nothing and Help Will Arrive" »

Undocumented Debtors

posted by Katie Porter

Immigration issues continue to be a major political football, and the work of Jean Braucher, Bob Lawless, and Dov Cohen on race in bankruptcy garnered front-page NY Times attention this year. This makes the publication of Chrystin Ondersma's paper titled Undocumented Debtors particularly timely. The paper is the first-ever look (to my knowledge) at whether and how undocumented people file bankruptcy. The key finding is that while it seems legal--and indeed arguably explicitly contemplated by the bankruptcy system--that undocumented people may file, the rate of filings is very low--on the order of less than one percent of the rate of debtors in the general population. Ondersma also provides a good overview of the credit systems available to undocumented people, ranging from those offered by large national entities, such as ITIN mortgages, to informal mechanisms such as tandas.

Continue reading "Undocumented Debtors " »

The Meaning of Bankrupt

posted by Katie Porter

Every so often in the United States, I come across a discusion of the choice of the word "cramdown" (cram down, cram-down) to describe either stripping down liens or confirming a repayment plan without creditor consent. The basic thrust of these articles--the best of which is probably this treatment by William Safire--is that the word itself conveys a great deal about the cultural view of the legal action. In the context of cramdown, I think the word choice reflects the fact the U.S. legal regime generally protects the collection rights of secured creditors in bankruptcy.

At a recent World Bank event, a provocative discussion emerged on the choice of what to call people who file bankruptcy. The Working Group report notes an international trend in the law away from calling people "bankrupt" toward the term "debtor." Judge Wisit Wisitsora-at from Thailand offered a slightly different flavor on the problem--that whatever the word chosen, the literal translation, and cultural meaning, of of such a word can vary tremenedously. He reported that the current word in Thai for a person who files consumer bankrutpcy literally translated means "worse than a failure." Even a quick run of the word "bankrupt" through Google translate in several languages produces some words that are a far cry from the dominant U.S. perspective (at least among academics) of the Fragile Middle Class. Here's a sampling: beggar, penniless, upset, defeated, fallen down on the ground, and unsound.

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