postings by Katie Porter

Being Unbanked, Part 1

posted by Katie Porter

Note from Katie Porter: This guest post is from Jennifer Song, senior staff attorney at the California Monitor Program. Jennifer pitched in and attended this workshop, and I hope Credit Slips readers will enjoy hearing about her experiences in a short series of posts. 

Last week, I, Jennifer Song, had the opportunity to join FinX/LA 2014:  Connecting to the Consumer Financial Experience.  Hosted by the Center for Financial Services Innovation as part of their three-day conference on consumer financial services,  FinX was an “in-the-field activity” that promised to give participants a “deeper understanding of the complexity of consumers’ financial lives in accessing financial services.” 

Upon arriving at the conference, we were placed into groups of four and given worksheets. The tasks to complete included cashing a personal check, cashing a pay check, purchasing a general purpose reloadable card and reloading the card, purchasing a money order, inquiring about auto title loans, etc.  We were given a little over two hours to complete these tasks in lower income areas throughout Los Angeles. With only a quick slideshow of interesting facts and a pep talk, we set off on our journey. 

While I will share my experience and how it shaped my thinking on low-income banking, I want to start by identifying factors that may have prevented me from fully experiencing and understanding the challenges facing the under banked and unbanked. PhotoFirst, we were traveled in groups of four; most people using these services do not travel in packs or with an entourage, and are not able to consult each other about transactions.  Second, while we were told to “dress down” in order to “blend in” while performing these transactions, I do not believe we were fooling anyone at the shops we visited.  Third, and perhaps the most glaring contrast, was that we were chauffeured around Los Angeles in a town car to perform these transactions. While I assume there is access to public transportation in or around these financial centers, Los Angeles is notorious for being difficult to navigate via the public transportation system (did you even know it has a subway?) Many of the financial centers were clustered together but major banking institutions were noticeably absent in these areas. 

Continue reading "Being Unbanked, Part 1" »

Robbing Peter

posted by Katie Porter

How exactly do people make ends meet? While there are a few formal studies of "payment hierachies" courtesy of the big data organizations, there is little ethnographic work. A new contribution in this regard is "Robbing Peter to Pay Paul":  Economic and Cultural Explanations for How Lower-Income Families Manage Debt by Laura M. Tach and Sara Sternberg Greene. The authors interviewed 194 lower-income households, finding that debts generally receive less attention than regular monthly expenses where credit cannot substitute for meeting the need (e.g., paying rent). The best findings of the paper describe how households choose among debt coping strategies, which Tach and Greene categorize to include debt juggling such as rotating which debt to skip paying, rejecting responsibility/ignoring debt, using an EITC refund to make a large payment, and others. Tach and Greene sketch out an "Injustice Narrative" based on respondents' own understandings of why certain debts should be ignored or rejected. In their sample, these debts were frequently subprime credit cards or debts ballooned up with fees. By contrast, the authors present an "Economic Mobility Narrative," where debtors prioritized and paid consistently if they believed repayment was required to achieve a goal, like improving a credit score enough to qualify for a home loan. The overall perspective of the paper is that cost-effective approaches to debt repayment (highest interest rate first), or logical approaches (last in, first out), are less prominent than cultural narrative strategies that allow debtors to explain their payment--or lack thereof--using cultural sociological norms about mobility and justice.

The paper is a nice addition to the generalized reporting that focuses on middle class people--those with mortgages and credit cards. As Nick Timiraos recently reported in the WSJ, mortgages are once again the king of the bill heap. The article has some nice graphics that illustrate regional differences in payment hierarchies that appear to correlate with property values.

p.s. There was a rumor that I would never blog again. I started it. But it just didn't catch on, despite my dissemination efforts.  I'm back . . .

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" »

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