postings by Lauren Willis

2014 Boulder Summer Conference on Consumer Financial Decision Making

posted by Lauren Willis

For anyone thinking, teaching, or writing in the area of consumer financial decision making, the Boulder Summer conference is top notch. The last time I attended, the keynote from Dick Thaler addressed SMART disclosure, Tess Wilkinson-Ryan presented empirical evidence showing that borrowers are less likely to feel obligated to repay debts when those debts have been sold to third parties than when held by the original creditor, Linda Salisbury presented empirical work on the effectiveness of CARD Act minimum payment warnings, and Credit Slips' own Bob Lawless presented evidence of discrimination in advice given to bankruptcy filers. Abstracts are due this week if you have something you'd like to present (submit abstract link). The conference is May 18-20, 2014 at the swanky St. Julien Hotel in beautiful Boulder, Colorado. Official conference description follows the jump.

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Another Myth of Consumer Law?

posted by Lauren Willis

As the CFPB gears up to regulate arbitration clauses, a timely article by Omri Ben-Shahar has been posted on ssrn. Part of Ben-Shahar’s “Myths of Consumer Law” project (see here, here, and here ), The Myth of Access-to-Justice in Consumer Law  contains some provocative insights, but key blind spots lead the piece to unwarranted conclusions.

The conclusions are that pre-dispute arbitration and class action waiver clauses in consumer contracts benefit weak consumers. To get there, Ben-Shahar first notes that consumers are not a homogeneous group and access to justice in the courts is far from evenly distributed. Because elites are more likely to sue and are likely to collect higher damages (one of the many reasons they are more likely to sue), giving all consumers the right to sue is, in effect, a regressive cross-subsidy from poorer consumers to those elites.

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The Gamification of Financial Education

posted by Lauren Willis

A hot trend in financial education (and elsewhere) is gamification. Make it fun and they will come, and (hopefully) learn and change! 

What is gamification? A PEW report defines it as "interactive online design that plays on people’s competitive instincts and often incorporates the use of rewards to drive action--these include virtual rewards such as points, payments, badges, discounts and 'free gifts'; and status indicators such as friend counts, re-tweets, leader boards, achievement data, progress bars and the ability to 'level up.'" The idea is to apply the fun and excitement of games to non-game activities. The explanation from the VP of one gamification consulting firm is explicit: "'It's using the dynamics and mechanics of psychology that make games so addicting, so sticky, so engaging.'"

Gamification can be used to encourage simple habit-formation (e.g., hand-washing in hospitals) or major scientific efforts (e.g., modeling a protein important for developing retroviral drugs). When used with an intent to teach information and skills rather than an intent to motivate particular actions, it is sometimes called "edutainment."

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A Final Pet Peeve: The Right to Consumer Financial Industry Data

posted by Lauren Willis

Thank you to the Credit Slips team for allowing me to use their soapbox for the last few weeks.  I leave you with a final pet peeve: Why does the government have to rely on commercially-collected financial industry data sets or voluntary surveys of financial firms to discover the effects of policies the government has put in place? This is just embarrassing. The U.S. government has so little power over the financial industry – an industry that only exists by virtue of the full faith and credit, payments systems, FDIC insurance, etc. provided by the U.S. government – that it cannot demand data from banks and financial firms, but instead must ask politely for voluntary survey answers or search the data market and pay for information like a commoner? 

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Dancing Around the Risk Question

posted by Lauren Willis

Reflecting on my last two posts – price caps, loan structure requirements, underwriting rules – discussing any of these puts the cart before the horse. We know we want to rein in risk without cutting off access to credit that is not too risky. But how much risk is too much risk when it comes to credit? 

I began posing this question to audiences at one of the very first talks I gave as an academic (a 2005 talk about predatory mortgage lending), but while most of my talks generate plenty of responses, not once has a single audience member attempted to answer this question.  

It is a remarkably difficult question to answer, one that varies with the expected costs and expected benefits, to borrowers, lenders, and society, of each extension of credit. Moreover, actual future costs and benefits are often unknown and perhaps unknowable (meaning we are dealing with uncertainty, not merely outcomes with known risk distributions) and incommensurable (meaning tradeoffs are difficult).

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The Virtues of Price Caps

posted by Lauren Willis

In the last post I discussed the potential benefits of price caps in the small loan market, one of which was to bring the price down to what consumer price shopping would produce if it were present in that market. Now I would like to turn to the potential benefit of price caps in even the most (albeit still quite imperfectly) price-competitive credit market, the mortgage market.

While superficially appearing to be about price, the primary potential benefit of credit price regulation is that it can rein in risk. Even in the small loan market, the primary problem is not paying high, noncompetitive prices, but the risk of not being able to pay off the principal and then being trapped in debt servitude to a loan shark. This trap imposes social costs and high psychological costs on the borrower. The primary problem in the mortgage crisis has also been risk, the risk of default and foreclosure. Risk is intimately tied to price in both situations, but setting a “fair” or “efficient” price seems to me to be to be secondary. (Then again, I am culturally tone-deaf, so maybe fairness in pricing is really what has motivated usury restrictions over the centuries; some historical accounts, however, place the risk of debt servitude as the primary motivator).

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Usury and the Loan Shark Myth

posted by Lauren Willis

Consumer financial education, disclosure, and defaults all dispensed with in my prior posts, shall we move on to “substantive” regulation, dare I even say “usury”? Before we do that, I need to clear up another myth that, like the belief in the efficacy of consumer financial education, is deeply ingrained: the loan shark myth.

Forthcoming in the Washington & Lee Law Review is a historical expose of the relationship – or lack thereof – between credit price regulation in the small loan market and loan sharking. The author, political scientist Robert Mayer, finds that what the popular culture has called loan sharking consists of two different types: violent and nonviolent. Both have been characterized by: (1) high prices, in excess of usury restrictions where such restrictions have applied, and (2) short-term, nonamortizing loans made to people who have a decent likelihood of being able to pay the interest amount due at maturity but a low likelihood of being able to pay off the principal balance, resulting in a steady stream of interest income to the lender as the loans roll over and over. It is this second feature that in the 19th Century first earned even nonviolent loan sharks their “shark” moniker – a single loan, even if it is expensive, looks harmless enough, but stealthily traps the borrower in a cycle of debt.

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When Nudges Fail: Slippery Defaults

posted by Lauren Willis

Now that my last few posts have bludgeoned consumer financial education and at least bloodied disclosure, and given that my suggestion of comprehension requirements is completely untested as a means of consumer protection for financial products, what about “nudges”? 

One nudge I have taken a close look at is the use of policy defaults. Defaults are settings or rules about the way products, policies, or legal relationships function that apply unless people take action to change them. Although some defaults in the law are mere gap-fillers and others, as pointed out by Ian Ayres and Robert Gertner, penalize one or more parties with the intention that the parties will contract out of them, policy defaults aim for stickiness. The idea behind policy defaults is to set the default to a position that is good for most individuals, under the assumption that only the minority who have clear preferences to the contrary will opt out. 

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Disclosure 3.0: Making Disclosure Smarter

posted by Lauren Willis

What if, instead of making the consumer smarter or the disclosures more comprehensible, as discussed in my last several posts, we made financial product disclosures smarter? For the uninitiated, “smart disclosure,” according to the federal White House Task Force on Smart Disclosure, is “the release of data sets in usable forms that enable consumers to compare and choose between complex services.” The Task Force description continues: “Smart disclosure requires service providers to make data about the full range of their service offerings available in machine-readable formats such that consumers can then use these data to make informed choices about the goods and services they use. While consumers may access the data directly in some cases, the data may also be useful in enabling government agencies or third parties to create online tools for consumer choice.” 

The idea is that both the government and firms will be required to release, in close to real time, complete price, feature, and performance data about products and services offered by the firm or government entity (“product data”) so that consumers can input their own preferences into on-line or mobile app tools (“infomediaries”) that can then recommend the products or services that will best meet those preferences. Kayak for everything! 

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Putting Disclosure to the Test: User Comprehension Requirements

posted by Lauren Willis

Given the limitations of Disclosure 2.0 and Disclosure 2.5 I described in my last posts, what is to be done? To answer this question, we might first ask what financial product disclosure is attempting to achieve. Although disclosure has several aims, one is consumer comprehension to the degree necessary to enable good decisions. Disclosure rules require particular information to be imparted, often in a specified format. What if the law instead allowed firms to disclose whatever truthful and nonmisleading content they choose in whatever format they choose, but required firms to demonstrate, through field-based testing, consumer comprehension of the key facts about the financial product needed to make a good fact-based decision? 

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Disclosure 2.5: Moving from the Lab to the Field

posted by Lauren Willis

If financial education classes and lab-tested disclosures are unlikely to help consumers in their real-world financial decisions, what about field-tested targeted education/disclosure? Exciting work by Marianne Bertrand and Adair Morse shows that information given to payday borrowers can reduce their future borrowing, holding payday lender behavior static. Although this last caveat seriously limits the external validity of their results, the potential implications of their work are wonderful enough to be deserving of a full description here.

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Disclosure 2.0: Disclosure in the Lab

posted by Lauren Willis

If, as I suggested in my last post, making the consumer smarter is hopeless, at least for those of us whose prenatal and early childhood environments can no longer be altered, what about disclosure?  Could point-of-sale disclosure equip consumers to make good financial decisions? 

Simple disclosures appear effective in directly aiding consumer decisionmaking in some domains, the A, B, and C restaurant hygiene grades being the classic example.  But because financial products have many varying features that consumers need to understand to make good decisions, financial product disclosures are inevitably much more complex.  As a recent article by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl Schneider details, generally speaking, consumers do not read, or if they do read they do not understand, or if they do understand they do not use correctly, the information presented in complex product disclosures.

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Which Consumer Financial Education Programs Are Most Effective?: Assuming a Fact Not in Evidence

posted by Lauren Willis

Thank you to the Credit Slips team for inviting me to guest blog.  First I must warn the reader that I am not a real blogger (I’m a bit of a Luddite - I don’t even have a smartphone).  But I’m going to join the 21st Century for a bit here.  Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be sharing my thoughts and some recent research pertinent to modes of consumer financial protection, from financial literacy education to policy defaults to product regulation.  As some of you already know, I have been critical of all of these.  But here I will also suggest some underexplored alternative routes to achieve the same ends of consumer financial well-being that have eluded us in the past.

I'll start today with financial education.  The CFPB would like your comments on “effective financial education approaches that create opportunities for consumers to improve their financial decision making capabilities.”  I thought I had blown up this myth already.  And others keep proving me right.  If you were at this past year’s Boulder Summer Conference on Consumer Financial Decision Making you know that a soon-to-be released exhaustive meta-analysis of past studies demonstrates that financial education does not produce better financial outcomes, and another study using a much larger dataset and a more robust set of controls than past work finds that financial literacy does not lead to improved financial outcomes. 

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