As noted by America's finest news source here.
Today is your last chance to comment on the CFPB's Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Regulation F, regarding debt collection. I had the pleasure of working with Pat McCoy on a joint comment to the ANPR. Our comment addresses documentation and information requirements for collectors, chain of title issues, and debt repositories.
After reading two reports released yesterday I'm even more convinced that these are among the most critical issues. The FTC announced their top 2013 complaints (debt collection still the top industry complained about) and US PIRG released a report on the more than 11,000 complaints the CFPB received on debt collection over a six month period. The PIRG report in particular highlights just how important the integrity of the information and documentation passed from collector to collector is (and how badly this is working right now). Most consumers were complaining that the debt was not theirs (25%), they were not given enough information to verify the debt (13%), or that the debt had already been paid (11%).
This is exactly the underlying issue that we address in our ANPR comment: something is very wrong when a debt buyer only gets a spreadsheet with some information about the debt, gets no documents in connection with the debt, signs a contract where the seller doesn't stand behind the information sold (and sometimes specifically says amounts or interest may be wrong), and then attempts to collect on that debt. I've argued that this violates the FDCPA. In our comment we try to propose some ways to fix this problem going forward.
I urge Credit Slips readers to send in your comments before the 11:59pm deadline.
CapOne's taken a lot of flack today over its apparent desire to check what's in your wallet by visiting you at home and at work. The LA Times story got even bigger when it made it to Twitter and great (and lots of bad, see previous sentence) puns started rolling in.
The company answer seems to be that language from a security agreement for snowmobiles got "mixed in" with the credit card language (and no one over there is reading their 6-page contracts). They are now "considering creating two separate agreements given this language doesn’t apply to our general cardholder base."
I wonder if that means that they'll also revisit the part of the credit card agreements that takes a security interest in anything you buy from Best Buy, Big Lots, Jordan's Furniture, Neiman Marcus/Bergdorf Goodman, or Saks? (I should note, your clothes are only in danger if you have a Saks "retail" card; if your card is a Platinum or World card not only is your interest rate likely lower but it seems your stuff is also safe).
Let's be really clear about what most identity theft is about: it's about payments data. Identity theft is first and foremost a payments fraud problem. We don't know all of the details about what happened at Target and Neiman Marcus, but there's a really obvious weakspot in the US payments infrastructure that should be corrected, irrespective of whether it would have prevented the Target and Neiman Marcus breaches: the use of two-factor authentication, namely chip-and-PIN cards, which are standard outside the US and have been effective in reducing fraud.
Why don't we have chip & PIN here? Because the banks don't want to pay for it because they don't bear most of the fraud costs. The banks/payment networks are the least cost avoider of identity theft, but because merchants are eating most of the fraud costs, the banks have instead have opted for a complex set of security standards for merchants (PCI Security Standards) that are of dubious effectiveness.
I'm going to wade into unchartered Slips waters today and head into Bitcoinland. I've been trying to understand Bitcoin from a payment systems perspective, where it has an interesting problem and solution: double spending. The lesson in all of this is how Bitcoin has a sort of built in seniorage--payments are never free. Currently Bitcoin builds in its costs through inflation, which is not particularly transparent, but that will ultimately change to being more transparent--and salient-- transaction fees. By disguising its costs through inflation, rather than through direct fees, Bitcoin effectively incentivizes greater consumer use of the system, much as credit card usage is incentivized through no-surcharge rules preventing merchants from passing on the cost of credit card usage to consumers.
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.
Judge Rakoff issued an opinion today holding that the New York state credit card no-surcharge law violates the First Amendment of the US Constitution because a "surcharge" and a "discount" are two ways of expressing the same thing, and the state of NY cannot direct merchants which of those two ways of expression to use. I'm a little skeptical of some of Rakoff's authority--he cites a couple of papers by some Levitin character (here and here), but the opinion is classic Rakoff: "Alice in Wonderland has nothing on section 518 of the New York General Business Law."
This ruling has real significance in the event that the settlement in the multi-district credit card interchange litigation (MDL 1720) is ultimately approved because while that settlement amends card network association rules to permit surcharging in certain circumstances, surcharging remains impossible in 11 or so states that have no-surcharge laws. If the NY statute is unconstitutional, it's hard to fathom how other states' no-surcharge statutes would be too. Of course, we'll have to see what happens on appeal.
All's Quiet on the American Front in the interchange wars. But there has been some action to report in Canada and the EU. In Canada, the federal Competition Tribunal dismissed the suit brought by the Canadian antitrust authority against Visa and MasterCard. Only a summary of the decision is available--the ruling is under seal. According to the official summary, the dismissal was on the grounds that the statutory provision in question required a resale, which had not been established by the Commissioner of Competition.
But the Competition Tribunal went on to explain that in the event it was wrong about its statutory analysis, "there had been an adverse effect on competition" from no-surcharge rules. (My emphasis.) Nonetheless, the Competition Tribunal found that the proper solution to the antitrust problem is a regulatory framework, not an injunction.
So while this was a victory for MasterCard and Visa, it was a victory on technical grounds. The Canadian Competition Tribunal was clear that no-surcharge rules are anti-competitive. It'll be interesting to see if Canadian regulators or Parliament take up the implicit invitation to create a regulatory framework as we did for debit cards with the Durbin Amendment.
Felix Salmon has an interesting and provocative piece arguing Why Mobile Payments Will Never Take Off. The problem, Felix observes, is that none of the mobile payment systems around really offer any improved convenience over plastic. (Indeed, one might note that depending on the setting, cash is still the fastest, especially if security procedures for plastic, such as checking to see that a card is signed, are followed.) Felix also observes that the developing world examples of successful mobile payment systems, like M-Pesa, don't really present a model for the US. In the developing world, mobile payments represent the Great Leap Forward, bypassing the age of retail banking and plastic cards, and going straight from paper/barter to digital. If the contest is mobile vs. paper/barter, the outcome is likely to be different from mobile vs. plastic. Felix is right on both points. Still, I'm not as ready as he is to throw in the towel on mobile.
"Make it fun and they will come," Lauren Willis discussed in the instructive post that evaluated the pros and cons of "The Gamification of Financial Education." Meanwhile, in London, a live show has been designed for children as young as five to teach them about the financial system. Interesting story on the show in The Guardian here. Tickets to "Bank On It" (running through the 14th of July) and other information here.
Money tree image courtesy of Shutterstock
That 99% invisible is a vibrant architecture and design podcast might have been beside the point in Credit Slips land -- but for the fact that its current show (Episode 78) focuses on the design and technology of casino slot machines, and the particular profitability of penny slot machines. The short piece is built on the work of M.I.T. professor and anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll. Lots on the consumer finance and cognitive behavioral side of things; don't expect any mention of bankrupt casinos.
Slot photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Wow. Credit card fraud really can happen to anyone, as the Washington Post's Al Kamen reported this afternoon. Apparently U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts had his credit card number stolen and had to pay cash for his morning Starbucks.
This story raises so many questions. First, how many credit cards does Justice Roberts carry? Could it be that he carries just one? Second, what type of card was it? Third, where was it compromised? Fourth, how much hutzpah does this thief have? Did the thief not know who he or she was dealing with? Finally, I wonder if this event might bear on future consumer law cases before the court. One thing is clear. Even important people have to watch thier backs.
Over at VoxEU, economists Daniel Aronson and Eric French have a discussion about the their research of the effects of a minimum wage hike. I found my way to this post through Yves Smith's discussion of the topic at Naked Capitalism, which also includes some informative tables showing that the proposed hike to $9/hour is still below a living wage in many areas of the country.
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.
Like many credit providers, American Express tries to escape class action liability by pairing an arbitration clause with a class action waiver, thus requiring customers to bring claims in arbitration, as individuals. In AT&T v. Concepcion, the Court rejected an attempt to use state law unconscionability doctrine to invalidate a clause like this. In the AmEx case, the Court must resolve an arguable conflict between two federal laws. Plaintiffs are merchants who accuse American Express of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act and want to bring a class action in federal court. (Actually, they waffle a bit on this (pp. 35-36), but let's just say they wouldn't turn up their nose at a federal class action...) Relying on the Federal Arbitration Act, American Express argues that the plaintiffs must honor their agreement to pursue these claims individually in arbitration. In its prior cases, the Court has resolved such disputes in favor of arbitration so long as that forum allows claimants to "effectively vindicate" their statutory rights.
I had a weird night’s sleep and then openned up my e-mail to find this headline from credit and collection news “Does The Consumer Bureau Harm Those It Claims to Protect? & Study Predicts Millions Will Die In Credit Card Red.” The immediate implication in my drowsy state was that the CFPB was somehow killing people. Wow. As it turns out, these were two headlines from two different stories, first one about how the CFPB was hurting Americans and the overall economy by constricting credit, according to a Heritage Foundation paper by Diane Katz, available here.
The second story was by Laura Rolland of the Huffington Post, and contained some grim news from a recent Ohio State Study published in the January issue of the Journal of Economic Recovery. It claims, consistent with informal data from my financial literacy class, that young people are up to their eyeballs in debt. According to Rowley, Millions of young Americans will die in debt to credit card companies. The study data show that people in their late 20s and early 30s (born 1980 to 1984) carry significantly higher credit card debt than older generations and pay it off more slowly, have about $5,700 more than people born 1950 to 1954, and $8,200 more than those born 1920 to 1924. The study even predicts that these young people will continue to charge well into their 70s.
Community banks and credit unions are the darlings of Congress in the financial services industry. This is quite understandable--they play an important economic role in their communities and have a much greater civic presence than the big banks. The president of the local community bank is much more likely to be involved in major civic organizations than the Bank of America branch manager. As a result, a parallel regulatory system has developed for community banks and credit unions. Small banks and CUs (net assets of less than $10 billion) are exempt from CFPB examination and from the Durbin Amendment's regulation of their interchange fees. They're subject to regular FDIC seizure, rather than OLA, and are not subject to SIFI regulation with higher capital requirements. And they would have been exempted from the proposed cramdown legislation.
There's a linguistic irony that "gift" is the German word for poison. What, then, should we make of the "gift card"?
Senator Richard Blumenthal's introduced new legislation, the Gift Card Consumer Protection Act (S.3636) that aims to close up the loopholes in existing gift card regulation and to protect consumers with gift cards when the retailer goes bankrupt. The legislation has a few moving parts:
It'll be interesting to see what the opposition ends up being to the bill. The bill is dealing with two separate, but related problems.
Preliminary approval was granted for the interchange litigation settlement (MDL 1720) last Friday. Approval was widely expected, but I would also expect an appeal. What the 2d Circuit will say is anyone's guess, and then there is still the question of final approval. Nonetheless, I think it's worth commenting on one aspect of the settlement that I haven't previously addressed, namely the incentives of the various named plaintiffs to support or oppose the settlement. This is both a matter of law and a matter of optics.
Unfortunately, it is tough to gain traction for such non-profit sites without paying for promotions through Google or others. Also, there so many sites that purport to provide consumer resources that individuals suffer information overload and are not sure what to trust.
Yesterday, I wrote about the "squeaky wheel system," or "SWS" for ease of reference, which I explored in my article, Access to Consumer Remedies in the Squeaky Wheel System. The research shows that consumers who have and take the time and resources to complain (or “squeak”) often get what they want. For example, consumers with the time and patience to endure the labrynth of their phone company's customer assistance line and actually speak with a representative regarding an increase in their bill are much more likely to get "loyalty" and other such discounts.
That said, I have noticed that companies are even becoming more stingy in providing assistance to proactive consumers. For example, a manufacturer recently insisted on charging me for shipping to send me a replacement for a blender that was under warranty. Sure, the warranty covered replacement . . . but not shipping (a la "fine print"). The warranty was therefore meaningless since the blender was worth about the same as the shipping cost, and it would be silly to expend resources to sue using UCC Article 2 or other warranty arguments. Furthermore, I have been unable lately to catch many breaks on increased fees for phone and internet service, and had difficulty in obtaining any assistance from some credit card companies when trying to rectify the issues I faced when my purse and all my credit cards recently were stolen.
I was really hoping that I would be able to go at least a year without having to call Todd Zywicki out for his comments on some consumer finance issue. But it's not to be. Zywicki has weighed in on the interchange settlement, proclaiming it to be great thing for consumers. Mission accomplished.
How does Zywicki reach his conclusion? By claiming that:
[the settlement] does affirm the core principle that interchange fees should be set by free markets and consumer choice rather than by judges or politicians, thereby preserving the engine behind one of the marvels of the modern age: the evolution of a 24-hour globally-connected system of instantaneous, secure, and ubiquitous payments system.
Let's put aside the fact that other countries have more advanced, more secure, faster, and more ubiquitous payment systems than the United States without oppressive card network rules and price-fixing. Apparently this is an ideological matter. The settlement affirms the primacy of free markets and consumer choice, Zywicki claims. How? Zywicki isn't long on the details, but the answer would be that it preserves the current interchange fee system. In short, the settlement is a victory for consumers because it accomplishes next to nothing.
Moved to top from 8/15.
I've held my tongue for a while on the proposed class settlement in the multidistrict credit card interchange fee litigation (MDL 1720). I'm weighing in on it now. I've written up an analysis of the proposed settlement. It's available here. [N.B.: this is substantially expanded 8/21 revision of the original 8/15 analysis.] It's worthwhile noting that the settlement is not a done deal yet--at this point it is a deal between lead counsel for the proposed plaintiff class and the defendants--the settlement must still be accepted by the named plaintiffs (or at least some of them) and approved by the court, and it appears that at least several of the named plaintiffs will reject the proposed settlement.
The short version of my analysis is that the settlement is an exceedingly bad deal for merchants and not in the public interest.
JPMorgan Chase and Class Counsel have received preliminary approval of a $100 million class settlement in In re Chase Bank USA, NA "Check Loan" Contract Litigation (MDL 2032), a case involving Chase's increases in minimum payment amounts on some Chase cardholders who had taken advantage of low-APR balance transfers. If confirmed, the proposed settlement would be, as far as I can determine, the second largest private settlement (or judgment) in a consumer class action relating to credit cards. In re Providian Credit Card cases settled for $105 million right at the end of 2000, and Rosted v. First USA Bank settled for $87 million in 2001. There have been larger settlements between card issuers and regulators, such as the CFPB's recent settlement with Capital One for $210 million (approximately 2/3s of which is restitution to consumers), the FTC's $114 million settlement with CompuCredit in 2008, and the OCC's $300 million restitution order against Providian in 2000.
Given the huge volume of consumer credit card complaints both before and after the CARD Act, it's interesting to note how rare 9-figure private settlements have been. Whether this is a reflection on the state of our class action litigation system or a reflection on the actionable strength of consumers' complaints is unclear, but I would have expected to see more large consumer credit card class actions settlements. I'd be curious to hear others' thoughts on whether I'm expecting too much or why there haven't been more such settlements (or if I've missed some big ones).
The CFPB released a beta version of its complaint database on June 19th. Right now, one can only search credit card complaints, which the CFPB began taking on the first birthday of its creation, July 21, 2011. My takeaway is that this is major step forward for the disclosure of complaint data but that the "beta" in the website is well-deserved. You can see some neat graphics and and best of all you can download the raw data. One problem is that this is SO apparently cutting-edge and sophisticated that I couldn't figure out how to use many of the features after a half-hour of poking around (and while some may disagree, I think it's safe to say I have more technology and statistical skills than the vast majority of U.S. consumers). Below was my effort to use the "embed" graphic feature that is touted as allowing one to "publish this dataset on the internet at large."
And yes, I know the graphic does not appear and the hyperlink does not work. If you cut and paste it into a window (old school), it does appear.
The number one agenda item for small banks is to repeal the physical, on-machine disclosure requirement for ATMs. Yes, I'm serious, that, that is the top agenda item for small banks. And they wonder why they're not doing so well...
Still, it's worth understanding why they're focused on this issue. The Electronic Funds Transfer Act requires disclosure of ATM fees both physically on the machine, as well as on the screen. Failure to do so subjects the financial institution to liability, including actual damages (close to zero), statutory damages (up to $1000/violation but with a class action cap) and attorneys fees. As it happens a cottage industry has emerged bringing strike suits over missing ATM signs (query how signs just fall off ATMs...). I've blogged a bit about it here.
This weekend I saw an ATM that shows why merely requiring physical disclosure doesn't accomplish much--the disclosures were perhaps a foot off the ground and the ATM was in a space where kneeling was impractical (unless you want to get hit on the head with a door). I'm not sure if that was the fee disclosure (which must be in a "prominent and conspicuous location") or some other disclosure, but it's pretty useless for anyone who isn't crawling. Check it out after the break.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals has issued a decision that highlights the problems facing credit card debt collectors in a post-robosigning world (see here and here). The decision reaffirms what should be a simple principle in a debt-collection lawsuit. The burden is on the debt collector to show it owns the debt and to show the consumer is liable for the amount the debt collector asserts. The debt collector's say-so is not enough.
In LVNV Funding, the consumer had opened a Sears Gold Mastercard account in 1985 and was being sued for a balance that was a little more than $15,000. He had not used the account since 2001 and thought it had been settled in 2005.
One might first think Sears was the plaintiff. It was not. Sears had sold the account to Citibank, but Citibank was not the plaintiff either as it had sold the account to Sherman Financial Group. The plaintiff was LVNV Funding, a subsidiary of Sherman Financial to which the account had been assigned.
The Fed released some data on debit interchange fees since the Durbin Amendment went into effect (here in spreadsheet and here as a memo with more data). It's all still very early numbers, and things may well change. But so far a few noteworthy things have caught my eye:
(1) There is two-tier interchange pricing, just as I and other supporters of Durbin predicted. Big banks (>$10B in assets) have one pricing scheme and small banks, which are exempt from Durbin's "reasonable and proportionate" requirement have another. Many Durbin opponents said that there wouldn't be two-tier pricing and that Durbin would spell the ruin of small banks. So far that hasn't happened. This won't fix our too-big-to-fail problem, but it's a small move in that direction.
(2) The small banks are getting a leg up on the big guys in the two-tier system. Small banks are making on average 19 cents or 50bps more on every transaction than the big boys. That breaks down to 31 cents advantage of signature and 8 cents on PIN (where the pricing was lower to begin with, making less room for differentiation).
(3) Interchange fees for small banks haven't moved much. It's possible to have two-tier pricing with small banks still losing revenue. That doesn't seem to have happened. (It's also possible to have two-tier pricing with interchange fees continuing to rise for small banks...)
(4) The small banks' debit card transaction market share grew slightly. It's not clear to me that this is a real trend, but it's possible that this is a side-effect of the big banks like BoA clumsily trying to recapture reduced debit interchange revenue with direct consumer fees. It seems that some consumers don't take well to hidden fees being replaced with direct fees. It's still not clear how many accounts were really moved to small banks/CUs in response to BoA and the like, but that could explain the growth in debit card market share for small banks. In any case, merchants aren't steering away from small banks as we were told they might do. (It was never clear how they would steer anyhow).
(6) There may be other, harder to measure benefits for small banks from Durbin. To the extent that it makes their deposit account/debit product more competitive, this could have spillover benefits for their other products. The deposit account (monetizable via debit or check) is the gateway relationship. It enables the cross-selling of other products (loans, investments, insurance). So the benefits to small banks may be more than just on the debit revenue side.
(5) The big issuers are paying lower network fees (4 cents lower for sig, 2 cents lower for PIN), which means that small issuers are really getting a 23 cent/transaction advantage of signature and 6 cents/transaction advantage on PIN. It's not clear, however, what the network breakdown of small issuer transaction is.
Again, it's still early in the game. There's still the merchants' litigation challenge to the Fed's Durbin Amendment rulemaking, and we could well see a bunch of market moves. Visa seems to be trying to go back to tying credit and debit products via its network fee, and there's always the possibility of either some innovation (think mobile), a new settlement network (PayPal?), or a new entrant buying an existing player and shaking things up (Google or Apple buying MC?).
A final thought. The more distance we get from Durbin, the more I like the amendment. It's public utility regulation: rate regulation (section 920(a)) and open access (section 920(b)). That's not a totally new move in bank regulation (think Reg Q), but it really encourages thinking of at least some banking functions as being public utility functions. There might be something to that.
Here's a plug for a conference on mobile payments that the FTC is hosting next week. It will be webcast live. The agenda is here. I'm one of the speakers.
Despite my participation, it should be a really interesting conference. Mobile brings together a range of new and existing consumer finance, privacy, IP, and antitrust issues: mix together one part banks, one part telecoms, one part device manufacturers, one part OS manufacturers, and one part app designers and stir. What's going to result from that mix isn't clear. We're still in the early stages of mobile; it's clear that in 10 years, if not 5, mobile will be a major part of the US payment system, but it isn't clear yet what that will look like. It could develop in a number of ways, with very different implications for the end-users (consumers and merchants) and the various intermediation participants (banks, telecoms, OS, hardware, and app makers).
There is a lot of potential benefit to consumers and merchants from marrying payments with all of the other consumer data that goes through mobile (e.g., location, contacts, interests), but also major privacy and competitive concerns. We don't have a clear framework for working through those issues at present. Mobile's cross-sector business complicates attempts to create such a framework. Mobile touches on the jurisdiction of the FTC, CFPB, FCC, and DOJ (antitrust), raising obvious coordination issues. Uncertainty over regulation isn't simply a concern for end-users; a clear regulatory framework is actually important for the development of mobile platforms, as regulatory uncertainty creates an investment risk. I'm really glad to see the FTC hosting this conference--it shows a regulatory awareness of the need to engage with the issues raised by mobile.
While we’ve been blogging, Stevie has begun his dissertation fieldwork in Korea. He emailed Bill the other day: “Yesterday I opened a bank account here in Seoul, and conducted the entire interaction in Korean. For some reason, I don't get an ATM card, which is really strange. But in all likelihood I had no idea what the teller was trying to say to me, so I might end up getting a card in the mail next week or something. As ‘technophiliac’ as this culture seems to be, cash is still king; outside of the large department stores and global restaurant chains, I don't see any POS terminals.”
There’s hype, there’s reality, and there’s possibility around all the cashlessness claims that follow on the heels of mobile and other digital payment platforms. We want to conclude our guest blogging with a gesture toward some of the possibilities of mobile money--and a challenge for the Credit Slips community.
Sticker in San Francisco: "Of course it's cash-only, it's the Mission."
Overheard: "Oooh, yeah, no, we don't take cards. Because the coffee is, like, local?" (both items courtesy Lana Swartz)
The word “cash” derives from Latinate words referring to “a chest or box for storing money,” not the money itself. The term originally meant the practices of storing, and the objects used to store items of value – not just money -- as well as the act of going to those storage devices to receive money (to “cash” a bill of exchange,, meant to go to the specific box where the money was). Cash as we know it today is more than a store of value and a medium of exchange; it has symbolic, pragmatic and artistic functions. In the US, even before Durbin, small merchants placed an extra surcharge on credit or offered discounts if customers used cash. Research being conducted at the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) is bringing to light a host of social, ritual and religious uses of cash and coin beyond their economic functions. What's their relationship to, say, mobile money? For us, they are design challenges more than anything else (see, e.g., the Royal Canadian Mint's MintChip, or discussions among developers about Google Wallet). Building an infrastructure for digital payments, especially in places that have been cash-only, entails some connection to the existing social infrastructures of cash.
Much has been written about the inherent riskiness of cash. It is dangerous because it can be lost, stolen, eaten, destroyed, etc. It is dangerous because it is difficult to track, thereby helping to facilitate crime. Many a potboiler plot hinges on a cache of unmarked bills. Anyone remember Trixie Belden? “‘That governess of yours won’t argue when I tell her to leave a fat roll of unmarked bills under a stone at the Autoville entrance tonight. She won’t notify the police either.’ He reached up a grimy hand and touched one of Honey’s shoulder-length curls. ‘Not when I send her a lock of your pretty hair with the note, eh?’” (Julie Campbell, Trixie Belden and the Red Trailer Mystery, New York: Random House Children’s Books, 1950, p.180).
In the comments on our last post, we can clearly see two poles of the cash debate: cash is for criminals, but digital payment will welcome Big Brother into our wallets. Why so stark a choice? Last year, the Fletcher School held a conference titled, “Killing Cash.” It was framed explicitly in terms of the possibility that “mobile money”—mobile phone enabled payment and money transfer services, like Safaricom Kenya’s much vaunted M-PESA—heralds the possible end of cash and coin. Most of these services work on a prepaid model via the mobile telecommunications network – basically like prepaid airtime minutes for a top-up (not subscription) phone (nice article here on e-money in Central Africa by Andrew Zerzan; short piece here on mobile money regulation). I put cash into the system by visiting an agent. The agent sells me “e-money” in exchange for my cash, and gets a commission. I can now send e-money to another client on the network, who goes to another agent to cash it out (usually without a commission). Or, I leave the value in my mobile wallet, for a little while or for a long time. This is not an “end of cash” scenario, however. It’s an addition of e-money to what had been—for the poor, without access to financial services and digital financial platforms—a cash-only world.
Jeff Horwitz at the American Banker has been doing some great reporting on abusive debt collection practices in the credit card industry. Joe Nocera's column took up the subject today. Robo-signing and other abuses have been a problem for a while with credit card debt collections, and Horwitz and Nocera do a public service by drawing attention to the problems. The situation cries out for congressional hearings and for regulatory investigation. It is great to see the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau make debt collection practices one of its top priorities.
Horwitz's articles at the American Banker include:
Maria Aspen at American Banker separately reported how the sloppy sales of delinquent credit card accounts and shoddy debt collection practices were a nightmare for one Maryland woman.
One of my students came across a humorous blog post from February, 2012. Titled, “What your payment method reveals about you,” the author listed a series of unlikely payment actions and a line on the presumed personal characteristics of the payer. The humor appeals to… well, us, anyway, and probably you, too.
Slinging your card down: You've definitely shoved a dog's face away from you because "move."
Slinging cash down: You've consumed alcohol that's involved whipped cream in the past week.
Using your Hello Kitty-themed card: You have many other credit cards.
Handing a bag of nickels and dimes, uncounted: You are nine.
Around the same time, the United States Agency for International Development launched an initiative to replace the use of cash in aid efforts with electronic forms of value transfer:
"If you care about reducing poverty, then you must also care about reducing the reliance on physical cash. We begin a movement to do just that. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah is announcing a broad set of reforms [in order to] reduce the development industry’s dependence on cash. This includes integrating new language into USAID contracts and grants to encourage the use of electronic and mobile payments and launching new programs in 10 countries designed to catalyze the scale of innovative payments platforms."
The USAID “Better Than Cash” program was the culmination of at least a year’s discussion internally and with major donor agencies over the costs of cash for the poor--the heightened risk of theft associated with physical currency, the anonymity of cash, the difficulty in transporting and storing cash for those without access to formal financial institutions. Our own work has been enlisted in this effort, yet we are a bit more circumspect: although there are very real problems associated with cash, there are also virtues. One of these virtues is that cash is publicly issued, not privately enclosed and tolled like most electronic forms of value transfer, and almost always accepted at par value. We’ll return to this topic as we examine some mobile phone-enabled money transfer and payment systems in the developing world, and regulatory responses to them, that might provide useful models. Over the course of the week, we will look closely at cash and how the debate over cashlessness—at times downright silly—is getting more serious, as at least some major actors shift from “the evils of cash” to “the benefits of an agnostic digital payment platform.” We think this is a consequential shift.
Wall Street Journal Reporter Jessica Silver-Greenberg casts a spotlight on the market for fertility treatment loans - including loans that enable the purchase of other women's eggs - in the article "In Vitro a Fertile Niche for Lenders." (subscription required). Perhaps this will prompt some coverage of the adoption loan market, which also has very interesting not-for-profit lending options; the direct financial price of the credit may be low but some complicated strings are attached. My earlier efforts to broadly evaluate the impact of loans in these markets are here and here.
We have not talked a lot about payment protection plans, those great deals where the bank agrees to pay your credit card balance in the event of disability or death in exchange for premiums. They are great for the banks. In an article in the American Banker, Victoria Finkle and Jeff Horwitz reports that the banks only return to the consumer 21 cents of every dollar paid in premiums and earn profit margins of 50% or more on the plans. Finkle and Horwitz report that the FDIC and CFPB are looking into the plans, with a regulatory probe of Discover Financial Services already underway. The article is worth a read, especially for the surprisingly candid assessments of industry insiders.
These plans are another example of "gotcha capitalism"--a business model dependent on sustained miscalculations or mistakes by the other party to the transaction. For everyone but the consumer at death's door, the premiums are way too high to justify the expense.
UPDATE (2/8): More on the CFPB probe of Discovery from Donal Griffin and Carter Dougherty over at Bloomberg.
Yesterday, the American Banker reported that Chase has stopped filing lawsuits to collect consumer debtors. Moreover, they did it quietly and quickly. With concerns over sloppy procedures in debt collection, akin to the robo-signing problems in the mortgage industry, this news was quite interesting.
H/t to our reader who pointed me to the story.
Previously I mentioned this new paper on homeowners in bankruptcy in the American Bankruptcy Law Journal. The central goal of the paper was to investigate what makes homeowners more or less likely to have mortgage troubles as they head into bankruptcy. One of the notable findings is that, across all the models, credit access had a significant effect on keeping mortgages current and avoiding foreclosure initiation (specifics listed pp. 302-304). But why?
In early October of 2011, Bank of America announced that it would begin charging its customers an additional $5 users fee for using its debit cards. In my financial literacy class the weekend after the announcement, some students were resigned to it, some furious, but we all vowed to switch banks if we banked at BofA. Yet we all also knew what would happen next, if history was any indication. Other banks would follow suit and eventually we’d all get charged the fee, which would just go up even more over time. It turns out, at least for now, the ending is happier. People mobilized around recent college grad Molly Katchpole’s online petition requesting a reversal of the fees.The petition was brilliant in its simplicity, stating simply this:
I'm writing to express my deep concern over Bank of America's decision to charge customers $5 a month to use their debit cards when making purchases.
The American people bailed out Bank of America during a financial crisis the banks helped create. You paid zero dollars in federal income tax last year. And now your banks profiting, raking in $2 billion in profits last quarter alone. How can you justify squeezing another $60 a year from your debit card customers? This is despicable.
According to a recent Reuters story, consumers are reluctant to hold debt due to the U.S. Credit rating downgrade and debt problems in Europe. The economy is shaky so people are apparently less willing to carry tons of debt. Consumer credit fell $9.50 billion in August after rising $11.92 billion in July, the report said, which is well below economists’ expectations of a $7.75 billion increase.
Revolving credit, which mostly measures credit card use, dropped $2.27 billion in August after falling $3.56 billion in July. Non-revolving credit, which includes mostly auto loans, fell $7.23 billion, the largest decline since August 2008, after rising $15.48 billion in July.
"Consumers are extraordinarily sensitive to economic conditions and as things started to look a bit more sour, they stopped using their credit card," said Steve Blitz, a senior economist with ITG Investment Research in New York. While this story paints this as a bad thing for the economy as a whole, it speaks well of consumers’ efforts to protect themselves in this economy.
Bully for you, Bank of America. Bank of America's starting charging monthly fees for debit card usage to some customers. This is being taken as an "I told you so" by opponents of the Durbin Amendment, who argued that it would only result in higher costs for consumers. Actually, the BoA move is exactly what we might expect: consumers are having to pay for their rewards. That's how it should be. They might be paying too much, but that's another matter. So what does Bank of America's move tell us?
I have a new paper on credit card securitization and what it teaches us about the likely effectiveness of the Dodd-Frank Act's skin-in-the-game risk retention requirements. Credit card securitization has long required 4%-7% credit risk retention (cf. 5% under Dodd-Frank).
I argue that when combined with other features of credit card securitization it was actually counterproductive at aligning issuer/securitizer and investor incentives and likely contributed to rate-jacking. Instead, credit card securitization didn't go off the rails like mortgage securitization because of the existence of implied recourse, effectively 100% skin-in-the-game. This suggests that skin-in-the-game cannot be relied upon as a one-size-fits-all cure. Its effectiveness will instead depend on the other securitization features with which it is combined.
If you're interested in going into the sausauge factory of credit card securitization, there's plenty of gore and detail here for you. If you're interested in the connections between credit card securitization and rate-jacking, there's something here for you. And if you're interested in whether Dodd-Frank's risk retention requirements will be effective, there's something here for you too.
The (overly long) abstract is below the break:
I have an op-ed on the Durbin Amendment rulemaking in the American Banker.
It goes without saying that I think the Fed did a real jerk move on the Durbin Amendment rulemaking. But the more interesting issue is why?
The Fed didn't have any new data to work with after the proposed rulemaking in December. Sure, it had lots and lots of comments, and there was
some a crazy amount of lobbying. But it's hard to see what that lobbying would have accomplished in the January-June window that it hadn't in the July-December window.
Instead, I think that the volte-face was the result of bigger picture Federal Reserve Board politics. For the Fed, interchange is the regulatory issue that they have with merchants. The Fed doesn't have to handl-vandl with merchants on other regulations. But the same can't be said about the banks. The Fed has an on-going regulatory relationship with the banks that it has to manage. And interchange just isn't a very important issue for the Fed. It's not a regulatory duty that they wanted in the least. So the Durbin Amendment rulemaking offered Bernanke (and the other Governors) a low-cost way a chance to throw the banks a bone and build up some goodwill before the gloves come off on the real fight about capital adequacy levels.
If that's correct, I think it's a bad calculation by Bernanke et al. The banks are going to fight on capital as ferociously as they can and $4B annually of goodwill payments aren't going to change that. And given the way the Fed did the rulemaking, I think there are a good grounds for a litigation challenge that would defeat Chevron deference. If that happens, there'll be a lot of egg on the Fed's face.
If anyone doubted who set the marching tune for the Federal Reserve Board, it was sure clear today. The Fed announced its final rule under the Durbin Interchange Amendment, and it was quite the handout to the big banks.
The Durbin Amendment instructed the Fed to pass rules that clarified its instruction that debit interchange fees must be reasonable and proportional to the incremental cost of authorizing, clearing, and settling an individual debit card transaction. The Fed came out with a proposed rule last December that solicited comments on two alternative safe harbors. One was for a flat fee of 7 cents per transaction, the other for 12 cents per transaction. The Fed also solicited comments on whether debit cards should have to be routable on 2 unaffiliated networks or on 2 unaffiliated PIN and 2 unaffiliated signature debit networks (4 networks total).
Well, today the Fed came out with the final rule, and what a surprise.
I've previously posted about my frustrations at being stranded abroad without a functioning credit card -- particularly at train stations -- and the refusal of American credit cards to adopt a technology that has been in my building laundry room for years.
So I was quite excited to read in this morning's Times that Chase has begun to offer "chip and pin" cards. As Katie has previously noted, I use a Chase British Airways Visa. So I called them up all excited, hoping to get a card before my summer family vacation, only to be told that only private banking clients were getting chip and pin cards.
The customer service agent seemed entirely perplexed when I said "your loss." The inability to get somebody to supply a product that consumers demand is almost enough to undermine my faith in the invisible hand.
As early as this Tuesday we might find out who runs this country. Is it Wall Street and the financial economy or the real economy of consumer citizens and retailers? We will know the answer to this question based on what happens when the Senate votes on a bill to unwind a Dodd-Frank Act provision that would prevent banks from charging anticompetitive debit card swipe fees.
This provision, known as the Durbin Amendment is a bellwether for the state of political power and thus financial regulatory reform in the United States. Banks are working furiously to roll back the Durbin Amendment, and their success or failure at doing so is a measure of the political power of financial institutions. If the banks win, it will not just be the traditional story of the banks' routing the consumer groups. If the banks win, it will show that the financial services sector is more powerful than the largest retailers in the US. (Heck, the US Chamber of Commerce is on the banks side on this, which might say something about the Chamber's funding. It's certainly not from all the small businesses over which they weep crocodile tears.)
For the past couple of years we've heard a lot about shadow banking versus traditional banking. But this dichotomy treats the traditional banking system as a unitary whole. That's hardly the case for consumer banking. The United States currently has three consumer banking systems. They have somewhat separate regulation and market segments, but they are fundamentally in competition with each other.
The first system is the too-big-to-fail commercial banks. They are almost all structured as national banks, regulated by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The second system are the community banks and credit unions. They tend to be regulated by the FDIC and NCUA, but also by the Fed or state banking supervisors. And the third system are the nonbank finance companies (payday lenders, title lenders, even pawn, etc).
Despite the competition between these sectors, they have cooperated to a surprising degree recently, particularly community banks and credit unions with commercial banks. For example, on both bankrutpcy cramdown and the Durbin Amendment, there were carve-outs for small institutions (<$10B net assets), but the small banks still fought furiously despite being exempted. I'm frankly puzzled why they are willing to carry water for the big boys (do they want to be part of the club?). Maybe someone will explain in the comments. But below the break I'll lay out the case for why the smaller banks should actually be strongly supportive of recent consumer finance regulatory initiatives.
Yesterday, Google unveiled its Google Wallet near field communications payment app for Android phones. As far as I can tell, Google Wallet basically stores your payment card information for multiple cards (credit, debit, prepaid) and then lets the phone act as the NFC device instead of a RFID chip in a card. That's not particularly remarkable. What is cool about Google Wallet is that it integrates a loyalty/coupon system (Google Offers) with the payments. I haven't been able to figure out if the loyalty/coupon system integrates locationally-based offers (e.g., GPS in phone says you're 5 blocks from a Home Depot so you get a SMS text message telling you about the proximity and with a link to a digital coupon that has to be used within 2 hours).
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