postings by Adam Levitin

The New Usury

posted by Adam Levitin

I have a new paper up on SSRN. It's called The New Usury: The Ability-to-Repay Revolution in Consumer Finance. It's a paper that's been percolating a while--some folks might remember seeing me present it (virtually) at the 2020 Consumer Law Scholars Conference, right as the pandemic was breaking out. Here's the abstract:

Consumer credit regulation is in the midst of a doctrinal revolution. Usury laws, for centuries the mainstay of consumer credit regulation, have been repealed, preempted, or otherwise undermined. At the same time, changes in the structure of the consumer credit marketplace have weakened the traditional alignment of lender and borrower interests. As a result, lenders cannot be relied upon not to make excessively risky loans out of their own self-interest.

Two new doctrinal approaches have emerged piecemeal to fill the regulatory gap created by the erosion of usury laws and lenders’ self-interested restraint: a revived unconscionability doctrine and ability-to-repay requirements. Some courts have held loan contracts unconscionable based on excessive price terms, even if the loan does not violate the applicable usury law. Separately, for many types of credit products, lenders are now required to evaluate the borrower’s repayment capacity and to lend only within such capacity. The nature of these ability-to-repay requirements varies considerably, however, by product and jurisdiction. This Article collectively terms these doctrinal developments the “New Usury.”

The New Usury represents a shift from traditional usury law’s bright-line rules to fuzzier standards like unconscionability and ability-to-repay. While there are benefits to this approach, it has developed in a fragmented and haphazard manner. Drawing on the lessons from the New Usury, this Article calls for a more comprehensive and coherent approach to consumer credit price regulation through a federal ability-to-repay requirement for all consumer credit products coupled with product-specific regulatory safe harbors, a combination that offers the greatest functional consumer protection and business certainty.

 

 

Impact of the Illinois Predatory Loan Prevention Act

posted by Adam Levitin

In 2021 Illinois passed its Predatory Loan Prevention Act (PLPA), which imposes a 36% military APR (MAPR) cap on all loans made by non-bank or credit union or insurance company lenders. Not surprisingly, the law has not been popular with higher cost lenders who either have to change their offerings, cease doing business in Illinois, or figure out some way to team up with a bank that won't run afoul of the law's anti-evasion provision. 

Recently, opponents of the PLPA have been making some noise, pointing to a study by a trio of economists—J. Brandon Bollen, Gregory Elliehausen, and Thomas Miller—about the impact of the PLPA. (The latter two are familiar scholars whose work consistently takes a dour view of consumer finance regulations: readers might recall my debunking of another recent study by Professor Miller, co-authored with Todd Zywicki, that was fundamentally flawed because of the miscalculation of loan caps in various states.)

Using credit bureau data, the Bollen et al. paper finds that the PLPA resulted in a 30% decrease in the number of unsecured installment loans to Illinois subprime borrowers and a 37% increase in the average installment loan size to Illinois subprime borrowers, which they attribute to the difficulty in making smaller loans profitable at 36% MAPR. Additionally, based on a lender-administered survey of 699 online borrowers (not necessarily of installment loans), the Bolen paper also reports a decline in borrower financial well-being following passage of the PLPA. 

Unfortunately, the Bollen paper suffers from serious data and methodological problems such that it does not tell us anything meaningful about the wisdom of the PLPA. Here's why. 

Continue reading "Impact of the Illinois Predatory Loan Prevention Act" »

The Texas Two-Step's Liquidation Problem

posted by Adam Levitin

This post is a joint post by Hon. Judith K. Fitzgerald (ret.)[*] and Adam Levitin

The Texas Two-Step has been the latest fad in mass tort bankruptcies, used, among others, by Johnson & Johnson, Georgia-Pacific, and, in a variation, 3M. The essential elements of the Texas Two-Step are the segregation of the debtor's mass tort liabilities in a non-operating subsidiary, which then enters into a funding agreement with the parent company to cover the mass tort liabilities up to some level. The subsidiary then files for bankruptcy and seeks to have the court stay the mass tort litigation against the non-debtor parent. If this maneuver is successful, the non-debtor parent goes about its normal business,[1] as do all of its creditors ... other than the mass tort victims. Meanwhile, the non-operating debtor subsidiary—whose sole creditors are mass tort victims—just sits in bankruptcy indefinitely.

The basic strategy behind a Texas Two-Step is “delay to discount”: the extended delay of the bankruptcy process pressures tort victims and their counsel to accept discounted settlement offers. The non-debtor parent feels no urgency for the bankruptcy to end because litigation is stayed against it. Moreover, the parent is able to continue its normal operations without being subject to bankruptcy court oversight or even to the regular expenses of defending the mass tort litigation. And because the debtor is a non-operating entity, it is under no pressure to emerge from bankruptcy. The debtor and its parent are both happy to let the bankruptcy drag on as long as necessary. In other words, the Texas Two-Step is an underwater breath-holding contest where the debtor has a snorkel. 

The ultimate end-game in a Texas Two-Step bankruptcy, however, is obtaining releases for the non-debtor parent (and other affiliates), bolstered by a channeling injunction that precludes tort victims from bringing suit against the parent and affiliates after the bankruptcy. There’s a fly in the ointment, however. A channeling injunction under section 524(g) requires that the debtor receive a discharge, and the debtor entity in the traditional Texas Two-Step case is not eligible for a discharge because it is a non-operating corporate entity that will be liquidating.

Continue reading "The Texas Two-Step's Liquidation Problem" »

The Financial Inclusion Trilemma

posted by Adam Levitin

I have a new draft article up on SSRN. It's called The Financial Inclusion Trilemma. The abstract is below. 

The challenge of financial inclusion is among the most intractable policy problems in banking. Despite being the world’s wealthiest economy, many Americans are shut out of the financial system. Five percent of households lack a bank account, and an additional thirteen percent rely on expensive or predatory fringe financial services, such as check cashers or payday lenders.

Financial inclusion presents a policy trilemma. It is possible to simultaneously achieve only two of three goals: widespread availability of services to low-income consumers; fair terms of service; and profitability of service. It is possible to provide fair and profitable services, but only to a small, cherry-picked population of low-income consumers. Conversely, it is possible to provide profitable service to a large population, but only on exploitative terms. Or it is possible to provide fair services to a large population, but not at a profit.

The financial inclusion trilemma is not a market failure. Rather it is the result of the market working. The market result, however, does not accord with policy preferences. Rather than addressing that tension, American financial inclusion policy still leads with market-based solutions and soft government nudges and the vain hope that technology will somehow transform the fundamental economics of financial services for small balance deposit accounts and small dollar loans.

This Article argues that it is time to recognize the policy failure in financial inclusion and give more serious consideration to a menu of stronger regulatory interventions: hard service mandates that impose cross-subsidization among consumers; taxpayer subsidies; and public provision of financial services. In particular, this Article argues for following the approach taken in Canada, the EU, and the UK, namely the adoption of a mandate for the provision of free or low-cost basic banking services to all qualified applicants, as the simplest solution to the problem of the unbanked. Addressing small-dollar credit, however, remains an intractable problem, largely beyond the scope of financial regulation.

Karens for Hire

posted by Adam Levitin

The Washington Post has an article about a new business, "Karens for Hire," that is basically a way to hire a customer service advocate. Having spent way too much time with customer service of late, the article really hit a nerve. It gets at the central problem of consumer law, namely that the dollar amounts at issue in almost every dispute are way too small to litigate. Instead, consumers have to work through customer service and hope that they receive some sort of resolution, but that's a process that imposes substantial transaction costs (wait times, e.g.) and in which the consumer has no guaranty of a positive resolution, even if the consumer is in the right. 

There's some level of reputational discipline on companies with bad customers service, but it's pretty weak and indirect: when was the last time you investigated a company's customer service reputation before making a purchase? 

There are a few attempts to regulate customer service of which I am aware—TILA/EFTA error resolution procedures and RESPA loss mitigation procedures—but there's no general system of public regulation. Figuring out exactly what, if anything, would work as a more general solution to ensuring fair and efficient resolution of customer service calls remains one of consumer law's great challenges. 

Alex Jones's Bankruptcy

posted by Adam Levitin

Alex Jones filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy himself today. So what is Mr. Jones hoping to accomplish with the bankruptcy filing? I see three possible goals, but I'm skeptical that he'll achieve more than one of them.

First, by filing for bankruptcy, Jones buys himself a bit of time and breathing space. The automatic stay stops all litigation and collection activity against him. It's not indefinite, but it takes the heat off for a bit. That might help him avoid any collection activities by the Sandy Hook victims' families while his motions for a new trial and remittur are pending.  (As far as I can tell, the Connecticut 20-day post-judgment window for appeal has run, but I guess these are not "appeals" since they are motions to the same court?)

Second, the bankruptcy filing moves the action from Connecticut to a Texas bankruptcy court. Jones might be hoping he finds the bankruptcy court more favorably inclined. I'm skeptical. If his behavior in the bankruptcy court matches how he's behaved in other courtrooms, he's not going to find the judge very sympathetic.

Third, Jones will be looking to get a discharge of his debts—including the Sandy Hook defamation judgment. If a debt is discharged, it cannot be collected after the bankruptcy; the creditor gets only what it is able to collect as part of the bankruptcy process. That would mean that Jones's future income would be free from the creditor's claim; only his present, non-exempt assets would be available for repaying creditors. While those present assets include (I presume) all of the IP of the Jones empire (by virtue of his ownership of the companies that hold them), Jones might have concluded that salvaging his current assets are a lost cause and that he'd do best to focus on freeing up his future income. 

The hitch here is that there is an exception to the bankruptcy discharge for "willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another or the property of another." If the behavior that produced the Sandy Hook judgment was "willful and malicious," then Jones will not be able to protect his future income through bankruptcy.  While the Sandy Hook judgment was for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and unfair trade practices—things that sound willful and malicious—it was a default judgment, meaning that there was never any actual hearing of the merits of the case; Jones just didn't respond to the suit. If there is a discharge objection raised (as there surely will be), then Jones will have a chance to litigate not the actual judgment, but the "willful and malicious" issue, but that effectively means he has an opportunity to litigate the case he previously forfeited. I'm skeptical that he'll prevail (he certainly loses on willful, but maybe he's got a shot at malicious?), but he at least gets another roll of the dice.

Now this extra dice roll isn't risk free. By filing for bankruptcy, Jones will have to come clean about all of his current assets. If he fails to do so, he risks federal prosecution for bankruptcy crimes.  Additionally, while Jones has filed for Chapter 11, where the default setting is that the debtor retains control of his assets as a debtor in possession, there is the possibility of the appointment of a trustee to take over his assets. There will surely be a motion made for the appointment of a trustee given allegations of Jones hiding assets. Jones will get to fight the motion, but I think a trustee being appointed is a real likelihood. If a trustee is appointed, the trustee will act to avoid various pre-bankruptcy transfers made by Jones in an attempt to shield his assets (and if there is no trustee appointed, then a creditors' committee will seek authorization to do so). Either way, I cannot imagine that Jones will be able to retain effective control of the case for very long. 

Bankruptcy offers Jones a glimmer of hope--maybe he can get a discharge for the Sandy Hook verdict, if the court finds his behavior wasn't willful and malicious--but if I were a betting man, I wouldn't put my money on Jones. Yet as long as he comes clean to the bankruptcy court about his assets, etc., there's little downside to him for trying this last Hail Mary move to stave off the Sandy Hook creditors.

Binance's Custodial Arrangements: Whose Keys? Whose Coins?

posted by Adam Levitin

For months, cryptocurrency FTX (and its majority owner, Sam Bankman-Fried) have been the lender of last resort in crypto markets and pretty much the only distressed acquirer around. Now we learn that FTX has itself failed and is getting scooped up in a distressed acquisition by Binance. Does this remind anyone of Bank of America's purchase of Merrill Lynch and Countrywide in 2008? We'll see if the transaction closes, but at the very least it poses the question of whether Binance stands on any stronger ground than FTX? Binance's revenue has been way down this year, but who really knows its financial condition? It's not a public company, so there's limited visibility into its financial condition.

Here's what I do know about Binance, however, and it gives me real pause: Binance.us's Terms of Use disclose absolutely nothing about its custodial arrangement for crypto holdings. From the documents on Binance.us's website, it is impossible to determine the legal relationship between Binance.us and its customers and hence the type of counterparty risk they have from dealing with the exchange. That's scary.

Continue reading "Binance's Custodial Arrangements: Whose Keys? Whose Coins? " »

The Texas Two-Step as Fraudulent Transfer

posted by Adam Levitin

Judge Judith Fitzgerald (ret.) and I have a post about the Texas Two-Step bankruptcy process up at the Harvard Bankruptcy Law Blog, which has been running a series on the phenomenon.  And the Slips' own John A.E. Pottow has a capstone post on the same topic.    

The tl;dr read version of my post with Judge Fitzgerald is that the real fraudulent transfer vulnerability of the Texas Two-Step is the incurrence of an obligation by the BadCo in the divisive merger, not the transfer of assets to the GoodCo. Focusing on the the incurrence of an obligation not only avoids the problem of the Texas divisive merger statute deeming the merger not to be a transfer of assets (as there is a separate provision in the statute about liabilities that doesn't parallel the asset provision), but it also avoids the problem that there is no longer a transferor entity in existence.  If we're right (and we are), then it means that the liabilities follow normal state law successor liability principles, which should put the liability on GoodCo, which is continuing OldCo's enterprise.

Dual Insulation? The Fifth Circuit's Factual Misunderstanding of CFPB Funding

posted by Adam Levitin

I know I’m carrying around some extra weight.  But I don’t think it’s quite double insulation.  That sounds like something you need if you’re going on a polar expedition or are really concerned about the heating bill.  But the concept of "dual insulation" plays a big role in the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Community Financial Services Association of America, Ltd. v. CFPB, which held the CFPB’s funding mechanism to be unconstitutional because it is not an annual appropriation from Treasury.   

In this post, I’ll discuss some of the background on the case, the poorly understood nature of the CFPB’s funding (factual mistakes about which loomed large in the Fifth Circuit’s decision), and the challenge the Fifth Circuit faced in trying to differentiate the CFPB’s funding from that of a host of other federal regulatory agencies (that’s where dual insulation comes in).

Continue reading "Dual Insulation? The Fifth Circuit's Factual Misunderstanding of CFPB Funding" »

US Chamber of Commerce vs CFPB

posted by Adam Levitin

One would have thought that after a dozen years the challenges to the CFPB’s constitutionality would have been over and that the Supreme Court’s decision in Seila Law would have put the matter to rest. But there are still a trio of suits pending that bring constitutional challenges to the Bureau, including one recently filed in the Eastern District of Texas by the US Chamber of Commerce and some banking and business associations. That’s the suit I’m going to focus on. 

The Chamber’s suit alleges that a recent change in the CFPB’s examination manual—guidance for CFPB examiners that the Bureau happens to make public as a courtesy—that indicates that examiners are to consider discrimination in non-credit services to be an unfair, deceptive, or abusive act or practice is a “legislative rule.” A legislative rule must comply with the Administrative Procedure Act, including adequate notice-and-comment, being based in law, and not being arbitrary and capricious. As a kicker, however, the Chamber’s suit adds in a count that the Bureau’s funding is unconstitutional. What's likely to happen?

 

Continue reading "US Chamber of Commerce vs CFPB" »

Chase's 50% Venmo Transaction Fee

posted by Adam Levitin

I teach about the $40 latte--a $5 latte with a $35 overdraft fee--and think I know how to avoid that. But I was pretty shocked when I looked at my Chase credit card statement today and saw the card card equivalent of an outrageous overdraft fee:  $20 in cash advance fees and $0.25 in cash advance interest for two credit-card funded Venmo transactions totaling $40. A 50% fee?  WTF.

What made this even more shocking was that Chase has never previously charged me fees or interest for Venmo transactions. As recently as July, I have Venmo'd without paying anything more than Venmo's 3% fee for credit-card funded transactions, and my card issuer has not sent me any change of terms notices in the interim. Puzzled, I decided to figure out what was going on. 

Continue reading "Chase's 50% Venmo Transaction Fee" »

3M's Aearo Technologies' Bankruptcy: the Hoosier Hop

posted by Adam Levitin

3M's earphone subsidiary, Aearo Technologies, filed for bankruptcy today in the Southern District of Indiana. This is looking like a really interesting case: it looks like a new generation of the Texas Two-Step strategy. Let's call it the Hoosier Hop. Here's the story.

Continue reading "3M's Aearo Technologies' Bankruptcy: the Hoosier Hop" »

Venmo's Unfair and Abusive Arbitration Opt-Out Provision

posted by Adam Levitin

Venmo's changing the terms of its arbitration agreement, and the manner in which it is doing so is unfair and abusive to consumers. The CFPB and state attorneys general need to take action here to protect consumers.

Here's the story.  Last night I got an email from Venmo entitled "Upcoming Changes to Venmo." Nothing in the email's title (which is all I see on my devices) signals that there is a change in contractual terms, and I would have just deleted it without reading but for seeing consumer finance list-serv traffic light up about it.  So I looked at the email, and in the body it does explain that there are changes to the Venmo arbitration clause. It also tells me that I can opt-out of the Agreement to Arbitrate "by following the directions in the Venmo User Agreement by June 22, 2022".  The Venmo User Agreement is hyperlinked.  It is a 95 page document. The hyperlink takes me to the very top of the agreement, but the arbitration agreement starts on page 70.  It takes a lot of scrolling to get there, and nothing is particularly prominent about the arbitration agreement's text.

The arbitration agreement itself has a summary at the top that includes a few bullet points, one of which is "Requires you to follow the Opt-Out Procedure to opt-out of the Agreement to Arbitrate by mailing us a written notice." The term Opt-Out Procedure is a hyperlink to a form that can be printed (but not completed on-line).

What's so ridiculous about requiring a hand-written form to be sent through the mail is that Venmo will surely digitize the form. That means someone's gotta open the mail and do the data entry. Why not have the customer do that himself? Or for that matter, just have a check box on my Venmo account for opting out of the arbitration agreement? The only reason to use the paper form and posts is to make it harder for consumers to opt-out of the arbitration provision.

What Venmo's doing is unfair and abusive and therefore illegal under the Consumer Financial Protection Act. It's perfectly legal for Venmo to have an arbitration clause, and there is no requirement that consumers have a right to opt-out of arbitration, although a change in terms on an existing contract is a bit more complicated. Be that as it may, Venmo is the master of its offer, and by giving consumers a right to opt-out, but raising barriers to the exercise of that right, Venmo is engaging in an unfair or abusive act or practice. Venmo is trying to have its cake and eat it too, but pretending that consumers have a choice about arbitration, but not actually giving them one.

That's "unfair" under the Consumer Financial Protection Act because the practice makes it likely that consumers will lose their right to proceed as part of a class action. That is a substantial injury to consumers in aggregate. The ridiculous opt-out procedure makes this injury "not reasonably avoidable by consumers." The consumer would have to click on no less than two hypertext links, starting with an email the title of which gives no indication what is at stake, and then navigating through a 95 page agreement to find the second link. After that, the consumer must print, fill out, and mail a form. Whatever one thinks of the benefits of arbitration, there's no benefit to consumers or competition from making the opt-out difficult. To my mind, this is a very clearly unfair act or practice. It's also an "abusive" act or practice under the Consumer Financial Protection Act. Because the terms of the opt-out make it so difficult for a consumer to actually exercise the opt-out, the terms of the opt-out "take unreasonable advantage of —the inability of the consumer to protect the interests of the consumer in...using a consumer financial product or service."  (One might also even be able to argue that it is a deceptive practice--the opt-out right has been buried in fine print and hypertext links.) 

Both the CFPB and state attorneys general have the ability to enforce the UDAAP provisions of the CFPA against nonbanks like Venmo. I hope the CFPB and state AGs get on Venmo about this. It presents a good opportunity for the Bureau to make clear what it expects in terms of fairness for contract term modification and opt-out rights.

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