The Money Problem

Professor Ricks

I recently read The Money Problem: Rethinking Financial Regulation by Morgan Ricks (University of Chicago Press 2016).  While it is not a book for the financially faint of heart, it does provide a great introduction to money is and what banks and other financial intermediaries do. The back matter reads,

Years have passed since the world experienced one of the worst financial crises in history, and while countless experts have analyzed it, many central questions remain unanswered. Should money creation be considered a ‘public’ or ‘private’ activity—or both? What do we mean by, and want from, financial stability? What role should regulation play? How would we design our monetary institutions if we could start from scratch?

In The Money Problem, Morgan Ricks addresses all of these questions and more, offering a practical yet elegant blueprint for a modernized system of money and banking—one that, crucially, can be accomplished through incremental changes to the United States’ current system. He brings a critical, missing dimension to the ongoing debates over financial stability policy, arguing that the issue is primarily one of monetary system design. The Money Problem offers a way to mitigate the risk of catastrophic panic in the future, and it will expand the financial reform conversation in the United States and abroad.

I particularly recommend Part I to those trying to get their hands around money (the concept, not hard currency itself) and how it is created. Ricks reviews the “standard textbook description” of bank money creation and others’ account of it before providing his own “modified story.” (58-59)

Parts II and III provides a far-reaching blueprint for reforming the monetary system.  This reform agenda is not without its critics, but I think Ricks gives a fair reading to competing views so you can make up your own mind as to who is right.

Bad Credit/Good Credit

OppLoans quoted me in Bad Credit Loan Coming Attractions! It opens,

Everyone is talking about bad credit loans these days, and Hollywood seems to be taking notice. (Editor’s note: They’re not.) All the newest films are about bad credit lenders! (Editor’s note: They’re really not.)

With so many people wondering what their loan options are, we thought you might enjoy hearing about the hottest upcoming films that deal with bad credit loans, which we may or may not have made up entirely (Editor’s note: We did).

If you have a not-so-hot credit score and you’re worried about getting a loan, these upcoming blockbusters might help you figure out which bad credit loan works best for you.

THE INTEREST RATE DECEIT

Tammy is just an everyday woman who needs a loan for some car repairs. Unfortunately, her credit is quite low. She sees some advertisements for bad credit loans, and figures the safest choice would be to pick the one with the lowest interest rate.

But, spoiler alert, there’s a big twist! The loan she chose had so many fees, it ended up being more expensive than the loans that had higher interest rates. If only Tammy had made sure to compare the loans using their APR, or annual percentage rate—she might have met a better fate. The APR tells you the full cost of a loan, including interest and fees, so it’s the best way to avoid an unpleasant twist in your story.

David Reiss, a law professor and editor of REFinBLOG.com (@REFinBlog), gave us an example of why APR is so important: “It would help a potential borrower compare the cost of credit between one loan with a 5 percent interest rate and one with a 4 percent interest rate that charges a point at origination.”

In other words, a loan that charges a fee when you take it out could actually be just as expensive or more expensive than a loan with higher interest rates and no fees.

GSE Investors’ Hidden Win

Judge Brown

The big news yesterday was that the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in the main for the federal government in Perry Capital v. Mnuchin, one of the major cases that investors brought against the federal government over the terms of the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships.

In a measured and carefully reasoned opinion, the court rejected most but not all of the investors’ claims.  The reasoning was consistent with my own reading of the broad conservatorship provisions of the Housing and Economic Recover Act of 2008 (HERA).

Judge Brown’s dissent, however, reveals that the investors have crafted an alternative narrative that at least one judge finds compelling. This means that there is going to be some serious drama when this case ultimately wends its way to the Supreme Court. And there is some reason to believe that a Justice Gorsuch might be sympathetic to this narrative of government overreach.

Judge Brown’s opinion indicts many aspects of federal housing finance policy, broadly condemning it in the opening paragraph:

One critic has called it “wrecking-ball benevolence,” James Bovard, Editorial, Nothing Down: The Bush Administration’s Wrecking-Ball Benevolence, BARRONS, Aug. 23, 2004, http://tinyurl.com/Barrons-Bovard; while another, dismissing the compassionate rhetoric, dubs it “crony capitalism,” Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr., Commentary, Fannie/Freddie Bailout Baloney, CATO INST., http://tinyurl.com/Cato-O-Driscoll (last visited Feb. 13, 2017). But whether the road was paved with good intentions or greased by greed and indifference, affordable housing turned out to be the path to perdition for the U.S. mortgage market. And, because of the dominance of two so-called Government Sponsored Entities (“GSE”s)—the Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae” or “Fannie”) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac” or “Freddie,” collectively with Fannie Mae, the “Companies”)—the trouble that began in the subprime mortgage market metastasized until it began to affect most debt markets, both domestic and international. (dissent at 1)

While acknowledging that the Fannie/Freddie crisis might justify “extraordinary actions by Congress,” Judge Brown states that

even in a time of exigency, a nation governed by the rule of law cannot transfer broad and unreviewable power to a government entity to do whatsoever it wishes with the assets of these Companies. Moreover, to remain within constitutional parameters, even a less-sweeping delegation of authority would require an explicit and comprehensive framework. See Whitman v. Am. Trucking Ass’ns, Inc., 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001) (“Congress . . . does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions—it does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes.”) Here, Congress did not endow FHFA with unlimited authority to pursue its own ends; rather, it seized upon the statutory text that had governed the FDIC for decades and adapted it ever so slightly to confront the new challenge posed by Fannie and Freddie.

*     *     *

[Congress] chose a well-understood and clearly-defined statutory framework—one that drew upon the common law to clearly delineate the outer boundaries of the Agency’s conservator or, alternatively, receiver powers. FHFA pole vaulted over those boundaries, disregarding the plain text of its authorizing statute and engaging in ultra vires conduct. Even now, FHFA continues to insist its authority is entirely without limit and argues for a complete ouster of federal courts’ power to grant injunctive relief to redress any action it takes while purporting to serve in the conservator role. See FHFA Br. 21  (2-3)

What amazes me about this dissent is how it adopts the decidedly non-mainstream history of the financial crisis that has been promoted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Peter Wallison.  It also takes its legislative history from an unpublished Cato Institute paper by Vice-President Pence’s newly selected chief economist, Mark Calabria and a co-author.  There is nothing wrong with a judge giving some context to an opinion, but it is of note when it seems as one-sided as this. The bottom line though is that this narrative clearly has some legs so we should not think that this case has played itself out, just because of this decision.

Calculating APR

photo by Scott Maxwell

OppLoans quoted me in How (and Why) to Calculate the APR for a Payday Loan. It reads, in part,

Sure, you may know that taking out a payday loan is generally a bad idea. You’ve heard a horror story or two about something called “rollover”, but if you’re in a jam, you might find yourself considering swinging by the local brick-and-mortar payday loan store or looking for an online payday loan. It’s just a one-time thing, you tell yourself.

It only gets worse from there… Once you start looking at the paperwork or speaking with the sales staff, you see that your payday loan will cost only $15 for every $100 that you borrow. That doesn’t sound that bad. But what’s this other number? This “APR” of 400%? The payday lender tells you not to worry about it. He says, “APR doesn’t matter.”

Well, let’s just interrupt this hypothetical to tell you this… When you’re borrowing money, the APR doesn’t just “matter”, it’s the single most important number you need to know.

APR stands for “annual percentage rate,” and it’s a way to measure how much a loan, credit card, or line of credit is going to cost you. APR is measured on a yearly basis and it is expressed as a percentage of the amount loaned. “By law, APR must include all fees charged by the lender to originate the loan,” says Casey Fleming (@TheLoanGuide), author of The Loan Guide: How to Get the Best Possible Mortgage.

But just because a loan or credit card includes a certain fee or charge, you shouldn’t assume that it’s always going to be included in the APR. Fleming points out that some fees, like title fees on a mortgage, are not considered part of the loan origination process and thus not included in APR calculations.

“Are DMV fees connected with a title loan? Some would say yes, but the law doesn’t specify that they must be included,” says Fleming.

According to David Reiss (@REFinBlog), a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, “the APR adds in those additional costs and then spreads them out over the term of the loan. As a result, the APR is almost always higher than the interest rate—if it is not, that is a yellow flag that something is amiss with the APR.”

This is why it’s always a good idea to read your loan agreement and ask lots of questions when applying for a loan—any loan.

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Why is the APR for payday loans so high?

According to David Reiss, “The APR takes into account the payment schedule for each loan, so it will account for differences in amortization and the length of the repayment term among different loan products.”

Keep in mind, that the average term length for a payday loan is only 14 days. So when you’re using APR to measure the cost of a payday loan, you are essentially taking the cost of the loan for that two-week period, and you’re assuming that that cost would be applied again every two weeks.

There are a little over 26 two-week periods in a year, so the APR for a 14-day payday loan is basically the finance charges times 26. That’s why payday loans have such a high APR!

But if the average payday loan is only 14 days long, then why would someone want to use APR to measure it’s cost? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to use the stated interest rate? After all, no one who takes out a payday loan plans to have it outstanding over a full year…

Short-term loans with long-term consequences

But here’s the thing about payday loans: many people who use them end up trapped in a long-term cycle of debt. When it comes time for the loan to be repaid, the borrower discovers that they cannot afford to pay it off without negatively affecting the rest of their finances.

Given the choice to pay their loan off on time or fall beyond on their other expenses (for instance: rent, utilities, car payments, groceries), many people choose to roll their loan over or immediately take out a new loan to cover paying off the old one. When people do this, they are effectively increasing their cost of borrowing.

Remember when we said that payday loans don’t amortize? Well, that actually makes the loans costlier. Every time the loan is rolled over or reborrowed, interest is charged at the exact same rate as before. A new payment term means a new finance charge, which means more money spent to borrow the same amount of money.

“As the principal is paid down the cost of the interest declines,” says Casey Fleming. “If you are not making principal payments then your lifetime interest costs will be higher.”

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a whopping 80% of payday loans are the result of rollover or re-borrowing and the average payday loan customer takes out 10 payday loans a year.

Reiss says that “the best way to use APR is make an apples-to-apples comparison between two or more loans. If different loans have different fee structures, such as variations in upfront fees and interest rates, the APRs allow the borrower to compare the total cost of credit for each product.

So the next time you’re considering a payday loan, make sure you calculate its APR. When it comes to predatory payday lending, it’s important to crunch the numbers—before they crunch you!

Washington’s Farewell Address

Bust of George Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon

In honor of President’s Day, a selection from President Washington’s Farewell Address:

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest. Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.

Kushner Conflicts with Fannie & Freddie

photo by Lori Berkowitz

Jared Kushner, Senior Advisor to President Trump

Bloomberg quoted me in Kushner’s Use of U.S.-Backed Apartment Loans Poses Conflict Risk. It opens, 

Jared Kushner relinquished control of his family’s multibillion-dollar real-estate business in January to eliminate conflicts of interest when he became a top White House adviser to his father-in-law, President Donald Trump.

Yet Kushner Cos. has apartment buildings from New Jersey to Maryland with more than $500 million in government-backed mortgages financed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That could put officials at those agencies in an awkward spot: If Kushner Cos. applies for a new loan, or wants to refinance, would Freddie turn them down? If Kushner Cos. fails to comply with the terms of a loan, will Fannie seek to foreclose on a property owned by the president’s in-laws?

“It clearly represents a conflict-of-interest because the government or the president can take actions that would benefit his family,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who has written about issues related to Fannie and Freddie.

Hope Hicks, a White House spokeswoman, said Kushner would comply with applicable ethics rules and would recuse himself from any discussions about overhauling Fannie and Freddie, which lawmakers have sought to do in recent years. Jamie Gorelick, an attorney who has represented Jared Kushner, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Kushner Cos. says Jared’s White House position won’t have any effect on the family business. “The election has not changed Kushner Companies’ relationship with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” said Kushner Cos. spokesman James Yolles. “And we will respond to policy changes like any other private company in the marketplace.”

The federal government took over Fannie and Freddie in 2008, amid the financial crisis, putting them under the control of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, an independent regulator.

Return to the Great Recession?

US News & World Report quoted me in What Happens if Trump Dismantles the Financial Regulations of the Great Recession? It opens,

On Feb. 3, 2017, President Donald Trump signed two executive orders that will affect the financial sector. That change will come to consumers is undeniable. But exactly what change is coming is, naturally, up for debate.

One of the orders requires the Treasury secretary to review the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed in 2010 and designed to address some of the shortcomings in the financial system that led to the Great Recession. The other executive action mandates that the Labor Department review its Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule and look at its probable economic impact. As it stands now, the fiduciary rule is supposed to be phased in from April 10, 2017 to Jan. 1, 2018. The rule requires financial professionals who work with retirement plans or provide retirement planning advice to act in a way that’s only based on the client’s best interests.

What do these executive orders portend for consumers? Nobody knows, but what follows are some educated guesses – with best-case and worst-case outcomes.

How the housing market might be affected. There’s potential good news and bad news here, according to Francesco D’Acunto, a finance assistant professor at the University of Maryland. In a study performed by D’Acunto and faculty colleague Alberto Rossi, in the wake of Dodd-Frank, banks decreased mortgage lending to middle class families by about 15 percent in 2014.

“Title XIV, which regulates the mortgage market, could be in for a full-scale renovation that might ultimately improve the fortunes of potential homebuyers from the middle class,” D’Acunto says.

So if you’ve been having trouble getting a mortgage for a house, you may have less trouble – provided you find a reputable lender. Because the downside, according to D’Acunto, is that “such a move risks bringing a return of predatory behavior in lending and mortgage cross-selling, especially by large banks and by non-bank mortgage originators.”

To avoid that, D’Acunto hopes that Congress intervenes “surgically on Title XIV” and only reduces the regulatory costs imposed by the new Qualified Mortgage classification. Created by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Qualified Mortgage category of loans includes features designed to make it more likely that a consumer will be able to pay it back.

But if they don’t intervene with the careful attention to detail D’Acunto advises, then expect “big changes, most of them negative,” says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor whose specialty is in real estate finance.

Potential best-case scenario: After being denied a mortgage for some time, you finally get your house.

Potential worst-case scenario: Because you were steered to a high-interest loan you can’t afford, you lose your house.

How credit cards, auto loans and student loans might be affected. There has been a lot of talk that the CFPB could be a casualty in the executive order that asks the Treasury secretary to review Dodd-Frank. But will it be ripped to shreds or have its power diminished?

The latter seems to already be happening. For instance, lawmakers, led by Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), are in the midst of trying to repeal a rule that is scheduled to go into effect this fall. The rule, among other things, would mandate prepaid-card companies to disclose detailed information about their fees, make it easier to access account information and would curb a consumer’s losses if the cards are lost or stolen.

A little weakening might not be so bad, Reiss says. He thinks the CFPB has tightened “the credit box too much, meaning that some people who could manage more credit are not getting access to it.”

But he also thinks if the CFPB were dismantled, the negatives would far outweigh the positives.

Potential best-case scenario: Easier access to loans and more choices. And for some consumers who can now get that car or credit card, their quality of life improves.

Potential worst-case scenario: Thanks to that easier access, some consumers end up stuck with high-interest loans with a lot of hidden fees and rue the day they applied for them.