David Evans Makes the Case Against Revamping Consumer Protection

Josh Wright —  7 January 2010

Economist, co-author, and sometimes TOTM guest David Evans (UCL, University of Chicago School of Law) has an excellent note on “Why Now is Not the Right Time To Revamp Consumer Protection,” based on remarks made at the New York Federal Reserve Board-New York University Conference on Regulating Consumer Financial Products yesterday in New York.  Evans makes some of the points we discuss in our joint work criticizing the intellectual basis for the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, but also offers a concise and powerful case against “revamping” consumer protection too hastily, or without attention to the institutional details or the economic evidence.  Geoff’s post the other day on credit card regulation, for example, points out precisely the types of harmful errors that can be made on “behalf” of consumers when invoking the behavioral economics literature without analyzing it (or the related empirical evidence) closely. Evans makes six essential points — and I’m excerpting here — but I suggest readers check out the whole thing:

First, the Treasury Department proposed a sweeping overhaul of consumer protection for financial services for the wrong reasons. It is widely reported that the Administration pushed consumer financial protection legislation because they thought it would be the “locomotive that would drive financial reform.” The idea is that the folks back home couldn’t get why their representatives would be working on obscure things like clearing houses for credit default swaps. But they could connect with plain old consumer protection. Hey, who wouldn’t want to be protected? Since we’re not in DC perhaps I won’t be laughed out of the room for saying this is pretty cynical.

Second, Treasury wrapped consumer protection in the flag of the financial crisis. Yet there is no credible evidence that failures in the current system were a significant factor in causing the financial crisis. Many of the consumer protection problems that people point to are mainly the result of our collective delusion—the madness of the crowds—that housing prices would go up forever. There are numerous accounts of the causes of the financial crisis from varying ideological perspectives. Not one of them that I know of blames the financial crisis on failed consumer protection.

Third, instead of being the locomotive for financial reform, consumer protection has deflected attention from problems that really were at the heart of the financial crisis. Remarkably, the Administration proposed no significant reforms of Fannie and Freddie. The Administration came forward with nothing on dealing with the credit rating agencies. There’s widespread support among economists for introducing competition into that business… .

Fourth, the Treasury Department and Congress have proposed this sweeping overhaul of the lending industry at just about the worst possible time. A massive credit crunch is holding back the economy. New businesses that drive most of the job growth in the economy can’t get loans. Small businesses have had their credit lines slashed. Consumers who need to borrow money can’t. Now is the time to focus on policies to encourage lending. It is not the time to impose a new layer of regulations and costs that will make it more expensive and legally risky for financial institutions to lend money to people and businesses who want to borrow it….

Fifth, instead of dealing with financial reform and getting ourselves out of the economic crisis it looks like a lot of energy is going to be spent on the CFPA bill. So let’s talk about the merits of the proposals. The CFPA is the brainchild of several law professors including Professor Warren who spoke at lunchtime. If you look at the articles that they have written you will see that the proposed CFPA is based on three propositions …. .

Here’s my sixth and final point. If we are going to have a single consumer financial protection agency I would give it to the Federal Trade Commission. They are a well run government agency, have significant expertise in consumer protection, and have first-rate economists….

On the reliance on behavioral law and economics providing the intellectual foundation for the CFPA, Evans notes:

I’m a fan of behavioral economics. However, much of the work that proponents of the CFPA rely on is based on studies that find that consumers are shortsighted in a particular technical sense known as hyperbolic discounting. Recent work has found that those studies confused shortsightedness with risk aversion. People act in ways that seem impulsive and shortsighted mainly, it seems, because bird in hand is better than two in bush. As a result I don’t believe we have a sound basis at least at this time for moving from regulations that are based on market failures in the provision of information (the intellectual basis for the current system) to market failures based on people making systematically stupid or shortsighted decisions (the intellectual basis for the new regime). The behavioral economics field has produced a rich and interesting theoretical and empirical literature. One should exercise caution, however, in unleashing these “new products” on the American consumer before they are more fully tested and vetted.

And consider the following fun anecdotal account of precisely the problems with authorizing (or requiring) a federal agency to design credit card products on the assumption that regulators are better situated than consumers to make these decisions:

Professor Warren’s lunchtime discussion of her venture into developing a new credit card deserves some mention here. As I understood it she and her colleagues had developed a “clean card”—one that did not have any fees besides an annual fee an APR—and at least got some banks excited about considering it. They soon learned that banks couldn’t introduce the card profitably. She also mentioned that Citi had introduced a more “consumer friendly” card and gotten a lot of great PR out of it. They eventually pulled it from the market because few consumers wanted it. So Professor Warren sees a problem. Banks can’t make money from a “good card” (I think that her explanation is that one bank can’t unless others also offer it) and consumers won’t take a “good card” (I think the story her goes back to our mental deficiencies). So regulation is needed. I find this very worrisome. I don’t believe that even extremely smart and well-intentioned people such as Professor Warren should be put in the position of telling—or prodding—businesses to offer products they don’t want to offer to consumers who don’t want to take them. The CFPA Act put forward by the Administration was set up to do just that.

If you are looking for a short and concise statement of the case against the consumer protection revolution, this is it.