Archives For consumer financial protection bureau

Section 5(a)(2) of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act authorizes the FTC to “prevent persons, partnerships, or corporations, except . . . common carriers subject to the Acts to regulate commerce . . . from using unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.”  On August 29, in FTC v. AT&T, the Ninth Circuit issued a decision that exempts non-common carrier data services from U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) jurisdiction, merely because they are offered by a company that has common carrier status.  This case involved an FTC allegation that AT&T had “throttled” data (slowed down Internet service) for “unlimited mobile data” customers without adequate consent or disclosures, in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act.  The FTC had claimed that although AT&T mobile wireless voice services were a common carrier service, the company’s mobile wireless data services were not, and, thus, were subject to FTC oversight.  Reversing a federal district court’s refusal to grant AT&T’s motion to dismiss, the Ninth Circuit concluded that “when Congress used the term ‘common carrier’ in the FTC Act, [there is no indication] it could only have meant ‘common carrier to the extent engaged in common carrier activity.’”  The Ninth Circuit therefore determined that “a literal reading of the words Congress selected simply does comport with [the FTC’s] activity-based approach.”  The FTC’s pending case against AT&T in the Northern District of California (which is within the Ninth Circuit) regarding alleged unfair and deceptive advertising of satellite services by AT&T subsidiary DIRECTTV (see here) could be affected by this decision.

The Ninth Circuit’s AT&T holding threatens to further extend the FCC’s jurisdictional reach at the expense of the FTC.  It comes on the heels of the divided D.C. Circuit’s benighted and ill-reasoned decision (see here) upholding the FCC’s “Open Internet Order,” including its decision to reclassify Internet broadband service as a common carrier service.  That decision subjects broadband service to heavy-handed and costly FCC “consumer protection” regulation, including in the area of privacy.  The FCC’s overly intrusive approach stands in marked contrast to the economic efficiency considerations (albeit not always perfectly applied) that underlie FTC consumer protection mode of analysis.  As I explained in a May 2015 Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum,  the FTC’s highly structured, analytic, fact-based methodology, combined with its vast experience in privacy and data security investigations, make it a far better candidate than the FCC to address competition and consumer protection problems in the area of broadband.

I argued in this space in March 2016 that, should the D.C. Circuit uphold the FCC’s Open Internet Order, Congress should carefully consider whether to strip the FCC of regulatory authority in this area (including, of course, privacy practices) and reassign it to the FTC.  The D.C. Circuit’s decision upholding that Order, combined with the Ninth Circuit’s latest ruling, makes the case for potential action by the next Congress even more urgent.

While it is at it, the next Congress should also weigh whether to repeal the FTC’s common carrier exemption, as well as all special exemptions for specified categories of institutions, such as banks, savings and loans, and federal credit unions (see here).  In so doing, Congress might also do away with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an unaccountable bureaucracy whose consumer protection regulatory responsibilities should cease (see my February 2016 Heritage Legal Memorandum here).

Finally, as Heritage Foundation scholars have urged, Congress should look into enacting additional regulatory reform legislation, such as requiring congressional approval of new major regulations issued by agencies (including financial services regulators) and subjecting “independent” agencies (including the FCC) to executive branch regulatory review.

That’s enough for now.  Stay tuned.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is, to say the least, a controversial agency.  As documented by such experts as Scalia Law School Professor Todd Zywicki, the CFPB imposes enormous costs on consumers and financial service providers through costly and unwarranted command-and-control regulation.  Furthermore, as I explained in a February 2016 Heritage Foundation legal memorandum, the CFPB’s exemption from the oversight constraints that apply to other federal agencies offends the separation of powers and thus raises serious constitutional problems.  (Indeed, a federal district court in the District of Columbia is currently entertaining a challenge to the Bureau’s constitutionality.)

Given its freedom from normal constitutionally-mandated supervision, the CFPB’s willingness to take sweeping and arguably arbitrary actions is perhaps not surprising.  Nevertheless, even by its own standards, the Bureau’s latest initiative is particularly egregious.  Specifically, on June 2, 2016, the CFPB issued a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans” (CFPB NPRM) setting forth a set of requirements that would effectively put “payday loan” companies out of business.  (The U.S. Government has already unjustifiably harmed payday lenders through “Operation Choke Point,” pursuant to which federal bank regulators, in particular the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), have sought to deny those lenders access to banking services.  A Heritage Foundation overview of Operation Choke Point and a call for its elimination may be found here; the harm the FDIC has imposed on payday lenders is detailed here.)

The CFPB defines a “payday loan” as “a short-term loan, generally for $500 or less, that is typically due on your next payday. . . .  [The borrower] must give lenders access to . . . [his or her] checking account or write a check for the full balance in advance that the lender has an option of depositing when the loan comes due.”  Moreover, payday loans are often structured to be paid off in one lump-sum payment, but interest-only payments – “renewals” or “rollovers” – are not unusual. In some cases, payday loans may be structured so that they are repayable in installments over a longer period of time.”

Despite their unusual character, economic analysis reveals that payday loans efficiently serve the needs of a certain class of borrower and that welfare is reduced if government seeks to sharply limit them.  In a 2009 study, Professor Zywicki summarized key research findings:

Economic research strongly supports two basic conclusions about payday lending:  First, those who use payday lending do so because they have to, not because they want to.  They use payday lending to deal with short-term exigencies and a lack of access to payday loans would likely cause them substantial cost and personal difficulty, such as bounced checks, disconnected utilities, or lack of funds for emergencies such as medical expenses or car repairs. Those who use payday loans have limited alternative sources of credit, such as pawn shops, bank overdraft protection, credit card cash advances (where available), and informal lenders. Although expensive, payday loans are less expensive than available alternatives. Misguided paternalistic regulation that deprives consumers of access to payday loans would likely force many of them to turn to even more expensive lenders or to do without emergency funds. Although payday loans may lead some consumers to be trapped in a “debt trap” of repeated revolving debt, this concern is not unique to payday lending. Moreover, evidence indicates that those who are led into a debt trap by payday lending are far fewer in number than those who are benefited by access to payday loans.

Second, efforts by legislators to regulate the terms of small consumer loans (such as by imposing price caps on fees or limitations on repeated use “rollovers”) almost invariably produce negative unintended consequences that vastly exceed any social benefits gained from the legislation. Moreover, prior studies of price caps on lending have found that low-income and minority borrowers are most negatively affected by the regulations and the adjustments that they produce. Volumes of economic theory and empirical analysis indicate that further restrictions on payday lending likely would prove counterproductive and harmful to the very people such restrictions would be intended to help.

Unfortunately, the CFPB seems to be oblivious to these findings on payday lending, as demonstrated by key language of the CFPB NPRM:

[T]he [CFPB’s] proposal would identify it as an abusive and unfair practice for a lender to make a covered loan without reasonably determining that the consumer has the ability to repay the loan.  The proposal generally would require that, before making a covered loan, a lender must reasonably determine that the consumer has the ability to repay the loan.  The proposal also would impose certain restrictions on making covered loans when a consumer has or recently had certain outstanding loans. . . .  The proposal also would identify it as an unfair and abusive practice to attempt to withdraw payment from a consumer’s account for a covered loan after two consecutive payment attempts have failed, unless the lender obtains the consumer’s new and specific authorization to make further withdrawals from the account. The proposal would require lenders to provide certain notices to the consumer before attempting to withdraw payment for a covered loan from the consumer’s account. The proposal would also prescribe processes and criteria for registration of information systems, and requirements for furnishing loan information to and obtaining consumer reports from those registered information systems. The Bureau is proposing to adopt official interpretations to the proposed regulation.

In short, the CFPB NPRM, if implemented, would impose new and onerous costs on payday lenders with respect to each loan, arising out of:  (1) determination of the borrower’s ability to pay; (2) identification of the borrower’s other outstanding loans; (3) the practical inability to recover required payments from a defaulting consumer’s account (due to required consumer authorization and notice obligations); and (4) the registration of information systems and requirements for obtaining various sorts of consumer information from those systems.  In the aggregate, these costs would likely make a large number of payday loan programs unprofitable – thereby (1) driving those loans out of the market and harming legitimate lenders while also (2) denying credit to, and thereby reducing the welfare of, the consumers who would be denied their best feasible source of credit.

As Heritage Foundation scholar Norbert Michel put it in a June 2, 2016 Daily Signal article:

The CFPB’s [NPRM] regulatory solution . . . centers on an absurd concept: ability to repay. Basically, the new rules force lenders to certify that consumers have the ability to repay their loan, turning the idea of voluntary exchange on its head.

Here, too, the new rules are based on the flawed idea that firms typically seek out consumers who can’t possibly pay what they owe. It doesn’t take a graduate degree to figure out that’s not a viable long-term business strategy.

None of this matters to the CFPB. Shockingly, neither does the CFPB’s own evidence.

In sum, the CFPB NPRM provides yet one more good reason for Congress to seriously consider abolishing the CFPB (legislation introduced by the House and Senate in 2015 would do this), with consumer protection authority authorities currently exercised by the Bureau returned to the seven agencies that originally administered them.   While we are awaiting congressional action, however, the CFPB would be well-advised (assuming it truly desires to promote economic welfare) to reconsider its latest ill-considered initiative and withdraw the NPRM as soon as possible.

In yesterday’s hearings on the disastrous launch of the federal health insurance exchanges, contractors insisted that part of the problem was a last-minute specification from the government:  the feds didn’t want people to be able to “window shop” for health insurance until they had created a profile and entered all sorts of personal information.

That’s understandable.  For this massive social experiment to succeed — or, at least, to fail less badly — young, healthy people need to buy health insurance.  Policy prices for those folks, though, are going to be really high because (1) the ACA requires all sorts of costly coverages people used to be able to decline, and (2) the Act’s “community rating” and “guaranteed issue” provisions prevent insurers from charging older and sicker people an actuarily appropriate rate and therefore require their subsidization by the young and healthy.  To prevent the sort of sticker shock that might cause young invincibles to forego purchasing insurance, Obamacare advocates didn’t want them seeing unsubsidized insurance rates.  Determining a person’s subsidy, though, requires submisison of all sorts of personal information.  Thus, the original requirement that website visitors create a profile and provide gobs of information before seeing insurance rates.

Given the website’s glitches and the difficulty of actually creating a working profile, the feds have now reversed course and are permitting window shopping.  An applicant can enter his or her state and county, family size, and age range (<50 or >50) and receive a selection of premium estimates.  To avoid dissuading people from applying for coverage in light of high premiums, the website takes great pains to emphasize that the estimated premiums do not account for the available subsidies to which most people will be entitled.  For example, to get my own quote, I had to answer a handful of questions and click “Next” a few times, and in the process of doing so, the website announced seven times that the estimated prices I was about to see would not include the generous subsdies to which I would probably be entitled.  The Obamacare folks, you see, want us consumers to know what we’re really going to have to pay.

Or do they?

According to the website, I could buy a Coventry Bronze $15 co-pay plan for $218.03 per month (unsubsidized).  An Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield Direct Access Plan would cost me $213.39 per month (unsubsidized).  When I went to a private exchange and conducted the same inquiry, however, I learned that the price for the former policy would be $278.66 and, for the latter, between $270.17.  So the private exchange tells me the price for my insurance would be 27% percent higher than the amount Healthcare.gov estimates in its window shopping feature.  What gives?

As it turns out, the federal exchange assumes (without admitting it) that anyone under age 49 is 27 years old.  The private website, by contrast, based quotes on my real age (42).  Obviously, the older a person is, the higher the premium will be.  Since the ACA mandates that individuals up to age 26 be allowed to stay on their parents’ insurance policies, the age the federal website assumes is the very youngest age at which most people would be required to buy health insurance or pay a penalty.  In other words, the federal website picks the rosiest assumption in estimating insurance premiums and never once tells users it’s doing so.  It does, however, awkwardly remind them seven times in fewer than seven consecutive screens that their actual premiums will probably be lower than the figure quoted.

Can you imagine if a private firm pulled this sort of stunt?  Elizabeth Warren’s friends at the CFPB would be on it like white on rice!

Look, the website problems are a red herring.  Sure, they’re shockingly severe, and they do illustrate the limits of government to run things effectively, limits the ACA architects resolutely disregarded.  But they’ll get fixed eventually.  The main reason they’re a long-term problem is that they exacerbate the Act’s most fundamental flaw: its tendency to create a death spiral of adverse selection in which older and sicker people, beneficiaries under the ACA, purchase health insurance, while young, healthy folks, losers under the Act, forego it.  Once this happens, insurance premiums will skyrocket, encouraging even more young and healthy people to drop out of the pool of insureds and thereby making things even worse.  The most significant problem stemming from the website “glitches” (my, how that term has been stretched!) is that they have made it so hard to apply for insurance that only those most desperate for it — the old and sick, the ones we least need in the pool of insureds — will go through the rigmarole of signing up.  On this point, see Holman Jenkins and George Will.

But who knows.  Maybe Zeke Emanuel can fix the problem by getting the Red Sox to sell Obamacare to young invincibles.  (I’m not kidding.  That was his plan for avoiding adverse selection.)

Go Cards!

My paper with Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg (D.C. Circuit; NYU Law), Behavioral Law & Economics: Its Origins, Fatal Flaws, and Implications for Liberty, is posted to SSRN and now published in the Northwestern Law Review.

Here is the abstract:

Behavioral economics combines economics and psychology to produce a body of evidence that individual choice behavior departs from that predicted by neoclassical economics in a number of decision-making situations. Emerging close on the heels of behavioral economics over the past thirty years has been the “behavioral law and economics” movement and its philosophical foundation — so-called “libertarian paternalism.” Even the least paternalistic version of behavioral law and economics makes two central claims about government regulation of seemingly irrational behavior: (1) the behavioral regulatory approach, by manipulating the way in which choices are framed for consumers, will increase welfare as measured by each individual’s own preferences and (2) a central planner can and will implement the behavioral law and economics policy program in a manner that respects liberty and does not limit the choices available to individuals. This Article draws attention to the second and less scrutinized of the behaviorists’ claims, viz., that behavioral law and economics poses no significant threat to liberty and individual autonomy. The behaviorists’ libertarian claims fail on their own terms. So long as behavioral law and economics continues to ignore the value to economic welfare and individual liberty of leaving individuals the freedom to choose and hence to err in making important decisions, “libertarian paternalism” will not only fail to fulfill its promise of increasing welfare while doing no harm to liberty, it will pose a significant risk of reducing both.

Download here.

 

In the WSJ, Professor Macey takes measure of the CFPB’s new mortgage disclosures and finds them lacking:

The CFPB is proposing to revise the old forms into a new Loan Estimate Form and Closing Disclosure Form. The old loan form had been five pages; according to the agency website, the new one is three. The closing form remains at five pages. That’s a net savings of two pieces of paper. But the agency rules required to implement the new forms weigh in at an astonishing 1,099 pages.

In evaluating the substance of the new disclosure themselves, Macey concludes the new forms are likely to harm consumers rather than help them.

Do the new rules expand consumer choice? They would forbid many borrowers from making smaller payments every month, followed by a single, one-time balloon payment to retire the principal at the end. They also would cap late fees—which means borrowers would be unable to get a lower interest rate on a loan by agreeing to pay a penalty if they don’t make their payments on time.

The new rules restrict loan-modification fees, which means mortgagors will offer fewer options to do so. They restrict penalties on borrowers who pay off their home loans early. These prepayment fees compensate lenders for the risk of lower returns on their loans. Without this protection they will either decline to offer loans to some borrowers or charge a higher interest rate.

The government’s proposed rules require high-risk customers in high-cost loan markets to meet with financial counselors before taking out a loan. The regulators also want to expand dramatically the number of mortgages classified as high cost. But financial counselors will have to be compensated, whether their advice is good or bad. The law deprives these consumers of the right to do their own homework.

Oddly, hidden on the new disclosure forms is the Annual Percentage Rate. For decades the APR was front and center on government-mandated disclosure documents. It is the single number that shows borrowers the cost of borrowing including such factors as the interest rate, certain fees, and the maturity structure of the loan.

The CFPB claims its consumer testing showed people didn’t understand the APR. Yet if someone is trying to compare two loans—one with a lower interest rate and $15,000 in fees, the other with lower fees but a higher interest rate—it’s not possible to determine which loan is cheaper without the APR.  The new rules do not attempt to generate a single number that can be used for comparison purposes and instead focus on various components of the loan such as fees, penalties, interest rates and maturity separately. This makes it harder, not easier, for borrowers to compare mortgage options.

Ultimately, we will be able to evaluate the impact of these new disclosures empirically by watching the results of the CFPB’s “experiment.”

Yale Law Journal has published my article on “The Antitrust/ Consumer Protection Paradox: Two Policies At War With One Another.”  The hat tip to Robert Bork’s classic “Antitrust Paradox” in the title will be apparent to many readers.  The primary purpose of the article is to identify an emerging and serious conflict between antitrust and consumer protection law arising out of a sharp divergence in the economic approaches embedded within antitrust law with its deep attachment to rational choice economics on the one hand, and the new behavioral economics approach of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  This intellectual rift brings with it serious – and detrimental – consumer welfare consequences.  After identifying the causes and consequences of that emerging rift, I explore the economic, legal, and political forces supporting the rift.

Here is the abstract:

The potential complementarities between antitrust and consumer protection law— collectively, “consumer law”—are well known. The rise of the newly established Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) portends a deep rift in the intellectual infrastructure of consumer law that threatens the consumer-welfare oriented development of both bodies of law. This Feature describes the emerging paradox that rift has created: a body of consumer law at war with itself. The CFPB’s behavioral approach to consumer protection rejects revealed preference— the core economic link between consumer choice and economic welfare and the fundamental building block of the rational choice approach underlying antitrust law. This Feature analyzes the economic, legal, and political institutions underlying the potential rise of an incoherent consumer law and concludes that, unfortunately, there are several reasons to believe the intellectual rift shaping the development of antitrust and consumer protection will continue for some time.

Go read the whole thing.

[Cross-posted at PYMNTS.COM]

Richard Cordray’s nomination hearing provided an opportunity to learn something new about the substantive policies of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Unfortunately, that opportunity came and went without answering many of the key questions that remain concerning the impact of the CFPB’s enforcement and regulatory agenda on the availability of consumer credit, economic growth, and jobs.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s critics, including myself, [1] have expressed concerns that the CFPB— through enforcement and regulation—could harm consumers and small businesses by reducing the availability of credit.  The intellectual blueprint for the CFPB is founded on the insight, from behavioral economics, that “[m]any consumers are uninformed and irrational,” that “consumers make systematic mistakes in their choice of credit products,” and that the CFPB should play a central role in determining which and to what extent these products are used. [2] The CFPB’s recent appointment of Sendhil Mullainathan as its Assistant Director for Research confirms its commitment to the behaviorist approach to regulation of consumer credit.  Mullainathan, in work co-authored with Professor Michael S. Barr, provided the intellectual basis for the much debated “plain vanilla” provision in the original legislation and advocated a whole host of new consumer credit regulations ranging from improved disclosures to “harder” forms of paternalism.  The concern, in short, is that the CFPB is hard-wired to take a myopic view of the tried-and-true benefits of consumer credit markets and runs the risk of harming many (and especially the socially and economically disadvantaged groups in the greatest need of access to consumer credit) in the name of protecting the few.

To be sure, there is absolutely no doubt that there are unscrupulous and unsavory characters in lending markets engaging in bad acts ranging from fraud to preying upon vulnerable borrowers.  Nonetheless, it is critical to recognize the positive role that lending markets and the availability of consumer credit has played in the American economy, especially in facilitating entrepreneurial activity and small business growth.  Taking into account these important benefits is fundamental to developing sound consumer credit policy.  I had hoped that the hearings might focus upon Mr. Cordray’s underlying philosophical approach to weighing the costs and benefits of credit regulation and how that balance might be struck at his CFPB.  They did not, instead focusing largely upon another important issue: the precise contours of CFPB authority and oversight.

Currently, the unemployment rate is over 9 percent and all of the available evidence suggests the CFPB’s approach will run a significant risk of overregulation that will reduce the availability of consumer credit to small businesses and thus further depress the economy.  Therefore, getting hard answers concerning how the CFPB views and will account for these risks in its enforcement and regulatory decisions is critical.  Certainly, the nomination hearing offered small hints toward this end.  We learned that under Mr. Cordray’s watch, CFPB enforcement will involve not only lawsuits but also a “more flexible toolbox” that includes “research reports, rulemaking guidance, consumer education and empowerment, and the ability to supervise and examine both large banks and many nonbank institutions.”

The job of protecting consumers in financial products markets—the domain of the new CFPB—extends to all such consumers.  The benefits of healthy markets and competition in consumer credit products has generated tremendous economic benefits to the most disadvantaged as well as to small businesses.  If the CFPB agenda were limited to educating consumers about the costs and benefits of various products and improving disclosures, there would be far less need for concern that it will be a drag on consumers, entrepreneurial activity, and economic growth.  However, the CFPB’s intellectual blueprint suggests a more aggressive and dangerous agenda, and the authority it has been granted renders that agenda feasible.  The CFPB must account for the benefits from lending markets and balance them against its laudable objective of preventing deceptive practices when crafting its enforcement and regulatory agenda.  Unfortunately, after Tuesday’s nomination hearing, the CFPB’s approach to this complex and delicate balance remains an open question.

—–

[1] David S. Evans & Joshua D. Wright, The Effect of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency Act of 2009 on Consumer Credit, 22(3) Loyola Consumer L. Rev. 277 (2010).

[2] Oren Bar-Gill & Elizabeth Warren, Making Credit Safer, 157 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1, 39 (2008).

There has been plenty of Hurricane Irene blogging, and some posts linking natural disasters to various aspects of law and policy (see, e.g. my colleague Ilya Somin discussing property rights and falling trees).   Often, post-natural disaster economic discussion at TOTM turns to the perverse consequences of price gouging laws.  This time around, the damage from the hurricane got me thinking about the issue of availability of credit.  In policy debates in and around the new CFPB and its likely agenda — which is often reported to include restrictions on payday lending — I often take up the unpopular (at least in the rooms in which these debates often occur) position that while payday lenders can abuse consumers, one should think very carefully about incentives before going about restricting access to any form of consumer credit.  In the case of payday lending, for example, proponents of restrictions or outright bans generally have in mind a counterfactual world in which consumers who are choosing payday loans are simply “missing out” on other forms of credit with superior terms.  Often, proponents of this position rely upon a theory involving particular behavioral biases of at least some substantial fraction of borrowers who, for example, over estimate their future ability to pay off the loan.  Skeptics of government-imposed restrictions on access to consumer credit (whether it be credit cards or payday lending) often argue that such restrictions do not change the underlying demand for consumer credit.  Consumer demand for credit — whether for consumption smoothing purposes or in response to a natural disaster or personal income “shock” or another reason — is an important lubricant for economic growth.  Restrictions do not reduce this demand at all — in fact, critics of these restrictions point out, consumers are likely to switch to the closest substitute forms of credit available to them if access to one source is foreclosed.  Of course, these stories are not necessarily mutually exclusive: that is, some payday loan customers might irrationally use payday lending while better options are available while at the same time, it is the best source of credit available to other customers.

In any event, one important testable implication for the economic theories of payday lending relied upon by critics of such restrictions (including myself) is that restrictions on their use will have a negative impact on access to credit for payday lending customers (i.e. they will not be able to simply turn to better sources of credit).  While most critics of government restrictions on access to consumer credit appear to recognize the potential for abuse and favor disclosure regimes and significant efforts to police and punish fraud, the idea that payday loans might generate serious economic benefits for society often appears repugnant to supporters.  All of this takes me to an excellent paper that lies at the intersection of these two issues: natural disasters and the economic effects of restrictions on payday lending.  The paper is Adair Morse’s Payday Lenders: Heroes or Villians.    From the abstract:

I ask whether access to high-interest credit (payday loans) exacerbates or mitigates individual financial distress. Using natural disasters as an exogenous shock, I apply a propensity score matched, triple difference specification to identify a causal relationship between access-to-credit and welfare. I find that California foreclosures increase by 4.5 units per 1,000 homes in the year after a natural disaster, but the existence of payday lenders mitigates 1.0-1.3 of these foreclosures. In a placebo test for natural disasters covered by homeowner insurance, I find no payday lending mitigation effect. Lenders also mitigate larcenies, but have no effect on burglaries or vehicle thefts. My methodology demonstrates that my results apply to ordinary personal emergencies, with the caveat that not all payday loan customers borrow for emergencies.

To be sure, there are other papers with different designs that identify economic benefits from payday lending and other otherwise “disfavored” credit products.  Similarly, there papers out there that use different data and a variety of research designs and identify social harms from payday lending (see here for links to a handful, and here for a recent attempt).  A literature survey is available here.  Nonetheless, Morse’s results remind me that consumer credit institutions — even non-traditional ones — can generate serious economic benefits in times of need and policy analysts must be careful in evaluating and weighing those benefits against potential costs when thinking about and designing restrictions that will change incentives in consumer credit markets.

There is an embarrassing blind spot in the behavioral law and economics literature with respect to implementation of policy whether via legislation or administrative agency.  James Cooper and William Kovacic — both currently at the Federal Trade Commission as Attorney Advisor Commissioner, respectively — aim to fill this gap with a recent working paper entitled “Behavioral Economics: Implications for Regulatory Behavior.”  The basic idea is to combine the insights of public choice economics and behavioral economics to explore the implications for behavioral regulation at administrative agencies and, in particular given their experiences, a competition and consumer protection regulator.

Here is the abstract:

Behavioral economics (BE) examines the implications for decision-making when actors suffer from biases documented in the psychological literature. These scholars replace the assumption of rationality with one of “bounded rationality,” in which consumers’ actions are affected by their initial endowments, their tastes for fairness, their inability to appreciate the future costs, their lack of self-control, and general use of flawed heuristics. We posit a simple model of a competition regulator who serves as an agent to a political overseer. The regulator chooses a policy that accounts for the rewards she gets from the political overseer – whose optimal policy is one that focuses on short-run outputs that garner political support, rather than on long-term effective policy solutions – and the weight she puts on the optimal long run policy. We use this model to explore the effects of bounded rationality on policymaking, with an emphasis on competition and consumer protection policy. We find that flawed heuristics (e.g., availability, representativeness, optimism, and hindsight) and present bias are likely to lead regulators to adopt policies closer to those preferred by political overseers than they otherwise would. We argue that unlike the case of firms, which face competition, the incentive structure for regulators is likely to reward regulators who adopt politically expedient policies, either intentionally (due to a desire to please the political overseer) or accidentally (due to bounded rationality). This sample selection process is likely to lead to a cadre of regulators who focus on maximizing outputs rather than outcomes.

Here is a little snippet from the conclusion, but please go do read the whole thing:

The model we present shows that political pressure will cause rational regulators to choose policies that are not optimal from a consumer standpoint, and that in a large number of circumstances regulatory bias will exacerbate this tendency. Our analysis also suggests special caution when attempting to correct firm behavior as regulatory bias appears likely more durable than firm bias because the market provides a much stronger feedback mechanism than exists in the regulatory environment. To the extent that we can de-bias regulators – either through a greater use of internal and external adversarial review or by making a closer nexus between outcomes and rewards – they will become more effective at welfare-enhancing interventions designed to correct biases.

Thinking about the implications of behavioral economics at the regulatory level is incredibly important for competition and consumer protection policy (think CFPB, for example).  And I’m very happy to see scholars of Cooper and Kovacic’s caliber — not to mention real world agency experience to bring to bear on the problem — tackling it.   For full disclosure purposes, I should note that I have or am currently co-authoring with each of them.  But don’t hold that against them!  Its a thought provoking paper upon which I will have some more thoughts later on, as well as tying it in to some of the work I’ve done on behavioral economics.  For example, Judd Stone and I explore a related problem of the implications of firm level irrationality — both for incumbents and entrants — in this piece, and find the implications for antitrust policy less clear (and in some cases, absent) than have behavioral antitrust proponents.  See also Stone’s post during the TOTM Free to Choose Symposium on BE and Administrative Agencies.

In the Huffington Post, Marcus Baram warns against those who claim to be concerned about over-regulation on Wall Street and in the consumer protection sphere.  Baram writes:

Today, Wall Street is again on the attack against a regulatory overhaul that includes more stringent investor and consumer protections. Though the financial landscape is far different and the details of the proposals have changed since 1912, the industry is using much of the same alarmist rhetoric to oppose new regulations and rules.

JPMorgan chairman Jamie Dimon recently complained that proposed rules on derivatives, capital buffers and too-big-to-fail banks are bad for America. Wall Street could lose customers to European banks, he said.

Baram includes economist, and my co-author, David S. Evans in his list of those “crying wolf” over over-regulation:

At a congressional hearing on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, banking consultant David S. Evans attacked the “hard paternalism” of its interim director Elizabeth Warren. He cautioned that the bureau “could make it harder and more expensive for consumers to borrow money.”

Such Cassandra-like warnings are common in the history of financial regulation.

I think Baram might want to have this one back if given the chance.  His point is that the Dimon and David Evans and others are concerned about imposing an enormous regulatory burden are wrong.  Of course, I am no scholar of Greek mythology, but I seem to recall that Cassandra was right!  Her curse was that nobody believed her accurate predictions about the future.  Baram may have stumbled upon something here.

But more seriously, at a time when the unemployment rate is over 9%, when the intellectual architects of the CFPB were quite frank about favoring a regulatory approach that would restrict access to consumer credit (see here), and when the flow of credit is critical to economic growth and recovery, one has to be pretty deeply committed to the cause to so brazenly ignore predictions that massive regulatory structure just might hold the economy back.

Evans’ testimony at the House Hearing on the CFPB is available here.

Daniel Kahnemann and co-authors discuss, in the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review (HT: Brian McCann), various strategies for debiasing individual decisions that impact firm performance.  Much of the advice boils down to more conscious deliberation about decisions, incorporating awareness that individuals can be biased into firm-level decisions, and subjecting decisions to more rigorous cost-benefit analysis.  The authors discuss a handful of examples with executives contemplating this or that decision (a pricing change, a large capital outlay, and a major acquisition) and walk through how thinking harder about recognizing biases of individuals responsible for these decisions or recommendations might be identified and nipped in the bud before a costly error occurs.

Luckily for our HBS heroes they are able to catch these potential decision-making errors in time and correct them:

But in the end, Bob, Lisa, and Devesh all did, and averted serious problems as a result. Bob resisted the temptation to implement the price cut his team was clamoring for at the risk of destroying profitability and triggering a price war. Instead, he challenged the team to propose an alternative, and eventually successful, marketing plan. Lisa refused to approve an investment that, as she discovered, aimed to justify and prop up earlier sunk-cost investments in the same business. Her team later proposed an investment in a new technology that would leapfrog the competition. Finally, Devesh signed off on the deal his team was proposing, but not before additional due diligence had uncovered issues that led to a significant reduction in the acquisition price.

The real challenge for executives who want to implement decision quality control is not time or cost. It is the need to build awareness that even highly experienced, superbly competent, and well intentioned managers are fallible. Organizations need to realize that a disciplined decision-making process, not individual genius, is the key to a sound strategy. And they will have to create a culture of open debate in which such processes can flourish.

But what if they didn’t?  Of course, the result would be a costly mistake.  The sanction from the marketplace would provide a significant incentive for firms to act “as-if” rational over time.  As Judd Stone and I have written (forthcoming in the Cardozo Law Review), the firm itself can be expected to play a critical role in this debiasing:

Economic theory provides another reason for skepticism concerning predictable firm irrationality. As Armen Alchian, Ronald Coase, Harold Demsetz, Benjamin Klein, and Oliver Williamson (amongst others) have reiterated for decades, the firm is not merely a heterogeneous hodgepodge of individuals, but an institution constructed to lower transaction costs relative to making use of the price system (the make or buy decision). Firms thereby facilitate specialization, production, and exchange. Firms must react to the full panoply of economic forces and pressures, responding through innovation and competition. To the extent that cognitive biases operate to deprive individuals of the ability to choose rationally, the firm and the market provide effective mechanisms to at least mitigate these biases when they reduce profits.

A critical battleground for behaviorally-based regulatory intervention, including antitrust but not limited to it, is the question of whether agencies and courts on the one hand, or firms on the other, are the least cost avoiders of social costs associated with cognitive bias.  Stone & Wright argue in the antitrust context — contrary to the claims of Commissioner Rosch and other proponents of the behavioral approach — that the claim that individuals are behaviorally biased, and that because firms are made up of individuals, they too must be biased, simply does not provide intellectual support for behavioral regulation.  The most obvious failure is that it lacks the comparative institutional perspective described above.  Most accounts favoring greater implementation of behavioral regulation at the agency level glide over this question.  Not all, of course.

For example, Commissioner Rosch has offered the following response to the “regulators are irrational-too” critique:

My problem with this criticism is that it ignores the fact that, unlike human beings who make decisions in a vacuum, government regulators have the ability to study over time how individuals behave in certain settings (i.e., whether certain default rules provide adequate disclosure to help them make the most informed decision). Thus, if and to the extent that government regulators are mindful of the human failings discussed above, and their rules are preceded by rigorous and objective tests, it is arguable that they are less likely to get things wrong than one would predict. Of course, it may be the case that the concern with behavioral economics is less that regulators are imperfect and more than they are subject to political biases and that behavioral economics is simply liberalism masquerading as economic thinking.24 My response to that is that political capture is everywhere in Washington and that to the extent behavioral economics supports “hands on” regulation it is no more political than neoclassical economics which generally supports “hands off” regulation. On a more serious note, perhaps the best way behavioral economics could counter this critique over the long run would be to identify ways in which the insights from behavioral economics suggest regulation that one would not expect from a “left-wing” legal theory.

For my money, I find this reply altogether unconvincing.  It amounts to the claim that government agencies can be expected to have a comparative advantage over firms in ameliorating the social costs of errors.  The fact that government regulators might “get things wrong” less often than one might predict is besides the point.  The question is, again, comparing the two relevant institutions: firms in the marketplace and government agencies.  “We’re the government and we’re here to help” isn’t much of an answer to the appropriate question here.  There are further problems with this answer.  As I’ve written in response to the Commissioner’s claims:

But seriously, human beings making decisions “in a vacuum?”  It is individuals and firms who are making decisions insulated from market forces that create profit-motive and other incentives to learn about irrationality and get decisions right — not regulators?   The response to the argument that behavioral economics is simply liberalism masquerading as economic thinking (by the way, the argument is not that, it is that antitrust policy based on behavioral economics has not yet proven to be any more than simply interventionism masquerading as economic thinking — but I quibble) is weak.

As calls for behavioral regulation become more common, administrative agencies are built upon its teachings, or even more aggressive claims that behavioral law and economics can claim intellectual victory over rational choice approaches, it is critical to keep the right question in mind so that we do not fall victim to the Nirvana Fallacy.  The right comparative institutional question is whether courts and agencies or the market is better suited to mitigate the social costs of errors.   The external discipline imposed by the market in mitigating decision-making errors is well documented in the economic literature.  The claim that such discipline can replicated, or exceeded, in agencies is an assertion that remains, thus far, in search of empirical support.

With the recent announcement of Sendhil Mullainathan as the Assistant Director for Research at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (WSJ profile here), while one turns to the question of how economic input will be incorporated into agency decision-making.

Luke Froeb makes a nice point about the organization of economists in administrative agencies:

The FTC, which enforces identical consumer protection laws, is organized along functional lines, with attorneys and economists each writing memos to a bipartisan Commission. By design, this results in conflict between the economists and attorneys, which allows benefit-cost analysis done by economists to be heard at the highest levels of the organizations.

Watch the organizational design of the new agency. I suspect it will put economists, if it has them at all, under the supervision of attorneys to reduce their influence, as was done during the FTC early years.

For those more interested in how Mullainathan’s economic views will translate to policy, the correct place to start is in his October 2008 piece (co-authored with Michael Barr and Eldar Shafir) on Behaviorally Informed Financial Services Regulation, which includes discussions of at least ten policy ideas, including:

  • Full information disclosure to debias home mortgage borrowers.
  • A new standard for truth in lending.
  • A “sticky” opt-out home mortgage system.
  • Restructuring the relationship between brokers and borrowers.
  • Using framing and salience to improve credit card disclosures.
  • An opt-out payment plan for credit cards.
  • An opt-out credit card.
  • Regulating of credit card late fees.
  • A tax credit for banks offering safe and affordable accounts.
  • An opt-out bank account for tax refunds.

I also believe, but not with great confidence, that this particular paper was the first to propose the well-known “plain vanilla” requirement.