Consider: There are more payday loan storefronts in the United States than there are McDonald’s and Starbucks outlets combined. Also consider, these payday loan storefronts are much more geographically concentrated than other types of outlets. Whereas Starbucks and McDonald’s sprawl across disparate locations with very unique compositions and characteristics of residents, payday storefronts tend to cluster densely in regions where demand for payday loans is likely to be high. What do these conditions imply about the characteristics of the payday loan market?
For starters, basic economic intuition would suggest that the payday lenders operate in a competitive marketplace. Fairly low barriers to entry (both legal and financial) into the market and the vast number of storefronts implies that individual stores face strong incentives to underprice their competitors. The result, barring collusion or market distortion, would be that prices are efficient, and not exorbitant.
The empirical evidence bears out this claim. A paper released by the FDIC Center for Financial Research used panel data from a large vendor to demonstrate that, despite the high interest rates on payday loans, the profitability of payday lenders does not statistically differ from the profitably of other financial intermediaries, like “reputable” banks. This should appeal to intuition: Payday lenders cater to risky populations that are vulnerable to financial stressors and prone to defaults. Risky customers warrant high rates to compensate for high default rates. This understanding regarding the level of market competitiveness and the condition of interest rate efficiency is crucial to understanding the policy effects of regulation in the payday loan market.
Last week, in a conversation with state Sen. Mary Still — one of Missouri’s most vocal critics of the payday lending industry and author of regulatory legislation in the General Assembly — I hoped to identify her latitude of acceptance for various payday lending policies (including deregulating the market further). I discovered that the two policy tools that are most likely to hear debate in the General Assembly are interest rate caps and providing incentives for banks to become “legitimate” vendors of payday loans. In some important ways, these approaches are troubling. If the market is already competitive and interest rates are efficient, an interest rate cap will choke the market and force lenders out — and banks shouldn’t have the ability to offer significantly cheaper rates on similar products. At any rate, revealed preferences would suggest that there is a reason banks aren’t willing to offer payday loans without incentives.
As I’ve discussed earlier, payday loans have the potential to be both helpful and harmful. Imposing interest rate caps on the market will stifle the ability of payday loans to help consumers, and incentivizing banks to offer such loans will do little to shield consumers from harm.