January 16 was supposed to be the day of reckoning for a notorious predatory-lending industry, when a rule from the Obama administration’s consumer-watchdog agency would finally start to curb a business that’s fleecing the poor. But the day the new regulation was set to kick in, the Trump White House’s newly appointed head of the agency decided to suspend the rule indefinitely, and soon announced a “review” of all agency operations, signaling a shift in mission from protecting Main Street to coddling Wall Street.
Last year the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) crafted a long-awaited rule on payday lending—the industry offering short-term loans that exploit poor consumers—to clamp down on fraud by forcing lenders to “reasonably determine that the consumer has the ability to repay the loan” (rather than defaulting or submitting to even more exploitative terms). The rule, spearheaded by the Obama administration and widely supported by consumer and public-interest groups, allowed exemptions for smaller-scale loans by requiring lenders to follow certain consumer-protection provisions rather than go through the “ability-to-pay” determination.
The rule would also target longer-term loans with a 36 percent yearly interest rate or higher, restricting lenders from directly extracting money from the consumer’s account, without the borrower’s explicit consent, if they failed to repay twice in a row. Any direct withdrawal from a consumer’s account would also require standard prior notification. The commonsense rule was projected to reduce the industry’s yearly revenue by two-thirds.
The suspension of the rule signals a new direction for the CFPB, which is now headed by Mick Mulvaney, a longtime Trump crony and eminent Wall Street warrior who has a record of fiercely protecting financiers, not consumers. Mulvaney immediately followed the rule’s suppression by launching an internal review of the agency, which watchdog groups see as another step toward reversal of the agency’s founding mission. Paralleling Trump’s anti-Obama vendetta, Mulvaney is poised to dismantle the agency’s regulatory framework, which prior to his tenure aimed at promoting modest but meaningful limits on the financial industry’s exploitative power. And his first move is fittingly to roll back a major instrument of fraud and usury that’s aimed at the poorest consumers.
According to Amy Traub of the think tank Demos, “many advocates are worried that it’s the beginning of a larger effort to undo the CFPB’s successful work of protecting consumers.” The payday-lending sector has historically preyed on poor, “underbanked” communities, marketing short-term loans at astronomically high interest rates. Payday loans trade on exploitative debt schemes, as borrowers spiral into a deepening cycle of repeated over-borrowing and financial crisis. Historically, the industry has disproportionately targeted consumers who are extremely poor, black, recently divorced or separated, and renting their housing.