Troubled by consumer complaints and loopholes in state laws, federal regulators are putting together the first-ever rules on payday loans aimed at helping cash-strapped borrowers avoid falling into a cycle of high-rate debt.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says state laws governing the $46 billion payday lending industry often fall short, and that fuller disclosures of the interest and fees - often an annual percentage rate of 300 per cent or more - may be needed.
Full details of the proposed rules, expected early this year, would mark the first time the agency has used the authority it was given under the 2010 Dodd-Frank law to regulate payday loans.
In recent months, it has tried to step up enforcement, including a $10 million settlement with ACE Cash Express after accusing the payday lender of harassing borrowers to collect debts and take out multiple loans.
A payday loan, or a cash advance, is generally $500 or less. Borrowers provide a personal cheque dated on their next payday for the full balance or give the lender permission to debit their bank accounts. The total includes charges often ranging from $15 to $30 per $100 borrowed. Interest-only payments, sometimes referred to as "rollovers," are common.
Legislators in Ohio, Louisiana and South Dakota unsuccessfully tried to broadly restrict the high-cost loans in recent months. According to the Consumer Federation of America, 32 states now permit payday loans at triple-digit interest rates, or with no rate cap at all.
The CFPB isn't allowed under the law to cap interest rates, but it can deem industry practices unfair, deceptive or abusive to consumers.
"Our research has found that what is supposed to be a short-term emergency loan can turn into a long-term and expensive debt trap," said David Silberman, the bureau's associate director for research, markets and regulation. The bureau found more than 80 per cent of payday loans are rolled over or followed by another loan within 14 days; half of all payday loans are in a sequence at least 10 loans long.
The agency is considering options that include establishing tighter rules to ensure a consumer has the ability to repay. That could mean requiring credit cheques, placing caps on the number of times a borrower can draw credit or finding ways to encourage states or lenders to lower rates.
Payday lenders say they fill a vital need for people who hit a rough financial patch. They want a more equal playing field of rules for both nonbanks and banks, including the way the annual percentage rate is figured.
"We offer a service that, if managed correctly, can be very helpful to a diminished middle class," said Dennis Shaul, chief executive of the Community Financial Services Association of America, which represents payday lenders.
Maranda Brooks, 40, a records coordinator at a Cleveland college, says she took out a $500 loan through her bank to help pay an electricity bill.
With "no threat of loan sharks coming to my house, breaking kneecaps," she joked, Brooks agreed to the $50 fee.
Two weeks later, Brooks says she was surprised to see the full $550 deducted from her usual $800 paycheque. To cover expenses for herself and four children, she took out another loan, in a debt cycle that lasted nearly a year.
"It was a nightmare of going around and around," said Brooks, who believes that lenders could do more to help borrowers understand the fees or offer lower-cost instalment payments.
Last June, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld a legal manoeuvre used by payday lenders to skirt a 2008 law that capped the payday loan interest rate at 28 per cent annually.
By comparison, annual percentage rates on credit cards can range from about 12 per cent to 30 per cent.
Members of Congress also are looking at payday loans.
Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the top Democrat on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, plans legislation that would allow Americans to receive an early refund of a portion of their earned income tax credit as an alternative to a payday loan.
Senator. Elizabeth Warren, wants the US Postal Service to offer cheque-cashing and low-cost small loans. The idea is opposed by many banks and seems unlikely to advance in a Republican-controlled Congress.