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> Posted by Lindsey Tiers, Communications and Operations, the Smart Campaign
According to a recent article in The New York Times, a number of lenders seem to have adapted General Douglas MacArthur’s views on government regulation: “Rules are mostly made to be broken.” Research conducted on the effectiveness of the U.S. government’s Military Lending Act over the past few years has illustrated that “lenders, intent on offering loans regardless of the federal restrictions, devised loan products that fell squarely outside the loan’s restrictions.” When interest rate caps were limited to loans of up to $2,000, lenders started offering loans for $2,001. When protections were applied to auto-title loans with terms under 181 days, loan periods were extended to just over 181 days.
The Obama Administration is suggesting an expansion of the law in order to close some of the loopholes, but will more rules truly deter predatory lenders? Regulators might find themselves overburdened with a multitude of rules and a decreasing ability to enforce them. A few well-supervised regulations seem preferable to a tangled web of unenforceable ones. Additionally, it would be foolish to underestimate the innovative abilities of those intent on making a buck from those in the military, based on the case precedents we’ve seen.
Even when the law does actually catch up to bad actors, there is evidence that they can go out again with the same or similar practices. Julio Estrada, a used-car dealer featured in an earlier article in The New York Times on subprime auto lending, continued to dupe customers into accepting predatory loans for several months after he was “indicted by the Queens district attorney on grand larceny charges that he defrauded more than 23 car buyers with refinancing schemes” less than a year earlier.
Predatory lending to military personnel is made easy because military salaries are largely transparent. Lenders have near perfect knowledge of just how much a servicemember desperate for cash can afford in monthly payments. The reliability of a government paycheck has fostered the creation of systems that withdraw installments before income even reaches a servicemember’s account, further minimizing the risk to lenders and increasing their relative advantage. Yet the most egregious imbalance in knowledge stems from the fact that lenders know the “military considers personal indebtedness to be a threat to national security, so high levels of debt can imperil service members’ security clearances,” and ultimately their job. Predatory lenders leverage this knowledge to threaten servicemembers.
Perhaps instead of relying on regulation, and hoping that everyone plays by the rules, we should refocus our efforts on adequately arming our servicemen and women with the knowledge they need to defend themselves. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) took steps to do just that when it created the Office of Servicemember Affairs to focus on the challenges faced by military employees. However, it primarily addresses ways to save, funding for higher education, and accessing VA benefits, and only touches on indebtedness in a section on deployment and credit cards. While educating servicemembers on these issues is important, increasing savings and controlling the interest charged on credit card bills are ways to preempt debt, and might not necessarily be relevant for someone already in debt. These individuals are most likely to fall prey to abusive payday lending schemes.
> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi, Deputy Director, the Smart Campaign
India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi created much fanfare and excitement upon the launch of a financial inclusion plan for the millions of unbanked Indians (currently estimated at 40 percent of the entire population). The Jan-Dhan Yojana (Scheme for People’s Wealth) will provide a free, zero-balance bank account and a debit card allowing for electronic payments, coupled with accident insurance and overdraft protection. Indian media went wild for the aggressive first day of the program wherein 15 million bank accounts were opened.
While all should cheer the intention of Prime Minister Modi to build a more inclusive financial system, there are some cautionary tales, both old and new, that the scheme should learn from. The tool of a basic savings account has been touted for close to a decade in India where, in 2005, the RBI promoted a ‘no-frills’ account scheme. While millions of new bank accounts where opened under this scheme, researchers found that many of the accounts were dormant, underutilized, and hence ineffective at ushering the formally excluded into the formal system. Even in districts dubbed 100 percent included, the reality on the ground was far less exemplary in terms of enrollment and usage of accounts.
Prime Minister Modi might also take heed of a much more recent cautionary tale added by researchers at IFMR, a business school in Chennai. Co-authors Amy Mowl and Camille Boudot wanted to understand whether there were hidden barriers to individuals interested in savings and investing using a basic savings account. That savings account, formerly called no-frills, and now called a BSBDA (Basic Savings Bank Deposit Account), are mandated by the Reserve Bank of India to be offered by all banks. Mowl and Boudot hired and trained a group of mystery shoppers to pose as low-income customers interested in opening a BSBDA at 42 branches of 27 large banks in metropolitan Chennai. The experiences of these mystery auditors was tracked, recorded, and analyzed by the researchers. The results were stark.
> Posted by Danielle Piskadlo, Manager, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI
Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Having recently married and changed my last name, I can attest that there is a refreshing feeling that comes with a new name and clean slate. It is an opportunity to leave the past in the past and start anew.
Starting fresh with a new name must be especially freeing if the past was not a sweet smelling rose. According to a recent report, the Bank of Ghana (BoG) is cracking down on MFIs that repeatedly change their names to cover their tracks after they have duped members of the public. Raymond Amanfu, the Head of Other Financial Institutions Department of the Bank of Ghana reports, “Every day, I get at least five applications from companies wanting to change their names….Quite a number of them are actually messed up and want to clean up by changing their name.”
> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi, Deputy Director, the Smart Campaign
Close to Washington, D.C.’s antipode in Perth, Australia I attended the Fifth Annual Responsible Finance Forum, which this year focused on responsible digital finance. The organizers assembled an impressive mix of representatives from all three legs of the responsible finance stool – industry, regulators, and consumers. A number of familiar risk areas were examined during the two great days of presentations, debate, and discussion, and three prominent themes emerged for me: the centrality of the service agent, the increasing importance of financial education, and considering responsible finance at the ecosystem level.
The first day of the forum focused on the identification of risks to consumers from digital financial services (DFS) and the second day was framed around how to mitigate and minimize those risks. An online “Global Pulse Survey” that CGAP conducted as well as some demand-side research conducted by MicroSave and Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA) brought both the practitioner and consumer perspectives on DFS risks to the forefront. The MicroSave and BFA research canvassed nearly 700 DFS users and 50 non-users through focus groups in Colombia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Uganda. While respondents of the survey and focus groups identified a wide variety of harms or worries, some common items emerged, listed in the table below. Though preliminary, this data is extremely important in helping us frame the areas where stakeholders could focus to mitigate against client harm and risk. These risks fall squarely into the framework of the Smart Campaign’s seven Client Protection Principles, furthering our belief that a principles framework can carry forward into digital financial services.
> Posted by Nadia van de Walle, Senior Africa Specialist, the Smart Campaign
The Smart Campaign secretariat does a lot of things – manage a Certification program, provide technical assistance, develop and promote industry standards, and conduct research. Our small team is always putting on different hats, and we joke about trying to explain our jobs to friends. At the end of the day, the one thing many of our friends can understand is that we are an industry-facing organization offering a “public good.” The Smart Campaign’s public good is not a road or a lighthouse. It just happens to be standards and guidance on protecting clients. These standards are a public good because they belong to everyone, and one individual or institution’s use does not reduce the availability of the resources for others.
Some of our ever-thoughtful friends then ask if this means that we contend with other classic public goods challenges.
The answer is yes, absolutely. One of the biggest issues we struggle with is the lack of a market feedback mechanism. Industry stakeholders can use Smart Campaign tools and resources without paying and thus without providing feedback on their experience. Without a price signal, it can be difficult for the staff to assess demand and user experience. This makes it hard to know how to tailor, expand, or improve offerings. We are curious to hear examples from readers about how other similar organizations consistently improve their offerings without market feedback.