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In the era of digital credit, we need not just new laws, but also new mental models for responsible digital credit provision.

> By John Owens, CFI Fellow

Responsible Digital_Credit Report CoverAs digital credit providers have grown exponentially over the past few years, and as digital products and models have proliferated, so too have concerns around consumer protection. In the recently published report, Responsible Digital Credit, I argue that ensuring that digital credit customers receive responsible treatment requires more than enhanced consumer protection laws and regulations. It also requires strong commitment from the digital credit industry. Finally, it needs consumers who are empowered to play a more proactive role in managing their digital credit responsibly.  Read the rest of this entry »

With the weakening of institutional watchdogs and regulations for mortgage lending in the U.S., the future of consumer protection in financial services is jeopardized.

Free standing house with driveway

> Posted by Carmen Paraison, Senior Program Associate, The Smart Campaign

Can your skin color help predict whether you may be financially exploited in the United States? Unfortunately, even in 2018, the answer is still yes.

In February of this year, Wells Fargo was sued by the city of Sacramento, California for allegedly discriminating against black and Latino mortgage borrowers since 2004. The specific charge, raised against the country’s third-largest bank in terms of assets, was providing these clients with more expensive loans compared to those offered to white borrowers.

Across the country, in Baltimore, Maryland, a study that found that black homeowners were charged higher interest rates and disadvantaged at every stage in the borrowing process compared to similarly qualified white borrowers – even taking into account factors such as credit scores, income and down payments. Over the span of a 30-year loan, the researchers say, discrimination against black borrowers cost them an extra $14,904 each, compared with white borrowers.

Homeownership is one of the most important ways for working and middle class families to build generational wealth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 69 percent of a household’s net worth in America lies in the net equity in their home. And investigations have repeatedly shown that people of color pay a heftier price to achieve wealth than their white counterparts.

What are the economic implications of financially exploiting people of color in home ownership? More expensive mortgage loans translate into higher monthly payments, lower savings, and a higher risk of default and foreclosure. On a macro-level, consequences include a stagnant homeownership rate among people of color, a yawning (and growing) racial wealth gap, and continued institutional discrimination against people of color in the United States.

As a national consumer advocacy entity, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFBP) is designed to investigate claims of nefarious behavior among financial service providers and ensure that providers treat consumers fairly. However, its Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity was stripped of its power earlier this year, with the removal from its mandate of oversight and enforcement. Commenting on the move, Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform remarked, ‘‘These changes . . . threaten effective enforcement of civil rights laws, and increase the likelihood that people will continue to face discriminatory access and pricing as they navigate their economic lives.”

The burst of the U.S. housing bubble yielded the Great Recession, which spread throughout world. Its origins in reckless lending in the subprime market convinced many people involved in the financial sector that consumer protection was urgently needed. In response to this gap, the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law was passed. However, the current administration has since rolled back banking regulations, making it harder to detect discriminatory mortgage lending practices. Signed in May 2018, the new Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act would exempt 85 percent of banks from reporting detailed information about mortgage loan applicants. This means it will be more difficult to identify systemic issues, conduct research about them, and respond with corrective action.

As borrowers of color in the U.S. continue to access credit with the goal of owning a home, and the steady deliberate weakening of institutional watchdogs and regulations continues, the future of consumer protection in financial services for all remains in jeopardy. As banks continue to backslide into more discriminatory and predatory practices towards people of color, we as consumers and advocates should continue to be aware of and vigilant about them.

Image credit: David Sawyer via Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

> Posted by Robin Brazier, Communications and Operations Associate, the Smart Campaign

March 15 is World Consumer Rights Day (WCRD), a day marked by the consumer movement each year to raise global awareness about consumer rights and needs. It’s an opportunity to demand that the rights of all consumers are respected and protected, and to protest against market abuses and social injustices which undermine those rights. The Smart Campaign marks this occasion by talking about the importance of transparency and grievance redressal as key tenets of client protection and building consumer trust.

WCRD’s theme this year is “Making Digital Marketplaces Fairer.” With the volume of online transactions increasing, consumers are exposed to new – sometimes not fully understood – risks. For this reason, WCRD 2018 is calling for access to fair and secure internet for all, action against scams and fraud, and better consumer protection online.

According to Consumers International, nearly half of consumers that have access to internet but do not shop online cite lack of trust as the reason. Similarly, almost 70 percent of online consumers worry their digital payments are unsafe. What contributes to this lack of trust? The causes vary, but they often hinge on two things: lack of transparency and insufficient grievance redressal mechanisms.

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We discuss emerging consumer risks posed by nano-loans through the frame of the Client Protection Principles.

> Posted by Alex Rizzi, Senior Director, The Smart Campaign

As champions for financial inclusion, the Smart Campaign is excited about the potential of nano-loans—small value loans, delivered through mobile phones, with a large concentration of deployments in East Africa. Nano-loans are available nearly instantaneously, leverage non-traditional data for underwriting, and can be disbursed and collected with minimal human interaction. These tiny loans can help underserved customer segments access credit, as well as meet short-term liquidity crunches. But as consumer protection advocates, we also want to ensure that these loans are delivered with quality and respect, and do not cause harm to consumers.

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> Posted by Kyle Burgess, Executive Director and Editor in Chief, Consumers Research

From cash to digital currency

Image Credit: FamZoo Staff. No alterations made. CC BY-SA 2.0

Digital currencies, such as Bitcoin and its underlying blockchain protocol, introduce a technical platform for a new global payment infrastructure that has the potential to level the playing field for the 2.5 billion people across the globe who are unbanked or underbanked. The immutable and distributed nature of digital currencies and a number of the platforms built on top of blockchain protocols can provide improved security, efficiency, affordability, privacy, and transparency in financial transactions, as well as a whole host of other transfers of value or information. Furthermore, thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices, blockchain-based digital currencies can even remove the middleman, and serve as a bank in your pocket. However, fully removing a third party intermediary comes with significant risks, as there’s no one to call if you lose your private key (which functions as your password), break your hardware wallet (which acts as your digital vault), or want to dispute a payment because the goods you purchased are damaged (because digital currency transactions are irreversible). Like any other product, consumer protection must be at the forefront of the development and implementation of digital currency and blockchain-based financial services.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

When most microfinance clients start out they’re first-timers at a formal financial institution. Like anything unfamiliar, a first foray with banks can be intimidating. You don’t want to be duped or make a mistake and lose precious savings. Peace of mind was granted to clients of two microfinance institutions, one in Paraguay and the other in the Dominican Republic recently as the first Smart Certifications in those countries were awarded. Fundacion Paraguaya and Banco ADOPEM were certified as meeting all the standards needed to treat their clients with adequate care. This certification demonstrates to prospective clients as well as investors and other industry stakeholders that their institutions are operating responsibly.

Fundacion Paraguaya and Banco ADOPEM are both market leaders in their own right. Banco ADOPEM is one of the largest microfinance institutions in the Dominican Republic. According to the MIX, 351,000 depositors in the Dominican Republic bank with Banco ADOPEM. When Banco ADOPEM pursues and achieves Smart Certification, that sends a message to MFIs and other stakeholders in the country that client protection is a key priority. In 2014 ADOPEM was named “Most Innovative Microfinance Institution of the Year” by Citi, in part because of ATA-Movil, a portable electronic application that allows credit advisers to assess customers in their businesses or in their homes. The mobile information system also allows for convenient and direct communication with clients.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Specialist, CFI

Embed from Getty Images

If you’re plugged into the world of online marketplace lending then you heard this week’s news about Lending Club’s internal scandal which culminated in the resignation of its founder, chairman, and chief executive, Renaud Laplanche. Lending Club, a U.S.-based company, is the first billion dollar online lending marketplace, and Laplanche was viewed by many as the industry’s biggest advocate and one of its pioneers. Accordingly, industry participants and followers are wondering what Lending Club’s news means for the future of the company and the industry. Is this a sign that the promise of marketplace lending is too good to be true?

For dramatic pause, and context, a few facts on what happened. On Monday, after an internal review, Lending Club announced that $22 million in subprime loans sold in March and April of this year to a single investor went against the investor’s expressed terms. Furthermore, certain staff members, including Laplanche, were aware that the loans did not meet the investor’s criteria, and during the review process there was less than full disclosure by staff including Laplanche, which the board deemed unacceptable.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

For a brief moment on Monday, all eyes in Tbilisi, Georgia were on the Smart Campaign and its findings on the well-being of microfinance clients. The Campaign presented its Client Voices report in a high-profile event at the Georgian Parliament. Joining the event were 12 Members of Parliament from both majority and minority factions of the Government; leadership from the Central Bank, Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Agriculture; a multitude of microfinance practitioners; press and three television stations. This was the first time government representatives of the majority party, minority party, executive branch, industry, and Central Bank all got together to talk about how microfinance clients are treated. Needless to say, it was immensely encouraging to witness this demonstrated interest in the fair and responsible treatment of microfinance clients in Georgia.

The Client Voices project is a four-country research investigation that directly asked microfinance clients about their experiences and treatment. Along with Georgia, the studied countries are Benin, Pakistan, and Peru. Georgia was selected because its market hosts strong and representative institutions conducive to consensus building, and the industry’s decision-makers are currently working to update its regulatory and legal framework. The launch of the Client Voices report positioned the market to act on the project’s recommendations.

The event was co-hosted by the Business and Economic Center (BEC), a non-partisan, not-for-profit institution that works to facilitate understanding and discussion among MPs around financial, economic, and business topics. Following opening remarks by Natia Katsiashvili, Executive Director of BEC, and Giorgi Volski, MP and Chairman of the majority Georgian Dream faction (think Majority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives), the main findings from the Client Voices project were presented. Here are a few of the key findings:

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> Posted by Nadia van de Walle, Lead, Africa Partnerships and Programs, the Smart Campaign

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) is preparing to issue a Guide to Charges for Banks and Other Financial Institutions for providers in Nigeria, which sets out rules for commissions, charges, and rates on various products and services. It has shared the draft Guide on its website for a period of public review and commentary.

As a campaign that seeks to keep the client at the center, the Smart Campaign is always happy to see provisions in such financial sector guidelines or regulations related to thoughtful transparency and disclosure requirements. We are, however, more cautious when it comes to mandated pricing limits, given the unexpected implications we have seen them bring for clients’ lives. We notice that the CBN file introduces monthly interest rate caps.

This is at odds with the suggested policies in the Model Legal Framework for Financial Consumer Protection, which is based on the Campaign’s seven client protection principles. The Framework’s section on pricing procedures advises supervisory authorities to not set price or interest rate ceilings or floors, but rather to seek long-term solutions related to improving disclosures and facilitating market competition.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

What do microfinance clients in Peru think about their experiences with financial services? A few weeks ago the Smart Campaign released its Client Voices reports, a four-country research investigation that directly asked microfinance clients about their experiences. After previously spotlighting Benin, Georgia, and Pakistan on this blog, today we’ll take a look at findings from the fourth country in the project, Peru.

The research was carried out by Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA) and IPM Research. A qualitative research phase was first conducted, which included focus group discussions, individual interviews, and a photography exercise to allow clients to visually describe how they view good and bad treatment. The quantitative survey that followed included a sample of 1,000 current and former microfinance clients.

What did the clients say? In Peru, a well-regulated market, a different set of problems emerged from those we found in less-protected Benin and Pakistan. While severe abuses have been curtailed, emerging problems in Peru tended to arise from aggressive competition for customers.

Overall, clients in Peru are satisfied with their providers, suggesting that they’re benefitting from the industry’s well-regulated, competitive market and effective credit reporting system. Less than 10 percent of respondents rated their experiences with microfinance providers as either “bad” or “very bad”. In an exercise where respondents ranked various formal institutions in terms of how they treat clients, microfinance providers scored above commercial banks.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog, except where otherwise noted, are those of the authors and guest bloggers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Financial Inclusion or its affiliates.