"Playing Cat and Mouse"When states — such as Washington, New York and New Hampshire — have laws prohibiting high-cost installment loans, the industry has tried to change them.
A bill introduced in Washington's state senate early this year proposed allowing "small consumer installment loans" that could carry an annual rate of more than 200 percent. Though touted as a lower-cost alternative to payday loans, the bill's primary backer was Moneytree, a Seattle-based payday lender. The bill passed the state senate, but stalled in the house.
In New Hampshire, which banned high-cost payday loans in 2008, the governor vetoed a bill last year that would have allowed installment loans with annual rates above 400 percent. But that wasn't the only bill that high-cost lenders had pushed: One to allow auto-title loans, also vetoed by the governor, passed with a supermajority in the legislature. As a result, in 2012, New Hampshire joined states like Georgia and Arizona that have banned triple-digit-rate payday loans but allow similarly structured triple-digit-rate auto-title loans.
Texas has a law strictly limiting payday loans. But since it limits lenders to a fraction of what they prefer to charge, for more than a decade they have ignored it. To shirk the law, first they partnered with banks, since banks, which are regulated by the federal government, can legally offer loans exceeding state interest caps. But when federal regulators cracked down on the practice in 2005, the lenders had to find a new loophole.
Just as in Ohio, Texas lenders started defining themselves as credit repair organizations, which, under Texas law, can charge steep fees. Texas now has nearly 3,500 of such businesses, almost all of which are, effectively, high-cost lenders. And the industry has successfully fought off all efforts to cap their rates.
Seeing the lenders' statehouse clout, a number of cities, including Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, have passed local ordinances that aim to break the cycle of payday debt by limiting the number of times a borrower can take out a loan. Speaking to analysts early this year, EZCorp'sRothamel said the ordinances had cut his company's profit in Austin and Dallas by 90 percent.
But the company had a three-pronged counterattack plan, he said. The company had tweaked the product it offered in its brick-and-mortar outlets, and it had also begun to aggressively market online loans to customers in those cities. And the industry was pushing a statewide law to pre-empt the local rules, he said, so payday companies could stop "playing cat and mouse with the cities."
Jerry Allen, the Dallas councilman who sponsored the city's payday lending ordinance in 2011, said he wasn't surprised by the industry's response. "I'm just a lil' ol' local guy in Dallas, Texas," he said. "I can only punch them the way I can punch them."
But Allen, a political independent, said he hoped to persuade still more cities to join the effort. Eventually, he hopes the cities will force the state legislature's hand, but he expects a fight: "Texas is a prime state for these folks. It's a battleground. There's a lot of money on the table."