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One thing Wal-Mart could be good for

They could wreak havoc on payday lenders.

Raj Date says that with modern data analysis banks could offer payday loans on much less extortionate terms. Felix Salmon retorts that banks don’t actually want to do business with poor people unless they can scrape them for high fees. Otherwise the costs of dealing with the accounts exceeds the profits to be made by having them as customers.

The solution to this problem, I think, would be for banking services to be performed by a firm that already has low-income clients and would have an interest in increasing its level of engagement with them even if the payday lending operation wasn’t profitable per se. In a word, you need Wal-Mart. A few years back, Wal-Mart started offering check-cashing services that were much cheaper than the prices charged by stand-alone check-cashing places. And it’s no surprise that this worked. If your whole business is cashing checks, then your check-cashing fees have to be high. But if check cashing is basically just another way to get people in the door of your store, then it makes business sense to offer attractive terms. Wal-Mart once applied for a banking license and was turned down so it can’t lend money. But if low-end retail chains were allowed to get bank charters, you could imagine one or more of them wanting to offer discount payday lending services for similar reasons—it’s a great way to get customers in the door at a time when you know they have money to spend.

The embedded link about Wal-Mart in the check cashing business is worth reading. For that and for the payday lending industry, having WalMart come in and crush the existing players with the force of low prices would be a good thing. Frankly, letting Wal-Mart have a banking license, which would immediately give access to basic checking and savings account services for millions of adults that don’t currently have them. That could have a major effect right here in Houston.

The Houston area is now the sixth-most unbanked major metropolitan statistical area in the country, as 11.9 percent, or 264,000 households in the region, do not have access to a bank account, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. About 8.2 percent of U.S. households are unbanked.

It’s also the fifth-most underbanked major metro in the U.S., meaning the 28.4 percent, or 630,000 households, that fall into this category have bank accounts but rely heavily on alternative financial products, such as payday lending.

Even after the city of Houston in 2009 established Bank on Houston, a program to draw the unbanked to bank accounts, the numbers of the city’s unbanked and underbanked have increased. In 2009, when Houston was the seventh-most unbanked metro area in the U.S., 10.5 percent of the city’s households were unbanked and 21.4 percent were underbanked.

“Part of it is the population increase,” Alexander Obregon, special projects coordinator for the city controller’s office and chair of the financial education committee for Bank on Houston. “There aren’t enough service providers out there that can reach all the people who need a financial education. Houston’s population continues to grow, and demand for its safety-net services continues to grow,” outpacing the growth of those services, he said.

Roger Widmeyer, spokesman for the Houston controller’s office, added that the unbanked can be a challenging demographic group to draw to the financial services industry, as many have a generational or cultural distrust of banks.

“Houston is a mecca for skilled labor, and many of these folks get paid in cash, and they prefer it that way,” Widmeyer said. “We’re attracting a lot of new residents who are coming here without a bank.”

I’m willing to bet that if Bank On Houston could partner with Wal-Mart, that would make a major dent in those numbers. Hey, I dislike and distrust Wal-Mart as much as the next liberal do-gooder. No question, Wal-Mart is evil. Compared to the payday lending industry, though, they’re clearly the lesser evil. I’m not particularly sanguine about a legislative fix for payday lending, and while the city of Houston is likely to take action to restrict payday lending here, that can only cover the city. Bigger action than that is needed. I say let WalMart come in and squeeze all the profit out of payday lending. That’s one industry where there’s no downside to lower prices.

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One Comment

  1. Ross says:

    So, WalMart is evil for hiring temp workers? That would apply to every IT shop I’ve ever seen, where a third or more of the workers are contractors. It’s basic business sense to hire temporary workers to smooth the peaks and valleys of demand.

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