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Bring back postal banking

I still like this idea.

Postal unions and civil rights groups are among other advocacy organizations, along with the U.S. Postal Service inspector general, pushing USPS to expand into banking. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Democratic presidential hopeful, agrees. But USPS, which could use the business, has no interest.

Providing financial services in post offices “could benefit the 68 million underserved Americans who either do not have a bank account or rely on expensive services like payday lending and check cashing,” says an inspector general report issued in May. “The products also could help the Postal Service generate new revenue to continue providing universal service. Because it has a presence in every neighborhood, including many places where there are no longer any bank branches, the Postal Service is well suited to provide such services. In addition, its well-trained workforce is already experienced at handling complex transactions and watching out for related fraud and other risks.”

The push for postal banking received a boost this month with an article by Mehrsa Baradaran in The Atlantic. Baradaran, a University of Georgia School of Law associate professor, advocates a “central bank for the poor,” as an alternative to “the unscrupulous practices of payday lenders.”

Postal banking, she wrote, could provide short-term loans and “potentially drive out the usurious fringe-lending sector, which profits from Americans’ financial woes.” Her article was adapted from her book “How the Other Half Banks: Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy.”

USPS officials regularly trumpet what they are doing to improve the Postal Service’s financial situation, including such things as selling greeting cards. But the officials have rejected postal banking.

“While we currently provide our customers with certain financial services, including money orders, electronic funds transfers, and cashing of U.S. Treasury checks, our core function is not banking,” said David A. Partenheimer, a USPS spokesman. Former Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe was more emphatic during his farewell press conference in January. “The key thing for any successful business is to work within their core,” he said. “We don’t know anything about banking.”

They must have forgotten.

Postal banking, known as the Postal Savings System, began operation in 1911 and officially ended in 1967, though the Post Office stopped accepting deposits a year earlier. Initially, savings earned 2.5 percent interest with a half-percent designated for operation of the system, according to a postal service history. “Although bankers first viewed the Postal Savings System as competition,” the history says, “they later were convinced that the Postal Savings System brought a considerable amount of money out of hiding from mattresses and cookie jars.” Most of the money was redeposited in local banks. The Postal Savings System, however, did not include lending, according to Mehrsa.

I’ve covered this before, and continue to be convinced that it makes sense. That Inspector general report quote above is a big part of it, but just having convenient access to their money without having to pay exorbitant fees or be at the mercy of the failings of unregulated “entrepreneurs” would be a huge book for millions of working people. I truly don’t understand the USPS’s objections to this, given their own history. It would be good for their business as well as good for so many people. Keep up the pressure, y’all.

More on the Postal Service as financial service provider

I still think it’s a good idea, and so do a lot of other people.

The Postal Banking Consumer Survey [PDF] asked more than 1,600 consumers, many of whom do not have access to traditional banking services, whether or not USPS should enter the banking arena.

Most consumers, about 63%, reported that the addition of services, such as bill paying, check cashing, and small-dollar loans, would not matter to them.

However, a majority, about 58%, of consumers support the argument that providing financial services at USPS branches would expand access to safe financial products for low- and middle-income Americans while providing a new sources of revenue for the Postal Service.

Nearly 64% of consumers who identify as using alternative financial services believe the expansion of safe financial services would be beneficial to both consumers and the postal service.

Conversely, only 32% of those surveyed said they believe that providing financial services at Postal Service branches would divert resources from mail delivery and give the government-run Postal Service an unfair advantage over privately-run companies that already offer financial services.

“There is a market here but it’s limited,” Alex Horowitz, research officer for Pew Charitable Trusts, says. “When we look at people who already are using alternative services it changes. There is quite a bit of interest for lower-cost services among those who already use alternative services.”

[…]

Consumers who currently use alternative financial services were more likely to use lower-cost services though their local post office branch.

Nearly 46% would use check-cashing, 27% would purchase prepaid cards, 46% would use bill-pay services and 41% would consider payday loans through the postal service.

See here for the background. We all know that payday lenders are a big issue for a lot of people, but so are things like check cashing services, mostly because of the large fees they charge. The point of this idea is that the Postal Service could be a lower cost provider of conveniences like check cashing and bill paying. Another advantage of using the USPS for this is that there are post offices everywhere.

The USPS Office of Inspector General first made the case for expanding into financial services this January, calling itself “well positioned” to meet the needs of underserved Americans. It didn’t take long for the idea to garner attention from high-profile legislators like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D-Mass), who joined other lawmakers and experts at a Pew conference Wednesday to debate the merits and pitfalls.

There’s consensus on the easy part: the problem. Most people agree that an astounding number of Americans live outside the mainstream financial system and this often has a negative impact on their financial lives and futures. In total, they comprise a quarter of US households and spend tens of billions on fees and interest each year. To put this in perspective, Warren likes to point out that these Americans spend as much money on financial services as they do on food, which is to say they spend $2,412 a year per household, or roughly 10% of their income.

Clearly the big question that remains is whether the post office is the right vehicle for delivering change.

Postal services in dozens of other countries, including Japan, Switzerland and the UK, already do it. Many make big money from it. The USPS itself offered a savings program for over fifty years, but discontinued it in 1967.

One thing the post office has going for it is an extensive brick-and-mortar network, with over 30,000 locations in nearly every zip code. While there are three times as many bank branches, they don’t cover as many zip codes. In Montana, as in many rural places, “you can find yourself more than 75 miles from the nearest bank branch,” but close to two or three post offices, says Pew’s Clint Key. There’s a term for this: bank desert. Indeed, Pew found that 10% of census tracts (neighborhoods, essentially) don’t have a bank branch within five miles, but most do have a post office close by.

The problem is getting worse, not better, for America’s underserved families. Since 2008, 93% of bank branch closings have been in zip codes with below-national median household income levels. Meanwhile, banks have been opening branches in areas with median incomes above $100,000.

The post office also touts its trusted brand, saying consumers who walk in to any location would know they were getting safe, simple financial products. A Pew finding shows that 71% of people view the US Postal Service favorably, compared to 9% for payday lenders, 21% for check cashiers and 56% for banks.

“This is an opportunity for the post office to use its space and its employees more efficiently to bring needed services to more Americans,” said Warren.

If the post office were to get into banking, it wouldn’t just be out of the goodness of its heart. It estimates a revenue of $8.9 billion each year. If true, this is a big deal for an agency in crisis. The post office loses money every year. Thanks to the internet, mail volume has plunged 22% over the last five years. Meanwhile, the USPS is struggling with a Congressional edict that it pre-fund employee benefits.

“This is an existential crisis,” said James Gattuso, senior research fellow in regulatory policy at the Heritage Foundation.”The postal service needs a new line of business.”

Sure seems like a good fit all around. Getting into the short-term loans business is another matter, as it’s inherently risky and would require Congressional approval, which these days is nigh impossible to achieve. Still, this has the potential to do a lot of good for a lot of people. It’s worth serious consideration.

Going where the payday lenders are

The most frequent defense I hear of payday lenders it that there’s a demand for the kind of short-term low-dollar loans that they provide that aren’t provided by other financial institutions, and even if they were those institutions don’t exist in the neighborhoods that generate the demand for these loans. That doesn’t come close to justifying the payday lenders’ exorbitant rates and fees or their predatory practices, but I admit that there’s a need that will get fulfilled one way or another. Given that, wouldn’t it be preferable by far to have more reputable financial institutions in the neighborhoods that need these services, operating in a manner that serves the customers rather than preys on them? One such institution is giving that a try in San Antonio.

Select Federal Credit Union (SFCU), an outspoken opponent of the payday lending industry, is trying to fill the gap from two directions: accessibility and availability.

One reason payday lenders were successful is that they were densely present in their target markets. While their clients fall across a range of income brackets, the highest concentration is in low income areas, where many are unbanked.

“We definitely have a proliferation of payday lenders, and bank branches are sparse,” said District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor.

SFCU realized that to be effective, they needed to be in the neighborhood. They needed to find places along people’s pathways. Convenience is an issue for those who take public transit or walk to and from work with their paycheck in their hands.

So SFCU found a home in the middle of their target market: Ella Austin Community Center, affectionately known around the neighborhood simply as “Ella Austin” or “Ella.”

[…]

SFCU seized the moment to set up shop on the campus, giving them access to senior citizens and families who use the services offered at Ella Austin. They also have access to the employees of Ella Austin and the resident businesses. Employed people are statistically just as likely to use payday lenders as those without steady income.

SFCU goes a step further even, as they have the technology to bring banking directly to the homes of those who have trouble accessing in person or online. They are also working on other partnerships with local businesses and institutions to bring virtual or mini-branches to their facilities.

Ella Austin is easily walkable for neighborhood residents, and the branch has a slower, more relational atmosphere.

“We want to dedicate this branch to sitting down and talking with people,” said John Garcia, head of Business Development and Marketing at SFCU.

From their post at Ella Austin, SFCU is poised to offer not only accessible financial services, but also financial education. SFCU is a designated Community Development Financial Institution, one of only two in San Antonio. They keep their footprint small and nimble, with a focus on increasing financial stability for their members.

“We welcome Select Federal Credit Union because they have the flexibility to do more outreach than a traditional bank,” said Taylor.

The basic idea here is simple and well-conceived. Any business wants to be where the potential customers are, and Lord knows there’s plenty of room to compete with payday lenders on price and service. Those are the pillars behind the concepts of allowing post offices and WalMart to act as banks – they exist everywhere, including a lot of places where there are no traditional banks, and they can provide standard services like checking, savings, and low-dollar loans at very reasonable costs. Getting credit unions into the game is even better, as they wouldn’t need to seek regulatory approval to take on this business and they’ve generally been a force for good overall. I will be very interested to see how this plays out – there are no guarantees, of course, but this is a great idea that has real hope of succeeding. I hope their peers in other cities are watching how this goes, too.

The CFPB is almost ready to roll out payday lending regulations

I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Whenever governments start thinking about cracking down on small-dollar, high-interest financial products like payday loans and check cashing services, a shrill cry goes up from the businesses that offer them: You’re just going to hurt the poor folks who need the money! What do you want them to do, start bouncing checks? 

A field hearing held by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau today was no exception. The young agency has been studying how the industry functions for a couple years and is now very close to issuing new rules to govern it. To start setting the scene, CFPB Director Richard Cordray came to Nashville — the locus of intense payday lending activity recently — to release a report and take testimony from the public.

The report, building on a previous white paper, is fairly damning: It makes the case that “short term” loans are usually not short term at all, but more often renewed again and again as consumers dig themselves into deeper sinkholes of debt. Half of all loans, for example, come as part of sequences of 10 or more renewed loans — and in one out of five loans, borrowers end up paying more in fees than the initial amount they borrowed.

[…]

Passing a rate cap, however, is not the only remedy. In fact, it’s not even possible: The CFPB is barred by statute from doing so.* And actually, the Pew Charitable Trusts — which has been tracking payday lending for years — doesn’t even think it’s the best approach.

“The core problem here is this lump-sum payday loan that takes 36 percent of their paycheck,” says Pew’s Nick Bourke, referring to the average $430 loan size. “The policy response now has to be either eliminate that product altogether, or require it to be a more affordable installment loans.”

Bourke favors the latter option: Require lenders to take into account a borrower’s ability to repay the loan over a longer period of time, with monthly payments not to exceed 5 percent of a customer’s income. That, along with other fixes like making sure that fees are assessed across the life of the loan rather than up front, would decrease the likelihood that borrowers would need to take out new loans just to pay off the old ones.

See here for the background. It’s fine by me if the CFPB takes a different approach than usury caps. States and localities can still do that themselves if they wish, with the CFPB’s rules serving as a regulatory floor. It’s a step forward any way you look at it, with the potential to do a lot more if needed.

Now, the installment loan plan wouldn’t leave the industry untouched. When Colorado mandated something similar, Pew found that half of the storefront payday lenders closed up shop. But actual lending didn’t decrease that much, since most people found alternative locations. That illustrates a really important point about the small dollar loan industry: As a Fed study last year showed, barriers to entry have been so low that new shops have flooded the market, scraping by issuing an average of 15 loans per day. They have to charge high interest rates because they have to maintain the high fixed costs of brick and mortar locations — according to Pew, 60 percent of their revenue goes into overhead, and only 16 percent to profit (still quite a healthy margin). If they were forced to consolidate, they could offer safer products and still make tons of money.

Meanwhile, there’s another player in the mix here: Regular banks, which got out of the payday lending business a few months ago in response to guidance from other regulators. With the benefits of diversification and scale, they’re able to offer small-dollar loans at lower rates, and so are better equipped to compete in the market under whatever conditions the CFPB might impose.

Actually, there are two other potential players here as well: Post offices and WalMart stores, both of which could do a lot to streamline this industry by aggressively competing on price. If that happens to drive a lot of small, inefficient players out of the market, too bad for them. These options would unfortunately require an act of Congress to become reality, and the odds of that are vanishingly small. But the point is that those options exist, and if the regs that the CFPB does put forth winds up squeezing a lot of the existing players, the demand will be there for bigger dogs to come in. In most cases that would be bad, but this is the exception. We’ll see how it goes. And whatever does eventually happen, let’s not forget that if we had less poverty, we’d have less demand for payday lending. Consider that yet another argument for raising the minimum wage.

Another way to squeeze the payday lenders

I wholeheartedly approve of this.

The Postal Service (USPS) could spare the most economically vulnerable Americans from dealing with predatory financial companies under a proposal endorsed over the weekend by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

“USPS could partner with banks to make a critical difference for millions of Americans who don’t have basic banking services because there are almost no banks or bank branches in their neighborhoods,” Warren wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed on Saturday. The op-ed picked up on a report from the USPS’s Inspector General that proposed using the agency’s extensive physical infrastructure to extend basics like debit cards and small-dollar loans to the same communities that the banking industry has generally ignored. The report found that 68 million Americans don’t have bank accounts and spent $89 billion in 2012 on interest and fees for the kinds of basic financial services that USPS could begin offering. The average un-banked household spent more than $2,400, or about 10 percent of its income, just to access its own money through things like check cashing and payday lending stores. USPS would generate savings for those families and revenue for itself by stepping in to replace those non-bank financial services companies.

[…]

But while ending triple-digit interest rates and fine-print tricks is a good thing for consumers, it doesn’t reduce the demand for those financial services. The USPS could slide into that space and meet that need without preying upon those communities. “Instead of partnering with predatory lenders,” David Dayen writes in The New Republic, “banks could partner with the USPS on a public option, not beholden to shareholder demands, which would treat customers more fairly.” America’s post offices are an ideal physical infrastructure for furnishing these services to communities currently neglected by banks. Roughly six in 10 post offices nationwide are in what the USPS report calls “bank deserts” — zip codes with either one or zero bank branches.

I noted that David Dayen story in a previous linkdump. I like this idea for the same reason why I like the idea of letting Wal-Mart open banks: It would provide low-cost banking and financial services, including short-term, low-dollar loans, to a large class of people whose only current options are high-cost predatory lenders. Anything that puts downward pressure on the price of these services and makes savings and checking accounts available to people who don’t have them is a win in my book. This idea should especially appeal to people who don’t care for having cities step in to regulate payday lenders, since it would reduce barriers to competition and allow for real customer-friendly innovation in a highly non-customer-friendly market. What’s not to like?

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.