Opinion | Private Equity Is Turbocharging Damage of Payday Lending Industry

Opinion | Private Equity Is Turbocharging Damage of Payday Lending Industry

Predatory lending is an easily overlooked business that has damaged communities of color and poorer people for decades. It traps borrowers in never-ending cycles of debt with high-interest loans on coercive terms. But when Wall Street private equity gets in on the predatory lending industry, it amplifies the magnitude of financial exploitation.

Private equity, put simply, is supercharging the payday and predatory lending industries as it does in any other industry. Private equity has the money — big money — to buy control of lenders and reach more people with greater levels of abuse than they could before. That means more of the infamous debt traps that characterize predatory lending.

Over the last decade, private equity brought additional financial resources, and in some cases, a new level of sophistication, to the subprime lenders they acquired, often enabling the payday and installment lenders they acquire to buy competitors. Only a few months ago, private equity firm Park Cities Asset Management took control of Elevate Credit.

Elevate is a notorious predatory lender. “Elevate raked in over a half billion dollars in 2013 alone. And they showered over $210,000 of that cash on federal lobbyists to attempt to hinder regulations of the payday loan industry,” according to the website Payday Lending Facts. In August 2022, a federal judge in Virginia gave final approval to a settlement involving Elevate Credit, where the company agreed to pay $33 million to resolve litigation related to a predecessor company’s dealing with various tribes.

Private equity firms own more than 5,000 payday lending stores in America and provide capital for several startups’ online payday loans, a 2017 report from Americans for Financial Reform showed. The predatory lender, Mariner Finance, had only 57 branches in seven states in 2013. It now has roughly 480 branches in 22 states, nearly a decade after the Wall Street private equity firm Warburg Pincus – headed by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner – acquired it. In addition to that financial power, private equity has access to bond markets to fuel its expansion.

Private equity firms Diamond Castle Holdings and Golden Gate Capital merged Checksmart Financial and California Check Cashing Stores into Community Choice Financial in 2011, and over the years, acquired or rolled up other companies like CURO and Direct Financial Solutions to build what is now a network of nearly 500 locations nationwide.

Predatory lenders owned by private equity firms create incentives for their employees to mislead consumers on loan requirements. Private equity firms often pressure employees at predatory lenders they own to sell what are known as “add-on products.” For example, a lender may insert credit insurance on auto or personal loans or try to add high service fees.

“Mariner’s policies and business practices are set and directed by headquarters, leaving minimal discretion to branch managers and loan officers to extend loans that work best for consumers according to their needs and financial condition,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro wrote in a 2022 lawsuit against Mariner Finance. “The primary directive is to sell.”

For example, finance companies like predatory lenders often charge consumers all payments for any add-on products as a lump sum at origination. Essentially, even if a product expires years earlier during the loan term, consumers are still required to make payments on these add-ons. They often use illegal debt collection tactics to create a false sense of urgency to lure overdue borrowers into payday debt traps. Private equity-owned payday lender, ACE Cash Express, was one of the first companies in 2014 to be fined by CFPB for that business practice.

Mariner Finance, which specializes in personal loans of $1,000 to $25,000, with interest rates of up to 36 percent that can be inflated by additional fees. Fortress Investment Group owns similar installment lender OneMain Financial, while the Blackstone Group ― founded by billionaire Stephen Schwarzman ― controls Lendmark Financial Services, which in general, charge up to 30 percent in interest rates for its loans.

Payday loan lenders commonly charge fees of $15 for every $100 borrowed, which equals a 400 percent interest rate for a two-week loan. They prey on low-income and minority borrowers with arbitrary fees that are often more than what is permitted by their local states. “A high rate isn’t automatically a form of predatory lending—it may be higher because of your creditworthiness—but an unusually high one is definitely a red flag,” attorney Andrew Pizor with the National Consumer Law Center pointed out.

Predatory lenders target Black borrowers specifically. In Houston, while African-Americans make up only 15.6 percent of auto title lending customers and 23 percent of payday lending customers, 34.8 percent of the photographs on these lenders’ websites depict African-Americans, per a 2021 study by Jim Hawkins and Tiffany C. Penner of the University of Texas. Black Americans make up roughly 13 percent of the total American population, but end up with 23 percent of all storefront payday loans,” Pew Trusts reported.

Payday lending is inherently predatory and private equity is turbocharging its abuses, enlarging the burden it places on low-income individuals and borrowers of color. About 18 states across the country have a 36 percent rate cap or below to fight this problem, but many predatory lenders operate nationally. Congress must step in with a usury cap that applies nationwide. Stronger protections are the only way to stop the damage caused by predatory lenders, who now increasingly have the financial muscle of private equity behind them.

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