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Congress weighs payday lending changes

Panel told lenders are skirting existing regulations.

Nearly six years after the Ohio General Assembly passed a bill aimed at cracking down on payday lenders in the state, those products have been replaced with auto title and installment loans, an Ohio consumer advocate told a Senate panel Wednesday.

David Rothstein, director of public affairs for Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland, said the 2008 law, which curtailed interest rates loan amounts and the number of loans in the state, has effectively “morphed” into auto title and installment loans, which still paralyze consumers and in some cases culminate in them losing their car or being saddled with similar loans with triple-digit interest rates.

He spoke during a hearing of the Senate Banking Committee’s subcommittee on financial institutions and consumer protection. The hearing was chaired by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who argued such products are predatory.

While marketed as short-term loans, the products are ultimately used repeatedly to cover basic expenses, said Brown, who argued that consumers get trapped “in a cycle of debt that leaves them worse off than they started.”

Some 12 million Americans use payday loans per year, and small-dollar lending is an $80 billion per year business, according to Brown.

Other lawmakers expressed concern that cracking down on such lenders would limit consumers’ ability to borrow during a time of need. “People in this town want to shut off access to credit in a number of ways,” said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., ranking member of the panel, who suggested it was arrogant that regulators might “forbid we let people decide what is the most sensible thing to do with the circumstances that they face.”

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., meanwhile, said he was irked at reports that the Department of Justice had partnered with regulators and become involved in a crackdown on short-term lenders.

Vitter said while he opposed predatory lending, he was concerned that the Justice Department’s efforts were ultimately meant to “shut down that entire industry, whether folks are following the rules or not.”

A report released this week by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that more than 80 percent of those who use payday loans often renew those loans or take out another loan within 14 days. Those borrowers ultimately end up borrowing the same amount or more than what they initially borrowed.

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