In mid-March, the payday lending industry held its annual convention at the Trump National Doral hotel outside Miami. Payday lenders offer loans on the order of a few hundred dollars, typically to low-income borrowers, who have to pay them back in a matter of weeks. The industry has long been reviled by critics for charging stratospheric interest rates — typically 400% on an annual basis — that leave customers trapped in cycles of debt.
The industry had felt under siege during the Obama administration, as the federal government moved to clamp down. A government study found that a majority of payday loans are made to people who pay more in interest and fees than they initially borrow. Google and Facebook refuse to take the industry's ads.
On the edge of the Doral's grounds, as the payday convention began, a group of ministers held a protest "pray-in," denouncing the lenders for having a "feast" while their borrowers "suffer and starve."
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But inside the hotel, in a wood-paneled bar under golden chandeliers, the mood was celebratory. Payday lenders, many dressed in golf shirts and khakis, enjoyed an open bar and mingled over bites of steak and coconut shrimp.
They had plenty to be elated about. A month earlier, Kathleen Kraninger, who had just finished her second month as director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, had delivered what the lenders consider an epochal victory: Kraninger announced a proposal to gut a crucial rule that had been passed under her Obama-era predecessor.
Payday lenders viewed that rule as a potential death sentence for many in their industry. It would require payday lenders and others to make sure borrowers could afford to pay back their loans while also covering basic living expenses. Banks and mortgage lenders view such a step as a basic prerequisite. But the notion struck terror in the payday lenders. Their business model relies on customers -- 12 million Americans take out payday loans every year, according to Pew Charitable Trusts -- getting stuck in a long-term cycle of debt, experts say. A CFPB study found that three out of four payday loans go to borrowers who take out 10 or more loans a year.
Now, the industry was taking credit for the CFPB's retreat. As salespeople, executives and vendors picked up lanyards and programs at the registration desk by the Doral's lobby, they saw a message on the first page of the program from Dennis Shaul, CEO of the industry's trade group, the Community Financial Services Association of America, which was hosting the convention. "We should not forget that we have had some good fortune through recent regulatory and legal developments," Shaul wrote. "These events did not occur by accident, but rather are due in large part to the unity and participation of CFSA members and a commitment to fight back against regulatory overreach by the CFPB."
This year was the second in a row that the CFSA held its convention at the Doral. In the eight years before 2018 (the extent for which records could be found), the organization never held an event at a Trump property.
Asked whether the choice of venue had anything to do with the fact that its owner is president of the United States and the man who appointed Kraninger as his organization's chief regulator, Shaul assured ProPublica and WNYC that the answer was no. "We returned because the venue is popular with our members and meets our needs," he said in a written statement. The statement noted that the CFSA held its first annual convention at the Doral hotel more than 16 years ago. Trump didn't own the property at the time.
The CFSA and its members have poured a total of about $1 million into the Trump Organization's coffers through the two annual conferences, according to detailed estimates prepared by a corporate event planner in Miami and an executive at a competing hotel that books similar events. Those estimates are consistent with the CFSA's most recent available tax filing, which reveals that it spent $644,656 on its annual conference the year before the first gathering at the Trump property. (The Doral and the CFSA declined to comment.)
"It's a way of keeping themselves on the list, reminding the president and the people close to him that they are among those who are generous to him with the profits that they earn from a business that's in severe danger of regulation unless the Trump administration acts," said Lisa Donner, executive director of consumer group Americans for Financial Reform.
The money the CFSA spent at the Doral is only part of the ante to lobby during the Trump administration. The payday lenders also did a bevy of things that interest groups have always done: They contributed to the president's inauguration and earned face time with the president after donating to a Trump ally.
But it's the payment to the president's business that is a stark reminder that the Trump administration is like none before it. If the industry had written a $1 million check directly to the president's campaign, both the CFSA and campaign could have faced fines or even criminal charges -- and Trump couldn't have used the money to enrich himself. But paying $1 million directly to the president's business? That's perfectly legal.
The inauguration of Donald Trump was a watershed for the payday lending industry. It had been feeling beleaguered since the launch of the CFPB in 2011. For the first time, the industry had come under federal supervision. Payday lending companies were suddenly subject to exams conducted by the bureau's supervision division, which could, and sometimes did, lead to enforcement cases.
Before the bureau was created, payday lenders had been overseen mostly by state authorities. That left a patchwork: 15 states in which payday loans were banned outright, a handful of states with strong enforcement -- and large swaths of the country in which payday lending was mostly unregulated.
Then, almost as suddenly as an aggressive CFPB emerged, the Trump administration arrived with an agenda of undoing regulations. "There was a resurgence of hope in the industry, which seems to be justified, at this point," said Jeremy Rosenblum, a partner at law firm Ballard Spahr, who represents payday lenders. Rosenblum spoke to ProPublica and WNYC in a conference room at the Doral -- filled with notepads, pens and little bowls of candy marked with the Trump name and family crest -- where he had just led a session on compliance with federal and state laws. "There was a profound sense of relief, or hope, for the first time." (Ballard Spahr occasionally represents ProPublica in legal matters.)
In Mick Mulvaney, who Trump appointed as interim chief of the CFPB in 2017, the industry got exactly the kind of person it had hoped for. As a congressman, Mulvaney had famously derided the agency as a "sad, sick" joke.
If anything, that phrase undersold Mulvaney's attempts to hamstring the agency as its chief. He froze new investigations, dropped enforcement actions en masse, requested a budget of $0 and seemed to mock the agency by attempting to officially re-order the words in the organization's name.
But Mulvaney's rhetoric sometimes exceeded his impact. His budget request was ignored, for example; the CFPB's name change was only fleeting. And besides, Mulvaney was always a part-timer, fitting in a few days a week at the CFPB while also heading the Office of Management and Budget, and then moving to the White House as acting chief of staff.
It's Mulvaney's successor, Kraninger, whom the financial industry is now counting on -- and the early signs suggest she'll deliver. In addition to easing rules on payday lenders, she has continued Mulvaney's policy of ending supervisory exams on outfits that specialize in lending to the members of the military, claiming that the CFPB can do so only if Congress passes a new law granting those powers (which isn't likely to happen anytime soon). She has also proposed a new regulation that will allow debt collectors to text and email debtors an unlimited number of times as long as there's an option to unsubscribe.
Enforcement activity at the bureau has plunged under Trump. The amount of monetary relief going to consumers has fallen from $43 million per week under Richard Cordray, the director appointed by Barack Obama, to $6.4 million per week under Mulvaney and is now $464,039, according to an updated analysis conducted by the Consumer Federation of America's Christopher Peterson, a former special adviser to the bureau.
Kraninger's disposition seems almost the inverse of Mulvaney's. If he's the self-styled "right wing nutjob" willing to blow up the institution and everything near it, Kraninger offers positive rhetoric -- she says she wants to "empower" consumers -- and comes across as an amiable technocrat. At 44, she's a former political science major -- with degrees from Marquette University and Georgetown Law School -- and has spent her career in the federal bureaucracy, with a series of jobs in the Transportation and Homeland Security departments and finally in OMB, where she worked under Mulvaney. (In an interview with her college alumni association, she hailed her Jesuit education and cited Pope Francis as her "dream dinner guest.") In her previous jobs, Kraninger had extensive budgeting experience, but none in consumer finance. The CFPB declined multiple requests to make Kraninger available for an interview and directed ProPublica and WNYC to her public comments and speeches.
Kraninger is new to public testimony, but she already seems to have developed the politician's skill of refusing to answer difficult questions. At a hearing in March just weeks before the Doral conference, Democratic Rep. Katie Porter repeatedly asked Kraninger to calculate the annual percentage rate on a hypothetical $200 two-week payday loan that costs $10 per $100 borrowed plus a $20 fee. The exchange went viral on Twitter. In a bit of congressional theater, Porter even had an aide deliver a calculator to Kraninger's side to help her. But Kraninger would not engage. She emphasized that she wanted to conduct a policy discussion rather than a "math exercise." The answer, by the way: That's a 521% APR.
A while later, the session recessed and Kraninger and a handful of her aides repaired to the women's room. A ProPublica reporter was there, too. The group lingered, seeming to relish what they considered a triumph in the hearing room. "I stole that calculator, Kathy," one of the aides said. "It's ours! It's ours now!" Kraninger and her team laughed.
Triple-digit interest rates are no laughing matter for those who take out payday loans. A sum as little as $100, combined with such rates, can lead a borrower into long-term financial dependency.
That's what happened to Maria Dichter. Now 73, retired from the insurance industry and living in Palm Beach County, Florida, Dichter first took out a payday loan in 2011. Both she and her husband had gotten knee replacements, and he was about to get a pacemaker. She needed $100 to cover the co-pay on their medication. As is required, Dichter brought identification and her Social Security number and gave the lender a postdated check to pay what she owed. (All of this is standard for payday loans; borrowers either postdate a check or grant the lender access to their bank account.) What nobody asked her to do was show that she had the means to repay the loan. Dichter got the $100 the same day.
The relief was only temporary. Dichter soon needed to pay for more doctors' appointments and prescriptions. She went back and got a new loan for $300 to cover the first one and provide some more cash. A few months later, she paid that off with a new $500 loan.
Dichter collects a Social Security check each month, but she has never been able to catch up. For almost eight years now, she has renewed her $500 loan every month. Each time she is charged $54 in fees and interest. That means Dichter has paid about $5,000 in interest and fees since 2011 on what is effectively one loan for $500.
Today, Dichter said, she is "trapped." She and her husband subsist on eggs and Special K cereal. "Now I'm worried," Dichter said, "because if that pacemaker goes and he can't replace the battery, he's dead."
Payday loans are marketed as a quick fix for people who are facing a financial emergency like a broken-down car or an unexpected medical bill. But studies show that most borrowers use the loans to cover everyday expenses. "We have a lot of clients who come regularly," said Marco (he asked us to use only his first name), a clerk at one of Advance America's 1,900 stores, this one in a suburban strip mall not far from the Doral hotel. "We have customers that come two times every month. We've had them consecutively for three years."
These types of lenders rely on repeat borrowers. "The average store only has 500 unique customers a year, but they have the overhead of a conventional retail store," said Alex Horowitz, a senior research officer at Pew Charitable Trusts, who has spent years studying payday lending. "If people just used one or two loans, then lenders wouldn't be profitable."
It was years of stories like Dichter's that led the CFPB to draft a rule that would require that lenders ascertain the borrower's ability to repay their loans. "We determined that these loans were very problematic for a large number of consumers who got stuck in what was supposed to be a short-term loan," said Cordray, the first director of the CFPB, in an interview with ProPublica and WNYC. Finishing the ability-to-pay rule was one of the reasons he stayed on even after the Trump administration began. (Cordray left in November 2017 for what became an unsuccessful run for governor of Ohio.)
The ability-to-pay rule was announced in October 2017. The industry erupted in outrage. Here's how CFSA's chief, Shaul, described it in his statement to us: "The CFPB's original rule, as written by unelected Washington bureaucrats, was motivated by a deeply paternalistic view that small-dollar loan customers cannot be trusted with the freedom to make their own financial decisions. The original rule stood to remove access to legal, licensed small-dollar loans for millions of Americans." The statement cited an analysis that "found that the rule would push a staggering 82 percent of small storefront lenders to close." The CFPB estimated that payday and auto title lenders -- the latter allow people to borrow for short periods at ultra-high annual rates using their cars as collateral -- would lose around $7.5 billion as a result of the rule.
The industry fought back. The charge was led by Advance America, the biggest brick-and-mortar payday lender in the United States. Its CEO until December, Patrick O'Shaughnessy, was the chairman of the CFSA's board of directors and head of its federal affairs committee. The company had already been wooing the administration, starting with a $250,000 donation to the Trump inaugural committee. (Advance America contributes to both Democratic and Republican candidates, according to spokesperson Jamie Fulmer. He points out that, at the time of the $250,000 donation, the CFPB was still headed by Cordray, the Obama appointee.)
Payday and auto title lenders collectively donated $1.3 million to the inauguration. Rod and Leslie Aycox from Select Management Resources, a Georgia-based title lending company, attended the Chairman's Global Dinner, an exclusive inauguration week event organized by Tom Barrack, the inaugural chairman, according to documents obtained by "Trump, Inc." President-elect Trump spoke at the dinner.
In October 2017, Rod Aycox and O'Shaughnessy met with Trump when he traveled to Greenville, South Carolina, to speak at a fundraiser for the state's governor, Henry McMaster. They were among 30 people who were invited to discuss economic development after donating to the campaign, according to the The Post and Courier. ("This event was only about 20 minutes long," said the spokesperson for O'Shaughnessy's company, and the group was large. "Any interaction with the President would have been brief." The Aycoxes did not respond to requests for comment.)
In 2017, the CFSA spent $4.3 million advocating for its agenda at the federal and state level, according to its IRS filing. That included developing "strategies and policies," providing a "link between the industry and regulatory decision makers" and efforts to "educate various state policy makers" and "support legislative efforts which are beneficial to the industry and the public."
The ability-to-pay rule technically went into effect in January 2018, but the more meaningful date was August 2019. That's when payday lenders could be penalized if they hadn't implemented key parts of the rule.
Payday lenders looked to Mulvaney for help. He had historically been sympathetic to the industry and open to lobbyists who contribute money. (Jaws dropped in Washington, not about Mulvaney's practices in this regard, but about his candor. "We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress," he told bankers in 2018. "If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn't talk to you. If you're a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.")
But Mulvaney couldn't overturn the ability-to-pay rule. Since it had been finalized, he didn't have the legal authority to reverse it on his own. Mulvaney announced that the bureau would begin reconsidering the rule, a complicated and potentially lengthy process. The CFPB, under Cordray, had spent five years researching and preparing it.
Meanwhile, the payday lenders turned to Congress. Under the Congressional Review Act, lawmakers can nix federal rules during their first 60 days in effect. In the House, a bipartisan group of representatives filed a joint resolution to abolish the ability-to-pay rule. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., led the charge in the Senate. But supporters couldn't muster a decisive vote in time, in part because opposition to payday lenders crosses party lines.
By April 2018, the CFSA members were growing impatient. But the Trump administration was willing to listen. The CFSA's Shaul was granted access to a top Mulvaney lieutenant, according to "Mick Mulvaney's Master Class in Destroying a Bureaucracy From Within" in The New York Times Magazine, which offers a detailed description of the behind-the scenes maneuvering. Shaul told the lieutenant that the CFSA had been preparing to sue the CFPB to stop the ability-to-pay rule "but now believed that it would be better to work with the bureau to write a new one." Cautious about appearing to coordinate with industry, according to the article, the CFPB was non-committal.
Days later, the CFSA sued the bureau. The organization's lawyers argued in court filings that the bureau's rules "defied common sense and basic economic analysis." The suit claimed the bureau was unconstitutional and lacked the authority to impose rules.
A month later, Mulvaney took a rare step, at least, for most administrations: He sided with the plaintiffs suing his agency. Mulvaney filed a joint motion asking the judge to delay the ability-to-pay rule until the lawsuit is resolved.
By February of this year, Kraninger had taken charge of the CFPB and proposed to rescind the ability-to-pay rule. Her official announcement asserted that there was "insufficient evidence and legal support" for the rule and expressed concern that it "would reduce access to credit and competition."
Kraninger's announcement sparked euphoria in the industry. One industry blog proclaimed, "It's party time, baby!" with a GIF of President Trump bobbing his head.
Kraninger's decision made the lawsuit largely moot. But the suit, which has been stayed, has still served a purpose: This spring, a federal judge agreed to freeze another provision of the regulation, one that limits the number of times a lender can debit a borrower's bank account, until the fate of the overall rule is determined.
As the wrangling over the federal regulation plays out, payday lenders have continued to lobby statehouses across the country. For example, a company called Amscot pushed for a new state law in Florida last year. Amscot courted African American pastors and leaders located in the districts of dozens of Democratic lawmakers and chartered private jets to fly them to Florida's capital to testify, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The lawmakers subsequently passed legislation creating a new type of payday loan, one that can be paid in installments, that lets consumers borrow a maximum $1,000 loan versus the $500 maximum for regular payday loans. Amscot CEO Ian MacKechnie asserts that the new loans reduce fees (consumer advocates disagree). He added, in an email to ProPublica and WNYC: "We have always worked with leaders in the communities that we serve: both to understand the experiences of their constituents with regard to financial products; and to be a resource to make sure everyone understands the law and consumer protections. Educated consumers are in everyone's interest." For their part, the leaders denied that Amscot's contributions affected their opinions. As one of them told the Tampa Bay Times, the company is a "great community partner."
Kraninger spent her first three months in office embarking on a "listening tour." She traveled the country and met with more than 400 consumer groups, government officials and financial institutions. Finally, in mid-April, she gave her first public speech at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. The CFPB billed it as the moment she would lay out her vision for the agency.
Kraninger said she hoped to use the CFPB's enforcement powers "less often." She alluded to a report by the Federal Reserve that 40% of Americans would not be able to cover an emergency expense of $400. Her suggestion for addressing that: educational videos and a booklet. "To promote effective approaches to savings and particularly emergency savings," Kraninger explained, "the Bureau recently launched our Start Small, Save Up initiative. It offers tips, tools and information to help consumers build a basic savings cushion and develop a savings habit. Later this year, we will be launching a savings 'boot camp,' a series of videos, and a very readable, informative booklet that serves as a roadmap to a savings plan."
Having laid out what sounded like a plan to hand out self-help brochures at an agency invented to pursue predatory financial institutions, she then said, "Let me be clear, however, the ultimate goal for the bureau is not to produce booklets and great content on our website. The ultimate goal is to move the needle on the number of Americans in this country who can cover a financial shock, like a $400 emergency."
Back at the Doral the month before her speech, $400 might not have seemed like much of an emergency to the payday lenders. Some attendees seemed most upset by a torrential downpour on the second day that caused the cancellation of the conference's golf tournament.
Inside the Donald J. Trump Ballroom, the conference buzzed with activity. The Bush-era political adviser Karl Rove was the celebrity speaker after the breakfast buffet. And the practical sessions continued apace. One was called "The Power of the Pen." It was aimed at helping attendees submit comments on the ability-to-pay rule to the government. It was clearly a matter of importance to the CFSA. In his statement to ProPublica and WNYC, Shaul noted that "more than one million customers submitted comments opposing the CFPB's original small-dollar loan rule -- hundreds of thousands of whom sent handwritten letters telling personal stories of how small-dollar loans helped them and their families."
A couple of months after the Doral conference, Allied Progress, a consumer advocacy group, analyzed the new round of comments that were submitted to the CFPB in response to Kraninger's plans. In one sample of 26,000 comments, the group discovered that 27% of the statements submitted by purportedly independent individuals contained duplicative passages, all of which supported the industry's position. For example, Allied Progress reported that 221 of the comments stated that "I have a long commute to work and it's better for me financially to borrow from Cash Connection so that I can still make it to work than to not take care of my car and lose my job because of absences." There were 201 asserting that "I now take care of my parents and my children" and I "want to be able to enjoy life and not feel burdened by the additional expenses that are piling up." Allied Progress said it doesn't know "if these are fake people, fake stories, or form letters intentionally designed to read as personal anecdotes." (Cash Connection couldn't be reached for comment.)
Taking account of public comments is the final task before Kraninger officially determines whether to put the ability-to-pay rule to death. Whatever she decides, it's a likely bet that decision will be challenged in court, the CFSA will weigh in and the payday lenders will still be talking about it at next year's annual conference. A spokesperson for the CFSA declined to say whether the event will be held at a Trump hotel.
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