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VOL. 43 | NO. 5 | Friday, February 1, 2019

Financial watchdog proposes rollback of payday lending rules

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NEW YORK (AP) — The nation's federal financial watchdog said Wednesday that it plans to roll back most of its consumer protections governing payday lenders.

The move is a major win for the payday lending industry, which argued the government's regulations could kill off a large chunk of its business. It's also a big loss for consumer groups, who say payday lenders exploit the poor and disadvantaged with loans that have annual interest rates as much as 400 percent.

The cornerstone of the regulations was a requirement that lenders make sure borrowers could afford to repay a payday loan without being stuck in a cycle of debt, a standard known as "ability to repay." This standard would be repealed under the new rules.

Critics of the payday lending industry have argued that without these underwriting standards, the CFPB's new regulations are effectively toothless. The main criticism of the payday lending industry was that many borrowers would take months to repay a loan that was originally designed only to last a couple of weeks.

"This proposal is not a tweak to the existing rule ... it's a complete dismantling of the consumer protections (the bureau) finalized in 2017," said Alex Horowitz, a researcher with Pew Charitable Trusts, a think tank whose research on the industry was relied on heavily by the bureau when the original rules were unveiled a year and a half ago.

The announcement was the first rollback of regulations under the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's new director, Kathy Kraninger, who took over the bureau late last year. Mick Mulvaney, who was appointed by President Donald Trump's as acting director of the bureau in late 2017, announced a year ago that the bureau was intending to revisit the rules.

Under President Obama, the CFPB spent close to five years working on a process to finally nationalize the regulation of the payday lending industry, which is mostly regulated at the state level. The bureau started the process back in 2012 and its finalized rules were finished in late 2017. It was the last major pieces of regulation done under Richard Cordray, the bureau's first permanent director, before he left the bureau.

The CFPB's proposal is "a bad move that will hurt the hardest-hit consumers," Cordray wrote on Twitter.

CFPB did propose keeping one part of the payday lending regulations: a ban on the industry from making multiple debits on a borrower's bank account, which consumer advocates argued caused borrowers hardship through overdraft fees. In a statement, the payday lending industry felt the CFPB's repeal did not go far enough, and would have wanted the regulations over debits repealed as well.

The proposed new rules are subject to a 90-day comment period by the public. The proposed changes are almost certain to face legal challenges, since the bureau is taking a radical departure from its previous position.

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Ken Sweet covers banks and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @kensweet.

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