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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Rackets, protection and otherwise

A while ago, Todd Zywicki at the volokh conspiracy linked to a paper he had written concerning what is commonly called "overdraft protection." In particular, he focuses on the recent regulations to control "overdraft protection," and proposals to regulate it further. (Click here to see his volokh conspiracy post, and here to get the link to the pdf version of the paper). Zywicki argues the regulations that have been enacted on "overdraft protection" and especially those that are currently under consideration actually harm those who make use of "overdraft protection." His argument, by and large, convinces me. But I have several reservations about it.

Anyone familiar with Zywicki's writings--or at least those writings that he advertises on the volokh conspiracy--knows that he rarely (to my ken, never) has met a regulation of the financial industry that he likes. The argument seems to be that all new regulations impose a cost, and that those costs are passed on to consumers. As a result, consumers, especially the less affluent and more marginal, have to pay more,and are priced out of credit markets either because they are now credit risks where they might not have been before or because they simply can't afford to pay for the new credit "products." In my less discerning moments, I'm inclined to believe that he starts from the assumption of what's best for the credit card company or bank and then looks long and hard for an argument that might show how a regulation affects some unfortunate class of people on the margin, and voila, he's now the champion of the poor.

In my more discerning moments, I avoid that ad hominem (note, however, that I included it in this blog post anyway). I realize that my argument against his conclusions must be more substantive than "Mr. Zywicki wrote that paper ON PURPOSE!!!" And reading his paper, I'm convinced that he's largely right insofar as he critiques regulation of what is called "overdraft protection."

A definition is in order before I explain his argument. "Overdraft protection" is the term now used for the way banks decide to honor or dishonor checks that are presented against an "overdraft," or against a checking account that lacks the funds to cover the amount of the check, almost always with a fee, per item paid or returned unpaid, in the range of $30, sometimes less, and usually more. I believe this use term is unfortunate and misleading: "overdraft protection" used to refer to lines of credit, usually unsecured, or to secondary accounts, usually savings accounts, linked to the checking account that would kick in to cover overdrafts, on the assumption that the customer would repay (in the case of lines of credit) the amount, in addition to a small amount of interest, or pay (in the case of a linked secondary account), a small fee, in the range of $3 or so.

I say the new use of the term is misleading because it feeds the fiction that the bank's practices in honoring or dishonoring checks presented against an overdraft is "product" the consumer purchases instead of an actuarial, risk management practice that the bank engages in. However, being a "fiction" doesn't make it false. "Overdraft protection" is a "product" in the sense that it is part of the set of practices that affect how a customer uses his or her checking account and that may conceivably influence which bank a customer chooses. It is also a "product" in the sense that customers end up paying for the practices, directly when it comes to being charged overdraft fees, and indirectly inasmuch as the aggregate risk assessments influence a bank's overall account-fee structure (minimum balance requirements, monthly or annual fees, fees for atm and other bank card transactions). I should say that while I wish Mr. Zywicki were more precise in how he uses the term (later in his paper he does discuss lines of credit and linked secondary accounts), I can't truly fault him for using it the way he does. Even federal regulators--the federal reserve and the FDIC--appear to have adopted that terminology.

What Zywicki is taking aim against is recent regulations that limit the way banks decide whether or not to pay against overdrafts. These regulations, if I understand them correctly, limit the number of overdraft fees a bank can charge per business day and requires customers to "opt in" to allowing a bank to honor checks against an overdraft (and thereby charge the fee). If a customer doesn't opt in, then any check or electronic item that is presented against an overdraft. Not opting in would also mean debit card authorizations would not--at least not in theory--be approved against an account with insufficient funds. For those who don't opt in, there is still a possibility of an overdraft: a debit card authorization might be approved while an account has funds, but will post a few days later, when an account might lack the funds, and my understanding is that in such situations, the usual overdraft fee would apply. Zywicki raises concerns about other proposed regulations that would, in effect, lessen the number of overdraft fees or somehow control the amount of those fees.

The ostensible reason for these regulations is to prevent what the pro-regulation side calls "abuses." Banks have to, or at least in practice they choose to, standardize the order in which items are paid against an account. Usually, banks will pay any debit authorization (once it's posted) first (because that can't be refused), then any electronic check (ACH/EFT), then paper checks or checks submitted via the normal clearing processes. (Electronic checks and paper checks are starting to meld into a new category, as some institutions are now processing paper checks as electronic items). When paper checks (or their electronic proxies) are submitted, banks follow one of three ways to clear them: by check number (usually from lowest number to highest, although conceivably the order might be reversed), by amount from lowest to highest, and by amount from highest to lowest.

The order of clearing correlates with the number of fees charged the customer. Clearing by check number has a relatively "neutral" (or perhaps "random" is a better word) effect. Clearing from lowest amount to highest amount tends to result in fewer overdraft fees because the lower amounts are more likely to be paid against posted funds before the first overdraft in a series of check presentments occurs. Clearing from the highest amount to the lowest amount tends to result in more overdraft fees because the higher amounts are more likely to induce an overdraft, and the remaining, and usually more numerous, lower amounts are likely to repeat the overdraft, incurring a new fee each time.

One of the "abuses" comes in when a bank chooses clearing by highest amount first, apparently in an attempt to gain a higher fee income. Banks tend to justify this change because 1) it gives them more money that allows them to offset the risks of defaults and charge-offs; 2) the price is born by those who overdraw; and 3) checks written for a higher amount are usually the most important checks, to pay for such necessities as rent, insurance, and utilities, and dishonoring those checks could lead to evictions, loss of coverage, and loss of access.

Zywicki argues that much of the new regulations works to impose costs on banks that will lead them to charge higher prices or to deny "overdraft protection" services to those customers that would need them most. He suggests that such regulations would be justified only if the practices they regulate represent a way for which banks to, in effect, gouge customers in a manner that's not disciplined by market competition or if customers simply don't know, and are in a position not to know fully, how the fees are charged and how much they are.

He finds such justifications lacking. He finds that the "overdraft protection" services prior to and after the regulations do not allow banks to collect "monopoly rents," the sort of unconscionable profit-seeking that harms the consumer. Although I don't fully understand what is meant by "monopoly rent," nor do I fully understand the economics behind his analysis, I'll take him at his word when he says that while banks might indeed make a profit off of overdraft protection, they do so in a largely competitive environment and from limiting their charges to those people who, by and large, use the service. That is, the people who overdraw or write checks against overdrafts are those who generally end up paying. (This is not to say that he thinks the financial industry, especially the consumer banking industry, is perfectly competitive--in fact, I seriously doubt that he believes this to be the case--only that he does not see the types of abuses that he would consider a justification for these regulations.)

Neither does he find that consumers are hapless and ignorant victims of "overdraft protection." He cites studies that suggest tentatively (and he admits the findings are only tentative and more research needs be done) that consumers to whom "overdraft protection" applies by and large are well aware of the fee structures and the procedure by which their bank pays the items that present to accounts, and that they are also grateful that the larger checks are paid against the overdraft.

Having excluded these two potential justifications for the regulations and even more severe proposed regulations, Zywicki finds what he calls paternalism as the primary reason for these laws. Like most libertarians, he share skepticism and not a little disdain for "paternalist" regulations, and offers that as an almost sufficient reason (absent the other justifications which he claims are not in evidence) to oppose these regulations. He cites the critique against "paternalist" regulations--that they essentially deny choices to people who acts affect primarily only themselves and in that sense make them worse off without benefiting anybody else. And he notes that as these regulations tend to increase the costs of managing overdrafts--by cutting off money that might be used to offset the risks of defaults and charged off accounts--certain people, particularly more marginal people, are priced out of these types of checking accounts and are compelled, sometimes, to use even more costly credit products, such as payday loan lenders.

Now, as I said above, I find Zywicki's overall argument convincing. I buy his claim that banks do not necessarily exact "monopoly rents," and I share his distrust of "paternalist" regulations, even if I do not distrust such regulations to the extent he does. Still, I have some reservations about some of what he says in his paper.

First, Zywicki hedges a bit about the "opt in" requirement. He is honest about this, and says that while his default preference would be for an "opt out" requirement--wherein the bank would decide to pay against overdrafts regardless of whether customers have given the bank prior permission to do so, but the customer could order the bank not to do so--the "opt in" requirement probably would not do much harm. He offers as a possibility, however, that even the opt in requirement would impose some costs on the bank and on customers who otherwise might have wanted to use the "overdraft protection" services in the time between when they opt in and opt out.

I said Zywicki "hedges" on this issue, and perhaps hedge is an unfair word. He's not on a crusade to combat the opt-in provision: he's simply noting some of its potential costs. I would, however, like to offer a more robust defense of the opt-in provision. Here it is: its tendency is to confirm that the customer knows what they are getting into. It's not an inexorable tendency, I acknowledge: the "opt in" notice that banks send their customers--or at least the ones that my two banks have sent me--tends to emphasize "protection against overdrafts" and not the fees or the fact that all items paid against overdrafts are done so at the bank's discretion. Still, it is a disclosure that the customer has to take an active step in accepting.

Another defense lies in one of the examples Zywicki gives to demonstrate that there are not true "information asymmetries" of the sort that would justify the types of regulations he by and large criticizes. He refers to an "overdraft protection" disclosure and notes how easy it is to read, and he reproduces the content of this disclosure (although apparently without any of the different fonts and bold type that might help the reader know to what extent the disclosure emphasizes some points in exclusion to others). One thing that his paper does not really mention is that such disclosures were, to my knowledge, almost unheard of before the new opt-in regulations. (If they were indeed "heard of," then the paper ought at least explain that.) In the deposit account agreements I read when I was an employee and customer of my banks, the "overdraft protection" policy was tucked into the larger account agreement (and if I recall correctly, it wasn't called "overdraft protection"), and one had to hunt it down just to read it and know the bank's policy. Also, the bank consistently reserved the right to change its overdraft policy at any time, although usually with notice. In other words the very clarity Zywicki praises was brought about, at least in part, by the requirement he has certain reservations about.

Finally, opting out of things is not as easy or simple as it sounds. Maybe it's my inner-paternalist here, but I wouldn't be surprised if, under an opt-out regime, telephone customer service reps be required to ask two or three times the equivalent of "are you sure?"--perhaps with a recitation of the long list of the "benefits" of opting in--when taking opt-out requests. In the cold light of day, that sounds harmless enough, but not all customers have an easy time saying no. I have a hard time saying no, and I should know better. (I even avoid calling my credit card company unless it's absolutely necessary because I know--or have good reason for believing--that the CSR is required to offer me some "credit protection" service I know I don't need and that the CSR is required to ask me at least twice and ask for my reason for not wanting the service. The main response that tends to keep them quiet is "I'm still trying to weigh my options.") Already, I'll note that the opt-in form the banks send out tend to be somewhat alarmist on the severity of the consequences of not opting-in. Even someone like me, who knows pretty firmly that I don't want to opt in, has second and third thoughts after reading those notices.

In sum, the opt in provision makes "overdraft protection" more obviously a product in the way that Zywicki wants it to be. I admit that it adds (probably) somewhat to the cost of managing overdrafts, but if it makes for a somewhat more transparent process, then I think it is a positive good.

Second, one thing Zywicki does not address fully is that when items are returned unpaid against an account with non-sufficient funds, they incur a fee almost as hefty as the fee incurred by paying items against an overdraft. At one of the banks I worked at, the difference was about $3 to $5. Although I don't remember the exact amounts, and they changed while I worked there, an item returned unpaid incurred a fee of $24 and an item returned paid against an overdraft incurred a fee of $27. Part of customers' preference for having items paid against an overdraft is probably attributable to the fact that the customers would get charged comparable fees by their bank. There are, of course and as mentioned earlier, other reasons customers might wish to have their checks paid against overdrafts: the potential consequences of, say, a bounced rent check, not to mention the fees for returned checks charged by most companies, which would obviously compound the bank's returned check fee.

Third, one thing that not opting into "overdraft protection" helps alleviate (but cannot, I imagine, eradicate completely) is overdrafts by use of a debit card. Under the older regime, banks could--and did--authorize debit card transactions, the dollar amount of which exceeded not only the ledger balance of funds in a person's account, but all funds in that person's account. (There's a distinction between the ledger balance--funds that were posted--collected balance, and available balance.) The rationale was that "it's embarrassing to try to purchase something with a debit card and have it declined and maybe the customer made a deposit at the branch today and it might show up on the system when the ledger balances are updated, or the customer will make another deposit before the authorized purchase actually posts." I admit that it can be embarrassing, especially if one tries to purchase a meal at a dine-in restaurant, after the meal is over, and has no other mechanism of payment....such a situation is not only embarrassing, it's also dicey. But the end result is that people could overdraw their account by making a debit card purchase. (To be sure, even under the prior regime, certain transactions--such as cash-back transactions or atm withdrawals--would generally be denied in cases where purchases might be approved.)

This result might not be so bad, especially if customers are by and large knowledgeable about the bank's policies, as Zywicki suggests they might be. All I can really say is that it would be a good idea for a customer to know what they are getting into when they use a debit card, and that these new regulations help ensure that. (Thus, here's another defense of the opt-in provision.)

Fourth, Zywicki under-appreciates the effects of "overdraft protection" on less affluent customers. Zywicki cites a New York Times article--which I didn't read so I take him at his word--that, he says, discusses the predicament of a college student who mismanaged his (or her?) account and got zapped with hundreds of dollars of fees by the bank. He suggests that these kinds of examples might demonstrate only that an impecunious young man overspent and did not pay attention to the consequences. Good enough, so far as it goes; and I'll add that my prejudices lead me to have less sympathy for the stereotypical college student whose parents might bail him or her out of periodic financial pecadillos. (All the while, I must admit that the "stereotypical" college student--white, privileged, affluent, child of college graduates--often does not exist, and can be a first generation college student, a parent, a full-time or part-time worker, child of working-class parents.) I'll finally admit that the "innocent college student oppressed by big banks" trope fits too neatly as a pro-regulatory prop, similar to the way that occasional (and as far as I can tell, rare) reports of police officers ticketing 8 year olds for operating a lemonade stand without a license fits too neatly into some libertarians' otherwise valid objections to the ill effects and perverse incentives of some licensing regimes.

It's not only the irresponsible college student who has lost a few weekends worth of beer money who suffers from the fees concurrent with mismanaged accounts. Sometimes it is, indeed, the single parent trying to make ends meet, or the person who is caring for an elder, or someone who is on social security disability and is barely scraping by. When I was a call-center customer service rep, I encountered several customers who claimed to fall into these categories and who often got hundreds of dollars worth of fees because of either overspending on certain things or because of a mistake in addition when balancing their checkbooks.

Now, I admit that my sample was especially skewed in favor of the conclusion I wish to draw from it. People who overdraw were probably very much over-represented among the people who called the call center (because people tend not to speak with a CSR unless they already have a problem with their account). Also, as a CSR, it was in my power to refund or waive fees up to a certain amount (although my bank had a "shaming strategy" for CSR's who did this too much, each month circulating a list of the three highest fee refunders, a list I was on almost every's hard to say no when the person on the other end of the line is crying): therefore, customers are more likely to shade the truth or outright lie or claim ignorance of a bank's overdraft policies: in short, they are more likely to play the type of victim that the tentative study Zywicki cites suggests does not exist.

One doesn't have to insist that all or even most of these folks were hapless victims, ground beneath the wheel of a numbers-driven modernity. Maybe the single mother who cried because she just couldn't get ahead when I told her she had over $200 in overdraft charges really brought it on herself. Maybe she spent so much money on booze or or drugs or junk food. Maybe she wasn't even a mother. And maybe I'm a sucker. There have been times in my life where I've been taken in by people's hard luck stories, even when deep down I knew better. So anything is possible.

Still, one doesn't have to go so far and assign victimhood status to these people to acknowledge that someone who earns $2,000 a month and makes an error in addition will more likely overdraw and get more overdraft fees than someone who earns $5,000 a month. And some banks, as a general rule (at least this was true of the less than mega-sized bank I worked at as a CSR) were quite willing to refund more overdraft fees for "good customers" (that is, rich customers who overdraw only occasionally). (It's an interesting dynamic, and as Zywicki points out--if I recall correctly--a lot of repeat overdrafters are actually more affluent than; I have less sympathy for these people.)

If anything, what I want to get across is that it's these overdraft policies affect real people with real problems, not just the (largely stereotypical) slack-jawed trust fund baby who gets a write up in the New York Times. To deny that is to misread and, to some degree, belittle the urgency that some people attach to these regulatory reforms, even if the reforms themselves are misguided.

It is probably the case that the proposed regulations harms these people more than help them, and to the extent that these regulations are paternalist, they deny a little bit of dignity inherent in the ability to make choices on the market. Zywicki's under-appreciation thus does not disprove his argument, but it does, to my mind, signify a reason to be suspicious of the truth claims he makes about customer knowledge and to demand a more rigorous demonstration that "overdraft protection" does not operate in the shadows of information asymmetries.

Fifth and finally, it is these information asymmetries, which I think need further exploration, that constitute the basis for my last reservation about Zywicki's argument, an argument that I find, overall, compelling. The study that Zywicki cites suggests that customers are well-aware of their own bank's fee structures and are "grateful" that their bank pays against overdrafts. Assuming the results of this study are reproducible and generalizable, I would also like to know to what degree, if any, this ignorance results from some systematic obfuscations--the specific disclosure practices banks engage in, or even the disclosure practices mandated by law.

I would also like to point out something that, to my mind, constitutes an information asymmetry, although one that I can imagine a Zywickian analysis would account for easily. I refer to the "at the bank's discretion" proviso in most "overdraft protection" policies. To my understanding, banks used to have almost complete discretion on whether to pay a check that is presented against an account when there aren't enough funds to cover it. This makes sense. Whenever a bank pays against an overdraft, it runs the risk that consumers might not make good on the funds. Under the new regulations, my understanding is that the bank has less discretion, or at least a stronger incentive to return checks unpaid. But the principle remains valid: it's the bank's risk and it determines what risk it is comfortable with.

Therefore, the bank devises overdraft standards that are more or less rationalized based on a customer's average account balances, past history with the bank, income, and general creditworthiness. The bank at which I was a CSR observed the following procedure, which, adjusting for size, if probably in principle similar to what larger and smaller banks observe:
  • It placed customers in three default categories. The first allowed overdrafts up to a given dollar amount, say $500. The second tentatively allowed overdrafts up to a given dollar amount (again, let's just say it was $500). The third allowed no overdrafts.
  • A check that would overdraw the account of customers in the first category by less than the assigned dollar amount would automatically be paid by the bank. A similar check against the account of a customer in the second category would be flagged for attention by a bank officer who, the next business day, would review overdrafts and decide whether to pay it (the bank was small enough to make such a process feasible).
  • A check presented that would overdraw the account of a customer in the third category would be slated to be returned automatically, subject to final review by a bank officer.
  • Any check that exceeded the guidelines listed for customers in the first or second categories would also be slated for return, again subject to final review by a bank officer.
Other banks, I assume follow similar policies. Probably the larger banks that served more "national" markets had less personal officer review and more automatic decisions about payment and return of checks. And probably smaller banks had more personalized reviews of each overdraft. But the principle was the same: the bank determined ahead of time the excess dollar amounts of checks it would pay in order to speed up the process. That is how the system works.

The determination, as I said, is made along a variety of factors, but they boil down to the risk the bank believes it runs of a default or charge off of the overdrawn funds. Sometimes, that assessment of risk changes, and the bank finds it expedient to be less or more indulgent of overdrafts, and the bank changes the excess amounts accordingly.

All of this is opaque to the customer, and for understandable--and probably good--reason: if a customer knew ahead of time that the bank would automatically pay, say, a $500 overdraft, they might purposely overdraw their account by that much (and presumably pay the consequences), but if a bank did make available its assessment of an overdrawable amount, then it might have to notify the customer when it changed that assessment. Letting the customer know this information is too much of a risk for the bank.

What I'm getting at is that customers who would overdraw are writing checks in the hope that the bank might honor those checks. Sometimes--maybe even the majority of the time--such checks are written spuriously or irresponsibly to make purchases that aren't justified. Sometimes bad account management means an overdraft. But my point is customers cannot be sure in advance what the bank will pay.

I'm not sure this qualifies as an information asymmetry, or at least not one that represents a market failure. After all, the bank, in a sense, has a right to refuse payment against insufficient funds, and in practice, the per-customer assessment probably changes rarely, so an overdraft that was paid last month will probably be paid this month.

But it is something over which the customer has little control or knowledge, and if it is possible to devise a more transparent way for how this process works, while imposing only minimal costs onto the banks and to the customers they serve, then it would be worthwhile to pursue that. However, I have no idea what such a "transparent way" would look like or if it's even doable.

I have a partial solution to some of these problems, what I in another post called a "money order plus account," which is basically a savings account with money orders that operate more like checks. But it's only a solution in that it gives people another option, and this option is less convenient. Finally, I'm not certain that a critical number of persons would opt for such an account, although I might do so under certain circumstances.

I titled this post "Rackets, protection and otherwise" with the initial purpose of doing a pun on "overdraft protection" and "racket." See, "overdraft protection" + "racket" = "protection racket." Of course, if Zywicki is right--and I think he is if one accepts, as I do, most of his starting assumptions, and if one stipulates, as I do tentatively, to some of his empirical claims about customer knowledge--then "overdraft protection" is not a racket by any commonly accepted definition of the term. If I plead that consumers--even the knowledgeable ones that Zywicki claims constitutes the large majority of them--see "overdraft protection" as a racket, and if I can prove that claim, then that plea, once established as fact, only discovers that people can sincerely believe two things the logical implications of which are contradictory.

But I do think there is an opportunity for better understanding, for realizing that touting certain practices as per se good might blind us to other ways to enable people to have more choices and in effect to be more free. Maybe the answer is indeed to have minimal regulation to let loose the entrepreneurial energy that Willard Hurst discussed in his legal history scholarship. Maybe, on the other hand, we need to reconsider our values: what is the value of "having choices"? are there other ways to construct "choice" and "freedom"? is paternalism, while always suspect, therefore always necessarily bad? I won't offer the answers to these questions in this post. In fact, I'm not even sure I have the answers. But it's all worth considering.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Look on my work, ye Mighty, and despair

Yesterday, I finished the essential parts of a two and a half-year project. I'm not talking about my dissertation. I'm talking about an archiving project I've been working on as a graduate assistant. I helped organize a large collection from an organization that had donated its records to a library. (I'm being purposefully vague so as to protect my privacy and the privacy of the organization; needful to say, however, anything I write on this blog post or other blog posts reflects my personal views only and not the views of anyone at that organization or the entity that hired me or the library I worked for.)

In a real sense, it was not "my" project. There were several other people who worked on it, both before me--it was a three-year project and I was hired on four months into it--and with me. By my count, there were at least 5 (probably more) undergraduates, 8 graduate students, and at least 3 administrators who served the project. At least a few other undergraduates helped me do some important--and mostly thankless, although I thanked them--aspects of the project, mostly involving moving large and heavy boxes from one location to another.

On the other hand, it feels like "my" project, because I stayed on it the longest and probably am the one most familiar with the collection. For what it's worth, that does not mean I am the person the most familiar with the organization or with the types of matters the organization handled, but as far as the collection--what exactly it contains--I am probably the person who knows most, at least for now; a serious scholar who wanted to devote a few months to researching it would probably gain a more intimate and credible knowledge of the collection than I have now or will ever have.

An archival collection is something that is meant to preserve a piece of history. Preserving records supposedly has inherent value. Even if no one ever looks at the collection, the fact that it is "preserved" represents a good in itself. I should say, however, that a few people have already consulted the collection, and a couple more have expressed interest.

I realize that "piece of history" is quite a contestable term, and I am under no illusions that this collection reveals the "true" history of its donor organization.

I am also aware that in the process of organizing the collection, I have changed it and the history it represents, almost in a Heisenbergprinzip sort of way: I've changed the history by organizing it. I've made mistakes, only some of which I know about. Even if it's not a question of "mistakes," my very decisions in the organization process have set this particular documentary history of the organization on a somewhat inexorable path. The original collection was in a largely indeterminate order, and I and my colleagues made more "executive decisions" than is usual for processing similar-sized collections. But even records that come fully organized by the donor, there is a re-ordering that takes place, if only in that the holder of the records change.

I do feel that I and my colleagues have accomplished something. However, this accomplished thing will not endure forever, even if we can assume that the collection is a static "thing" that has been created. As sure as the United States will some day fall, the archives might someday fall in disrepair. With the possible exception of China, all the great empires have died, and even China had a rough 300 years or so during the warring states period (ca. 200 ad to ca. 590 ad) a rough 50 years or so in the transition from the Tang to the Song dynasty, periodic invasions and about 100 years of European and Japanese domination.

But it is a contribution, and I'm excited about it.